A quick guide to design research

4 min read
Emily Esposito
  •  May 8, 2018
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You create a beautiful design, get stakeholder buy-in, and launch ahead of schedule, but it falls flat with your customers. Why? Well, did you stop and take the time to see what they thought about it?

Design research is a critical, but sometimes ignored, step in creating the optimal user experience. It allows you to understand complex human behavior and turn that into actionable insights to improve your design.

In this post, we’ll walk you through what design research is, how to use it, and its top benefits.

“There’s always something new to learn about your users.”

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What is design research?

Design research is a customer-focused approach that helps you answer questions like:

  • Who are our users?
  • What problems are they facing?
  • How are they going to use this product?

Through qualitative and quantitative research, the goal is to find inspiration for design based on how your customers would actually use your product or service.

Design research vs. market research

While design and market research have things in common, they are very different in terms of scope, data, and end results. At a high level, market research focuses on the purchase and sales of the product or service, while design research looks at how customers will use and experience it.

Related: Get better qualitative data on your user experience with microfeedback

Market research is more quantitative in nature. You’re typically analyzing large data sets to identify business insights, segments, trends, and demographics that speak to the market segment. Design research skews more toward qualitative data, where you’re trying to answer the “why” behind customer behavior and interaction.

3 kinds of research methods designers should know

There’s an endless number of ways to collect data about your customers. Whichever methods you choose, they usually fall into these buckets: attitudinal, behavioral, qualitative, quantitative, and context of use.

“Design research results in happier customers.”

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Here are some of the most common research methods:

  • Primary: Perhaps the most important method in design research, this involves you or your team going directly to the source (your customers) to ask questions and gather data. Examples of primary research are focus groups, usability sessions, surveys, and interviews. And in primary research, you are usually gathering two types of information: exploratory (general, open-ended research), and specific (research used to solve a problem identified during the exploratory phase).
  • Secondary: Secondary research is when you use existing data like books, articles, or the internet to validate or support existing research. You may use secondary research to create a stronger case for your design choices and provide additional insights into what you learned during primary research.
  • Evaluative: Evaluative research looks at a specific problem to evaluate usability and interaction. One of the most popular ways to conduct evaluative research is to have people use your product or service and have them think out loud as they interact with it. There are two types of evaluative studies: summative and formative. Summative emphasizes the outcome more than the process (looking at whether the desired effect is achieved) and formative is used to strengthen idea being tested (monitoring the success of a process).

How do you decide which research method to use? It all depends on what you’re creating and what you’re trying to learn. Often, you’ll start with primary research and find that more, new questions arise after gathering preliminary data (that’s a good thing!). These new questions will likely guide you on what you need to learn next.

Benefits of design research

Design research takes time, resources, and preparation, but the results are worth it. Here are four of the top benefits of design research:

  • Allows you to design based on facts and not assumptions. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “I already know who my customers are, so I don’t need to do any more work.” It’s true that we all have a working knowledge of who our users are, but understanding their pain points, what they’re looking for in a product, and how they would use your product are not things you can learn from a one-off email interaction.
  • Helps with focus and prioritization. When you’re juggling feature requests, stakeholder feedback, and a short project schedule, customer data can help you focus on what is most important. After all, if something came up during the research phase that wasn’t addressed before launch, you can bet that issue won’t go away on its own.
  • Fosters more empathy for your customers. Getting facetime with your customers reminds everyone that they are actual people with thoughts and feelings, not just a number on a growth projection. Building deeper connections with your customers helps you in your day-to-day work and decisions.
  • Results in happier customers. By observing your design in the wild, with actual customers, you can create a user experience that will delight and not frustrate. You can fix simple things like a confusing navigation or unclear path to purchase that would otherwise have resulted in support calls or frustrated customer emails.

While we can’t sit next to our ideal customer each and every day as we design, iterate, and test (that would be too easy!), conducting design research is a wonderful alternative.

And yes, no matter how much data you’ve gathered in the past or how well you think you know your customers, there is always something new to learn.

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