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360-Degree Research: Keeping a Well-Rounded Focus on the End User

Ron Pierce

This week, my firm's director of strategy and research, Ron Pierce, spoke at the IIT Design Research Conference about a process that we call 360-degree research. He posed that design researchers are the only group ideally suited to be advocates for the end users, arguing that all other groups have conflicting objectives and serve too many masters. Even designers, with all their good intentions, are sometimes lead astray by lofty goals like "beauty."

Ron's presentation reminded me of a story involving our work for Starkey. When Starkey first commissioned SKD to re-design the traditional big, beige hearing aid, I was mentally designing hearing instruments that looked like Bluetooth headsets. I thought the cool, consumer-inspired aesthetic would be a great expression of technology, and they're so ubiquitous that no one would be able to tell who used a hearing aid and who wore a Bluetooth.

It's usually at this point that Ron will speak up. Ron likes to refer to himself as a Buzz Killer—the guy who turns down the music at our victory parties and says, "Wait—we need to see if this idea will work for users."

S Series BTE with Sweep Technology 2

Our project for Starkey gave him plenty of opportunities to do what he loves, and it turned out that when Ron and his team went into the field to learn about hearing aid users, they didn't want a Bluetooth at all. Such a design might have been fine for Baby Boomers like myself, but for 60- to 85-year-olds, still Starkey's prime demographic, there is a stigma around hearing aids. These people do not want their loss of hearing—something they consider a handicap—to be obvious to others. They would prefer to have a product that is discrete rather than disguised.

This is why we practice 360-degree research—to keep the focus on the end user throughout the product development process. This approach helps remind us that the process isn't about what we designers want to add to our portfolios, or even about what a corporation would like to add to its product line. A truly successful product maintains its focus on the end user.

We feel so strongly about the end user that we started making a 360-degree approach a crucial part of our design process. And here's how we do it.

  • Start with exploratory research. This is the time where researchers deliver findings and insights to the design team and client. This is also the time where most design research programs end—where designers' imaginations (and sometimes their egos) may start to subtly compete with user insights.
  • Keep researchers involved continuously. We must keep assessing design and engineering concepts with users to ensure that we have properly interpreted their needs. Ron and his team, for example, go back to the users with working prototypes to ensure we have not deviated from the original goal.

  • Meet with users again and again. Even as the product is passing though mechanical engineering, we check to make sure that any production modifications made for the sake of efficiency or branding have not diluted the product's benefits.

  • Establish a set of checks and balances. This ensures that designers, engineers and the complete product development team maintain a healthy modicum of empathy for users unlike themselves.

I said before that the process isn't about what we designers want to add to our portfolios, but that's not exactly true. In the end, the product I would like to add to our portfolio is the one that sells. Beauty, innovation, function, and efficiency are all good things, and can help to sell a product—but only if they mean the same thing to the product development team as they mean to the end user.

Read Fast Company's story about the Starkey S Series  

Read more of Stuart Karten's Dear Stuart blog
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For 25 years, Stuart Karten Design (SKD) has designed products that serve as brand ambassadors for its clients and lead to greater market share and increased profit. SKD's team of 25 designers, researchers, and mechanical engineers guide a product from conceptualization through production. SKD is renowned for its medical products and its ear-centric devices, including communication headsets for Jabra and Plantronics, the Zōn hearing aid for Starkey Laboratories, and noise-cancelling ear buds for Ultimate Ears. SKD's awards include IDEA, Red Dot, iF, Good Design and the I.D. Annual Design Review. Conceptual "Epidermits Interactive Pet" was a part of MOMA's Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition. In 2008, Fast Company named SKD among America's top five "Design Factories" in its annual Masters of Design issue.