Category Design: A Mindset Shift for Researchers, Scientists and Academics

By Jonny Prest

“A problem well put is half solved.”

John Dewey

In the realm of scientific and academic research, a powerful concept is reshaping the landscape of stakeholder engagement. That concept is category design. This innovative approach revolves around the problem-led creation and development of scientific and research-based categories. 

The goal is to strategically position research as the dominant mind and influential leader within a category, ultimately captivating the attention of stakeholders alike. The mindset shift works toward focusing on the problem we solve rather than the contextual or research subject area. 


A white paper or research project that is exploring the feasibility of biofuels for long-haul domestic flights. The category design could be “Sustainable Aviation Solutions” or “Environmentally Friendly Airline Practices.” 

What now? Niche down.

Niching down

Now take your category, carve off a slice and establish yourself an expert in that niche. This is radical differentiation. Distinguishing a category then further distinguishing it by niching down.

Niching down in a category becomes a new subcategory.


If the research in “Sustainable Aviation Solutions” is testing the effectiveness of recycled waste from forestry residues to develop new aviation fuels then the new sub category could be “Forestry Residue Aviation Fuel Development.” or “Forestry Waste-to-Energy for Aviation”.

Nice! No acronyms just yet please.

Why category design?

Researchers, academics and scientists have several reasons to invest in category design to advance their research:

Standing out

Category design offers a powerful strategy for researchers to distinguish themselves from their peers and stand out in their respective fields. By creating and defining their unique category, they can position themselves as thought leaders and attract attention and recognition.

Stakeholder focused

Category design can better align research to the needs and expectations of stakeholders, including industry partners, general public, funding agencies, and the wider scientific community. By tailoring research to stakeholders’ requirements, researchers can create more impactful and relevant outcomes, leading to increased support and collaboration. (What if multiple stakeholders have different problems? Here’s some advice around engaging multiple stakeholders.)

Take or break new ground 

Category design encourages researchers to explore uncharted territories and push the boundaries of knowledge. By defining new categories or subcategories, they can break away from conventional thinking. Embark on groundbreaking research that can transform entire fields and open up avenues for transformative discoveries. 

Discipline on focused problem-solving 

Category design brings discipline to the research process, fostering more focused problem-solving. By defining clear objectives and scope within a category, researchers can streamline their efforts, prioritise resources and optimise research activities. This approach helps researchers stay on track, generate impactful results efficiently and create a new lens on science and research.

Increased relevance 

By reframing the problem, researchers can align their work with current societal and industry challenges, making it more relevant and impactful. This is how exponential net-new value gets created.

Interdisciplinary collaboration 

Category design encourages collaboration across disciplines, fostering new insights and perspectives that can lead to groundbreaking breakthroughs.

Discovering your category DNA

For researchers seeking to maximise their impact and success, category design offers a transformative approach that goes beyond traditional communication strategies. Unlike simply competing within existing categories, category design encourages researchers to create a new and distinct niche within their field of expertise. This concept, known as the maximum viable category (MVC), allows researchers to disseminate their work within a unique framework, free from the constraints of comparison.

To achieve the MVC, researchers should consider the following key questions:

  1. Based on my interests and expertise, which untapped niche within my industry can I explore?

  1. Does this niche possess compelling characteristics that are likely to resonate with stakeholders?

  1. Are there any available data or insights indicating a strong demand for this emerging niche?

  1. Is the niche sufficiently specific to effectively address the needs of stakeholders?

  1. Have I identified and addressed the core problem that this new category aims to solve?

  1. How can I ensure that stakeholders easily understand and appreciate the value of this new category?

  1. What strategies can I employ to educate stakeholders and facilitate their understanding and adoption of the new category?

  1. Does this niche demonstrate growth potential in both the field and its impact on stakeholders?

  1. How might the future unfold if this niche becomes the accepted norm in the field?

After identifying an opportunity to establish a new and distinct research category, researchers should navigate the research development process strategically. This includes creating an alpha version, conducting testing with a select group of trusted individuals, refining the features and functionality based on feedback, and progressively expanding the user base through beta programs and testing phases. 

Identity vs category design

“…Branding in the absence of category design is bullshit.”

Niche Down by Christopher Lochhead & Heather Clancy

Our identity (brand) is the perception that our stakeholders hold about our research, institution, technology or product. Is category design significantly more effective than branding and identity design? Category design is all about the stakeholders’ problems; identity design, however, is a positioning tool to help you stake your claim as the category king. Category design identifies the gap. The brand fills that gap. Identity design allows you to create more connectedness with your audience but ultimately it’s the category that will allow them to arrive there in the first place. 

Some handy resources around identity:

Conceptualising, designing, and asserting ownership over a problem

“She who frames the problem owns the solution.”

Category Pirates by Christopher Lochhead 

Researchers engaged in the exploration of category design, with the intent to enlighten stakeholders about the problem they address, are confronted with the following perspective:

Stakeholders tend to recall specific words and phrases, rather than broad ideas.

For stakeholders to gain an understanding of the research, we need to frame the problem, assign it a unique name or identity, and assert ownership of the solution. It is the responsibility of researchers to equip stakeholders with the necessary language and resources.

Key steps in research category design

Category design involves creating and shaping a new research category or redefining an existing one to establish a dominant position to drive stakeholder engagement. Here are five key actions to design a new category:

1. Focus on the problem

Focusing on the problem within category design allows researchers to effectively target their efforts, streamline their resources, and generate impactful solutions that address specific challenges within their chosen field.

2. Narrative creation 

Crafting a compelling story that reframes the problem and presents a visionary solution. 

3. Designing the audience 

Identifying and defining the target audience and ecosystem to effectively position and differentiate the research. 

4. Orchestrating the ecosystem 

Collaborating with stakeholders, colleagues, and partners to create network effects and amplify the research’s REF impact.

5. Driving adoption

Implementing strategies to accelerate adoption and expand the reach of the research findings.

Design the category around the things your stakeholders care about

Stakeholder engagement plays a crucial role in category design. Researchers must diligently work towards winning over popular opinion by effectively communicating the value and importance of the new category or sub category. This involves not only engaging with fellow academics but also reaching out to industry leaders, policymakers, industry and other relevant stakeholders. The aim is to foster a collective mindset that encourages the abandonment of outdated practices in favor of embracing the new ideas.

Problem problem problem (not me, me, me)

A new category goes beyond the pursuit of individual recognition and ego. It is a strategic approach that seeks to inspire and educate the world about the transformative power that the new category delivers. The category isn’t your identity or brand. It’s about the problem, not you. By driving the solution as the preferred framework, researchers can shape the narrative and pave the way for advancements in their fields (whilst getting the recognition they deserve… bonus). 

Using category science to discover breakthrough opportunities

Researchers and academics, the next groundbreaking research opportunity that holds immense potential is right before your eyes within the realm of category design.

To uncover it, you must adopt a fresh perspective and pay close attention to seemingly unconventional aspects. These unconventional elements might manifest as repetitive questions, comments on social media posts, peculiar requests, persistent complaints about shortcomings within the category, or interesting conversations and conferences or industry events. 

While these signals may be overlooked by traditional academic leaders and institutional decision-makers, they hold the key to discovering your most loyal and valuable stakeholders. These stakeholders are quietly expressing how, where, and why they desire to invest more in your research.

By embracing the idiosyncrasies of these insights, you can unlock a whole new frontier of significant growth within your academic pursuits.

The proficiency of research, team and category

The establishment of a new category in research entails not only the effective utilisation of language but also the integration of the research outcomes, funding models, and internal research culture. Even with the most compelling and precise category science, the research project will be compromised if the outcomes fail to align with the category’s intended purpose as perceived by stakeholders. Similarly, if the funding model and its underlying objectives contradict the overarching mission of the category, the research effort is at risk. Furthermore, a research team and culture that run counter to the principles and values associated with the category can impede progress. For example, consider a scenario in which research emphasises the importance of ethical conduct, while members of the research team engage in undisclosed practices that compromise integrity.

Unite for progress. Your research, team and category design must all work together.

Executing a lightning strike event to launch a new research category

The most influential dissemination campaigns in research are not ongoing throughout the year.

Instead, they consist of distinct and momentary events. These events last only for a few days (sometimes a few hours) and occur 2-3 times per year. However, they are remarkably successful in educating the “right stakeholders” about the shortcomings of existing research categories and the potential benefits of the new research category. A lightning strike event can be as simple as launching an eBook on Twitter or as grand as hosting an event with tens of thousands of attendees.

Your objective is not to create a marketing campaign that reaches “everyone” throughout the year in research. Your goal is to capture the full attention of your stakeholders for a specific moment in time.

The most exceptional researchers, academics, funders, scientists and leaders are Category Designers. They do not merely market themselves, school or institute. They market the new category of “research” they are shaping and defining in the world. They make the future feel familiar. 

Examples of category design in research

Direct Air Capture (DAC) 

Captures and removes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, contributing to climate change mitigation efforts. It involves filtering and concentrating CO2 for storage or utilisation.

AI-Enabled Drug Discovery

Establishing AI as a fundamental tool in the pharmaceutical industry, leveraging machine learning algorithms and predictive modeling to accelerate the drug discovery process.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

Promoting a specific category for climate change mitigation technologies, emphasising renewable energy, carbon capture, and sustainable agriculture practices as vital solutions for addressing global environmental challenges.

Brain-Machine Interfaces 

Establishing brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) as a unique category within neuroscience and neurotechnology, enabling direct communication between the brain and external devices, with applications in assistive technologies and advancements in virtual reality and gaming.

Channel creation

A trusted voice. Embracing category design empowers researchers to become change agents and influencers. 

To effectively amplify knowledge and intelligence within a research team after discovering a new category, creating a content channel is a valuable strategy. As highlighted in the article Creating a Content Channel for Your Research, such a channel serves as a platform to share insights, expertise, and findings with a broader audience. By regularly producing and disseminating high-quality content videos, webinars or podcasts, the team can establish themselves as thought leaders and experts in the field. This content channel becomes a hub for knowledge exchange, attracting interest from industry professionals, academics, and other stakeholders, thus fostering collaboration, expanding networks, and contributing to the advancement of the newly identified research category.

The channel should challenge the status quo, developing innovative ideas. By doing so, researchers can create a ripple effect that permeates the academic community and beyond, driving progress and embracing the new frontiers of knowledge.

The future of research communication is in category science

Once you establish your category this is just the beginning. How will you paint your new picture? How will you advance the category and create new sub categories? 

How can we be at the edge of reality whilst looking into the future? Category thinking is an empowering step for researchers, academics, and scientists. It’s about looking round corners and strategically positioning the future of research in the minds of your stakeholders, exploring uncharted territories, and maintaining focus on solving pressing problems. 

By focusing on the problem and solution in a new way, researchers can revolutionise their research, make a lasting impact, and contribute to the advancement of knowledge in their respective fields.

Category design entails challenging established norms and embracing a pioneering mindset. Researchers are encouraged to break free from conventional and institutional boundaries and think beyond existing fields of research. By doing so, they can identify white spaces where new categories can emerge, driving innovation and transforming the 21st century academic landscape

Being proactive to find a way for radical differentiation provides a fresh perspective and a powerful toolkit for researchers and academics to create a transformative impact in their fields. By embracing the principles of category design, we can redefine problems, craft compelling narratives, engage interdisciplinary collaboration and accelerate adoption. Oh, and if you need support, that’s where we come in: get in touch to pick our brains about research communications and category design.

Set the rules for your category.

Category is king. Long live the king.

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