Minimal Viable Research

A thought spurred on by the CRISP Shakes It Off conference in Rotterdam (June 2015): For a while we have been munching on how to best describe our design research in the context of lean and agile approaches. The term ‘Minimal Viable Research’ recently came up as a suitable way to express how our design research can help to address and explore issues coming up during complex iterative development processes.

Much of the work we do, both with large corporate tech companies or lean start ups, is strongly aligned with design and strategy teams who are developing new service innovations with an agile approach. Our design research is required to inform and inspire this iterative process – sometimes by working ahead of the teams, through exploring themes that can guide their work over a longer period of time, and other times by engaging in discussions about very specific questions the teams are wrestling with. In all our projects we need to make sure that explorations and insights on both these levels are generated and transfered to the teams. This means that we generally need to operate on both a very tactical level, so we can answer to questions from the teams while they go through a quickly succession of sprints, and also on a more strategical level of looking ahead with the team leadership, to address more fundamental overarching themes that shape the overall direction of the work.

While this is everyday practice for us, we still regularly encounter people with strong beliefs about design research being too slow to incorporate in projects with an lean or agile approach. They seem to think that all research outputs requires a lot of time. This makes them apprehensive, as they fear they will have to stop with what they are doing while they wait for the answers to their questions. This is not the case at all, of course. When the research is directed and executed in the right way, it is perfectly able to deliver output in a timely and useful way. In this respect Minimal Viable Research is a good term to express that it can be well-integrated in the lean approach, without obstructing the ongoing project flow.

On the other hand we should be aware that using the term Minimal Viable Research to describe design research might suggest that only quick and practical questions are the focus of the research. In our experience it is the combination of examining both tactical and strategic questions that makes design research truely valuable to teams. Therefore we are always keen to also address the wider, overarching research questions that generate results towards the broader understanding that frames the project.

We often stress that our work evolves around ’empathic conversations’. This not only is true for our design research work with the people the new service innovations are ultimately meant for (users, customers, citizens, passengers, students,…etc.), it is also true for our alignment with the internal client teams. We engage in regular conversations to build up our understanding of  their needs, preferences and concerns. Our design approach to the research we do helps a lot in establishing empathic conversations with both external and internal stakeholders. The visual, collaborative and experimental way of working comes naturally and makes it very accessible.

If you are interested to learning more about this, then this article by Jon Kolko is worth reading. He has done a great job in describing the similarities between MVP and Design Research, as well as some of the tensions. We are of course not the first people in the world to describe the crossroads between the Minimal Viable Product and Design Research, though somehow the term Minimal Viable Research does not seem to have caught on yet. We believe it would be a useful term to use, as it may help to cross the bridge between agile development teams and design researchers.

Note: Special wave to Michael Bas from Ranj and Jan Willem Huisman from IJsfontein, two of the main playersin the Dutch games industry. Their joint presentation on game development and user research, during the CRISP conference, sparked our idea to coin the term Minimal Viable Reserach in the discussion that followed.

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