What is an integrated design research approach – and how can you adopt it?

Maaike Mintjes
Associate DT Research
DesignThinkers Group
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Wasted customer research. We see it all too often. Researchers do the research, present their findings to stakeholders and move on. Findings are not turned into insights, and insights are not turned into solutions. Both your organisation and your customers lose out.

Design research supports the strategic, customer-centred design and development of products and services. It does so by providing inspiration and direction based on customer research. But to be effective, it needs to be integrated into your design and development process and supported by multidisciplinary stakeholders.

Integrated design research

We are advocates of an integrated design research approach. Design researchers work closely with multidisciplinary stakeholders from the start. They act as researchers, guides and facilitators, enabling and empowering organisations to truly benefit from research. They help initiate and plan research, help generate insights and help find solutions using creative problem solving techniques (design thinking).

Important elements of this integrated design research approach are:

  1. Research is co-owned by a multidisciplinary core stakeholder team. The team should consist of at least one design researcher, working closely together with other stakeholders. This ensures the research does not happen in isolation and is more widely supported. Everybody in the team benefits from research success. Team members become research champions for the wider organisation. For practical reasons the core team should not be too large and team compositions can change depending on need.
  2. The research brief and plan are created with multidisciplinary stakeholders. This is not to produce a rigid, time-consuming document. But specifying the why, what, when and how of research together, ensures it meets expectations and fits in with other business activities. The design researcher can guide the team in clearly identifying the research problem, to avoid the tendency to start with the perceived solution (“let’s build an app”) or the research method (“let’s do a survey). This is also a good time to make sure everybody has an understanding of research methods.
  3. Internal stakeholders participate in customer research. Observing and talking to customers is the best way to build empathy in an organisation. Having internal stakeholders share their views on what they heard and saw is of great benefit to the researcher. Reviewing any prior research is always a first step (sometimes there is so much prior research that no extra research is required).
  4. Research tools are co-created and capture insights. Creating research-based tools like personas and customer journey maps are great team exercises. They help structure the data in a meaningful way, making it accessible and useful to the design process. It is important to also capture insights; it’s the ideas and “aha moments” that surface when generating these tools that make them valuable.
  5. Insights are used to define product or service improvements. Here design researchers mainly acts as facilitators. They assist multidisciplinary teams in going beyond the research findings to generate insights. They help identify critical experiences or ‘moments of truth’ for the customer and facilitate ideation to find solutions. The strongest ideas are selected and turned into prototypes, although smaller improvements can sometimes be implemented straightaway.
  1. Solutions are tested with customers and refined. Prototypes are iteratively tested with customers and improved until ready for implementation. Again, internal stakeholders participate in this form of research. Testing with customers can also show whether more research and ideation is needed.

An integrated design research approach involves multidisciplinary stakeholders from the start and guides them through the entire process. In doing so it encourages organisations to own the research into their customers and builds customer empathy.

It gives organisations the tools to make sense of the research and generate insights. It facilitates turning these insights into solutions that can be tested with customers. Both your organisation and your customers benefit.


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