Design Research: The 3 Levels to Success

Diamond with Multiple Layers

Human-centered innovation begins with people. Oftentimes, that means using research to better understand what consumers want and need. Most people think about research as a way to obtain insights into the motivations behind people’s actions. For example: People feel guilty drinking bottled water because of its environmental impact, but are too tempted by the convenience it provides.

There’s no denying the importance of a sound, compelling insight in conducting human-centered innovation. However, the importance placed on such insights can become an obsession. At Altitude, we view an insight as a starting point — a question we need to answer. At its best, an insight engages our brain with a problem to solve. And while that’s extremely important, we think research can help us even more. But there are two deeper levels of understanding that research can help us uncover in order to innovate.


For designers to really solve a problem, they need to feel the insight from the perspective of those living it. An example of empathy in action: In visiting the homes of bottled water drinkers, we regularly encountered a shelf full of re-usable containers gathering dust. You could feel the embarrassment as they talked about their failed attempted to be more environmentally conscious by drinking tap water instead of bottled water.

In essence, the designers try to become the consumers in order to help them better solve the problem. This process is hard to articulate or quantify, so it’s often misunderstood or even dismissed by more analytical types. But we believe that it’s much more powerful to feel the problem than to merely comprehend it. That’s why our designers and technologists are heavily involved in all our human-centered innovation research.

While working at an advertising agency years ago, I worked on a pitch for LoJack. We had what we knew was the right insight: A stolen car isn’t about the loss of the physical vehicle, but the loss of what it provides, including freedom, access, and flexibility. No matter how hard we tried, however, we couldn’t get the creative director to really express what we wanted. He understood the insight but couldn’t feel it and that stood in the way of making compelling advertising.

So, we decided to do something radical: “steal” his car for the day. We stole his keys, moving the car to a place where he couldn’t see, and leaving broken glass in the original parking spot. We let him sweat it out right up until he was about to call the police. It was then that we stopped him and asked what he was thinking about. Having felt the experience for himself, he wrote more great ads than we could handle — depicting great concepts, such as everyday people forced to hitchhike to drop their kids off at soccer practice, that drove home the emotional impact to the consumer.


Sometimes feeling the problem isn’t enough. You need a push to get you going. Using research as an inspiration can give you a jumpstart to engage your creative side. An example of inspiration: When bottled water drinkers were asked to not drink bottled water, they came up with ingenious methods to provide convenience using re-usable containers and tap water.

Using research as an inspiration point usually means looking outside of your core consumer or using unusual methods of experimentation. As such, it’s often distrusted or considered frivolous. We feel differently. Used correctly, such research can provide that spark that gets people thinking differently and will ultimately lead to a more powerful solution.

3M regularly uses what the company calls “lead user research” to help it gather inspiration. 3M is a leading manufacturer of surgical drapes, which is the fabric used in operating room settings to keep surgical procedures sterile. If the drapes are too rigid, nurses have difficulty passing materials and equipment to surgeons from outside the sterile field, causing the drapes not to close properly and risking infection. If the drapes aren’t rigid enough, then they won’t hold in place properly, again creating gaps that risk infection.

When the company started a project on surgical drapes, its designers looked outside their traditional sources of research for inspiration. Instead of going to surgeons and nurses, the team employed a theatre makeup artist to help them understand how cloth fits the body. They were able to use this information as a springboard to help determine fabric thickness and learn how best to hang the drapes to strike the proper balance of rigidity.

Successful innovation research engages designers on three levels, . It engages their minds with insight, providing them with a powerful problem to solve. It engages their hearts with empathy, causing them to dig deeper to truly feel what the problem is. Finally, it engages their creativity with inspiration, showing them interesting and unusual solutions to the problem that can lead to a better design overall.

Craig McCarthy

Posted By: 

Craig McCarthy

Director, Strategy