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360-Degree Research: Keeping a Well-Rounded Focus on the End User

This week, my firm’s director of strategy and research, Ron Pierce, spoke at the IIT Design Research Conference about a process that we call 360-degree research. He posed that design researchers are the only group ideally suited to be advocates for the end users, arguing that all other groups have conflictingobjectives and serve too many masters. Even designers, with all their goodintentions, are sometimes lead astray by lofty goals like “beauty.”

360-Degree Research: Keeping a Well-Rounded Focus on the End User

This week, my firm’s director of strategy and research, Ron Pierce, spoke at the IIT Design Research Conference about a process that we call 360-degree research. He posed that design researchers are the only group ideally suited to be advocates for the end users, arguing that all other groups have conflictingobjectives and serve too many masters. Even designers, with all their goodintentions, are sometimes lead astray by lofty goals like “beauty.”

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Ron’s presentation reminded me of a story involving our workfor Starkey. When Starkey first commissioned SKD to re-design the traditional big,beige hearing aid, I was mentally designing hearing instruments that lookedlike Bluetooth headsets. I thought the cool, consumer-inspired aesthetic wouldbe a great expression of technology, and they’re so ubiquitous that no onewould be able to tell who used a hearing aid and who wore a Bluetooth.

It’s usually at this point that Ron will speak up. Ron likes to refer to himself as a Buzz Killer–the guywho turns down the music at our victory parties and says, “Wait–we need to seeif this idea will work for users.”

S Series BTE with Sweep Technology 2

Our project for Starkey gave him plenty of opportunitiesto do what he loves, and it turned out that when Ron and his team went intothe field to learn about hearing aid users, they didn’t want a Bluetooth atall. Such a design might have been fine for Baby Boomers like myself, but for60- to 85-year-olds, still Starkey’s prime demographic, there is a stigma aroundhearing aids. These people do not want their loss of hearing–something theyconsider a handicap–to be obvious to others. They would prefer to have a productthat is discrete rather than disguised.

This is why we practice 360-degree research–to keep thefocus on the end user throughout the product development process. This approachhelps remind us that the process isn’t about what we designers want to add toour portfolios, or even about what a corporation would like to add to itsproduct line. A truly successful product maintains its focus on the end user.

We feel so strongly about the end user that we started making a 360-degree approach a crucial part of ourdesign process. And here’s how we do it.

  • Start with exploratory research. This is the time where researchers deliver findings and insights to the design team and client. Thisis also the time where most design research programs end–where designers’ imaginations (andsometimes their egos) may start to subtly compete with user insights.
  • Keep researchers involvedcontinuously. We must keep assessing design and engineering concepts with users to ensurethat we have properly interpreted their needs. Ron and his team, for example, go back to the users with working prototypes to ensure we have not deviated from theoriginal goal.
  • Meetwith users again and again. Even as the product is passing though mechanical engineering, we check to make sure that any production modifications made for thesake of efficiency or branding have not diluted the product’s benefits.
  • Establish a set of checks and balances. Thisensures that designers, engineers and the complete product development teammaintain a healthy modicum of empathy for users unlike themselves.

I said before that the process isn’t about what we designers want to add toour portfolios, but that’s not exactly true. In the end, the product I would like to add to our portfoliois the one that sells. Beauty, innovation, function, and efficiency are allgood things, and can help to sell a product–but only if they mean the samething to the product development team as they mean to the end user.

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Read Fast Company’s story about the Starkey S Series

Read more of Stuart Karten’s Dear Stuart blog
Browse blogs by our Expert Designers

For 25 years, Stuart Karten Design(SKD) has designed products that serve as brandambassadors for its clients and lead to greater market share andincreased profit. SKD’s team of 25 designers,researchers, and mechanical engineers guide a product fromconceptualization through production. SKD is renowned for its medical products and its ear-centric devices, including communication headsets for Jabra and Plantronics, the Zōnhearing aid for Starkey Laboratories, and noise-cancelling ear buds forUltimate Ears. SKD’s awards include IDEA, Red Dot, iF, Good Design and the I.D. AnnualDesign Review. Conceptual “Epidermits Interactive Pet” was a part of MOMA’s Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition.In 2008, Fast Company named SKD among America’s topfive “Design Factories” in its annual Masters of Design issue.

About the author

Stuart Karten is the Founder and President of Los Angeles-based product innovation consultancy [url=http://kartendesign.com/]Karten Design[/url]. Since 1984, he has partnered with medical device, digital health, and consumer product manufacturers to build their businesses through design.

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