Invention Class
Lesson 3: Inspiration: Through Research
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Introduction: Inspiration: Through Research

No one can create effective, good quality designs in a bubble. Nor is just sitting and waiting for divine (design) inspiration a good strategy. You must be open to, and intentionally seek, information and inspiration from outside sources if your product is to be successful. What you learn from this research will be the foundation of your design path and inform the choices you make along the way.

This is where research comes in. And lots of it. I break my research down into 4 categories:

  • Topic
  • Market
  • Style/Form/Material Inspiration
  • User

Topic Research

Designing a successful product requires that you become an amateur expert in the field in which your product will live (if you're not already). This is why I always start with topic research, in order to learn what I'll need to know to make informed decisions throughout the design process.

Doing this also helps to begin creating design boundaries. When a design can be ANYTHING with no constraints, it can be paralyzing for the designer – so the more you can unearth reasons why a design needs to be one thing over another (round vs. flat, etc.), the easier this process is.

For my portable smartphone amplifier, this means investigating the science of sound by finding answers to questions based on terms I already know, like:

  • What are the basic principles of sound /waves?
  • Can one amplify sound without electricity?
  • Are sound waves affected by different surfaces (rough vs. smooth)?
  • Will different acoustic shapes increase/decrease the quality of the sound?
  • How can I manipulate these things with my low tech amplification solution?

When researching, it's very easy to get overwhelmed by, caught up in, or bogged down with, too much information; info that may be interesting, but won't relate directly to your project goals. As you're reading and sifting, try to focus only on the information that is obviously related and useful, being sure to include the occasional inspiring tangent that could lead to a new angle/idea. :)

Where To Look

Some great sources of information are:

  • Wikipedia (check the 'see also' list of links at the bottom of the page for related info)
  • Topic related websites
  • Books and 'old school' encyclopedias (often they have inspiring images to go with the info)
  • Experts in the field

NOTE: Keep in mind that anything on Wikipedia is unverified information, meaning anyone can edit it. So it's always a good idea to cross-reference the info you pull from it with other expert sources. (Thanks to mrw122015 for the reminding me to add this info!)

Stay Organized

To keep all my findings organized – and make it easy for me to pull info for reviews, presentations, or pitch decks – I use a presentation software to create pages for everything I find and make along the way. It keeps all the project assets (research, text, photos, sketches, etc.) in one place and organized in a linear fashion for easy reference.

I highlight important words, phrases, or images that will be good fodder for the brainstorming phase that comes after the research phase.

I also include page numbers to keep track of the process/info order – and add my logo to the bottom righthand corner of the page template. That in and of itself won't offer any Intellectual Property protection, but it can contribute to establishing ownership.

Here are a few of my pages from my topic research on The Science of Sound:

Topic Research Summary

Once you've done enough research so that you feel like you have a good grasp of the topic, go through your notes and do a short summary of only the most relevant information, i.e. How will the information you've gathered impact the design of your product?

I broke my topic research summary into the two main things I need to know in order to make good design decisions: How will different shapes and material choices relate to, and effect, achieving good quality sound amplification:

Shapes in relation to sound amplification

  • FLAT: reflects sound coherently
  • ROUND: an open chamber (sound box) uses resonance to amplify sound and transfer it to the surrounding air. This reinforces lower frequencies.
    • the interior surfaces reflect acoustic waves, bouncing around inside, increasing the waves' intensity
  • CONICAL: A megaphone (cone-shaped horn) is used to amplify sound, especially the higher frequencies

NOTE: the ground can form part of the horn surface, and thus a partial horn can help amplify the lower bass frequencies

Materials and surface quality in relation to sound amplification:

  • WOOD: Adds warmth to sound (i.e.: acoustic guitars)
  • METAL: amplifies sound, especially higher frequencies (= 'brassy' sound)
  • OTHER: other hard surfaces will be neutral, relying on shape to amplify
  • SMOOTH: reflects sound waves coherently
  • ROUGH: reflects sound incoherently, in many directions
  • POROUS: absorbs sound (eats it!)

I'll keep the above info in mind when it comes time to develop the form and function of my product – and add it to the existing knowns that go along with designing a portable object: That the product must be:

  • Lightweight
  • Compact
  • Durable

Inspiration Research

This is one of my favorite steps, when you get to let your eyes run wild!

Inspirational research is all about gathering images (and words if you like) that can inform the style, shape, function, and material direction of your design. This, partnered with the user research we'll do in the next step, goes a long way to providing the 'A-ha!' moment that sets a designer on the path to great design.

I usually make a list of words to search that relate to my project, and that might bring up new/surprising/relative images. I then do Google Image searches, Pinterest searches, old school book searches, and sometimes even head out into the world and take my own pictures.

Here's my inspiration search list for my portable passive smartphone amplifier:

  • Concert halls
  • Outdoor Amphitheaters
  • Whisper installations
  • Origami
  • Conch shells
  • Megaphones
  • Collapsing camping cups
  • Metal and wood acoustic instruments
  • Parachutes
  • Umbrellas
  • Box patterns
  • Folding fans

Keeping It Together

In my experience the most efficient way to corral all the images you find or take, is to start a Pinterest board. You can add all inspirational images to it as you find them (or take them – you can also upload your own photos). This keeps the info all in one place and easily accessible – and maintains links to the images' original sources, so you can revisit them for an info refresher later on or to find photo credit info.

Once you've exhausted all your search terms (and the search terms that yours led you to) and feel like you have a solid amount of material, you can then pull your favorites from the board to make your summary Inspirational Research presentation pages.

If you haven't used Pinterest before, have no fear. It's super easy to learn and use. Just sign up for an account (it's free) and install the 'Pin It' button to your browser. This button lets you 'pin' (add) images from almost any website to your board(s).

NOTE: I highly recommend setting any project boards to 'secret', which means only you can view it and not the rest of the Pinterest community. To do this, just move the toggle under the word 'secret' to 'yes' when creating a board. (see pictured above)

Market Research

Has it been done before? What are the most common price points? Is the market interested in what you have to offer? These are important questions to get the answers to before you start designing.

If after you do some internet digging, you find that something similar to what you want to make already exists on the market , it doesn't necessarily mean your idea is dead in the water. Identify the opportunities for further innovation and make it even better! But make it DIFFERENTLY better.

The one thing NOT TO EVER DO is copy someone else's design. First and foremost, it's just not nice (downright disrespectful) and I believe karma to be a real thing, so I'm just looking out for you.

Beyond that, it could get you in trouble down the line if you decide to start selling your "borrowed" product. If the owner of the original idea has protected their design, there could be legal implications that stop your design (and potentially business) in its tracks – or at the very least any altercation would take your focus away from the positive, and necessary, aspects of innovation and business development, draining you and your bank account.

So stay gold pony boys and girls! Be inspired by, and innovate on, but never outright steal other people's ideas. Leave that to big companies like Urban Outfitters and Cody Foster & Co.

Researching price points of similar products on the market will provide you with a general idea of what people are willing to pay for a ____________ (fill in with your idea).

Pricing is an art in and of itself, as there are all kinds of customers with different motivations out there, but a quick study will tell you what the general parameters are for your product category. This can help you when it comes time to decide on which materials and manufacturing processes to choose – so that you're hitting the money mark.

Just like we did for the inspirational research step, search Google, Google images, and Pinterest for competing products. Also check out funded kickstarter projects and visit retail stores that carry your genre of product – and anywhere else you can think of to look. The more broad of a market sweep you do, the better. I would also recommend creating a Pinterest board to keep track of everything you find for this step as well.

There's one more important market research step that I feel most people don't think to do – or skip because it's so challenging – when designing/inventing a product:

Contact at least 30 retailers that sell your product category and get feedback on your idea.

This step seems daunting, because well, it is. Cold calling is a very difficult thing to do for most people – but not as difficult as it would be to realize 8 months (and lots of money) later that you're on the wrong product/design track. So I strongly advise doing this step. Hire someone if you can't make yourself do it.

Any search engine, mixed with some elbow grease, can provide a list of stores to contact.

The How:

1. Ask for their experience first: Request to speak to the owner or manager. Then explain who you are and that you're working on a new product and you'd benefit from, and appreciate, their expertise. What is their store's best selling _________ product and why? Have they noticed any holes in the market that they'd like to see filled?

Respect their time and keep the questions short, concise, and to a minimum. Inevitably, a percentage of the people you call won't be willing to talk to you, but most people do want to help, especially if you put them in the position of being an expert – and even if you only get 20 out of 30 to answer your questions, that's enough to work with!

2. Then ask for their opinion: Do they think there is a market for your idea? You don't have to provide any potentially proprietary details. Using general category terms to explain what you want to do will be enough for them to provide feedback on. For example, mine would be:

Do you think your customers would be interested in a reasonably priced, light and easily portable, non-electric amplifier for their smartphones? Its purpose is to support impromptu picnics, dance parties, and beach bonfires without worrying about device battery failure.

The Why:

The reason it's a VERY good idea to do this market research step is two fold:

1. These are the people that have direct contact, and experience, with your potential customers. They take a risk on every new product they buy for their store and you need to know if they would be willing to take a risk on your idea (especially if you plan to sell your product wholesale).

2. If 8 out of 30 people don't like your idea, you can chalk that up to them having a lack of vision, or their geographic demographic not aligning with your product's target market.

But if 26 out of 30 retailers don't like your idea, it may be time to re-evaluate. You could use their best seller/market holes feedback to re-direct your existing idea, or move on to a new idea entirely – BEFORE investing more time or money into something that the market either doesn't want or isn't ready for.

Have you ever seen an episode of Shark Tank when someone pitches an idea that they have spent their entire life savings on (and sometimes their extended family's life savings on) that is so obviously a huge miss? You don't want to be that person.

Don't let your passion for one specific idea trick you into thinking that everyone will want it just because you do. Do research! Ask experts! Both your precious time and your bank account will thank you.

NOTE: Even if you plan on selling the product yourself via a website or other online platform, talking to retailers is still the most direct way of finding out what the market wants and may, or may not, be ready for.

User Research: Applying Human-Centered Design

"People ignore design that ignores people."

Frank Chimero

The keywords for this step are observation and empathy: an attempt to uncover the physical, emotional, and sociological needs of your target user group and discover opportunities for innovation.

Before you can do that, you need to define your target user group. If you're designing a child's toy, what age range is it appropriate for? If you're designing a new home water filtration container for seniors, what age range are you targeting? Doing this will help define the general physical capacity of your customers. Making these decisions early on helps to add more design constraints now (which is a good thing) and a more clear marketing path later.

Once you've established your target group, in this final and crucial research step, I'll ask you to attempt to put yourself in the users' shoes via research techniques. What do they want? What do they need? Can you notice a problem that needs solving that they weren't even aware of?

San Francisco based design firm IDEO has been at the forefront of what is called Human-Centered Research. This is a way of approaching a design challenge using empathy for, and understanding of, the users by looking to the users themselves – who face the problem you're trying to solve – as the ones who hold the key to the answer.

Without user research, we'd be making an awful lot of presumptions and assumptions and we all know happens when we assume anything. :)

Methods of user research:

Note: Before attempting any research method, write down a list of questions you want the research to answer, and remember: Keep an open mind and be on the lookout for the unexpected! After all, that is the whole purpose of this step – to learn things you don't already know.


People will often behave differently when they know they are being observed, which is why it's best to do this step without your subjects' awareness of your presence. To do this requires some thoughtfully done anonymous observation of people from your target user group– being careful not to cross any ethical lines, i.e.: Never trespass or 'peep'!

For me this step was easy because it meant going to a busy park and observing how people interact with music and each other in that setting. In my situation, people put themselves in a public place by choice, so observing them (subtly) shouldn't be offensive to them.

If you're designing, say, for children, it would not be appropriate for you to go to a kid's park by yourself and watch them for any length of time. But you could ask a friend who has kids if you could go with them to the park, so that you can more naturally observe the children's behavior without causing anyone worry.

Write down your observations as soon as possible after your reconnoissance, so you don't forget any of the details.


This is a technique for gathering information through direct dialogue. You will choose subjects that you have in-person access to that fit your target user group, and are willing to meet with you. Prepare questions ahead of time and get your subjects' consent before starting the interview. Use your smartphone or a recording device to record the interview in its entirety. Start with general questions, then get more specific – and try not to put words into the interviewee's mouth.

This type of face-to-face interaction helps build empathy and understanding for your user group.


Questionnaires are a great way to gather quantitative data (20% like this, 50% don't like that, etc.) by reaching out to even more people for feedback. These can be emailed, set up within a survey website, or sent through snail mail. Ask leading questions and give lots of space for answers.

Quiz Time!

    "id": "quiz-1",
    "question": "Which type of research do you do to become an 'amateur expert'?",
    "answers": [
            "title": "Topic",
            "correct": true
            "title": "User",
            "correct": false
    "correctNotice": "You got it!",
    "incorrectNotice": "Close but no cigar! User research is more about subjective opinions and less about facts."

What's Next?

Now that you have a solid foundation of:

  • The facts of your product category
  • Market trends
  • Style, shape and material inspirations
  • Understanding of users need

It's time start DESIGNING A THING!

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