User Research – Product and Service Innovation: An interview with Chris Bangle, Managing Director of Chris Bangle Associates

User Research – Product and Service Innovation: An interview with Chris Bangle, Managing Director of Chris Bangle Associates
The aim of User Research – Product and Service Innovation series of interviews is to act as a source of inspiration and information about the role of user research. We have just started working on the series of interviews and if you would like to be interviewed please do not hesitate to contact Richard Linington.

Hi Chris could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Chris Bangle Associates?
I studied at the University of Wisconsin and after graduating from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California I started working at Opel in 1981. Later I joined Fiat and then moved to BMW where I was named the first American Chief of Design. After leaving BMW in 2009 I set up Chris Bangle Associates in Clavesana, a small village in the Langhe region of northern Italy. I am now building a hybrid “Studio/Design Residency” for design amid the vineyards south of Turin with room to exercise some new-found creative freedom.

Chris Bangle
Photo kindly supplied by Chris Bangle Associates

What type of design projects do you work on at Chris Bangle Associates?
I would like to think we work on about any design-related project that people are passionate about––because that gets the team and I passionate too. So far the range has been from sailboat branding to electric vehicles; from consumer appliances and electronics to Japanese nursing homes; from exhibition stands to iconic lighting. Along with the “normal” things we like to try our hand at art projects like the colored glass trees or the giant bench that everyone seems to like; our interpretation of that old idea is gathering quite a following (number two is on a nearby hill and the third edition is about to be set up).

Chris Bangle Associates
Photo kindly supplied by Chris Bangle Associates

What role has human centred design research played in the design projects you have worked on?
As opposed to what, “Alien-centered” design? I used to think all our work was “Human Centered” but the way you pose the question that seems to be the copyright of somebody else. I am always a bit leery of design methodologies with titles; they sort of sound like the flavor of the month. Research per se is a tough one for many clients; either their users are everywhere and everyone (consumer electronics, for instance) or they are super specific and unique to their context (the nursing home comes to mind). Often a project comes with reams of “Marketing Research” which is at best confusing as hell and at worst a barrel of red herrings. Designers often do not have the luxury to go out and individually question the end users, but at the same time many designers have substituted “Google Image Search” for “research”––not real research by any definition.

What specific user research methods have you used?
The best teacher is experience so if possible I like to have the designers go through the real motions of living with the design in question. Mock-ups are the best way to ensure that, but there are other ways to achieve understanding. Sometimes being forced to change medium––switch from drawing to acting-out a design, for instance––leads to lots of new insights.

Do you encounter any particular challenges when you carry out user research?
The greatest challenge in any design process is understanding the truth of the situation. What is important and what are hidden or even “straw” issues is often not clear, even to the client. There is also a difference between what people say they want and what they really want. Everybody knows Henry Ford famously said “If I had asked people what they wanted all they asked for was a better horse”; but now we will never know what would have happened if he had actually made them one. Of course at the time New York and other metropoles were drowning in horse manure and animal carcasses; still, the climate-changing CO2 levels and ozone depletion are not something you can easily take a shovel to. My favorite anecdote from GM research done years ago was the woman who wrote “Safety” as the most important aspect in determining her new car; causing engineers to go back and beef up brakes and crash resistance. A follow-up team re-interviewed her, asking “What do you mean by ‘safety’?”; to which she replied, “A place for my gun.” To understand the difference between what you Must Do, what you Can Do, what you Want to Do, and what you Should Do is the purpose of all the first phases of any design process, no matter what you call them. “Human Centered Design” seems to be a play for “Should” over “Must/Can/Want”, but reality is not so simple.

What do you feel the benefits of user research have been for you and your team?
The difference between Art and Design is that in Art the Artist gets to decide when to stop. The benefits of any research are to set up guidelines for choices so that the process of design is not whim-driven by the client or the design director nor subject to the vicissitudes of peripheral issues.

Chris, perhaps we could end on something about the future areas for innovation in the design sector?
My hope is that the general awakening of societies to the rights and contributions of individuals that social media has given new impetus to will find form in a new “Design Ethic” that is indeed “humanistic”. I would argue that today we are symbiotic supporters of a system that marginalizes anyone outside of the “process” of design that we have crafted around ourselves. We designers are very jealous and protective of the creative process; after the designer has had his or her say everyone else in the process is reduced to machine-like tolerances of good quality of bad quality, of faster production or slower production, of more costs or less. Once we (or our proxies, the “clients”) sign off on the design, everything from there on is either right or wrong. We do not allow interpretations of our creative genius; our idea of “inclusion” is to dole out pre-configured choices as “user designed” variations intended to convince the plebiscite that they have had a hand in our magic world. In doing so we have turned everyone but us into machines. We have replaced the robotic assembly line workers of the past in Detroit with endless rows of face-masked drones in China pleading for help with their notes stuffed in Halloween toys or their desperate suicides. Design has had 200 years to get good at mediating between man and his usable world; creating mass-produced perfection to fulfill every imaginable want and need. But along the way we left the “human” out of the equation, and now it is about time we turn our attention to making the people of the world “participants”, not just “users”. We need to come to grips with a design aesthetic that is “imperfect” yet very very “human”; to embrace and cherish the added value of hundreds of individuals engaged in the chain of creativity. I will acknowledge that any change in our system today seems horrifically disruptive to the efficiency of manufacture and the joy of consumption, but that of course is the challenge design needs to solve. If we don’t solve it, who will?

To find out more about Chris Bangle Associates please visit their website 

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