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

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

7 min read

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"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 product 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.).