The role of audience research in design

Over the course of the last eighteen months Only have worked with a host of automotive clients delivering insight into consumer markets and consulting on a range of product and communication activities. Audience research has taken us all over the world, covering 16 cities across nine countries in three different continents.

By far the most ambitious was a global customer segmentation carried out on behalf of a luxury maker. The project sought to establish prospective customer types for luxury vehicles five years from today, and start to posit what they might want from their new car. The work would lay the foundation for a human-centred approach to automotive design - defining design requirements based on what is known about the people involved and the environment in which they interact with their cars.

The approach was shared openly by the automotive maker and several of the outputs were picked up by news organisations including the BBC. Reaction to the work highlighted several of the arguments for and against a human-centred approach to design. In response to the commentary, here we make the case once more for its importance to good making.

“Spend less time on this shit and more time making better cars”

In recent years the automotive market has become increasingly homogeneous. The mainstream market now offers several similar looking cars producing roughly the same performance, reliability and efficiency. Pit against the possibility of tremendous advancement in automotive innovation, mainstream manufacturers routinely fail to shift technological constraints and dictate market trends in the same way that innovators in Silicon Valley have in recent years.

But marketing and consumer research need not represent the enemy of progress. By contrast, it can support innovation through an in-depth understanding of who products are being created for. Such insight can help firms to prioritise their research and development spend, better understand their customer’s priorities and identify problems and frustrations with existing solutions that can and should be overcome.

At Only, our approach to design takes inspiration from real people, works within market and technological constraints, and considers every product touch-point an opportunity to surprise, delight and deliver benefits to users. The approach is underpinned by the belief that design has its ultimate goal in the clarification of purpose and meaning. Only by understanding who you are creating a product for can you truly create anything of real value for them.

“There’s no point asking people what they want — because they don’t know”

Of course it is true that most people are not able to make the creative leaps necessary to realise what they want from products in the future. Nor are they able to realise the potential of new technologies or imagine what might be possible with technologies that do not yet exist. Indeed, asking a group of focus group respondents what new product a company should make will almost always be a waste of time. And in this most literal sense, ‘user-as-leader’ will not lead to genuine innovation.

But the point of audience research is not to gleam product ideas from focus group respondents. It is instead to establish an understanding of the person for whom you are designing. By concentrating on questions of motivation, discourse and learning, audience research can act as the jump-off point for genuine innovation and creativity. By further layering data from external sources it is possible to innovate according to areas of greatest opportunity. For example in automotive, by combining trend data with future economic forecasts it is possible to predict geographic source of sales for new luxury cars. Knowing that greater opportunities exist in creating products for people outside of your current customer base means establishing a basic understanding of their lifestyles, motivations and value systems is a necessity.

The same principle can be applied in product and software design as well as service and industrial design. In order to help people to save energy in their homes you must first understand their current behaviours and their usage patterns. In order to help people in war torn nations to report human rights abuses you must first understand the context in which they must operate. And in order to provide medics with meaningful and complete insight into a child’s health condition, you must first understand how children behave around and interact with their toys.

The key point here is that audience research should not be considered a source of innovation. But it can very often be its inspiration. At the heart of all design activity is the identification of the meaning which the product, system or service offers to people. Without at least a basic understanding of the person for whom you are creating it is extremely difficult to create products that genuinely connect with people.

“Knowing that the buyer of their next car is a rich suburban housewife with 2.4 children won’t help them to make better cars”

Well known to marketers, audience segmentation can be a powerful means of targeting specific messaging at particular audiences. Switching the focus to creation, audience segmentation can also help to establish functional and superior needs in potential buyers, including sensorial, intellectual, emotional and cultural.

Our automotive project focused on the high luxury automotive market. Analysing the output of over 2,500 survey responses we were able to establish consumer priorities between buyer types across the entire high luxury segment. The output touched on every aspect of automotive design from style and performance through to stowage space and drive controls — outlining the needs of consumers in each market and forecasting areas of greatest opportunity.

Combined with sales data and macro-economic forecasts we were able to show with confidence the potential impact of producing a vehicle with less power than its competitors; of prioritising seat comfort over head-height; of failing to consider rear passenger comfort; and a raft of other considerations.

The point here was not to provide an answer to every product design decision. But instead to provide opportunities for facilitating interaction, imagination and learning; and to promote specific targeting of emotional engagement to deliver more elaborate opportunities for development and innovation. In short, our "Personas" and "Scenarios" would exist to facilitate design concepts based on what is known about the people who will use them and the environment in which their interaction will take place.

Concluding comment

The ultimate goal of audience research is to promote and deliver customer focus right from the outset of a significant design project. By providing the tools and understanding to support innovation, a user-centred approach can inspire opportunity and provide much needed context for the development of products and services.