Fear

Fear and Loathing in Design Strategy

The biggest barrier to design strategy is fear. The design process is unfamiliar, and it’s tempting to fear things that are new and risky. Fear can derail a solid creative activity; worse, it can undermine our entire work.

We typically rely on design research to drive insights, and insights to support a story of the future. Stories from the field humanize the people that will be buying, using, or affected by a new product or service. They stop being “consumers” and start being real, complicated people. The rich process of synthesis provokes an iterative process of creative exploration. And that creative exploration shows – rather than tells – how someone will feel after they have a new experience.

But it’s only after that story comes to life through sketches and prototypes that the value of the process used to get there becomes apparent. Prior to that, the process is full of newness, and in that newness is risk. And that risk causes fear of failure.

Fear of recruiting

Prior to research, we create a set of loose profiles to recruit against. We steer away from demographics, and try to focus on behavior as a profiling criteria. Instead of “let’s talk to 10 white women between the ages of 20 and 35 who live in Austin”, we might target “10 people who have tried to buy life insurance, but have given up.” Behavior sometimes mirrors demographics, particularly when we look at how comfortable people are with new technology. But behavior also strays from basic human traits, particularly when we talk about hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Hopes, dreams and aspirations often cut across socioeconomic demographics. Because we’re going to make new things, we want to understand these emotions embedded in behavior.

For most executives, this is a new way of sampling. They are used to gathering knowledge through a broad canvas of equally represented ethnicities, genders, and ages. Targeting behavior challenges the idea that diversity comes only through born qualities. Diversity also comes through how people live.

Too Small

Our target recruit also focuses on a small sample. We typically work with 12-14 participants, but we’ve done programs that had as few as 8 or as many as 40. But 40 is not 400, and the number 8 “feels really small.” The basic premise of most market research is to sample a small group and see if it represents the sentiment of a larger group, and to do this properly, we need a large enough group to fall into a statistically significant sample. But our research isn’t intended to predict. It’s intended to provoke. We use research to build new design ideas and form a design strategy.

This worries our clients. They will be challenged within their organizations about making any recommendations based on such a small sample, and don’t feel confident describing why such a break from traditional sampling can possibly work.

Fear of research

During research, we push open-ended prompts. We find ourselves asking “Why?” and “Can you tell me more about that?” over and over. Even more important than an open-ended question is a behavior-prompting question. “Can you show me?” opens an entirely new world of observations. We don’t hear about retrospective or anecdotal behavior; we witness real behavior, with its real richness and complexity.

This is new for many of our clients, who are used to structured research methodologies. For them, even though qualitative research generates robust verbatims instead of simple data points, it should still be a structured set of questions, so that answers can be coded, generalized, and used to make broad statements about a group.

Can't Generalize

It’s hard and tedious to code anomalous behavior. And our research typically focuses on anomalies, which makes it difficult (or impossible) to see causal indicators.

Fear of synthesis

After research, we externalize our research, and then synthesize it. We transcribe entire research sessions, print each utterance, put them on the wall, and begin to find behavioral themes. This is a rigorous process, but it’s an organic one. We look at an utterance, and look at other utterances, and when we find two that appear to relate, we put them in proximity to one-another. When we start to see a group emerge, we give it a title that represents how participants feel, think, or act. Our theme titles might say “I worry about how I’m going to pay my bills” or “I find pleasure in the small, sublime moments of my day.”

This isn’t a conjoint analysis, focused on breaking research into small bits or attributes. It’s not a pairwise comparison, attempting to perform an exhaustive comparison of each data point to one-another. It doesn’t have a strong analog in market research. It doesn’t have specific method “rules”, and it won’t be repeatable – if each of us synthesize the same data set, we’ll come to different conclusions. And this further worries our clients. They are used to looking for rigor that leads to validity and repeatability – a more scientific or objective process. This is a subjective and often personal process of inference.

Based on our themes, we develop insights: provocative statements of truth about human behavior. These are assertions that map a theme to a definitive observation about people. “I worry about how I’m going to pay my bills” may combine with other themes and evolve into an insight like “People make short-term spending decisions at the expense of long-term planning not because of financial ignorance, but because of necessity.”

This insight is built on all of the phases described above. If our client partner had fear of each previous step, that worry culminates with these assertions. How can you possibly say such a thing with so much authority? How can you be so sure? If I don’t believe the foundation of your method, why would I believe the dominos you are stacking on top of that foundation? And – most importantly – what if we’re wrong? What if we build an entire product strategy on that insight? What if we build new services that support that insight, and the fail?

What if we're wrong?

When we describe this approach during project planning, our partners are excited to try something new, but worried the results. And so they ask, and push, on the result. They want to know where we are going before we get there. What will the output be? What are we going to find? What will the new products be?

A simple way to minimize fear of the unknown

If we take a familiar “vendor” approach, we would put together a presentation at the end of each phase and describe what we did and what we learned, and then present it to the client in a formal meeting. But we’ve found that this approach does not minimize fear, and if anything, it exacerbates it because it shines a light on all of the methodological newness described above.

But we’ve found a simple method to short-circuit the worry.

We bring our executive stakeholders into the field with us.

We bring our customers into the field, teach them how to do research, and give them very explicit rules; we often give them a task of taking notes, and don’t actually let them open their mouths at all. We encourage them to be observers.

Something magical happens.

They see the research method play out in front of them, and they begin to really think about the people they saw. They see the value of an experienced facilitator, and how that moderator is able to prompt behavior and encourage rich conversation. They see participants share intimate parts of their lives, parts that they wouldn’t otherwise have seen. They internalize that “the participant is not like me” – that they have an expert blind spot about their products or industry. And, most importantly, their fear begins to go away.

The process becomes less scary. Like anything, an experience resets our wild imagination – we know what to expect, and so future experiences become less scary. We gain confidence in the process and our ability to make sense of it; even if we can’t predict what we’ll hear from our participants, we can better predict what the research team will do. Without fail, our executive sponsors become advocates for our approach.

The same is true during synthesis. Once they’ve experienced the research, our partners want to see insight come out of the stories they’ve observed. They see the words of the participants on the wall, and remember the stories they heard and the people they got to know. They often don’t go on all of the research sessions with us, and so they read quotes and transcriptions from other participants, and start to rationalize similarities and differences.

As we start to repeat back stories from the field, using quotes, images, and sound clips, our partners add color to those anecdotes. They remember new details, add their own inferences, and become more and more engaged.

And when we develop frameworks to capture our findings, and sketches and prototypes of new products and services that lean on those findings, they become advocates for these ideas, because they helped create them. They believe in the findings because they were riding shotgun for the process. They trust that process, and are no longer worried. Instead, they are confident.

It’s really, really hard to bring an executive sponsor into field research. They are busy, and they have difficulty allocating three hours (and travel) for a research session. When they show up, they better have a research participant to watch, but research participants often flake or reschedule. Not all research sessions are insightful and exciting. And when they are in a session, executives have a hard time being quiet – they often want to ask closed, leading questions, or worse, to show their expertise.

Similarly, it’s difficult to have them in the room during synthesis. It’s not their job to have staying power with the data, it’s ours, and so they may disengage after 30 minutes or an hour. They are slave to their calendar, and so it’s hard for them to work without interruptions. And, they often want to talk extensively about what they saw and heard. This is valuable, but only to a point. There’s still a job to do, and a lot of that job is silent and introspective.

Tactics for minimizing fear

Here are some of the tactics we’ve used, with success, when bringing our executive partners into the field.

First, we teach them, very explicitly, what we want them to do. We’re overly aggressive – I would rarely take a patronizing tone with a client, but in this case, we’re very explicit. We tell them to be quiet, write their questions down, and we will ask them at the end of they have anything they want to ask. We tell them to ask only open-ended questions, and explain what that means. We tell them what to wear. And, we tell them that – in someone’s house – that person is the expert, no matter what. If the participant say something factually incorrect about our client’s products and services, we never, ever correct them.

Next, we schedule multiple backups for our research participants, to make sure that we have a participant for our partner to watch. Since we have to compensate participants for their time, no matter if we talk to them or not, we have to build extra recruiting and compensation into our budget. But if a participant cancels at the last minute, we always have a backup ready, so we don’t waste the valuable time of our client.

And, we internally schedule and consider synthesis with the client as downtime. We know that we’ll get value out of the meetings, but we also acknowledge that we won’t get much theming and synthesis done. If we need a week for synthesis, the time with the client “doesn’t count.”


Bringing a client into the design strategy process adds a level of project management difficulty and extra stress, and requires a confidence in the process and a large level of flexibility. But their presence throughout the process is the most effective way we’ve found of minimizing fear. When fear of process is minimized, the team can focus exclusively on the actual content, and produce insights that best represent the wants, needs, and desires of participants. And, our partner becomes an advocate for our process, and a knowledgeable advocate for the output.

Modernist can help you embrace the design strategy process.

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