2 Approaches to Design and 4 Rules for Understanding Humans

Whenever we talk about Design Thinking’s user-centered approach to finding opportunities and understanding your customers better, someone always reminds me that one of the world’s most successful company, Apple, does not do market or user research.

Scott Anthony sums this up very well:

It feels like a classic battle — the scientific approach of a company (Procter & Gamble when run by former CEO A.G. Lafley) that launches 80 market research studies a day versus the intuitive touch of the iconic innovator of our time. 

But it’s a false comparison. Both approaches rest on the belief that you need to understand your customers better than they know themselves so you can predict what they want without having to ask them to articulate what they want.

Here is my usual answer to this: what is happening here is that there are 2 approaches to design.

The first one takes a user-centered approach to design. This is where Design Thinkers or Designers spend time in the field observing and researching humans for potential insights that can inspire and innovate. This sort of approach is ideal for organizations with large diverse portfolios and multiple types of customers. It is also a great activity to use if you are offering mature market services and products.

The second approach is what I like to call the customer proxy design approach. This is when there is someone who lives and breathes the product or service in such a totality that it becomes ingrained in their DNA. He or she is then able to take it to the next level in an almost craft like manner all for the good of the consumer. This sort of approach lands really well for businesses developing a focused product range, or even a small niche player in a competitive market.

At the end of the day, it is all about that intuition or insights derived from knowing your customers better then they know themselves. But how you come up with these insights can be from either one of the two approaches.

Personally, I prefer a combination of the two approaches while tagging on my 4 golden rules for understanding humans:

1) People don’t know, what they don’t know. (To get this right, you’ll need to repeat this statement a few times while pausing deliberately at the comma!)
2) People don’t do what they say, or say what they do.
3) People know what they dislike, but often can’t articulate what they like.
4) People often can’t distinguish between their wants from needs, as well as why they need it in the first place.

When this 2 by 4 (2×4) approach is applied to our design led innovation process, we first start by combining the use of thought leadership and intuition inspired by insights.  After that, we iterate and validate hard with data.

What’s your approach to design?

Via: HBR

This post was originally published on 16 April 2013.  It has been edited and updated.


  • Bec

    May 17, 2013 at 7:39 pm Reply

    Well put Brian. The four golden rules are too true! After reading this I now realise the importance of both approaches to be used together for a successful design innovation.

  • denise lee yohn

    April 21, 2013 at 7:19 am Reply

    love the thinking here, brian — i would add to your list of “golden rules of understanding humans” the following insight i’ve discovered in my experiences: what people end up liking about a product they’ve bought is not always what prompted them to buy it in the first place. this is why we have to be very careful about how we ask customers for input into marketing/advertising approaches — they can’t un-know what they know. — denise lee yohn

    • Brian Ling (Design Sojourn)

      April 25, 2013 at 11:46 am Reply

      @Denise: thanks for stopping by and it is so nice to hear from you. I hope you are well. Yes indeed, 2 really good points for better understanding humans. Thanks for sharing!

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