While FMCG firms in India have pioneered a deep tradition of market research, design research in the country has lagged behind. This seems to be changing now. Much like its evolution in the west, where product-based user testing widened in its purview to support human-centred design, design research in India too, is slowly gaining in both importance and scope.

Driving this trend is the understanding that our users and usage patterns are unique – a reality that must be factored into any design endeavour, especially when it addresses the ‘the next billion users’. Says, Raoul Nanavati, Co-founder, NavanaTech, a startup building text-free, image-based and voice assisted technology for a low-literate demographic, “If you are a company focused on building digital services for the next billion users, it is absolutely essential to have someone focused on user research. This is because your research becomes stale within 6-12 months at the rate of adoption and change that we are seeing in the market”.

Design research capabilities currently reside in:

  1. Pure-play design research consultancies like Hureo and Anagram
  2. Design studios like Quicksand, Obvious and Lollypop, who have built research teams
  3. Design research teams within organisations, who are now actively calling out the part that research plays in their process (Examples from Zomato here and Flipkart here)
  4. Research conducted by academia that is not geared towards design alone, but is valuable for informing the design process.

Demand for design researchers is growing. A quick check on LinkedIn shows 44 openings for the title of design/UX researcher in the past month alone.

The Hard Copy spoke to the community to understand if design research was indeed having a moment in India. This is what we found.

Massive gaps still exist in practice

Design research as a topic, as a lacuna and as a major opportunity, is entering mainstream conversation in a big way. Through conversations with designers and design researchers, we learnt that even though it is widely discussed, organisations still view it as a ‘luxury’, something that is nice-to-have, but can be dispensed with when there are time and cost pressures.

The different kinds of research are still poorly understood

The terms market research, design research, user and usability research are distinct from one another and cannot be used interchangeably – but they often are.

“There are designers who hire researchers and ask them to keep testing their design, and that’s limiting the role,” says Anjeli Singh of Hureo, a research consulting firm. After years of experience in the field, she feels that research should be strategically introduced in the design process and product strategy, from the very first step.   “There is certainly an important part for researchers focusing on how the design can be optimised for usability, studying font size, colours, layouts, navigation, etc. But primary is to understand why are you building something, and for whom.”

Getting C-suite buy-in for research is the biggest challenge 

A UserZoom report stated that “In 2019, including research within the product development process is now the #1 challenge (up from #2 in 2018), followed by sourcing participants, securing budget and getting executive buy-in.”

Although anecdotes to prove research’s value abound,  researchers cannot promise ROI miracles and this is the stumbling block when it comes to getting management buy-in.

“Research is not a highly codified management framework,” says Babitha George, a partner at Quicksand, an interdisciplinary studio. “It involves real people and involves their lives and their frailties and their hopes. This needs to be acknowledged.”

“Most product companies are short-term focused, operate and set goals quarter to quarter” says Ripul Kumar, a research expert and now founder, Utterwise.ai. “In companies that operate in very short quarter to quarter cycles, research and design teams cannot survive and grow.”

Storytelling is helping researchers socialise value

Research’s subjective nature could also be its biggest strength. Jon Kolko, COO and partner, at Modernist Studio, and author of the book ‘Well-Designed’ who conducted a masterclass at DesignUp, a design conference, stressed the importance of making insights believable and telling stories of real people. To get people to follow you, to get people to support your ideas…you need to humanise the opportunity,” he said.

“You could do good design research and come up with great insights, but it’s as much your responsibility to tell those stories,” says Babitha George. “In all of our projects [at Quicksand], we tend to bring stories from the field, not just the synthesised insights, at all stages of the project – when we share research and when we move on to insights and opportunities. This adds richness and texture, enabling our clients and partners to participate better in the process.”

Involving teams beyond researchers is key

One of the biggest concerns expressed by the researchers we spoke to, was the loss in translation when insights are cascaded through an organisation. Best practices demand that designers, product managers and even developers, be part of the research process. It is important that the whole organisation benefits from knowledge and collaboration must be encouraged to this end.

Uber, for example, has an insights platform called Kaleidoscope where ‘insights can be  easily submitted and shared so that a team doesn’t waste time relearning in Mumbai what another team in Mexico City has already experienced’.

Creating formal frameworks could also help. There are emergent efforts by collectives like Research Operations to discuss  “the people, mechanisms, and strategies that organisations use to scale their design and user research practice”.

It seems clear that as products addressing the domestic market increase, so will the demand for design research. Researchers need to find a way to draw attention to their work and have it front and centre of organisational dialogue. 

Sign up to stay on top of the fast-changing design and product landscape in India.