Takeaways from the 2023 Design Research Challenge

Hope Barkley | 09/06/2023

You ≠ user.

If you’ve sat in a room with UX researchers, service designers or UX designers, you have probably heard someone mumble this phrase: “You are not the user.” In fact, many of our Innovation and Experience Design (IXD) team members have stickers on their laptops with this statement as a constant reminder. As researchers, our mission is to continuously foster empathy — not only with our users, but also with stakeholders and fellow team members — as we strive to gain a deeper understanding of our products, lives and world. The question then arises: How can we encourage others to embrace this empathy-driven mindset and enable them to execute effective user research?

Enter the Design Research Challenge: a 16-week program aimed at familiarizing participants from across the EY organization with research methodology and artifacts through hands-on learning. In this challenge, participants are divided into teams and tasked with completing an end-to-end research project to address a specific problem statement. The challenge comprises seven courses taught by instructors within our Research and Insights and Experience Design practices, with each course covering a deep dive into a particular research method or crucial moment of the user-research process.

With nearly 50 participants split among nine teams, each group worked diligently to tackle their assigned problem statement, aiming to present a final research readout that would include their new understandings and recommendations on the topic. As a mentor, I had the privilege of guiding one of the teams and providing support as they navigated their research process. And of course, it wouldn't be a challenge without winners!

The teams were presented with three unique problem statements this year and got to choose the one they were most interested in:

Problem statement 1:

How might we define and include specific methods throughout our delivery processes to ensure we’re making ethical decisions to ultimately create better products?​

Winners: “Team STAR”: Svayam Dialani, Ansh Patel, Sydney Weinberg, Annice Lee and Regina Zambrano

Problem statement 2:

How might we expand our current scope of client services to include sustainable perspectives and practices throughout everything that we do?​

Winners: “Guava Gals”: Melissa Samaniego, Olivia Shaw, Brianna Wren, Sara Kobayashi

Problem statement 3:

How might EY leverage future technology to drive diversity, equity and inclusion?​

Winners: “The Creativi-tea Party”: Miles Zhang, Sierra Orsak, Isabella James, Chet Bickhart, Deepika Goyal

After the challenge was over, we spoke to three participants (representing the teams that worked on each problem statement) to hear more about their experience and takeaways from the challenge, which you can read in the roundtable below!

Photo of the 3 roundtable participants

What prompt did you work on, and why did your team choose it?

Olivia: My team worked on the sustainability prompt. We were interested in the sustainability and DEI prompts because they allowed us to investigate practical solutions to big social questions. The sustainability prompt particularly interested us because it is such a quickly growing space with so many different facets. There were so many directions to take this prompt.

Chet: Our prompt was: “How might EY leverage future technology to drive diversity, equity and inclusion?” We focused on this one because fundamentally, we thought the issue of bias coding on a micro and macro scale has a major impact on a user’s experience with any given program. We originally wanted to learn more about how the software we use every day gets written and used, but ended up pivoting our focus to a more relatable practice found in EY onboarding and group-joining experiences.

Emily: Ethical considerations are crucial in shaping the products and services we create, and in general this topic is pretty vague. So for the Design Research Challenge, my team chose this prompt to try to gain deeper understanding of how ethics play a role in the design process and how it can affect the final products and services. We also wanted to identify and promote any guidelines within the firm that can help to integrate ethical considerations into our workflows.

Why did you join the challenge to begin with?

Chet: I joined the challenge because I had recently finished up graduate school (where I learned many of the skills taught in the challenge) and I wanted another environment where I could practice these skills. Additionally, I thought the challenge would offer a unique opportunity to meet other EY employees outside of my service line, which it did!

Emily: I joined to learn and enhance my design and research skills, and it also allowed me to collaborate with individuals and teams from other disciplines. It was fun to meet people with different skill sets and ways of thinking and working.

What surprised you the most about user research?

Olivia: It is fascinating how many ways there are to interpret the same question. Every person we interviewed provided a distinct perspective. Workshops helped us dig deeper into what we uncovered during interviews, and we got some really interesting insights. The notion of “knowledge hoarding” was one of the most surprising learnings from this workshop — the idea that as sustainability becomes an increasingly important business consideration, individuals and teams are more likely to keep valuable sustainability knowledge to themselves.

Emily: I have learned that the way we frame questions to users can have a significant impact on the insights we receive. I discovered that asking open-ended questions instead of yes-or-no questions gets more thorough and insightful responses from users. Before the challenge, I had underestimated the importance of question structure for strong feedback.

What are some of your biggest takeaways from learning and practicing design research methods?

Olivia: Don’t make assumptions, continually validate findings and ask follow-up questions. It is easy to project your own opinions onto the research, so it is important to focus on asking good, non-leading questions and bringing in a diverse group of stakeholders. Also, prep work for interviews is as important, if not more important, as the interview itself. Without solid questions, it is hard to glean meaningful insights.

Chet: So much of our day-to-day job as consultants is built around making assumptions or validating what we think we know. The Design Research Challenge showed me that genuine curiosity and asking the right questions can go a long way toward identifying the real problems behind corporate ways of working.

Overall, the Design Research Challenge was a special way to come together to share the power of research. A special thank you to all of the instructors, mentors and participants who took part in this year’s challenge!

Challenge Co-Chairs Tommy Daly and Hope Hahn announcing winners at the finale!

Challenge Co-Chairs Tommy Daly and Hope Hahn announcing winners at the finale!

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Imagery and photo by Hope Barkley