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Small Businesses in Detroit

Contextual Research

Qualitative Research | Quantitative Research

Team Project- MFA Integrated Design, College for Creative Studies

Team: Atulya Sekhar, Brian Ashley, Wei Hua Huang

September-December 2019

Purpose of the Study

This research project was conducted to learn qualitative and quantitative research methods and processes. Learning to design and manage research processes was the major outcome of this project. Other skills gathered from this project were generating strong insights and storytelling.


The city of Detroit has a complex Socio-economical history, which has seen various rises and falls. The project's crux was to understand what the small businesses in Detroit need in the form of support to join the city's current resurgence.

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Qualitative Research

Objective of Interviews

We began our research with established businesses in the city that have been operational for more than 20 years. This helped us understand what is needed to sustain small businesses in Detroit. Interviews were conducted with four historic businesses in Detroit. The objective of the interviews was to understand how these businesses survived the ebbs and flows of the city's economy. The interview questions were semi-structured to enable a contextual exploration. The business owners were asked to talk about their journey, the challenges they faced, and how they overcame them. Since these businesses have been around for so long, they were knowledgeable about the city's role in promoting small businesses. The city's initiatives and policies were also discussed. However, the most interesting insights were about how these small businesses become a part of the city's culture.

Methods and Tools

The methods used were observation, semi-structured interviews, and cultural probes for the customers. 

Cultural Probes such as a printed map of the city were used to understand how far the customers travel to visit them. Some prompts cards like ‘Tell Us a Memory’ was used to understand the attachment that the customers felt towards these establishments. 

Businesses Interviewed

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Henry the Hatter
est 1893

Qualitative Research Insights

There is no real sense of business community amongst them. The businesses are detached from the new initiatives in the city
They share a personal relationship with their customers. They are customer-focused, offer quality products and services, and believe in hard work
They understand how to do business in Detroit. They love to share their experiences as business owners in the city

Quantitative Research


The qualitative research insights led us to believe that connecting the small businesses in the city with each other and providing a platform to seek support or offer mentorship could be useful for the businesses. A qualitative survey was designed to test this theory. The quantitative research objectives were to understand how small businesses in Detroit viewed success, what kind of support they need to succeed, and whether a mentorship program could be something that the businesses might be interested in. 

The Survey

An online survey was sent out to eighty small businesses in Detroit and twenty responses were received. The responses were collected online and in-person by visiting the stores.

Age of Businesses

Under 5 yrs

Over 25 yrs

11-15 yrs

5-10 yrs

Types of Businesses

Cleaning Services


Professional Services


Some Businesses That Responded

Sister Pie

Quantitative Research Insights

The businesses want to network with other businesses even though they are not interested in a formal business association.
The businesses did not want to be part of a business mentorship program but felt that they had a lot to share.
Marketing was quoted as one of the most important needs that the businesses wanted support with.
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Based on the findings from quantitative research, the design rules were formed. Ideation involved combining ideas within the team and building a prototype. The concept developed as a result was a virtual platform that allows networking with other businesses and customers as well. Map of businesses with their details, ratings, and reviews are some of the features available on the customers' end of the platform.


Validation was conducted with users to test how strong the insights were. We conducted validation with three users with a prototype of this platform. The users were presented with the prototype on a device, and they were free to use it to understand the product. They were then asked to tell what they thought about the idea, the prototype, and their suggestions to improve it. The feedback included some questions about data privacy and authority on deciding the businesses' rankings/ratings. The second iteration of the design would need to address these concerns.

Designed by Brian Ashley