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When the design opportunity isn't "exciting" enough

We could do anything, but research tells us to do something that sounds boring — so how do we get clients on board?

When clients hire design agencies, they expect to be wowed.

Good research helps us identify design opportunities that are anchored in actual user reality. By looking at their current situations, the problems they face, and the hacks they use to get what they want, we can pinpoint where to apply design efforts for maximum effect. This kind of research is a starting place for innovation — and it works quite well.

But research is more than that. It’s also a tool for telling stories about the opportunities we find. This is important, because the right story adds weight to a design opportunity, and helps to eventually transfer ownership from the agency to the client.

But for clients, the opportunities revealed by research can sometimes feel like a a letdown. They’re not full-fledged design solutions yet, so they lack the gee-whiz feeling of innovation as it’s depicted in magazines and media. Instead, research-based design opportunities are often just places to look and problems to solve. They might result in mundane-seeming fixes. That sounds like work, not innovation.

Structuring found opportunities

To better deal with this fact, it’s useful to sort research-based design opportunities, on a spectrum from Incremental to Radical.

At the Incremental end, you have problems that simply need fixing: a misleading label, a multi-step interaction that could be replaced by a single step, a series of service interactions in the wrong order. Incremental fixes aren’t exciting, but they’re crucially necessary. They don’t need innovation, they just need attention.

At the other end of the spectrum are opportunities for Radical innovation, where a dramatic and novel solution can challenge or even reform the existing context, and deliver unexpected new value to its users. These are the sort of “what if?” scenarios that can lead to entirely new products, or even new categories.

Every opportunity, regardless of how much innovation it demands, should be judged on how expected it is for existing users. This level of expectation is something we call the hygiene level. Anything below the hygiene level feels predictable and disappointing; anything above it feels novel, and potentially disconcerting. Maintenance of an existing product falls below the hygiene level — think of the software updates on your operating system or smartphone apps.

The hygiene level is what users already expect from a product. Anything below it can be seen as disappointing.

Hygiene levels aren’t static though. They tend to move steadily upward, so an idea that’s novel today might feel like a commodity by the time it’s ready for launch. This means that the characteristics of a design opportunity depend heavily on where it falls with respect to the hygiene level. There are three ways this can work.

Incremental opportunities come from straightforward, sometimes underwhelming research outcomes. There’s less wow-factor to these opportunities, but also less risk. In fact, the mere fact that these opportunities even exist might be a source of frustration.

When opportunities are incremental, several things are likely to be true:

  • Addressing them is necessary and fundamental for the product’s ongoing successful operation, and for maintaining a good user experience.
  • Addressing them is likely to be unsatisfying for designers, because it’s not that innovative or fun. Designers might even doubt their findings, their approach, or their own abilities.
  • The client might know about these opportunities, but has overlookedthem. On the other hand, it might be eye-opening to see such the re-discovered and structured by an outsider, or explained in a user context.
  • The client may not recognise them as relevant findings worth paying for, since they already knew about them, and had hired outside designers to find something unfamiliar.
  • If they exist, they’re likely so obvious that it’s hard to avoid identifying them — and they’ll almost certainly come up again in the future.
“The supplied screws didn’t fit.”
“The lamp switch is impossible to use.”

Engaging opportunities are those that fall at or just above the hygiene level. They are often easy to grasp, for both users and clients in their current context. The primary risk in addressing them is not launching fast enough: what might have felt like an improvement feels like maintenance by the time it reaches to user.

Engaging opportunities have some truths of their own:

  • They’re fun to work with. Since they shift the context only slightly, they’re relatively easy to understand and explain.
  • Since a precedent has already been set, even small changes can still create differentiation —though not necessarily enough to make the updated product viable.
  • Competitors might be developing exactly the same thing, since incremental improvement opportunities are relatively easy to spot.
  • Depending on how their solutions are communicated to the user, they can be perceived as an improvement to an existing product, or as a “next generation” offering.
“Design a screw that’s adaptable to size.”
“Design a smart lamp that knows if it’s supposed to be on or off.”

Innovative opportunities bring genuine novelty, offer new (and sometimes unexpected) value to users, and have the potential to completely change the product, its context, or both. It takes extra care to explain and communicate these types of opportunities to clients — it’s easy to make them interesting, but trickier to set them in proper context, which often involves situations and technologies that don’t yet exist.

Opportunities for innovation bring tremendous potential, and some unique issues as well:

  • They’re exciting, fun to work on, and often unexpectedly challenging.
  • It’s often easier to convince clients of their value, since that’s what they think they’re supposed to be paying for. You still need to make a use and monetization case though.
  • They have a higher risk of failing if more fundamental (near-hygiene-level) fixes haven’t already been addressed. This realization can spark fear in some clients, which also needs to be addressed.
  • Their ability to evoke enthusiasm in both users and clients can often earn some forgiveness for underperformance in other areas.
  • The risk of underestimating the hygiene level increases over time: even genuine innovations eventually become commodities.
  • Because it often involves creating new contexts and structures, real innovation is hard to validate in user research.
  • There’s a real risk of over-excitement, and a tendency to build what’s exciting without considering how it will be used in the real world.
“A reversible solution for joining surfaces, without screws.”
“Light as a service.”
“Illumination without apparent light sources.”

How does this work in practice?

  1. It’s crucial to recognize the wide variety of opportunities research can reveal, and communicate that to the client early in the process.
  2. As a designer, you also to embrace this range yourself, and acknowledge that some solutions might seem too obvious or too underwhelming. Know that you’ll be tempted to second-guess your work, especially if it was labor-intensive and didn’t reveal any “real innovation” opportunities. What you find is what you find — work with it and back it up with evidence (often in the form of user stories).
  3. Narrative and language can help you transfer ownership. As you conduct research, watch for stories that will aid in this transfer, by creating shared understanding of the reasoning behind a selected (or dismissed) opportunity.
  4. Every level of opportunity has value. Innovation opportunities are necessary for long term progress, but engaging opportunities keep things moving in the short term. Don’t ignore those below the hygiene level either, or they will build up over time.
  5. Doing the basics well and adding some innovative ideas is often better than doing the basics poorly, then trying to compensate by showing off with something cool.
  6. For everyone’s sanity, it’s often most strategic to proceed with a well thought-out mix of incremental and innovative opportunities. The incremental improvements keep the product from being undermined, while innovations build the brand, create enthusiasm and foster internal confidence.

Written by Pernilla Danielsson & Kajsa Westman. This article is based on Pernilla Danielsson’s chart of Identified Design Opportunities (“DIDO”) often found in research. Danielsson is a senior UX researcher at Schibsted Media, with a decade’s experience in design research at innovation firms like IDEO & Veryday.

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