Design Research Advice for Startups

Last week Senior Design Researcher Kate Wakely and I visited the Barclays Techstars accelerator in East London, we met with the startups in the current cohort and shared a little advice on Design Research.


Our goal was to convince the teams in the value of user research and give practical advice on how to get more out of each interview with a customer. Here are three good reasons to get out of the office and meet the people you’re designing for:

1. Desire-lines: Right vs Wrong

The image below shows both the planned footpath and the path that real people have chosen to take instead. In the world of urban planning these manmade paths are known as desire-lines and they represent human behaviour diverging from the designed vision for the space. If you were to observe this behaviour without going out to the meet the humans behind it you’d risk misinterpreting what’s going on.

Desire Line

The picture above is analogous to analytics: it tells the story of what is happening, but not why it’s happening. Without understanding the why you’ll design the wrong solution.

If you wanted to adapt to this behaviour you could put up a fence and force people onto the path. Or you could tarmac the desire-line. Which is right?

Whatever stage your company is at, going out to spend time with your customers is vital to making the right product decisions. Your current products and services may have desire-lines that you’ve noticed today, before you ‘fix’ things make sure you’ve spoken to your users and got the full picture.

The truth

The image above was taken in a park in North London, after speaking to users and after the official path was laid Arsenal football club moved grounds, so on match day the crowds heading to the stadium no longer moved from left to right but straight across forming the new desire-line. So in fact neither the urban planner or the users are using the space in the ‘wrong’ way: it was a more complex change to the environment which is incredibly easy to spot if you go out and talk to people, but very difficult to from historic data alone.

What will you learn from your customers when you go and meet them in their contexts? What challenges and opportunities will you find in the things adjacent you your product or service?

2. Build Empathy

We feel that one of the leading indicators of startup failure is loosing love for your customers. If you’re going to dedicate huge amounts of your time to building products for people, it’s vital that you have empathy for them.


When you go out and meet people in person you’ll understand them better and re-energise your team with tales from the real world (more on this below).

If you find yourself disliking your customers ask yourself why and then make some time to go and meet with them. Building empathy will make you a better designer and more likely to build something that truly matters to people.

3. The Power of Stories

The final big advantage of getting out and talking to your customers is that you’ll discover stories. Stories have great power to motivate members of your team to do their best work and communicate very complex things quickly.

IDEO London’s Startup in Residence – umotif – discovered story of a patient who had benefitted from their product when they went out into the field to interview people. They didn’t go with the intention of finding this story – in fact it was pure chance that Sam was the person that responded to the request to talk.

Her story is the perfect embodiment of what umotif wants to do to the healthcare system: empower patients. The story is not only an amazing marketing message (ironically exactly because it’s not a marketing message) but also a hugely motivating piece of evidence for the team. Hearing the story of someone who has truly benefitted from their tools has driven the team to keep building and improving.

When you get out to meet people, listen out for stories. We always find that it’s the stories that travel further and live longest in organisations. As Dr. Brené Brown said “maybe stories are just data with a soul”. (A bit cheesy I know, but I sort of like it.)


Any startups out there interested in IDEO’s work in the startup space please get in touch via the Twitters – I’m @matt_speaks.