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.

IDEO Futures Podcast 30

Last week I was lucky enough to be a guest on the excellent IDEO Futures Podcast. If you’ve never listened go and listen right now:

I was interviewed alongside Bruce Hellman, the CEO and Founder of umotif – IDEO London’s first Startup In Residence. We talked about the process and benefits that umotif got from the residency and the many things that the IDEO design team learnt from the process.

umotif's toolkit

I’m also a big Futures fan, so to have been the guest on episode 30 is a huge privilege – especially when I think about the auspicious company who have guested on the show.

Anyway, I hope you get a chance to check it out. Make sure you subscribe and then check out these other great episodes:


IDEO London’s First Startup In Residence

Over the summer of 2015 IDEO London hosted it’s first Startup In Residence. We invited a young company to join our team and hopefully benefit from our expertise, process and network. In return we got inspired by their way of working and saw first hand what it takes to build something from the ground up.

It was an intense three month experiment bringing together different cultures, practices and skills. We’re all incredibly proud of what we achieved, but what did we learn?

What is SIR?

Before I launch into the things we learned, perhaps a little context about ‘Startup In Residence’ (or SIR for short). At IDEO, we’re constantly experimenting with new ways to have a positive impact on the world; as life a design consultancy is changing (although not everyone agrees with the much rumoured death of the design firm) we’re looking for new ways to apply our skills to problems beyond the traditional consultancy model.

SIR is a little bit like a startup accelerator in the sprit of Techstars or Y-Combinator, the big difference being that we pick just one company to work with. We invite them to be part of our team, they then join us to work in our office for the duration of the residency. We contribute to their success but we also want them to contribute to our process and culture.


We invited umotif – a healthcare startup (more below) – to work with us for three months over the summer of 2015. Members from our (Betsy Fields and Lorenz Korder Fort) team worked with them to design a programme of activities focussed on improving the areas of their business that would most benefit from an injection of design.


The SIR scheme has run about a dozen times around IDEO in different offices. Notable successes include PillPack and Food Genius. The programme is part of the IDEO Futures portfolio. Go and check them out if haven’t already. Also, subscribe to the IDEO Futures Pod(cast).

We were very keen to work with umotif as the challenge they are addressing in healthcare is something we’re passionate about. And what better way to learn more about the space than by rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck in?

Who are umotif?

Well, firstly, their website will do a better job describing than I can here. But as a quick overview…


Umotif are a UK digital health startup building tools to activate patients and their care teams in the treatment of Cardiology and Oncology conditions. I’m most excited by the ‘activating patients’ part of the that proposition. They’ve developed a fantastic platform that allows patients to track the symptoms that are meaningful to them and relevant to the their condition. The tracked data is useful to the patient but also to the care team supporting them.

It represents a shift in the paradigm between patient and doctor. In the future both sides will be responsible for parts of the recovery process.

With a mix of medical and design knowledge at the heart of the company they were a great match for IDEO’s human centred approach to solving problems with diverse design teams.


What did we learn?

SIR is very much a two way street, with us sharing expertise and advice with umotif, and us learning from them. There were numerous things that emerged during the process, but three of the most important points in the success of our project were:

  1. Identifying focus, and then sticking to it
  2. The fog that comes with the Design Thinking process
  3. Never forgot the people using your product

Relentless focus

When we met umotif they were supporting clinicians and patients in 14 different conditions; the ability to move quickly to meet demand was part of the their early success. However, with that diversity meant that certain activities were being multiplied by 14. When you consider that the fragmented nature of healthcare system in the UK makes it tough to support two or three conditions, 14 starts to look like a mammoth challenge.

Focussing on fewer conditions to ensure excellence in each

Focus might sound like ‘doing less’, but this misses the point. Focus is simply a way to help you make decisions about where you put your time and resources. The total list of jobs doesn’t get shorter; it get prioritised. This notion of focus is relevant way beyond the world of startups of course, but you feel it sharply when every penny and second needs to work very hard.

It’s also very important to note that focus may be defined at one part of your business the benefits will be felt in different parts. For example as your Sales Team focuses to reduce the diversity of potential clients, the biggest benefits might be felt by the coders and developers who need to maintain fewer code bases. For this reason the focus area must be decided and agreed by everyone.

This is obviously easier to do when your company only has 4 people. Startups should find it easier to agree as there are fewer voices to be heard. The need for consensus is true for all companies and so bigger organisations will naturally find this harder.

Design thinking and fog

One of the most overlooked parts of the Design Thinking methodology is the ambiguity that comes at the moments when you’re ‘diverging’. And as the process is one of continual divergence and convergence you’ll experience ambiguity throughout the project.

‘The Fog’ is something that I’ve written about before on this blog, it was something the students I worked with at Hyper Island needed to overcome. It’s been revealing to me how comfortable IDEO designers are with the fog – to the point where we sometimes celebrate it too much .The reality for anyone new to the process is the feeling of anxiety, confusion and concern. These are clearly not things to celebrate.

To quote myself…

[The fog is] the murky place you might find yourself in as you complete your research phase. You bring together your notes and start to wonder if any of it makes any sense.

The question this raises is: how should we tackle the fog? Or perhaps: how do we get rid of it? Or is the fog something to embrace?

As more time goes by I think the answer is, first and foremost, to articulate it clearly (and without the smug air of an expert talking down to their students). Knowing the Design Thinking process well means that we should also be able to identify quite precisely when the fog will appear for people. One of the most important things we did when working with umotif was to tackle the team’s concerns head on and try to normalise the anxiety. Once the team began to recognise the fog as part of the process it became easier to move forward.


How to Sail Through Creative Uncertainty

But I think we could go further than simply saying ‘here comes the foggy bit!’, we should be treating it like any design challenge and responding to the problem with better solutions. To make the experience better for those I work with, I’m trying to do these things more often:

  • Regular ‘pulse’ checks throughout the project to give people a chance to shout out if they’re feeling nervous (hint: everyone does sooner or later)
  • Stop celebrating the fog in front of those who’ve never experienced it
  • Spend time writing posts like this to keep it front of mind
  • Get better at explaining the stages while leading people through them (taking an extra few minutes to reflect while we go)

The sooner we (I) get away from the mentality that only experts can get through the fog, the sooner we’ll get more people joining our process and amplifying our impact.

Spending time with real people

Human centred design calls for designers, researchers, clients and developers to all get away from their desks and out into the real world to spend time with the people they’re building for. This is something that both IDEO and successful startups share.

One of the most memorable parts of our whole process was when we met with Sam – a patient who’s benefitted first-hand from the tools that umotif had built. We met with her to get inspired about how to improve the next version of the software, but we got a much more important thing – we got her story:

And there’s no better way to explain exactly why we all believe that umotif will continue to make a difference in the world than hearing first hand what they do to people’s lives.

We certainly wouldn’t have got this by sitting at our desks.

Interested in Startup In Residence?

If you’re working at a Startup (or know someone who is) and would like to know more about SIR, drop me line on the Twitter @matt_speaks. I’d love to come and talk to you about how IDEO and Startups might continue to learn form each other.