Login de en

Design Thinking and Market Research

Only the combination of approaches leads to success

Companies turn to Design Thinking to find winning ideas for their customers. In this interview, consultant Ingrid Gerstbach and market researcher Julia David illustrate the opportunities arising from the combining of Design Thinking and market research.


Market research and Design Thinking – are these two completely different approaches?

Julia David: Both approaches focus on the customers and their needs, and both consider empathetic understanding a prerequisite. Creating solutions from the users’ perspective as well as supporting companies in developing customer-centric products and services – that is the common goal of both approaches. Therefore, the customer centricity formulated by Design Thinking is nothing new to market researchers like us. However, the methods used in Design Thinking mainly resemble the scope of activities of a qualitative Researcher.


What kind of requirements and expectations result from Design Thinking for market research?

Julia David: In this context, traditional market research is faced with the challenge to create solutions, tools, and structures that do justice to the agility of Design Thinking. For us market researchers, this means to think rather step by step, contemplating each one individually, and we need to focus on the respective stage of the Design Thinking process. Instead of conducting your traditional large market surveys or consumer panels at the beginning of an innovation process, market research is now rather expected to accompany the Design Thinking process with small and rapidly conducted sub-studies with a thematically narrow focus.

As a result, market research will be required and expected to simultaneously accompany and support the development process in Design Thinking with suitable tools – without interrupting or hindering the process.

For this purpose, our toolbox already contains agile tools such as national and international Market Research Online Communities (MROCs), mobile ethnography as well as dashboards, which all allow our customers to retrieve meaningful feedback on very specific questions within a few days.


What kind of role should market research play in Design Thinking?

Ingrid Gerstbach: Design Thinking is a process that utilises quantitative data just as well as qualitative data, analysis just as well as creativity, and explicit knowledge just as well as gut feelings. Now, what is so special about this approach? – Design Thinking focuses on people, not on the technique or method. And it requires you to consciously take a step back in order to identify the real issues and to consciously take the risk of failure.

Market research plays a very important role in Design Thinking. Many people think that analytical and creative thinking are mutually exclusive. However, it is precisely the combination of approaches that makes a difference and only that really leads to success.

Julia David: Exactly! Market research is relevant in every stage of the Design Thinking process. For example, the co-creation approach from market research is a suitable tool for the ideation stage of Design Thinking. Online communities or MROCs can be used for quick feedback rounds in the prototyping stage in order to do justice to all those small and iterative steps of the process.

Therefore, the task of the market researcher is to select the right method and suitable target group or sought-after persona for the respective stage, and to advise the design thinkers in their choice of suitable methods. Furthermore, it is also the task of the market researcher – and here I am speaking from qualitative experience – not only to test the prototypes for functionality, but also to think through the emotional aspects of the ideas and prototypes! Of course, all of this requires that the market researcher knows and understands the design thinking process.

In addition to the traditional purpose of market research – gaining data and knowledge about the investigated subject – in design thinking projects, market research also serves to provide the customer or the design thinking team with a certain market research mind-set. On top of technical skills such as selecting the right method and asking the right questions, it is also important for market researchers to convey to everyone involved in the design thinking process that they must obtain honest feedback from the target group on the prototype. Otherwise it is no use to anyone if there are, for example, misinterpretations due to closed questions, or if conclusions about the whole population are drawn solely based on a single ethnographic observation.


What is particularly important during the empathy stage, that is the initial stage of the design thinking process?

Ingrid Gerstbach: In general, one should not underestimate Design Thinking. It takes years of practice and experience before you can actually apply it successfully. Especially when it comes to empathy! In order to find solutions that really are moving, you have to fully understand your target person, and you need to have a clear grasp of their actual needs, desires, hopes, fears, and worries. As a design thinker, usually your job is to develop working solutions for other people. For this to be possible, you have to let go of your own feelings and develop empathy for the people. You need to begin to understand who they really are and what is important to them. A suitable tool for this would be a survey, or more precisely an empathetic interview and observation.

Julia David: The same is true for market research; the empathy stage also requires many years of experience. Empathy, listening, openness – none of this just can be acquired in just a one-day workshop. Instead, it requires a certain attitude and mind-set on the one hand, and on the other hand lots of experience with conducting qualitative interviews and the respective techniques. More particular techniques such as ethnography or morphological in-depth interviews also require substantiated psychological and methodological training.

Here, market researchers actually assume the roles of trainers and coaches, enabling agile and cross-divisional project teams to acquire methodological skills and techniques. Later on, project staff will not have to do their job perfectly, but it will help them to take the perspective of the customers and to better understand their needs, requirements, and desires. Even small, seemingly minor everyday finds, which sometimes have nothing to do with the actual topic at all, serve as sources of inspiration for developers, designers, or other project staff in the development of other solutions or services.


To what extent is it possible to lower the quality standards of market research in the early stages of prototype testing? And when should high-end market research take over?

Julia David: It is in the nature of the design thinking process – particularly in the early stages of prototype testing – to quickly receive feedback as to whether the critical point was actually correctly identified and addressed in the first solution developed. For this purpose, market researchers are free to provide tools with a slightly lowered scientific standard in order to allow quick testing and feedback.

However, the further one advances in prototyping and the more detailed and specific the solutions are worked out for the target group, the greater the operational significance of the results. Hence, high-end market research tools come into play at this stage; particularly those providing valid and reliable data and a sound basis for relevant decisions. In practical terms this means that sometimes six interviews can be enough to receive significant feedback – but in that case, those six should also be perfectly recruited, properly interviewed, and systematically analysed. This also does require methodological competence and experience.

However, during no stage of prototyping should market research ever be seen as a killer of ideas, but rather as a source of inspiration.


Market research departments are quite common in corporations. How will Design Thinking be established in the corporate world?

Ingrid Gerstbach: Design Thinking changes an entire corporate culture and should therefore only be applied with caution, care and with an expert who comes directly from the field and has a lot of experience. It is about picking up the company where it stands and establishing the new mind-set by gradually introducing new perspectives and a new culture of communication. Training and coaching on the job significantly ease the process. I also always recommend my customers to take a project directly from their own company, from real life. This way they are also able to share the results with others and subsequently carry Design Thinking deep into the structure of the organisation.


What kind of influence will Design Thinking have on market research?

Ingrid Gerstbach: Market research significantly improves the quality of interviews, surveys, and data collection, but also the amount of time it takes to find the right target group. Their statements are usually also more objective. This is important in order to gain an initial understanding, so as to not be tempted to think too quickly about solutions. 


What kind of changes will Design Thinking cause in market research?

Julia David: In the field of Design Thinking, market research will learn to accept the mind-set of Design Thinking. On the one hand, this means using already existing market research tools more flexibly and quickly. On the other hand, however, this also means to guarantee a smooth transition between inspiration drawn from users and reliable market research with high quality standards. This gives market research a great chance to establish itself as an integral part of innovation projects and to be viewed as holistic support.


holds a degree in psychology and specialises in industrial and organisational psychology as well as market and advertising psychology. She works as Senior Research Consultant in the Consumer and Retail Research division at Produkt + Markt.

is a business psychologist and management consultant with a special focus on Design Thinking and innovation management. She mainly supports medium-sized companies in developing changes and innovations.