Beyond the interview

Partner and Executive Director
Associate Strategy Director

Design research strives to delve deeper than what people say, unpacking the underlying wants and needs that lead to innovation.

But with remote research now the norm, using truly observational methodologies can be a challenge. Going forward, what meaningful and creative approaches (beyond traditional interviews and surveys) could we use to uncover the truths that lie at the heart of innovation?

For our second Smart Salon of 2021, Beyond the Interview, we invited three expert panelists with wide-ranging experience in corporate design research and design education. During our conversation, we talked about the importance of play and multi-sensory approaches, how to encourage participants to let their guard down and express emotions, and the best ways to win stakeholder buy-in for more creative tactics (think: bath salts, or a lick-able ice cream orchestra).

Watch the entire session featuring (clockwise from the left) Smart Design host Katherine Eisenberg with Sarah Park, Richard Whitehall, Collin Smith, and Emilie Baltz.


Scaling creative research methods

Learn about how we approach research differently


Scaling creative research methods

Learn about how we approach research differently

Our Panelists

Emilie Baltz is an experience designer and artist with a background in film and industrial design who’s best known for her delightful innovation work in the food and technology sectors.

Sarah Parker guides multidisciplinary teams through the ‘”fuzzy front end” of research, specializing in the behavior of people and cultures using ethnographic studies conducted both in the home and in the wild.

Collin Smith is a designer and educator who brings a creative and playful energy to design research, for both business and social impact, in order to solve real-world problems.

Here are the key takeaways from the evening’s conversations:

Create unexpected (and absurd, even ridiculous) settings and situations

Design researchers want participants to open up and express themselves in new and interesting ways. Collin Smith, a designer and design educator with a background in toys and playful products, devises unexpected and sometimes weird situations to help people let their guard down. In a project about toilet cleaning, for example, he asked people to physically-test different toilet brushes—some absurdly long, others quite short—as part of what he termed “a ridiculous exercise” to discover their feelings about “this lovely activity.”

For Emilie Baltz, an experience designer, the “unexpected” in design research involves exploring the senses as materials for design. Her well-known piece, “Dream Machine,” uses interactive instruments operated by a bicycle pump to create a “symphony of emotions.” In another, licking ice cream triggers music. Baltz believes that kinetic technologies such as these allow people to “piggyback” off of known behaviors “to let great, great experiences happen.”

In a recent study, Sarah Parker, who often works with professional athletes, attached sensors to runners in order to track their movements over time—and to avoid having to chase after them to ask questions. Sarah noted how the technology enabled her to better “understand their gait and how their feet move while they’re running.” The resulting data was translated into new footwear designs.

Give participants permission to play

To inspire curiosity and imagination, tap into participants’ inner child by incorporating play and a mindset of playfulness. “Adults and kids aren’t that different,” Collin argued. “We all want love and respect—and candy. And if you stay within that wheelhouse, you’re okay.” He continued, “Once you are invited to play, you bring down the level of risk and open up the possible.”

Emilie Baltz agrees that play and other nontraditional approaches can expand the boundaries of research. “When we are active and mobile, we are engaging with more senses than traditional methodologies would ask us to,” she said.

Encourage people to express feelings and emotions

In her work for REI, Sarah Parker used flowers and leather that evoke childhood and travel memories as design inspirations for the textures and colors she chose for the retailers’ branded backpacks. In another project, she took a different approach and blindfolded people in order to deprive them of one of their key senses, thereby allowing them “to pause, listen and have thoughtful conversations with each other and build and create together.”

For Emilie Baltz, research practice is an “associative approach,” in which she asks such questions as, “What is the color of love?” and “What is the sound of love?” in order to elicit feelings in terms of colors, sounds and materials. From this data, she forms a diagram of sensory touch points that become “a shared vocabulary and consensus around what it is that we’re trying to achieve or communicate, specifically in that emotional realm.”

Emoticons also work, according to Collin Smith, because people are familiar with them. His research asked participants to come up with and draw, doodle or finger-paint their own new and unique emoticons, thereby allowing them to get in touch with “emotional expressions that they’re not used to.”

Don’t forget low-tech tools and techniques and “real” environments

While sensors, cameras and the like are critical for design research, so are simpler things, according to Smith. To better understand the experience of adoptive parents, for example, he gave participants a vial of bath salts, hoping that a long soak would chill them out and trigger emotional thoughts, so they could “write to their child in the future.”

Sarah Parker places participants in situations where they can design in the wild, such as asking hikers to build a backpack while out on a mountain trail using Velcro pieces. “When you’re actually outside, with your hiking shoes on and all your gear, you’re thinking about it really differently versus being inside,” she explained. In this context, “you’re asking them to design what they need—and that’s easier when you’re in the trees.”

Or you can mix technology and ordinary activities. For example, Emilie Baltz attached sensors to different materials in such activities as kneading bread dough, cracking crackers, licking lollipops and sipping soda through a straw to determine what sounds and sensory experiences would emerge. She has concluded that such “ambiguous creative exploration provides valuable lessons through facial expressions and feedback.”

Invite corporate leaders and other stakeholders into the process

Design research should be an inclusive process within a company, according to Sarah Parker, especially if there’s some skepticism about methods that appear to be unorthodox. Instead of keeping stakeholders out, “you have to share your stories and let others see what you’re doing,” she said. “Let them know it’s okay to be creative, and that valuable stuff comes out of asking weird questions.”

Emilie Baltz recommends that clients become stakeholders as well as participants in design research. Inviting them into early prototyping and experiences—or “having a really crazy amount of cooks in the kitchen,” as she put it—creates a very powerful and productive relationship. Equally important, she added, is to keep a laser focus on the singular idea and vision of the project—”the guiding light or thread” of what you are doing, as she puts it—and to determine who will synthesize the ideas and have the final say.


Doing design research well requires confidence. Develop those skills over time, and in addition, “surround yourself with people who want to be creative like that,” Sarah Parker suggested. At first it can feel risky—especially more creative approaches—but a little discomfort is necessary to drive innovation. As Collin Smith pointed out, there’s always great value “to explore and try something new—one new thing.”

Smart starters

Devise “unexpected” situations

To elicit new and interesting feelings from participants, place them in unusual—even absurd—situations, even out in the wild. In addition, explore the senses through movement, like dance, as materials for design research.


Challenge people to open up

To inspire curiosity and reduce the level of risk, give participants permission to be playful and connect with their inner child so they let their guard down. Expand the boundaries of research by considering nontraditional approaches that encourage activity and mobility and engage the senses.


Include high- and low-tech tactics

Sensors and cameras can help gather data, especially in the field, but simple situations work well too. Aim for a mix of tech and ordinary activities that trigger emotional thoughts and responses and provide valuable feedback.


Engage stakeholders to boost buy-in

To ensure that design research is an inclusive process, share what you’re doing within the company—although it may sound weird—and also with clients. And along the way, remain focused on the singular idea and vision of the project.



Jamie Munger, Strategy director
Yodai Yasunaga, Visual designer
Danny Dang, Interaction designer

Let’s design a smarter world together