Organizing Principles

13 May 2004|Christoper Ireland

I just gave a talk at the 2AD conference hosted by HP Labs in Bristol, UK on the topic of Organizing Principles (of design research). I’m going to try and recreate it here, although I can’t recall all the Q&A and I’m not yet blog savvy enough to post the graphics along with the text.

Organizing Principles of Design Research

I love this topic. It’s been one of my favorite pursuits for most of my career. By “organizing principles” I mean the fundamental learnings that shape our understanding of cultural, market and personal behaviors. These learnings might be compared to physics–simple underlying rules or truths that create much more complex systems [slide with ocean graphic]. But an even more appropriate analogy is one I learned yesterday in Phil’s drawing class. He explained that anyone can draw if they first focus on sketching out the simplest forms or geometry, leaving the details to the end. Organizing Principles sketch the outline of how people, markets and cultures behave, guiding the pursuit of details later.

These principles are found at vary levels of perspective [slide with population photo and belly button gazing photo]. The ones I’ll talk about today are the cultural level, the market level and the product level:

Cultural level–when we study behavior and attitudes at the cultural level, we are dealing with millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of people [slide w/ crowded street scene]. What we tend to focus on is change–big changes that make or break industries. Our term for this is “Macro Trends”. A Macro Trend is a driving force that often seems to spring up spontaneously, washing over populations and motivating them to think or act differently. Probably the most visible Macro Trend currently is the switch from low-fat diets to Atkins or South Beach low-carb diets. With very little push, millions of middle-aged adults changed their diets, putting several companies out of business and reducing Krispe Kreme’s seemingly unstoppable growth.

There’s no lack of information on Macro Trends. In fact, there’s too much. The larger challenge is finding what is accurate, valid, timely and relevant. To determine how timely a Macro Trend is, we track its stage of visibility. If it’s only being discussed and explored in Science Fiction or small fringe groups, it’s very early [slide with trend lifestage map]. If it’s on the government’s agenda, it’s very old. We further refine Macro Trends by working with clients to mold them into Scenarios. Scenarios take fairly abstract trend concepts and translate them into real environments or human perspectives [slide with Scenario examples].

Market Level–as with culture, there are many ways to discover organizing principles at the market level (meaning masses of people who relate to products or services in a similar way) [slide w/ stock market graphic]. One of the most common is segmentation. Segmentation uses quantitative and/or qualitative research to discover the key attitudes or behaviors that distinquish groups of people. Segmentation models are particularly useful in determining patterns of adoption or influence. One of my favorite examples of this is our segmentation of teens [slide w/ teen segments]. By studying their clique behaviors, we discovered how teens segment themselves. As a nice outcome, this led us to a model of how new products and ideas are adopted by teens and how they progress thru the population [slide w/ teen segments overlaid w/ trends].

In addition to segmenting populations, you can also segment industries [slide w/ digital music industry breakdown]. For example, if an industry is so young that it’s population of users is hard to distinguish from each other, it might be useful to dissect the industry and determine where its growth is coming from, which types of products are gaining prominence and which ones are losing.

Personal level–by studying people’s individual habits and practices, we can learn the organizing principles that drive use and perceptions [slide w/person using remote control]. At this level, most of the richest work requires qualitative research, including ethnography. You must get close [slide w/photos of usage]. But you also need to take those findings and generalize them into broadly applicable diagrams or models that explain the key dimensions [slide w/ diagrams of behavior highlighting “pain points” or design directions].

In summary, finding organizing principles at the cultural, market and personal level gives companies a shared understanding that provides information to all levels of a company that is appropriate for their needs. For senior execs and board members, it provides a high level view of broad-based potential. For marketing professionals, it provides a strategy for communication. For product developers, it provides design guidelines and frameworks. This shared understanding eases hand-offs, supports productive collaboration and keeps development close to the end consumer through every stage. To succeed, it requires a modest toleration of structure and an appreciation of perspective.

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