By Dave Hendrick

Newswise — The University of Virginia Darden School of Business appeared on Carlos Escalante Trevino’s (MBA ’17) radar after the prospective MBA student took an online design thinking course with Darden Professor Jeanne Liedtka. When Escalante Trevino subsequently learned that the School was launching a new “Innovation, Design, and Entrepreneurship in Action,” or IDEA, course within the First Year core curriculum, Escalante Trevino knew where he wanted to spend the next two years.

Now manager at the Deloitte-owned design consultancy Market Gravity, Escalante Trevino recently returned to Darden to speak about the importance of balancing human-centered inputs alongside quantitative data. He delivered the talk to the Darden Business Innovation and Design club, for which he served as president as a Second Year student.

“Numbers and data transfix us, especially in business school,” said Escalante Trevino. “If you’re good with numbers, it’s a way to demonstrate that you’re smart. Softer arguments can be harder to prove.”

Good qualitative data, however, adds to the picture when conducting market research, considering a new product launch or contemplating a redesign, among other tasks.

“Instead of only looking at data, you actually talk to users,” Escalante Trevino said. “Spend time with them to understand what they need out of you. In the end, it makes absolute business sense not to only understand the ‘what’ through data, but the ‘why’ through qualitative research.”

Indeed, major consulting firms have added to their design and innovation capabilities in recent years, with McKinsey & Co. buying companies such as Lunar, Deloitte acquiring Market Gravity in 2017 and companies like IBM dramatically increasing the number of designers it hires to work alongside engineers.

“What we are seeing is design research and the type of work we do is either supplanting strategy as the first point of contact with clients or becoming the bridge between strategy and implementation,” Escalante Trevino said. “If we do our work well, we can help clients frame and solve their problems in a better way.”

The Toronto-based Darden alumnus used three real-life case studies he and his employer worked on in which data wasn’t enough to crack the case. The first case centered around how they helped a data-rich consumer company discover one of its beverages wasn’t performing well because people simply didn’t understand how to make it, the second around designing a user-friendly e-commerce experience for newly legal cannabis, and the third around how qualitative research helped Chilean business leaders understand and empathize with their country’s millennials.

All the cases uncovered insights that couldn’t be gleaned from a spreadsheet and helped clients toward successful launches.

Still, it can be an uphill battle to convince clients to understand or correctly leverage qualitative research. Some don’t trust insights not backed up by numbers, and qualitative work that shines a light on faulty past assumptions can be particularly difficult for some clients to accept.

The design thinking practitioner insisted he wasn’t dismissive of quantitative research, however.

“It’s not about quant versus qual, it’s not an ‘or,’ it’s an ‘and.’ You should be doing both,” Escalante Trevino said. “After I have done proper qualitative work, I will know what questions to ask, how to ask them and can transfer that to the data.”

Escalante Trevino encouraged Darden students to drop the phrase “data-driven” from their resumes. Instead, strive to be data-informed, he said.

“Data is part of the equation, but if you are data-driven, you might be sacrificing your knowledge, creativity and your instincts, and all add tremendously to the value you bring,” said Escalante-Trevino, adding, “Good data informs, but good design inspires.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.