Why researchers need design thinking

Think of yourself as a designer to create interventions that have impact

Researchers often 'develop' interventions and products for people that we know will be good for them, and then we 'evaluate' them to make sure that they do what we think they will do. Too often, those fabulous, theory-informed, evidence-based interventions sit on the shelf in our ivory towers because we don't have the resources, skills and capacity to market our products (or the time!), but also, sometimes, because we make things that don't really solve a problem for the target audience.

Too often, in health promotion at least, we spend a lot of time and grant money developing solutions to problems that people don’t have, or don’t feel are important enough for them to take action… Or we are not creating the right solution for the right problem. Have you ever had a project that it was really hard to recruit for? or started a social media page for your research that is followed mostly by your friends and family (like I have!). This might be why, when it comes to dissemination, we find it quite hard to get people to take on the resources that we have created… They don’t solve any particular problems for them.

Using design thinking can fix this, and it can help us to have greater impact.

As researchers, we tend to see ourselves as the experts, and gather information from other experts in the field to develop intervention programs. However we forget that the people that we are developing these things for have functional and emotional needs, and problems that we might not even have considered throughout this process. I argue that if we see ourselves as designers, and use the same processes that creative designers do, this can help us to focus much more on the problem from the perspective of the end-user, not just the research literature!

There has been a shift in research and academia recently towards co-creation, co-design, co-production, and other processes that incorporate the views of end-users in the design of products and services. However, when I was trying to learn about these approaches, I couldn't find any clear frameworks to follow.

Here's where design thinking comes in... Design thinking is the umbrella term for an approach to developing products or services that focuses deeply on solving problems for the end-users and customers that we are developing for. It is used a lot in business- to identify business opportunities, create new product innovation, and design services for people. However the exact same process can be used in research if we make a small mindset shift.

Design thinking officially originated out of Stanford D. School and there are a few variations on the theme: design thinking, human centred design and user-centred design are all broadly the same thing.

Depending on who you ask, there are a number of steps, but at the most basic level, the process involves:

1. Learn- about the people that you are designing for

2. Design- develop the most basic version of your product or service that can be used to gain feedback from end-users

3. Test- Prototype and get as much feedback as you can. Pivot if necessary

4. Model- refine product, do more formalised testing

So that's why you need design thinking, but want to know how? Check out the Well researched Guide to Design Thinking here.


Dr Zali Yager is an Associate Professor in Health and Physical Education at Victoria University and the Founder of Well Researched: A start up that aims to empower researchers to use design thinking, social media, and other business tools to enhance user engagement and impact.

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