Andy Whittaker joined ASID as director of market research in July, heading a one-man shop charged with steering our organization toward evidence-based decision making. Skilled in research design and implementation, he uses a range of tools and methodologies — from focus groups to surveys and studies — to bring data to life revealing trends and developments in interior design. His findings will shape industry discussions, help develop and guide business strategies for interior designers, and yield actionable insights that will enable ASID to better serve its members. Whittaker answered a series of questions to help explain his new role.
You’ve conducted research for Living Social, AARP and the Society for Human Resource Management. How did you make the transition to the field of interior design?
At first, I was a little unsure about coming into a brand new industry. But I have been pleasantly surprised at how relevant my experience is to this organization. With AARP, there’s a lot of research done in the interior design industry about interiors for the aging. With SHRM, there is a lot of research done about how offices are organized. I spent several years doing research for the DC tourism office—hospitality is a huge interior category. I feel very confident that my past experiences in those various sectors are coming together in this new position.
In a sentence, what do you do at ASID?
I gather data and I develop insights primarily to drive ASID strategy, brand and product development.
How do members and the industry benefit from the research?
I’m really tackling two areas of research. One is external research about the interior design industry. For example, I am doing a study right now about the implications of how interior design impacts payments that are determined by the Affordable Care Act. As hospitals better integrate materials and consider space planning they are able to essentially improve the patient experience and improve health outcomes, which then will lead to those hospitals being higher performing and get more money back from Medicare and the government. We are doing a study with the ASID Foundation looking at the impact of interior design and space planning in places where knowledge workers are. I am looking at how organizations define productivity. That’s all external research.
What does the internal research entail?
The internal research brings data and research methodologies to help move the organization forward. It will be manifested in terms of the programs. We want to develop programs that meet customer needs, but first we need to know what those needs are.
How do you decide what topics to research?
Research topics come from a couple of sources. Our members will tell us that there are certain areas where there are gaps in their knowledge or in the industry, and we follow what is going on in the marketplace. We go through an annual process where we identify areas that need more literature. And that’s led to our strategic plan development. The plan focuses on three key areas: globalization, the impact of design and new business models. We are tackling those three areas through a research perspective as well.
Under your tenure, the focus of this position has changed. How are you redefining it?
The person who did it before me he had a lot of different hats. Whereas my new position is purely research. I am trying to elevate how research is used in the organization. I want to bring more analytical rigor. I want to bring more data-driven insights to how decisions are made. I also plan to aggregate all of the research and news that is out there and present it in more digestible ways so that our members can understand the impact of information that other organizations are finding. Yes, there is a great study out there but how does this impact your business? How should you react? What do you do with that information?
You are doing original ASID research and also distilling the findings of others in the industry?
Yes. And we are planning to launch a new research site in the next year that will aggregate all of that work together. That is a new project that I am just getting ready to kick off.
Has your research process evolved with technological advancements?
One of the key tools I use is the quantitative survey, which used to be conducted by mail and in person, and now everything has transitioned to the web. Survey collection tools have greatly advanced in terms of the functionality that is available, making them much more interactive and engaging. More and more research is being done via social media, but I am not convinced of its veracity, to be honest, because I think that there is a skewed and biased audience on various platforms. I am reluctant to conduct social media research, but I am willing to test it side-by-side with more standard approaches and see how effective it is. Speed and access have definitely improved with technology. But I don’t think quality or accuracy have improved.
How will your research influence the ASID State of the Industry report?
The report is very informative in laying out what the design industry looks like in terms of the demographics of the people, where they live, the specialties that they are in. But this type of report can feel very stagnant to me, like a point in time. It should be an outlook 2014 report. This year we are going to have all of the old elements, along with some new elements, trying to look a bit forward. We are going to have the forecast data from the billing index. We also did a one-time survey that is in the field right now with our members asking them to give their opinions about various trends and whether they think these trends will increase or decrease over the next year. We are trying to get more of their voices heard. And then I also did another survey looking at the disconnect between interior designers and consumer perceptions of the industry. Those are three new elements that we are going to have when the report is published in November. This year’s report will not only help understand us what the industry looks like today, but where it is going tomorrow.
Finally and most importantly, what is your design aesthetic?
My aesthetic is somewhat minimalist but cozy, not minimalist with hard edges. I don’t like clutter. I like to have a few pieces that are very important to me around, and I like to have space available. I like empty tabletops and room to store things that I have not acquired yet (laughs).