Kevin McCullagh

An interview with Kevin on how research and design are transforming business strategy in Carola Verschoor’s ‘Change Ahead’ book

The whole book is available here and features the views of other pioneers and experts on the emerging practices at the intersection of business strategy, research and design.

Who are Kevin and Debbie?

Kevin McCullagh: Design strategist and thought-leader with a 20-year track record for breaking new ground. Kevin founded in Plan in 2004. With a background spanning design, engineering, marketing and social forecasting, he also writes, speaks and curates and chairs conferences on design, business and society.

Debbie Nathan is a senior consultant at Plan and heads up Plan’s consumer research offer with particular focus on moving from insight to strategy. Her background combines a first class degree in industrial design, a Philips sponsored Masters in Design Practice and professional experience in design research, product-service innovation and pure qualitative research.

What is research?

Research is about understanding, sense making and inspiration. It is a process by which we understand attitudes and behaviour – be it observed, heard or reported.

Research is one component of insight development. We use consumer research together with other sources of information to triangulate information that will allow us to deepen our understanding. Consumer research involves direct and planned interactions with consumers. We integrate what we learn from these interactions together with other sources of insight, such as trend research, desk research, and expert and stakeholder interviews. Additionally, new sources of insight are emerging such as big data or digital tools that provide a wider palette of data sources.

The current context requires our research practice to be forever changing, so we turn to mixed methodologies. However, we would say that at the heart of research lies the understanding of user behaviours and attitudes. With our clients and partners we find that we are working more collaboratively: researchers are being seen as the voice of the customer and invited to bring that voice into the conversation rather than solely preparing a document that is about the voice of the customer.

What is design?

Design is about problem solving in a cultural context for developing new products and services, and involves making decisions about functionality, usability and meaning.

How are they different?

Research and design are simply put, different things that interface with each other. They are not mutually exclusive. Research can assist design. Perhaps that is the main difference. Research is one component to the design process, whereas design is not necessarily a component of the research process rather a potential input.

Where design research differs to a pure design process, is the rigour of the data collection and the analysis of the data, not always immediately weaving it into a design process. Research allows us to structure information in a tangible way that is then easy to embed in design processes. Yet research does not necessarily need to respond to one specific design. The big value of design is that it’s immersive and contextual. This means that the designer becomes an experiential expert through the process of design and gets to truly understand what is going on.

How are they similar?

Clients are coming from a situation maybe until 5 or 10 years ago where they could manage projects sequentially, in a waterfall fashion: first do the research, then think of its implications for strategy, then start designing. Now the time pressure, the degree of competition and the demands of the market mean they have to run things in parallel. Big companies have to form more agile processes.

This need for agility has caused research to change, to be more beneficial to design and also caused a shift in the design practice, transitioning from product design to the design of product services. The need for more agility has led to a greater need for empathy, so the way research is conducted has changed into more collaborative forms. There is a need for client teams to be immersed in the consumer context, because experiencing the interaction first hand allows them to tell their own stories and to stand behind the insight. We are seeing clients wanting to learn the research skills to go out and research themselves, without the need for an agency: the aim is to truly understand what is happening and to gain ownership of the insights. This is very different from getting a report from a researcher who is telling you what someone else said.

Design has also adapted to research and has taken on a role to help widen and sharpen the research questions and the research objectives. Designers don’t just appear after the analysis of the research has been done. When designers, or indeed other technical experts, get involved early on in the research we also see that they look at things differently, because they understand what can and cannot be manifested into reality, what the possibilities are. This leads them to ask different kinds of questions to get the necessary understanding in order to create.

Another thing they do have in common is that both are about openness to possibility and awareness of change, but in quite different ways. Sometimes it is very appropriate to go really open into the research and learn. But at other times, it can be useful to have designed something in order to research. That might sound like it’s the wrong order of things but in actual fact you have to begin somewhere and design can be equally instrumental to opening new possibilities in a dialogue with consumers. It is beneficial for research that the design is already underway. Research and design are ultimately not separate processes but part of a continuous process where things happen concurrently or in parallel.

How do you envision the future of research and design within the business context?

We have drawn a Venn diagram, of the intersection of research, design and strategy. We envision this intersection growing: more people, more time, more money will be channeled through that intersection. Around the Venn diagram, the world keeps spinning at high speed, meaning more agility will be key.

What we wanted to portray is that these disciplines will become increasingly integrated and that their relevance to companies will grow.


Kevin founded Plan in 2004. Before this, he was a director at product design consultancy…

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