How can a Market Research Firm Apply Design Thinking Principles?

How can a Market Research Firm Apply Design Thinking Principles?

The challenges we have as market analysts are always nuanced and multi-faceted, and our research priorities are continually changing toward the current fast-moving markets and evolving consumer and user needs. How do we answer these kinds of research questions in a way that facilitates, and even welcomes, this intangibility? The application of the concepts of design thinking to market research issues encourages researchers to do exactly this.

Why Design Thinking?

Design thinking is about solving problems, the kind of problems that market analysts tackle on a regular basis,' evil problems.' In the context of their relation to straight-forward problems (rather than in the moral sense), they are 'evil' The word defines issues that are indeterminate in that there is no definite right or wrong solution and when they are 'solved' it may not be obvious.

Wicked issues are special, often permanent and untestable solutions, and usually part of a broader framework where contrasting opinions can occur. The researcher moves from a position of following a moving objective to one where they can capitalize on the knowledge gained from a more iterative method by applying design thinking concepts to wicked market research problems.

The process of design thinking discusses concerns in a rational and methodical manner, while concentrating on the human aspect. IDEO, also credited with inventing the term, explains that "design thinking uses innovative practices to promote teamwork and solve problems in human-cantered ways." Design thinking is not more complex than 'thinking like a designer' in certain ways, but recognizing what it means and applying it essentially to a market research scenario takes some consideration on how to incorporate the tools.

Applying Design Thinking

Stanford University's Hasso Plattner Design Thinking Institute (commonly known as school) describes the design thinking process as being organized in five modes: empathy; definition; ideation; prototype; and test. It is necessary for researchers to understand how each mode 'looks' and how it can be applied to market research activities.


In market research, the value of knowing the end consumer may sound like a given, but it takes something more immersive than the standard to empathize, to understand emotions and even to experience them. Market researchers need to study user behaviour, interview users and, as much as possible, immerse themselves in the user experience in order to gain empathy.

The latter may seem a major question in the face of conflicting deadlines, but with the use of online research forums, immersion in customer conversations is both feasible and convenient. Another way of providing a route for the researcher to walk in the user's shoes is to ask users to share their experience through an online diary or to record it with images and videos.


In order to think like a designer, researchers need to classify the issues of users in order to establish what their criteria really are. Here lies a confusion, as we would expect to find a lack of clarification here after having already declared market research concerns to be 'wicked'. Further to this, the problem of the user might not be the same as the problem of the researcher (or the end client). Design thinking helps the market researcher to 'tame' wicked issues and arrive at a truer understanding of the core problem, but this is an iterative and non-linear process.

In addition to applying the understanding gained from taking an empathic approach to the users, researchers can assume that a cyclical process will be followed by identifying, testing, and redefining the issue that they should be comfortable with as an integral part of the methodology.


The process of ideation is often referenced in design thinking in relation to the design team producing ideas,' going big' and being innovative for market analysts, but the participants are the team. Focus groups, online conversations, web topics and interactive activities may all be used, but the researcher must create an enjoyable atmosphere where all possibilities are available. Market analysts need to handle their 'gang' in a way that motivates them to produce choices.

In order to encourage new ways of thinking and elicit various ideas, researchers need to look at the questions they ask, such as taking a "How could 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 enables customers to encounter a possible solution that is 'safe' and inexpensive from the point of view of the consumer. Market researchers (and their customers) should be comfortable with a "fail fast" approach, to quote the Interaction Design Foundation's Rikke Friis Dam and Teo Yu Siang, "Design thinking has a bias towards action." Prototyping saves money in design thinking by using (often) low-resolution models. For market research, the implementation of this stage should include fast and fun activities that save money by using (often) low-resolution models.


In best practice, testing in a market research scenario should include watching the consumers engaging with the proposed solution, whether it is previewing a new packaging design, testing a prototype product or taking a new restaurant virtual tour. More focus on qualitative methods is likely to be put, with some supporting quantitative rating questions.

The test mode would be recognized by market researchers using design thinking as another opportunity to improve empathy with consumers and narrow the problem concept by better understanding how the proposed solution affects their user experience (for better or worse); "Testing may show that not only did you get the solution wrong, but you also incorrectly framed the problem".