How to Apply Design Thinking Principles to Market Research

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    As market researchers, the questions we have are frequently complex and multi-faceted, and our research goals ever-shifting against the current of fast-moving markets and evolving client and user needs. How can we approach these kind of research questions in a way that allows for this intangibility, and even embraces it? Applying design thinking principles to market research problems enables researchers to do just this.

    Why Design Thinking?

    Design thinking is about solving problems – ‘wicked problems’- the type of problems that market researchers tackle on a daily basis. They are ‘wicked’ in the sense of their comparison to straight-forward problems (rather than in the moral sense), the term describes problems which are indeterminate in that there is no definitive right or wrong solution and it may not be clear when they are ‘solved’.

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    Design thinking is about solving problems like those we tackle daily in market research in a human-centred way, but how do we apply those principles to our research processes effectively?

    Wicked problems are unique, the solutions often irreversible and untestable, and generally part of a larger system where there may be competing viewpoints. Applying design thinking principles to wicked market research problems moves the researcher from a position of chasing a moving target into one where they can capitalise on the insights gained from a more iterative process.

    The design thinking process approaches problems in a logical and methodical way, whilst focussing on the human element. IDEO, often credited with inventing the term describe that “design thinking uses creative activities to foster collaboration and solve problems in human-centred ways.” Design thinking is in many ways no more complicated then ‘thinking like a designer’, but understanding what that means, and crucially applying it to a market research scenario requires some thought about how to incorporate the tools we use as researchers into each stage of the process.

    Applying Design Thinking

    The Hasso Plattner design thinking institute at Stanford University (commonly known as d.school) define the process of design thinking as being structured within five modes: Empathise; Define; Ideate; Prototype; and Test. For researchers it is important to understand what each mode ‘looks’ like and how it can be applied to market research pursuits.


    The importance of understanding the end user in market research might sound like a given, but to empathise, to understand feelings and even experience them requires something more immersive than the norm. To achieve empathy, market researchers need to observe user behaviour, interview users and as far as possible immerse themselves into the user experience.

    In the face of competing deadlines, the latter might seem a big ask, but with the use of online research communities, immersion into consumer discussions becomes both possible and convenient. Asking users to share their experience through an online diary or to document it with photos and videos is another means of creating a path for the researcher to walk in the user’s shoes.


    To think like a designer, researchers must identify the users’ problems in order to define what their needs truly are. Herein lies a conundrum, as having already declared market research problems to be ‘wicked’, we can expect to find a lack of clarity here. Further to this, the user’s problem may not be the same as the researcher’s (or the end client’s) problem. Design thinking enables the market researcher to ‘tame’ wicked problems and come to a truer understanding of the core issue, but this is an iterative and non-linear process.

    Researchers should expect that in addition to applying the understanding gained from taking an empathetic approach to the users, a cyclical process may follow of defining, checking, and re-defining the problem, which they should become comfortable with as an integral part of the methodology.


    In design thinking, the ideation stage is often referenced in relation to the design team generating ideas, ‘going wide’ and getting creative – for market researchers, however, the participants are the team. Here market researchers need to treat their ‘team’ in a way that inspires them to generate options - Focus groups, online discussions, forum topics and collaborative tasks can all be utilised, but the researcher must create an exciting environment where all possibilities are open.

    Researchers need to look at the questions they ask, in order to encourage novel ways of thinking and elicit diverse ideas, for example taking a “How might we…” approach as well as encouraging participants to explore extremes (“what would be the worst possible solution?”) and alternate realities (“What might this look like if X company did it?”).


    Prototyping, allows users to experience a potential solution in way that is ‘safe’ and inexpensive from the client’s point of view. Market researchers (and their clients) should get comfortable with a ‘fail fast’ approach – to quote Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang of the Interaction Design Foundation, “Design thinking has a bias towards action.” In design thinking, prototyping saves money through use of (often) low-resolution models – for market research the application of this stage should involve quick and fun activities which keep users willing to take part in multiple prototype tasks.


    Testing in a market research scenario, in best practice should involve observation of the users interacting with the proposed solution, whether that’s previewing a new packaging design, testing a sample product or taking a virtual tour of a new restaurant. There is likely to be more emphasis on qualitative methodology, with some supporting quantitative rating questions.

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    Insight professionals using design thinking will recognise the value it brings through results including increased research agility, deeper insights, and better solutions.

    Market researchers using design thinking will recognise the test mode as another opportunity for increasing empathy with users and narrowing the definition of the problem, through better understanding of how the proposed solution changes their user experience (for better or worse); “Testing may reveal that, not only did you get the solution wrong, but you also framed the problem incorrectly”, (d.school).

    Designing Solutions for Better Insights

    After exploring this iterative, empathic process in as much detail, it is clear that market researchers should keep in mind the five steps of design thinking when planning their projects, and be conscious of how they can adapt their regular research skills to adopt the more iterative and immersive processes of design thinking. If researchers can think more like designers, the rewards from this include increased agility, deeper insights, and ultimately better solutions.

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