How does design respond to consumer expectations?

No, design is not just about esthetics! It must respond to customer needs, uses and behaviors in order to better serve and satisfy them. To keep this promise, designers draw in particular on customer ethnography and user experience...

Human sciences to support design
Our role is to provide a vision about how the future might look, by anticipating trends that could have a positive impact on the production or use of the materials of tomorrow.
Katie Cotellon

When we talk about design, we immediately think of furniture or a sleek car, but rarely of materials and the world of construction. And yet the building sector also has teams of designers, who are involved at a very early stage in projects to make future products/solutions useful, desirable and economically viable. So a far cry from the simple esthetic promise! 

The term “design” deserves closer examination, as behind its contemporary, Western sound lies a very different truth. “In fact, it's a very old term, dating back to the Renaissance,” explains Katie Cotellon, Head of Design & User Experience at Saint-Gobain. “If I had to define it, I would say it's a creative approach combining the concept of projects and the concept of drawing.” The designer’s art is therefore to translate clients’ expectations – and the expectations of society more generally – by designing useful and necessary products and services that improve users’ daily lives or their quality of life. This corresponds to the familiar notion of “care”, an intrinsic aspect of any creative process.

A customer-oriented approach

So how does a designer conceive a new product? In general, it all starts with a “customer need”, clearly identified by a brand’s marketing teams through their market watch, collaborative brainstorming or market research. 

To have the best chance of designing a product that is both innovative and desirable, designers now adopt a “user-centric” approach. The objective is to develop a thorough understanding of their needs, requirements and behavior. This method, which involves clients throughout the creative process, is adopted in addition to market research. While the former aims to understand the trends in a sector, the latter aims to explore and refine the user experience.

Human sciences at the service of design

To feed their reflections, designers look to major societal trends for inspiration. As free-thinkers, they allow themselves to be daring, and in addition to their formal research, they draw on diverse influences, often far removed from their core business. 

Saint-Gobain’s Design department, attached to the R&D department, therefore conducts significant exploratory research and frequently calls on the expertise of its doctor in sociology. But what is the role of human sciences in design? It's simple – they guarantee a perfect understanding of customers and add that extra special something to the product. “As a designer, it is essential to immerse yourself in the world of users or customers,” says Germain Magat, a Senior Product Designer specializing in ethnography and R&D Project Manager at Saint-Gobain Research Paris. “Immersion often helps to identify unspoken needs or reveal constraints that are impossible to guess in a design office.”

Let's take the example of an installer of ETICS (external thermal insulation composite systems). Once immersed in the experience, a designer-ethnologist will be able to observe and fully experience the installer’s daily life. This will reveal that installations sometimes take place more than 50m off the ground, from a cherry picker, without gloves and with the sensation of cold from the materials. “This immersion challenges us and encourages us to think about a new insulation design, for example, with an acceptable surface temperature. It can also take us to other registers such as touch and sensoriality in general...

A source of inspiration and useful lessons, seeing what is actually done in practice therefore allows the designers to innovate without ever ignoring the end customer’s day-to-day experience or constraints. To create its Home Smart range, the first line of connected furniture able to charge laptops, the Swedish furniture giant IKEA also immersed itself in households’ everyday life. The design team launched an immersive process, with an extensive testing program in homes, rather than just in its workshops. As a result, the company was able to observe its customers’ routine, identify the best places for them to charge their phones (and therefore ad-hoc furniture) and so take a fresh design approach.

Design should also be profitable

Alongside their exploratory research, designers draw on key usage scenarios and computer simulations, followed by a battery of tests and analysis protocols, in order to confirm or reject manufacturing of the future product. Because creative research is inseparable from market, production and profitability issues. 

Throughout the project, designers also collaborate with the various R&D teams, operational departments, etc., and strive to provide responses in terms of technical feasibility, up to the pre-production phase of the product. That is where their mission ends... Well, almost! Because design is an eternal renewal that continuously examines societal trends in order to be better inspired by them and create value.  

Crédits photos  : Chaosamran/Shutterstock ;  Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock