We are drowning in data, research analysis, focus groups, solicitations to participate in surveys, and companies popping up all over that conduct consumer research. Is it really helping or hurting our design process?

Trina Turk, fashion designer, says in the December 2012 issue of Inc. Magazine that she used Google data to determine where to open her next store – North Carolina. She said, “Instead of saying, ‘Hey, let’s open a store.’ we follow a formula.” But what if her formula is flawed? Maybe designers at the high number of fashion, textile and home furnishings companies in North Carolina frequently Google Trina Turk to do trend research of their own. Paying qualified left-brained experts to conduct this market research doesn’t let us designers off the hook for analyzing, reviewing and just plain applying common sense to the results before we use it to design products or plan stores.

Addressing a similar concern, in Fast Company Co.Create, Douglas Van Praet of Deutsch L.A. discusses “How Research Misses the Human Behind the Demographic.” Similarly, we do not believe that all research is bad, although clearly some of it is uninformed. After 20+ years of designing successful retail products, we have found that designing products and services people really want requires “subjective leaps beyond the data.” It also takes someone with a different skill set than your typically research analyst – a right-brained designer to turn data into retail magic.

When we receive research data, we throw away the analyst-provided summary and look at the data only. Then we screen it against our years of experience and our detailed product knowledge of what is on the shelf. After that, we focus in on the most disconcerting or incongruous data points and look for confirming data from other sources. Finally, before we begin designing, we ask ourselves, “What does this data say about the consumer or user of our products?”

So for instance if we were working for Trina Turk, we would have also noted that high Google data number in North Carolina, but before jumping straight to open a store there, we would have checked our internet or retail sales for North Carolina customers. We also would have checked further into the actual data to see if it was coming from the same users over and over again. Trina Turk might really have found herself a new market. However a formula doesn’t inherently make it fail-proof; but people capable of right-brained analysis just might.

Tom & Tracy Hazzard of Hazz Design Consulting put out their own design-based analysis of different retail product categories for their clients and retail buyers twice a year. Based on actual store observations and competitive product deconstructions, the information is captured in a dynamic database. This information directs how to advise their clients to stay ahead of the competition, whether factory-direct or import.
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