To Read the Consumer’s Mind

In this edited interview, Steve McCallion, creative director of Portland, Oregon-based Ziba Design, expands on why “deep consumer research” is a critical part of the design process and how he leveraged it for clients as varied as Umpqua Bank and Sirius Satellite Radio.

FC: Many successful designs have sprung out of the designer’s instinct for what will spark an emotional connection with consumers. Why, then, is consumer research even necessary?


McCallion: We don’t negate the intuitive part of the design process. That’s where a lot of breakthrough creation comes from, and we certainly don’t want to miss that flash of brilliance. But in a commercial design shop, where clients expect you to repeatedly deliver a high level of performance on a vast range of projects, you can’t just rely on your gut all the time.

Here’s what I mean: I don’t bank–I use a brokerage account. But to design for Umpqua, we had to understand those people who do bank. We had to fill our heads with everything we could learn about that consumer and that market, so we could then take action on it.

FC: And yet it sounds like you’ve squeezed intuition out of the design process.

McCallion: Not at all. We’re all for intuition, but it’s got to be informed by what we’ve learned. When you don’t do the research and rely solely on the designer’s intuition, you’re assuming that the designer is the design target. You design for yourself, and people like yourself buy the end result. Of course, designers have been successful doing that. But sometimes, we’ll have a team of 15 people working on a project. We’ve got to ensure that they’re all starting from the same place. We have to inform our design teams so they feel they can make the right calls. We still make intuitive decisions, but they’re based on an exhaustive amount of research. If the research is off, the whole project is off, because we won’t be intuiting the right things.

FC: What does “informed” intuition mean?

McCallion: Informed intuition is a systematic way of filling up your decision-making process with a deep understanding of whom you’re designing for, so you make smart decisions as opposed to guesses. We combine primary and secondary research to create user profiles and scenarios–that’s what we design to. Our quest is to find and describe that moment when the customer connects with the brand.


FC: Many design shops do their research by running focus groups in their usability labs. Why do you go to the trouble of interviewing consumers in their homes?

McCallion: When you interview people in their environments, you get a better sense of the truth. You see how they live, rather than how they say they live. When we did the research for Sirius, we wanted to get a deep, tactile sense of satellite-radio listeners. We wanted to see how they accessorize their cars–how they use satellite radio on road trips and how they use it commuting. We talked to them about music and radio, but they didn’t know we were designing for satellite radio. We weren’t looking for any of those people to tell us “the answer.” We simply wanted to exhaust all of the possibilities for understanding the market.

FC: You compile a vast amount of research–how much of it finds its way into the end product?

McCallion: Ninety-nine percent of the information we gather never makes it into the final outcome. We really use the data to find a window through which we can see the market in a novel way, and use that insight to stimulate the creative process. Our ability to invent is solely dependent on our ability to frame the market. We especially want to understand the influencers — the people who drive the market. If you just try to understand the average user, you’ll get an average result.