Nathan/ You have so much experience teaching and practicing design research at a level that is still rare these days. What do you consider design research and where and why is it appropriate?

Brenda/ You can break it down into qualitative and quantitative or look at it in terms of process—where it should occur. In terms of quantitative research, you can get statistics from many places and even generate your own if you have a big enough sample size. And this is good for demographics, income level, education level, etc. and maybe some foundational desires or needs that people express. For example, we found with Purple Moon that age 8 or 9 was the best time to intervene with technology and computers Kids at this age were still curious. By the time they’re teens, all kinds of these stereotypes set in. There as a lot of existing material that others had produced about this.

But, I’m a very strong component of starting with qualitative research if you really want to understand people and discover the best opportunities. We started with a set of questions. At Purple Moon, it wasn’t enough to learn that girls stopped using computers and playing games around that age. We needed to understand why. This is 1994. We started with a question: “What would it take for a girl to put her hands on a keyboard?” We discovered a better one along the way: “What are the differences between the ways girls and boys play at this age?” We learned a tremendous amount about their social and personal lives and behavior. Purple Moon and its products came out of that question. They would have never emerged from something like “How can we better market our games to girls?” The one or two attempts that had been made previously were completely screwed by the premises of the games, the game play, the availability, the game sponsors, where they were sold, etc. For example, girls and moms would never walk by them because they were sold in male spaces.

We were fortunate to have great funding so we researched all over the United States with over a thousand girls. We could look for regional and other differences and stuff. That gave us was the entire framework for the kinds of games we ultimately create.  We uncovered the vast differences between how girls think about themselves in a social context and a personal context. This led to us creating two series of games with the same characters.

In my teaching, I always look at three-term provocations—things that don’t exactly go together, like energy, entitlement, and brand. It doesn’t really matter as long as there is some interesting overlap. The process of design research uncovered rich, important material at that overlap. Whether you have an audience in mind already or not, this is a way to generate ideas that wouldn’t arise otherwise.

I strongly believe that working with dyads is a really good idea. Maybe you’ve screened for one kind of respondent. Ask them to bring their best friend. With kids, this is terrific because they will call each other out on things they don’t even realize are true. But, even with adults, they have conversations between themselves that are very different from the things they might tell you on their own. There is an entire business of coding what you hear and understanding what’s salient. When I move from paper to working prototypes, I engage with the same audience as well as new ones because that helps you isolate what’s really at work for an audience—it’s a way to validate your learning.

Nathan/ Like the research at Purple Moon with little boys—you could figure out what was common and what was clearly different. If I remember correctly, that’s what led you to “moon” and the color purple that became the name of the company. These were the things that, for the most part, little girls responded to in ways that little boys didn’t. You research didn’t just define the opportunity but the elements that triggered positive reaction sin your audience and became the very elements of the solutions.

Brenda/ That’s right. One of the projects we did at Art Center was focused on better understanding tweens and their relation to technology and comfort. It was a partnership with Hewlett Packard and it had a big impact on their thinking at the time. I’ve always insisted that personas be based on actual people and this isn’t always the case. You should be able to tell who that persona is—you’ve meet them, even if it’s an amalgamation of a few kids. Too often, a persona in business is used as some kind of vague ideal person but not grounded in actual people. They are a construction of designers’ and researchers’ assumptions and expectations, but not representative of the reality of these audiences or customers. If you haven’t met them, these persona are just bad fictions.

Nathan/ One of the stories I tell my students is that you would often have the researchers start with a bunch of magazines, cutting out pictures and words and creating persona based entirely on their assumptions. They would put them on the studio wall and then close the door and go out to actually meet people and do their research. When they came back they would be forced to confront their difference between their assumptions and what they really found. It was less possible to assume they knew those things all along.

Brenda/ Exactly. I sometimes asked my students to write down all their biases and beliefs about their subjects and I would bring my little cauldron and we put them in there. When we got done with our research, we would burn these slips of paper because we had shown ourselves that our assumptions were wrong. It was physical.

I think people feel they have greater empathy than they do. Also, we believe that we understand people better because of our personal experiences but it can lead us astray. I could say, “Hey, I was a little girl so I know all about that.” Well, I was a little girl in 1950. It was not the same. My experience no longer counts. We tend to design for ourselves, on the basis of our own personal experiences.

Nathan/ How do you know when you have a good prompt?

Brenda/ I try them out on people—my husband or friends or colleagues. If people don’t see anything interesting in it, I know I don’t have a good prompt. Sometimes, the prompt includes a specific demographic, but it doesn’t have to.

Nathan/ If you’re in a company, you likely already have a customer. That might be part of the prompt. How far away from current business should the prompt point?

Brenda/ That’s the question and I don’t know if I can put it into words well. For example, let’s say you’re in a company that already does spreadsheets. You might look at outlier cases where people use them in a different way, perhaps creating graphs. That might point to use cases and, ultimately, markets that don’t yet exist. Or, you might add a specific technology to the provocation—AI, XR, mobile—whatever.

Nathan/ Let me go back to one of your other statements. How do you determine what’s salient in your research?

Brenda/ You really want to look at the frequency and intensity of responses, and how widespread they are among your sample group. You can also slap that up against whatever quant research you’ve been able to find and see if there are any correspondences there. I often use quant as a way to evaluate qual. It’s also a way to, you know, help us form queries for qualitative research. You have to look at the outliers. You have to look at that one guy who has a huge problem, unlike anyone else, and try to understand what’s going on there. You can’t just ignore it because it’s not shared by everybody in your sample.

This is doubly true of scenarios. Every good scenario has a failure in it. And, that’s just not what you commonly see in industry or academia. Everything is idealized.

Nathan/ Happy, shiny people using happy, shiny products.

Brenda/ Yeah. It’s so much more interesting when there’s a screw up. Because, it could be that the system helps the user recover. It could be that the user figures something out that you can learn from. But you’ll never see these opportunities unless you look at them. I never accept scenarios that don’t have failures in them.

Years ago, when my students at CCA were working on food issues, one of the solutions they developed was a mobile vegetable market for food deserts. And, now there are such things. So many times students have been prophetic about the opportunities they saw because they were using their imaginations and doing the right kind of research.

I’ve worked in several labs over the years: the Atari Systems Research Lab  under Alan Kay, Interval Research, Sun Labs, and Apple. I’m really sorry to see the disappearance of labs. When you’re in a classroom or a lab, there’s much less constraint on what you might be able to imagine and propose. I know of work going on at Microsoft right now, that is only possible because they’re in a lab situation.

Nathan/ I just wonder if part of the challenge how we bring up businesspeople—it’s often the culture of traditional business that accepts copycat “innovation” and little incremental projects. I see much more interesting opportunities uncovered in the classroom of non-business programs than yet another “ChatGPT for pets!” or the like. There is an entire world in academia and in labs that is identifying great opportunities and then you have much of the business world with mostly crummy ideas. Why aren’t these two interacting and feeding each other?

Brenda/ Part of it could be the sources of funding that people have to appeal to. If you’re talking to venture capitalists, they have certain expectations. They want rapid turnaround. Some want to make a profit within the first year. There are exceptions but, generally, they’re not so great at identifying the truly novel opportunities. Some are looking for unrealistically fast “hits.” There’s also the exit strategy that shapes a lot of companies into something that’s going to fit into somebody else’s acquisition. I also think that many entrepreneurs don’t have a proper grounding in history, philosophy, art, humanity, etc. They’re coming in with pretty superficial ideas and their experience of the world is largely based on what has come before . Their encounter with the actual world and actual people hasn’t been part of their experience and they don’t have the other lenses to evaluate ideas, just money and tech lenses.

The funding community has similar issues. Not only do they not look at broader implications, everything has to be communicated in terms of what came before, like in Hollywood. “It’s Twitter, but for cats!”

Nathan/ If a young entrepreneur came to you and said, “I have this idea,” what advice would you give her?

Brenda/ Depends a bit on what the idea is, but, she might work with a writer or storyteller create a better story about the idea. I’d suggest that she create several walkthroughs of how the idea works. And, I’d look for a mentor would had maybe been there.

Nathan/ I ask this because you’ve been there, although you didn’t just have an idea for Purple Moon, you had validating research. You had come out of that process with a good idea of what the products are and what the market was. You had a whole business plan and, still, it was really hard. What has to be done or known in order to be successful?

Brenda/ The obvious answer is a competitive analysis. Look at what’s going on in the market right now. Find a network, do the competitive analysis, figure out where this sits in the marketplace, where are you going to sell it, etc.? What are the related properties?

Nathan/ Can you explain your concept of grand strategies?

Brenda/ We all have our own goals and we need to fashion the strategies that can achieve them. And, our employers and clients have their goals, too, and we need to work on those strategies, for sure. However, they aren’t necessarily at odds. When you look at it from a higher perspective, there are usually strategies that connect and achieve both. You just have to look for them.

During World War Two, the allies obviously had various strategies for winning the war: attack here, close off this port, etc. But, there were other, seemingly unrelated goals, too, like saving the art that’s being stolen or destroyed. Well, that changes how you approach the first. If you look at them together, you end up choosing a strategy that avoids cluster bombing big cities. Now, you have a grand strategy that serves both sets of goals. We typically think hierarchically, but we need to think more systemically. Sometimes, it turns out that a strategy can serve two otherwise unrelated goals. That happens a lot with corporate sustainability. For example, you can reach your climate goals and save money in the long run by investing in renewable energy.

Consider a young person working for Nike: they’re concerned about Nike’s environmental record and their social challenges (working conditions, etc.) but he really loves sports and wants to help support more people in their pursuit of play. Perhaps, by helping Nike build community services, they can achieve Nike’s goals as well as their own? That would be a grand strategy. If you can name these two things, the business’ strategy and your personal or more humanistic goals, chances are you’ll find some overlap.

This interview is from A Whole New Strategy: Everything You Need To Think And Act More Strategically