Improving Your Research Understanding Can Improve Your Bottom Line

This article is the second in series of articles on how better understanding your clients. With this series of articles, I hope that by better understanding the client’s business decision-making process that you can increase your profitability.

Graphic designers often view client-conducted research as a black box decision-maker. In many cases, they feel research undervalues their creative contributions. Some of these feelings are appropriate, but by better understanding research quality and its role in decision-making, the graphic designer can provide better solutions and make more profit.

Reserch: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.

When a graphic designer submits an array of solutions to a client, the client, understandably, feels the need to make an informed decision. They want to do the right thing.

That’s a good starting place, but after this good intent, things can get messy.

What follows is a brief summary of the research types most frequently used by clients to select the best graphic design solution.

  • Personal experience: It could be debated if this is really research. In truth personal experiences are the cumulative experience of a single person or small group of people. In most cases, it produces a diverse group of personal opinions that is usually resolved by the personal opinion of the most senior person. Unfortunately, most of this personal opinion comes from people with very limited understanding of the role that graphic design plays in marketplace success. They tend to choose their favorite colors and design elements that may or may not have little actual marketplace relevance. From a graphic designer’s perspective this can either be very positive if they choose your favorite design or very negative if your favorite design is rejected. Unfortunately, when personal experience alone is the decision maker, there is usually very little recourse a graphic designer has if they disagree with the decision.
  • Qualitative research: Under this umbrella is a wide range of types of research. The one thing they have in common is that they are not representative of how customers actually react to graphic design solutions in the real world. At one end of the range is a client manager conducting an informal poll on your graphic design solutions among some group of people in the company. While this may be better than a single individual making the decision, the people are not experts and are not representative of the company’s customers. On the other end of the range is the justifiably feared focus group. In this case, the company actually hires a research company to recruit either existing customers or potential customers to review your graphic design solutions. There are usually 10 – 20 people in this group. A facilitator runs the session. The facilitator then writes a research report. It sounds all very scientific, but it is far from that. All kinds of things make this type of research highly unreliable – unrepresentative sample, small group size, groupthink, poor facilitation, poor methodology, etc. Companies conduct focus groups to evaluate graphic design solutions because they think it’s real research, they want quick answers, and at a very low cost. In business, focus groups can help with some business decisions, but making graphic design decisions is definitely not their strength.
  • Quantitative research: This type of research is typically conducted online today among a statistically representative group of customers. “Statistically representative” means they are balanced by demographic factors (like age and gender) and the sample size (typically 100 – 150 people) is statistically representative of all customers. Graphic designers might have problems with this last part, but statistical experts very convincingly demonstrate the 90% accuracy of this type of research among such a relatively small group. Because individual customers evaluate graphic design solutions without the influence of a group, it avoids many of the research process pitfalls of the focus group. Research methodology becomes important. For example, monadic versus paired comparison evaluation of graphic design solutions can influence the results. Having said this, in most cases this research is not real world. Consumers are not asked to evaluate graphic design solutions in an actual selling environment, like on a grocery store shelf. They evaluate the solutions, in most cases, on a computer screen.

Research should never be THE decision-maker. Research should be a GUIDE to help make a decision. It should be one input that is considered along with personal judgment, intuition, and understanding of the competitive marketplace.

Okay. As a Graphic Designer How Do I Successfully Navigate Client Research?

The good news is that you have options available to you. The options range from disengaging from the whole research process to becoming a respected and influential partner in the decision making process. The more you go in the “respected and influential partner” direction, the greater your value to the client. What is so important about this point is that when you become a partner you become more than just a graphic design supplier. As a partner with the client, you form a connection that is far more difficult for them to break than if you’re just a supplier. As such, you increase the longevity of your business relationship and your bottom line.

In my experience, most graphic designers are disengaged from the research process. They feel disenfranchised in the decision-making process. This can lead to a sense of powerlessness that can leave the graphic designer feeling disrespected and disengaged. Taken to somewhat of an extreme, this attitude can poison the relationship, which leads to an inevitable firing.

To most graphic designers, research feels like a foreign world. There is the black box aspect of how research is done and then out pops a decision. There is the mathematical or statistical part of research that generally speaking is not something graphic designers understand. There is the process where the client goes off to do the research without ever involving the graphic designer.

From my experience, all of this is very real world with both internal and external graphic design resources.

So what can you do about this? What follows are three options for you to consider. Which ones work and which ones work best will vary significantly by client and business need.

Get Involved

First, you can become involved in the research process. At a minimum, start by asking questions about how the research will be done. For example, what designs will they see and what questions will be asked? Consider going the additional step of personally attending the research. For example, get invited to be part of the observer group at the focus group. If the research is online, ask to experience the online research process by going through the questionnaire.

At a minimum, this will make you more conversant on the research topic. For example, if it is a focus group and the client comes to a conclusion, you can understand how they got there. In addition, you can be the voice for the minority opinion (if that is your feeling) so there is more balance in the decision-making process.

Even more importantly, at the focus group, you can be a voice of design wisdom. For example, you can point out what particular graphic elements might be driving customer preference. You may also be inspired to see a significant improvement opportunity to the original design. In most situations, this will be greatly appreciated added value that you bring.

Exceed Expectations- Provide More Thoughtful Solutions

Second, before the research even begins, you can seek to understand preliminary client sentiments since these often can become final sentiments. Understanding this might lead you to develop some additional graphic design solutions. You can help the client understand how one group of solutions achieves one objective (for example, communicating high refreshment) and another group of solutions achieves another objective (for example, premium quality ingredients).

By doing this, you can fundamentally influence and shape the type of research that will be done. For example, the research design could test the refreshment versus the quality approach with multiple options representing each direction.

Add to this contribution some of the suggestions outlined in the first option. With that combination, you clearly inject yourself into the evaluation process. When you do this, you will be heard and respected. Do not be surprised if your preferred solution becomes the client’s preferred current solution.

Become A Full Fledged Partner

Third, you position your graphic design solutions in a broader context that you know is very important to the client. Specifically, you take a look at the market leaders they are competing with and develop superior design solutions with the competition in mind. You present solutions in the context of the competition. Your presentation notes how certain design elements have a very good chance of being seen by customers as superior to the competition. For example, your design solution includes refreshment imagery broadly associated with marketplace success, maybe in a different but related category. Another example is your design solution includes iconic quality images proven to signal exceptional quality in other and, ideally, related businesses.

Doing this demonstrates to the client that you understand their most important need – switching competitive customers to their products. They see that you have designed solutions with the potential to be preferred by customers to the competition.

Having contributed this thinking, it is a natural segue for the graphic designer to then become part of the final decision-making process, especially if it includes any of the forms of research mentioned above. You have now moved well beyond being a graphic design supplier to being a business partner. Business partners understand graphic design plus critical client business needs. You speak their language. You address the important success factors.

Final Thoughts

In my experience, graphic designers and advertising agencies view research with great uncertainty and often the enemy of inspired solutions. They develop what they believe are highly creative and even breakthrough solutions. They turn their “creative babies” over to the client who loses or abuses these ideas in the research process.

This can be a source of discontent for creative people. Even worse, they can feel disrespected and that giving their best work to the client is a waste of time. While understandable, it is regrettable since it will inevitably lead to a severing of the relationship.

The thoughts shared in this article are based on things that have not worked and things that have worked exceptionally well. The recommended options work in most cases with most clients.

There clearly are some conditions where the specific options will not work, either because of unique client conditions or marketplace environment. When the options do not work, be guided by the principle of finding a way to be engaged by exceeding expectations and developing a deeper client business understanding that you can use to move from being a supplier to a partner.

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