Designing solutions for humans sometimes looks like the blind leading the blind. How do you ensure that products and services are as effective as you intended? How do you know your solution is correctly approaching a real and identifiable problem, and will also achieve adoption?

The typical design approach is driven by the intuition and creativity of a few decision makers. The search for the "right" solution often goes like this:

Imagine you find yourself in the middle of a pitch-black room. How do you begin to search for the door? You'll inevitably bump into things and move in the wrong direction. Ultimately, you'd take your best guess at the right direction and hope locate the door with the least amount of time and effort.

This is not ideal. But too often, this is the approach to designing new products and services. Designers tinker with different features, hoping to stumble upon effective solutions.

A Guiding Light

What if you discovered a better way?

Instead of navigating through the dark with uncertainty, you find a flashlight conveniently set at your feet. You grasp it, turn on the light and suddenly you're equipped to locate the door with much more confidence.  

The body of experimental academic research (what we'll refer to as "the library"), can be such a guiding light.

When designing products that aim to enhance people's lives, existing knowledge from the behavioral science field can better equip you. Academic literature enables you to tackle problems with greater certainty about what might work, rather than relying on intuition and creativity alone.

Why Stay in the Dark?

Dan Ariely, the behavioral scientist at the helm of Duke's Center for Advanced Hindsight (where I support entrepreneurs in leveraging academic research through our Startup Lab), often quips that entrepreneurs "forget to find the library."

Instead, companies often build and iterate solutions based on intuition and poorly orchestrated feedback loops (like user interviews that neither guard founders from their own confirmation bias, nor base questions in research findings or rigorous tests).  

You are losing out if you neglect the library as a tool to inform meaningful solutions. Applying research-backed insights can improve uptake and effectiveness of products and services.

You simply need an awareness and an ability to navigate the library of scientific findings.

How to Wield the Flashlight

Perhaps you're building a product or you have hands on an innovation process within your organization. What can you do to begin to use the knowledge that existing academic work in behavioral science offers? Here's a quick and easy guide to conducting a useful literature review:

1. Consider your intentions before you dive head first into research papers

What is your purpose in reading up? What will you do with what you learn? Set out with a plan for what you are looking for, how you will distill your learning, and what proceeding steps you will take based on what you find.

2. Equip yourself with the right tools

Google Scholar allows easy search and access to academic literature. Paired with a useful format to collect and synthesize the literature you review (something as simple as a spreadsheet), and you're a force of leveraging the library.

3. Use the right reading methods and capture the right findings

Digest articles quickly by first scanning the abstract to gauge usefulness. If the abstract piques your interest, read the introduction to get a more comprehensive overview of the theoretical background of the study, then continue to the discussion section to determine the if the findings have relevant implications for what you're aiming to discover or design.

4. Collect some key learnings, then stop and take a step back

Do you now know enough to understand how to proceed in your product decisions, new implementations, or experiments? Take a moment to acknowledge the key insights you've collected. Circle back to the plan you determined at the beginning of your article search.  

Behavioral science findings can better indicate solutions that are more likely to be successful. Don't fumble around in the dark relying on intuition and guesswork-- pick up the flashlight and get started on the right path.

Published on: Mar 29, 2018