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Beware the True, But Useless (with Martha Cotton)

Martha Cotton
Group Design Director, Research - Fjord

A conversation with Martha Cotton, exploring the role of data in the design thinking process. We wanted to dig in and uncover that higher purpose – how can data help us make sure we connect with the right audience? What kind of data do designers need during their creative process, and why do we still carry around old limiting beliefs about the place of data?


[00:07] Welcome to It’s Worth Doing Right. I’m your host, Olivia Hayes: resident creative pragmatist, and the Head of Product Strategy at Accomplice. In our first series, we’ll be exploring the intersection of creativity and data. Creativity has long been the dominion of Creatives; the artistic minds that have shaped the form and function of our world. But in this era, where data is multiplying every minute, data has become a crucial part of the creative process – and a critical weakness when we ignore it. Today, we’ll be exploring data in the design thinking process. Data, as clinical as it sounds, has an undisputed place in the design process, serving a higher purpose than just presenting numbers and graphs. We wanted to dig in and uncover that higher purpose. How can data help us make sure we connect with the right audience? What kind of data do designers need during the creative process, and why do we still carry around old, limiting beliefs about the place of data? To explore the role of data and design in more detail, we turn to an expert on the subject: Martha Cotton.


[00:59] Hi, I’m Martha Cotton. I am the Group Design Director for Design Research at Fjord, which is a digital agency as part of Accenture Interactive.


[01:08] We’re so excited to have you talking with us today. So just to start out, we want to talk a little bit about data. There is that a tiny bit of confusion just about qualitative versus quantitative data. So can you tell us a little bit about what the difference is, and is one more valuable than the other to the design thinking process?


[01:27] Qualitative and quantitative are radically different. They’re both important. They’re both valuable. They frequently compliment each other. But you do them for very different reasons. So the most obvious difference between qual and quant is the qualitative uses something called theoretical sampling, which means it’s not looking for the number of people, for example, that are having an experience or buying a product. It’s looking for the quality of the experience, the nature of how people engage with products and services, and the quality of their experiences. So the sample sizes when you do qualitative research are going to be small. They are absolutely valid, but they’re valid because you’re doing qualitative research. Whereas quantitative research is looking for statistical significance – so it is looking for the number of people that are using a product or service, or experiencing one thing or another. You do it because you want to quantify what’s going on in the world. So that’s the fundamental difference. In my experience, you get into trouble where you ask one to do the work of the other.


[02:36] Frequently, researchers will tell you that qualitative is the why and quantitative is the what. I’m not sure it’s that black and white, in my opinion. But it’s certainly true that there’s a lot you’re never going to know when you do quantitative research about why people do the things they do.


[02:49] In the general population, is there more familiarity with quantitative data versus qualitative?


[02:59] I think that people see truth in numbers. And certainly when I began my career, I would have a lot more hurdles to help people understand the value of looking at something qualitatively. And that’s okay. That was part of my job: to help my clients and colleagues feel comfortable with the approach. I will say that I’ve seen, in my career, a pretty sizable shift in people’s acceptance of and comfort with qualitative.


[03:32] In your opinion, what is the responsibility of research in the process of finding innovative solutions? Where does research fit in?


[03:39] At its core, design thinking is about empathy-driven business decisions and problem-solving. Design is an exercise in empathy. So design thinking has empathy at its core. You can’t have empathy if you don’t understand the people you’re designing for, or are solving problems for. So research is, in my opinion, absolutely core to design thinking because you need a way to develop that empathy. If you work for the city of Chicago, and you’re trying to apply a design-thinking approach to solve a colossal problem with our public education system, core to doing that would be to understand the experience of the students, of the teachers, of the parents, right? Because because you’re trying to get empathy for each of those constituents in order to solve the problem for them. The best way to have empathy is to actually have true engagement with people, which you’re only gonna get through deep qualitative work. It’s really hard to develop empathy through a survey.


[04:47] How would an organization or a company “do” that empathy work? How would they do that work, then incorporate that?


[04:56] Most design firms have some nature of research – design research – embedded. And it’s definitely a growing practice. A lot of clients and companies build these capabilities in-house, either as associated with an innovation team or with a marketing team. There is definitely a growth of the practice of integrating the deep discovery and exploration of people (and why they do what they do) as it relates to your product or service. At the end of the day, I want the work to be actionable. I could do the most amazing research in the world, but if my client can’t actually use it to take action, then I have utterly failed.


[05:40] So it’s very important that then, that’s a lot of where that collaboration comes in as well. It’s very important that the work that the design researcher is doing is in service of the business problem or the design problem, and that we can actually figure out how to take action from it. It’s not research for the sake of doing research.


[05:58] Despite the growing interest in how data functions in the design process, there are still so many misconceptions around the methods and output of research. When we say research, some people think long timelines with typed-up reports. Martha has definitely had some experience with research-skittish clients.


[06:16] The qual/quant misconception is very common. The notion of the “research for research’s sake” versus research and service of a business or design problem is also a misconception. I have had a lot of clients who have spent a lot of money on research, and then it sits on a shelf… and then that’s really bad. And they say, “well, that was a waste of time and money,” and if it’s sitting on a shelf, then I have to agree with them. A lot of clients might have a residual, leftover sense of “yeah, I tried that – I did some ethnographic work, and it wasn’t so great.” It’s my job to help them see a.) the value, and b.) the application and actionability of it.


[07:06] Another thing is that to do it well, it takes time. It takes time to do research. Not excessive amounts of time, but if I’m working on an innovation project and then the outcome is say, a mobile app or something? A lot of my clients just want to get going already. They don’t want to do a six-week research phase in order to understand the contextual experience of the user. They just kind of want to jump in. And so trying to help understand a.) why it’s important, b.) how doing it helps ensure success later on. And then, what are ways we can be flexible if they really just don’t have the time or budget? What can we do?


[07:52] One of my favorite parts of my job is finding ways to do things differently, and evolve the approaches. I love constraints, but a lot of times clients say, “I want to know your thoughts on the best way to do this.” And I’ll say, well, how much time and how much money do you have? Then they go, “I don’t want you to be constrained by time and money. I just wanted your vision of what the best way to do it would be.” And you know, I’m happy to do that. But constraints can really help you think creatively; like, “okay, we got three weeks, what can we do?” Some of the work I’m most proud of has come out of, frankly, research constraints that were very challenging.


[08:29] So it’s not only knowing the right type of research, but also being able to figure out what to do with the given constraints – of a length of time, or budget – and how to apply all of that appropriately to get some actionable results.


[08:45] Absolutely. One of the things that I see a lot is proposals that say “we’ll do 10 ethnographic interviews!”, but like why, why are we doing? Who said this was a good idea? I mean, I’m an ethnographer, I believe in ethnographic research. But that doesn’t mean that it should always be done. The most important thing is to articulate, “Well, what do we need to learn? What are our research objectives?” Then you can design the research methodology to meet those objectives. If we have a set of objectives, but we’ve got three weeks and very little budget, what can I do in the time allowed to meet those objectives? It’s not saying “okay, well now I can’t do this method.” It’s saying “These are the things I need to learn as a good designer. These are the things I need to learn. What can I do to learn those things?”


[09:35] Incorporating research into the design process means researchers need to understand designers, and what they need in order to do their jobs. Often, design-minded folks can have very different processes than research-oriented people. So helping teams understand each other’s needs creates the best outcome.


[09:50] Researchers need to know that designers need to do something with whatever they learn. I have a phrase I use at work all the time: “beware the true, but useless.” Because I’m a researcher, I find people fascinating. I’ve done projects about the most mundane things you could imagine – I did a huge project about how people use Ziploc bags. That sounds really boring and unexciting, but it’s actually super interesting. I spent a lot of time watching moms make lunch for their kids. To me, that’s fascinating. And to me, I’m going to find a lot of really interesting things about that entire thing. There’s so much loaded in there, like the mom’s concern for the health of the kid. And then they’re concerned about like, “well, will she really eat it?”, and “I need to make a healthy sandwich, but I’ll throw in a little treat in there just to show her I love her.” All kinds of great stuff going on in there. In addition to the healthy sandwich, she throws in some Oreos – is there an insight there? Maybe. But is it going to be useful to what our client and our design colleagues are trying to get done? Maybe not. And if so, you might have to let go of this thing that you are in love with, that is so interesting to you. If it’s true but useless, you have to be able to let it go.


[11:09] In my experience working with researchers, that’s been the biggest thing to understand. That they are a vessel through which our design colleagues will have to gain empathy for the people that are designing for. And they have to think about that. The fact that they are in service of that greater goal.


[11:30] It’s not about the purity of the way you studied anthropology in graduate school. I mean, that’s great stuff. But again, we’re in another context now where we have to be hyper-actionable, which goes to both the actual content and the way that content is communicated. Don’t write an 80 page deck when a poster might be better. What is the best way to communicate so we can all collectively take action? Doing research requires a set of skills, and it’s actually really hard. And you need to know what you’re doing. So respecting the expertise and the skills would be something I would definitely encourage people to do. That being said, the last thing I ever ever want to suggest is that there is a castle around the research person, and the researcher is the king of that castle. There can’t be walls between the researcher and designer. If there are, then the designer’s design thinking process will fail.


[12:36] Data has a place in the design thinking process. It’s there to engender empathy and understanding, and to create actionable insights. Beware of the true, but useless. Don’t let research be relegated to reports that sit on storage room shelves. Design is in service to the people who are using your product or service. If you don’t find a way to meaningfully connect with them, then they won’t use your product, plain and simple.

[13:17] Thanks for joining us for today’s conversation. If you’d like to learn more about our family of agencies, see more content from the Accomplice team, or leave us feedback, visit us at itsworthdoingright.com, or drop us an email at podcast@itsworthdoingright.com. And remember: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.


Meet Your Host

Kenzie Haynes

As a daughter of a teacher and a technologist, Kenzie was encouraged to ask questions and build answers. Now, as an Experience Designer focused on digital products, she uses that same inquisitive skill to drive outcomes across industries. When she’s not podcasting, Kenzie helps businesses ask the most critical questions and build market-leading answers using design and technology.

Understanding new perspectives is her passion and probing topical conversations is her forté, she brings both to the mic at It’s Worth Doing Right.

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