How Listening Empowers Design

Let's start with a look at your personal journeys. How did you become interested in the work of research and surveys?

Stefanie Ellwanger: During my studies I was always interested in the theory behind design. Why do people like to use some things, but not others? Why do people even have attachments to or feelings about objects? At some point, this became more relevant to me than designing the objects themselves.

Mirko Wittka: My answer is pretty similar. I’ve always been more interested in the why than the what. The what would always emerge somehow. But the more I understand the why, the less random it is – or at least it seems that way to me. I think this is the key to good design: The less random it is, the more exciting and satisfying it feels.

Lisa Hunger: It’s always been essential to me to engage with my design clients. It’s important for me to hear their needs – and I really enjoy this interaction. At some point – in service design, for example – I noticed that a systematic approach to this work made it possible to capture the client’s goals and concerns more precisely and strategically. I simply started to focus more on this interaction than the finished design.

So, what does your work entail exactly?

Lisa: We operate on a number of different levels and phases. If we need to get a fundamental understanding of something, we’ll organize a vision workshop, or conduct a client or partner segmentation. In this case, the product isn’t the focus of the discussion. Instead, we’ll talk about the questions that affect an organization and its role. The opposite end of the spectrum involves validating existing designs or user interfaces by testing or reviewing them with clients, for example.

Stefanie: In the second example, we only get involved with specific points of a project. Clients ask: “Could you please evaluate this?”

Lisa: If you look at the design process as a cycle – or a progression consisting of inspiration/discovery, exploration/ideation, developing, delivering, evaluation – we’re more involved at the beginning and end, and only at certain points during the development process. But it’s essential to establish a relationship of co-creation or development in collaboration with clients, stakeholders and employees.

And how does that work?

Stefanie: First, we listen to the employees within the organizations as well as externals. We collect and compile their perspectives.

Lisa: We talk to all kinds of people who impact products and services – product managers and strategists, residents, stakeholders. In short, anyone who uses, has used, will or should use the product or service.

Mirko: Sensity changes things – or sees what needs to be changed. To do this, we need to first understand what the desired finished version would even look like. We’re the ones who do the work of recording, sorting and systematizing the goals, wishes and challenges involved. We do this to inform and simplify decision-making processes for our clients.

Stefanie: Sometimes, we only need to help guide our clients through this process of understanding – especially at the start of a project, a stakeholder workshop where we bring together all of the people involved. We often notice that individuals within an organization have a wealth of knowledge already. As such, it’s valuable to provide this opportunity to share and discuss in a welcoming and moderated forum. This is how information goes from one person to another, leading to valuable insights.

Mirko: Our job often involves filtering all of these ideas and also listening to the quieter voices in the group. Some people are very involved in processes and have a strong opinion about them – but this doesn’t mean that someone else won’t have a more promising or integrative perspective. We’re impartial – but we’ll look at everything with a critical eye.

Can you gain insights beyond what people provide in surveys? No one’s certain, but Henry Ford supposedly said: “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said: ‘faster horses’.”

Mirko: That’s definitely not a problem! It’s really important to know what people care about. If Ford had done more research, maybe he wouldn’t have built a combustion engine. Maybe he would have rethought the entire idea of urban planning and revolutionized mobility that way.

Stefanie: We look at the needs behind people’s statements and sort them out. In addition to speed, they might be security, comfort, saving time – or even more profound needs – and these lead directly to new solutions.

Some clients may already have organized information or data. How do you approach these situations?

Stefanie: The information is there. Sometimes it’s organized, sometimes we help clients build research repositories to make specific information accessible to different parts of the organization at the level of detail they need. If this structure is already in place, it’s definitely a great starting point for our work.

I assume that the willingness to put one’s own perspective in question varies greatly from company to company.

Mirko: Some things are non-negotiable. We just need to accept them and be sure to accommodate them.

Lisa: We usually form teams that include employees from the client. They ensure that the client’s perspective is part of the conversation.

Stefanie: In successful projects, our clients sometimes realize that it might be worth changing so-called “truths” they consider sacred or permanent.

Mirko: Occasionally, organizations run the risk of doing research or involving employees or users in this process for the sake of appearances. In fact, they’re not really open to it – but just want to validate what they already “know”…

Stefanie: … but this doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t confirm their hypotheses or assumptions in an open dialogue at the start of a project. This is different and has inherent value. It helps them figure out: “Yes, now I realize why I work this way.” This is especially important for people involved in the design process.

How often do new, totally unexpected insights emerge?

Lisa: I’d say it’s 50-50. Sometimes we see hypotheses confirmed. We regularly find entirely new insights that were not part of the hypotheses and not apparent at the outset. I think the most interesting developments are when the complete opposite holds true instead of what everyone assumed. We had a client who was totally committed to digitalization. They wanted an app for everything, which would mean using a smartphone or tablet. But the business model included craftsmen and people who didn’t want to work that way. It had nothing to do with their age – even the young people wanted to do as much as possible with their hands and tools. Of course, digitalization is always very important and highly practical. But our research showed that we needed to incorporate it in a different way than originally thought.

Sometimes, you can’t fix things using a standard solution. One project involved a team responsible for developing technical equipment concepts for schools. It took a long time before they realized that a few teachers didn’t care how large their screens were – they simply felt better working without digital technology. This client was active in the public sector, and it was a huge step to ask the actual users for their perspectives. It takes some nerve and requires convincing.

Mirko: Some employees are really entrenched in their specific area of expertise – and it’s rewarding when they can share their knowledge with us in a way that regular people can understand. It helps everyone when these people can realize: “It doesn’t make any sense for me to think or talk about these things this way.”

Stefanie: But they are still considered the experts, and we can incorporate their knowledge. In large organizations, it’s difficult for everyone to have contact with the consumer. We provide them with this access and help them leverage these insights. We align ourselves with each specific client and see how much experience they have in research and user focus – so we can figure out how to help them get used to this new approach.

What are the best methods for doing this?

Stefanie: We adapt our methods to the specific requirements of each project. We’re not in the business of drafting a textbook service design process from beginning to end. Instead, we choose tools that are best suited for our project: We frequently use different variations on stakeholder mapping, customer segmentation and personas that are specific for the process. And then these frameworks are still available to the client for future projects.

Lisa: We take a cautious approach, collect input, and clearly structure this information using a model that everyone can easily understand.

Stefanie: Clients find it most impressive when we combine the findings of qualitative and quantitative research. You have data that shows a certain trend – and statements from clients or employees create images in people’s minds that bring this data to life.

Mirko: Qualitative in-depth interviews require time and energy but save money in the long term. I believe that they are the best way to really understand people and recognize their deeper needs.

Stefanie: Ideally, our clients are present during the interviews. The best moments are when you realize that they’re hearing a voice for the very first time – someone they’ve never heard before.

Mirko: Other people find quantitative findings more meaningful than qualitative. They’re really just a more comfortable way to talk to as many people as possible in a controlled environment. There’s less room for exploration. But they make it much easier to people to understand larger volumes of things. We use them to review and validate things.

How easily can you access people’s underlying notions, desires or subconscious information? Things that maybe aren’t clear to the people you interview.

Mirko: We can work with our design and language colleagues to visualize or present situations or scenarios in a variety of ways. This can trigger positive or negative feelings.

Stefanie: We often use analogies, like architecture. We’ll show you several types of houses and ask: “Which house best symbolizes or represents how you would design a product for the user? A stately vintage building with a garden, a construction shed or a building with a glass façade?”

Lisa: You can learn a lot by talking to people. The most difficult part of what we do is that not everyone is so receptive to us. There’s always a bias in the selection of people we interview, and it’s necessary to keep that in mind and adjust for it if needed. Think about the people who don’t use computers during times when meeting in person isn’t so convenient, or ones who haven’t ever thought about a specific product and never participate in surveys – how can we hear their voices?

How do you collaborate with your colleagues in the design and language teams? Do you provide specific instructions for the design?

Stefanie: The work is pretty seamless. We interact at a number of different points throughout the process. There’s not just one point at which we hand over our findings. Sometimes, we define formats or content. But we always need to be sure that our research doesn’t anticipate or dominate the creative process.

Mirko: There isn’t really any danger of that happening. I get the impression that our work actually supports the creative process. We eliminate ill-advised solutions that hold little potential – depending on how specific the results are. This keeps a lot of things from distracting our designers and writers, fostering even more creativity.

Interview: Tobias Ruderer