4 types of research methods all designers should know

4 min read
Emily Esposito
  •  Oct 22, 2018
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Remember that fifth grade science project where you learned about primary research for the first time? Like most things we learned in elementary school, you probably didn’t expect it to creep back into your day-to-day adult life.
However, in reality, designers have to conduct research and analyze data all the time.

Design research is a critical step in creating the best user experience. It helps you understand your customers’ behavior and turn it into actionable insights to improve your design.

There’s an endless number of ways to collect customer data. Here are four of the most common research methods designers should know:

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Primary research

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. Most often, the goal is to better understand who you are designing for or to validate your ideas with the actual end user.

Some examples of primary research include:


One-on-one interviews are a great place to start when collecting primary research. There are three main types of interviews: directed, non-directed, and ethnographic. Direct interviews are the most common and follow the standard question and answer format. Non-direct interviews are used when participants may not feel comfortable with direct questions. Instead, this interview is set up as a conversation (with some rough guidelines). Ethnographic interviews involve observing people in their day-to-day environment (very similar to the contextual inquiry method covered below).

User groups

Also known as focus groups, these are structured interviews involving three to six participants. A moderator guides the discussion, providing verbal and written feedback through the exercises. This research method is best when you need to get a lot of user insight in a short period of time.

Contextual inquiry

You first ask users a set of standard questions, then observe them in their natural environment as they complete their everyday tasks. It’s not just an interview or an observation—you want to watch people perform tasks as they explain what they are doing and why. This type of research is especially important in the beginning of the design process to learn what is important to users and how they interact with similar tools or services.

Asking users to document their own experience will help you see your product through their eyes.

“Design research helps you understand your customers’ behavior and turn it into actionable insights to improve your design.”

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Diary study

Occurring over an extended period of time (from a week to a month, or even longer), participants are asked to keep a diary and log specific information about their activities. In-situ logging is the simplest way to collect data from diaries—users report all details about the activities as they complete them.

Usability testing

Once you’re deeper into the design process and have a prototype to share, usability testing helps you put that design into the wild to gather feedback. Here, you would ask potential or current users to complete a set of tasks using your prototype.

Secondary research

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 insight into what you learned during primary research.

Work with existing content, like presentations or articles, to present a strong case for your design choices.

This type of research method is quick and cheap—all you need is internet access or a library card to start. However, some common challenges with secondary research include not being able to find the specific information you need, or battling outdated, low-quality data.Here are some places where you could gather secondary research:

  • Internal data, like your company database, sales reports, or historical information
  • Government statistics or information from government agencies
  • University research centers
  • Respected magazines and newspapers

Generative or exploratory research

Generative research, also known as exploratory research, focuses on a deeper understanding of user needs and desires. It is usually conducted at the beginning of the design project when you need to answer basic questions like, “What problem are we solving for our customers?” This discovery phase helps you to identify a design hypothesis and validate it with your customers. You won’t always know what the outcome or answers will be, but they will create a strong foundation to make good design decisions going forward.

You’ll see a lot of overlap between generative research and primary research since the whole point of generative research is to get out and talk to your users. Examples of generative research include interviews, user groups, surveys, and contextual inquiries.

Before you start your research, make sure you know what you intend to learn from the results.

Evaluative research

After gathering your generative research, you’re prepared to design a solution for your customers. Evaluative research allows you to test that solution, giving users the opportunity to “evaluate” your prototype. Your goal is to collect feedback to help refine and improve the design experience. One of the most popular ways to conduct evaluative research is to have people use your product or service as they think out loud (again, a subset of primary research). A perfect example of this research method is usability studies.And, for whichever type of evaluative research you choose, there are two types: 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).

Keep asking questions

How do you decide which research method to use? It depends on what you’re trying to learn. You may start with primary research and find that more questions arise after getting to know your customers better (and that’s a good thing!). These new questions will help you decide what you need to learn next. When in doubt, always follow the questions.

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