The real challenges in Design Research

The presentations at 3rd edition of the (Dutch) Service Design Thinks sparked a lively discussion on the challenges in design research. The Thinks are a 2 monthly event that we as 31Volts co-organize as part the The main goals of the Thinks are to share best-practices in the service-design field and bring people together.


So the presentations lead up to a discussion on the challenges that deal with putting design research into practice, not how to actually do design research.

ROI is far away

The overall notion is that design research doesn’t deliver results that will benefit the profitability of company in the (very) short term. How do you convince clients that doing design research is worth the money?
The analogy I often use is that design research is a compass while quantitative research is a road-sign. Road-signs guide over known paths to known places while a compass helps you discover new worlds.

Labour intensive (and thus expensive)

Yes, getting out there in the field and doing a photo-study in someone’s kitchen takes time. But it’s only expensive if you can compare it to the value you get out of it. Either we have to come up with more agile design research methods that take less time. Or we have to find ways of explicitly showing the value the research delivers.
Someone in the audience rightly said that quantitive research isn’t cheap either. The significant difference is that the bulk of the work in quantitative research has to be done upfront (designing the survey).

It’s hard to communicate rich data

Design research usually produces a lot of unstructured -messy- data. This presents the challenge of how to communicate the most valuable insight to your client.
Recently I had a discussion with someone who argued that people (and businesses) are more attracted to numbers. I don’t believe this at all. Just think of how many anecdotes you’ve heard about a CEO saying that he want’s the iPhone of his industry. Warm compelling stories will win the heart of people any day over hard cold facts. Designers should take much greater advantage of this.


These challenges aren’t new at all. But what strikes me is that I read very little about them in the (service) design community. These are the real challenges that stagger the impact designers make, not the quality of the tools and methods they use.

So, I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on these challenges.

Marc Fonteijn

Marc Fonteijn

Marc is co-founder of 31Volts and helps major private and public organizations to grow by designing services that cultivate a sustainable relationship with customers.

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