Industrial Design: Research is More Than Asking, “What color do you like?”

Feb. 7, 2008
The goal of research among users is to identify opportunities for innovation.

—Tim Nugent

Typically, research exercises ask questions about a product or its competition. Sometimes questions are as simple as, “Which color do you like?” This reveals, say, that when it comes to cars, a general audience prefers black and neutral metallic silver to pink and lime green 97 times out of 100.

However, it takes more than quantitative research like the above example to do good industrial design. Qualitative research is just as important. Observe the market to find out how typical users approach a product. What makes users pick one product over another? What are significant visual cues that influence a first choice?

Our firm has been successful with this sort of research since learning from a mistake made a decade ago. The product: An educational toy based on the idea of combining play with learning. Called Music Blocks, the toy lets children play with building blocks to create music. Toy sales did bring in millions of dollars. It was a successful design in that interactions were intuitive for a child. But hindsight revealed we had not put enough time into qualitative research.

Quantitative research had showed us that nine out of 10 children will play with the toy. What it didn’t show was how. We thus had no inkling that the toy worked best when one child at a time played with it. When more than one child got involved, things rapidly fell apart. A child playing solo could learn to construct music via visual semantics and intuitive interactions with building blocks. Two children, though, might be on completely different discovery paths, while limited to the same set of tools. Had we seen this qualitative behavior in our initial research, we might have gotten better ideas for play among groups of children.

So it takes qualitative and quantitative research to come up with the best product specifications. Companies without the internal resources to do research should use consultants. A ton of lowhanging fruit is out there, ripe for the picking. Make sure your company isn’t left behind holding an empty basket.

Fun tip for those doing focus testing: “Play The Price is Right.” Provide users with examples of three or four of your designs. Remove all brand labels. Ask respondents to select a price for each product from a card that lists prices in increasing amounts. Once everyone is finished, ask them why they priced one product more than another. Results are likely to surprise and inform you.

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