Profile picture of Nick Babich

7 min read

Design research is critical to any project. Here's how to do it well

This essential guide covers it all: qualitative and quantitative research, usability session and interview how-to's, reports, and more.

A piece of paper that uses icons and charts to depict the design research process, treated in a purple gradient.

Illustrations by {name}

Stay informed on all things design.

Thanks for submitting!

Shaping Design is created on Editor X, the advanced web design platform for professionals. Create your next project on Editor X. 

"Know your user" is by far the most crucial rule of product design. No matter how much time and energy you invest in creating your product, if you won't conduct proper design research, the chances are your product will perform poorly on the market. Even the most beautiful web design will mean nothing to your visitors if it won't respond to their needs.


This article will discuss the concept of design research, its importance, and provide essential methods that will help you design better products.



What is design research?


Design research is a type of research that is undertaken to support the strategic design and development of products. It's an integral part of the user-centered design—design in which the user takes a central stage, and every product design decision is evaluated based on user intention and behavior. The product team that practices this philosophy applies research methods to find the reasons why people might want to use a product in the first place, and create products that respond to human needs. The ultimate goal is to gather valuable insights about users (user needs, wants, challenges, expectations) and turn those insights into product design decisions. At the end of the day, the product team creates a product that solves a particular problem that users have.


Design research will help you find answers to the following questions:

  • Who are your users?

  • What do your users need and want?

  • How can we satisfy those needs/wants with our product?

What are the benefits of design research?


Design research aims to inform the UX design process. Design research helps the research team avoid the situation when a product is designed without looking back on the actual user. In most cases, product creators are not the target users, and they might suffer from a false-consensus effect (assume that one's own opinions or behaviors are more widely shared than is actually the case). Jakob Nielsen perfectly summarized the risk of this bias, saying: "One of usability's most hard-earned lessons is that 'you are not the user."


Design research also allows product teams to design based on facts rather than assumptions. Instead of saying, "I think our customers need the feature A" , product designers will say "I know that our users need feature A" because they have hard evidence (research data that shows how users behave). And this gives creators a lot of confidence in product design decisions they make.



What is the difference between market research and design research?


Both market research and design research are focused on understanding people, but they have different goals. Market research is focused on attracting new customers (people who might want to buy a product). In contrast, design research is focused on improving users' experience (experience of people who purchased a product and use it). As a result, market research aims to find the message that will resonate with the target audience and help businesses convince people to try the product. On the other hand, design research analyzes human behavior to understand areas where product teams can improve user experience.

A venn diagram that compares market research and design research.
Market research vs. design research. Image by Nick Babich.


Methods of design research


The first thing you need to do before starting design research is to define critical goals. Without clearly stated goals, design research likely won't bring any value to the business. Work with your team and stakeholders to find out what you need to learn and write a brief where you specify expectations (key questions your research needs to answer) and a timeline (actual dates when you plan to provide the research results). After that, you can select specific methods that will help you achieve this goal.


By its nature, design research methods can be quantitative and qualitative:

  • Quantitative research methods are focused on answering "How many users [experience something]" questions. For example, "How many users face problems during the signup?"

  • Qualitative research methods are focused on answering "Why users [do what they do]" questions. For example, "Why is feature A more popular among our users?"


There are infinite ways to conduct design research and dozens of helpful methods. For this article we've selected the most hopeful methods for performing design research.


Interviews


User interviews are open conversations with people who represent your target audience to understand them.


Type of research: qualitative


How it works: You define criteria for your target audience (demographics, behavioral patterns, etc.) and invite people who meet these criteria to the interview, where you ask them specific questions (related to your research goal) and gather valuable insights.


When to perform: Interviews are especially useful during the early stages of the product design process when a team explores various product design directions and needs more information about user behavior. The insights that a product team collects during this stage will serve as a foundation for future research.


Tip: Pull out participant’s quotes. Actual quotes of people who represent your target audience are powerful tools for understanding their pain points. The quotes you heard during the interview can be extremely helpful when you need to convince stakeholders to follow a specific approach.



Usability sessions


One of the best ways to understand what problems users face while they interact with your product prototype is to ask them to perform regular tasks in your product and see where they experience problems. It's possible to conduct a series of usability sessions with different versions of your design to see which one performs better for your end-users based on metrics you’ve defined prior to the testing (the metrics could be completion time, the total number of errors users face, etc.).


A handwritten chart titled "Introduction to Usability Testing" that includes types, metrics, tasks, and more.
"What is Usability testing?" Image by Krisztina Szerovay: https://uxknowledgebase.com/usability-testing-part-1-e00a94974c79


Type of research: Can be qualitative or quantitative


How it works: Invite people who represent your target audience (real or potential users) to complete specific tasks (typically, tasks that represent real scenarios of interaction) and observe what they do and say while they interact with a product. Typically, this will be a different group since user interviews are conducted earlier in the design process.


When to perform: Usability sessions work well at the later stages of the product development process when you have a ready-to-ship product and want to validate it with your users. When test participants interact with a design that feels like a finished product, they are more willing to provide more detailed feedback.


Tip: Record videos of users interacting with your product. Videos from usability sessions will help you demonstrate how people actually perform tasks and what problems they encounter. Video can become a strong argument when you need to prove your point.



Online surveys


Sending questionnaires to people who represent your target audience and gathering their responses.


Type of research: Mostly quantitative


How it works: Product team selects a segment of potential or actual users and sends them a survey with a particular set of questions. If you use tools like Google Forms, responses can be collected and analyzed automatically.


When to perform: Surveys are ideally a supportive method for existing research and they work best for products that are already launched to the public. For example, you can learn from usability testing that some users face a particular problem (i.e. unable to checkout from the first attempt) and run a survey to understand how severe this problem is (i.e. how many users experience this).



How to implement findings into an actual design


Good design research doesn’t end with good insights. The goal of design research is to gain insights into user behavior and turn those insights into actionable product design decisions. Below are a few simple tips that will help you with that.



Prepare a report based on your research data


It's vital to provide research findings in a meaningful way—you need to turn raw research data into valuable information and provide this information in a format of a report. Having a good research report is beneficial for both researcher and the product team because reports can be used as project documentation.


This documentation should be shared with anyone involved in the product design process because it will help them better understand the context of user interaction and create better user experience. A solid report contains enough details and context that anyone unfamiliar with the project can read the research findings and understand them.



Prioritize your findings


It's nearly impossible to address all findings that you collect during design research. Good news—not all results are equally important. So that you need to categorize your findings and prioritize them based on the impact they have on business goals. Address the most critical problems first. Generally, you can consider the problem impact (How severe the problem is—'Critical, High, Medium, Low' rates) and problem frequency (How often an issue occurs when a user interacts with a product.—‘All the time, Frequently, Sometimes, In rare cases' rates).



Communicate findings to your team


Design research won't bring any value unless a team understands its importance, accepts it, and acts upon it. To make it happen, it's vital to communicate research findings to the team. As soon as you finish prioritizing findings, you need to deliver your findings in the form of a presentation to the group/stakeholders. During this session, you should present your findings, discuss them, and get an agreement (or counter-arguments) on their implications. It's possible to increase chances for buy-in if you involve team members/stakeholders early on in the design research process (i.e., by inviting them to design research planning).



Validate your product design solution


All your findings require validation with your target audience. Once you have an idea of how to improve user experience, you need to build a solution to see whether it works for your users or not. You don't need to create a fully functional product to validate your hypothesis. Part of knowing how to design a website like a pro is being able to create a prototype with just enough functionality to review with your clients or target audience.



Conclusion


Design is the practice of impacting human lives. The better products we design for our customers, the happier customers we have. Design research is a critical step in the design process that allows us to design products and services that truly work for people. When you invest time and energy in connecting solid design research, you learn what your users need and why they need it.