A Handoff Between UX Research and Design? Not So Much.

Lindsey Kerr
5 min readNov 14, 2022

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I came to my coworkers with this question: What does the handoff between research and design look like? As a researcher new to the UX world, I was curious to learn more about what this transfer of knowledge entails beyond my anecdotal accounts.

After talking with several folks I work with — primarily researchers but some designers too — I came to a realization. There is no handoff. Rather, there is a relationship between researchers and designers in which both sides continuously engage in progressing the project along an agreed upon path forward. So what does this look like?

Coinciding paths

In an ideal world, research and design workflows overlap in order to efficiently deliver a cohesive story grounded in sound research and design. The two synchronous paths never lose sight of one another, rather, they diverge for discipline-specific tasks and converge for informal and formal collaboration.

The paths of UX research and design converge and diverge throughout a project, culminating in a shared narrative and deliverable.

Never disappear

The greatest strength of coinciding paths is that no one disappears. In fact, each discipline has a role to play along the way.

What might designers do during the research-heavy phase of a project? Their own research! As one designer I spoke with kindly pointed out, “We are doing our own form of research.” Designers assess the current UX of the product and “…look at and evaluate what products are already out there.” Then, when research is in full swing talking to stakeholders and users, designers partake in data collection - building empathy for the user as they start designing. Formal or informal debrief sessions amidst data collection bring the project team together to align on what they’re hearing and what themes are taking shape.

On the flip side, what might researchers do while design is in a heavy concepting phase? “We are there to support and add context,” said one researcher. Researchers are advocates for the user’s voice and work with designers to ensure user needs are reflected in the design. In other words, researchers stay active throughout design to carry through user-generated insights.

Research and design paths diverge

Although research and design never disappear from one another, they have to go off and do the work of their respective disciplines. Yes, their paths are headed in the same direction and often meet, but “…there’s homework that each of us have to do separately,” as one designer framed it.

For example, on the research side, a team member does their homework in the form of drafting up recruitment criteria and discussion guides. These artifacts are then shared with the team for feedback. Similarly in the design space, gathering inspiration or mocking up a screen are discipline-specific assignments. Eventually, the project team sees the designer’s progress and shares feedback.

Research and design paths converge

Research and design come together through structured share outs, working sessions or impromptu chats. Oftentimes, after a remote research session, designers and researchers will stick around to reflect on what stood out and what trends they’re observing. On other occasions, planned working sessions enable the project team to come together and make sense of where the project is and where it’s headed. Perhaps halfway through data collection, the team convenes to document burgeoning user characteristics on an empathy map.

Organic and informal

Sometimes, when research and design converge it happens organically, informally, and nimbly. During data collection, this can look like the design team beginning to conceptualize solutions with continuous adjustments to stay aligned with emerging research. When collaboration is informal in nature, the team may need to focus on reducing the likelihood that organic design exploration goes beyond the narrative uncovered in research.

In conversations with teammates, a main benefit I heard of informal collaboration is the opportunity for design to be more involved and engaged in the research process and building out insights. On the other hand, a fluid and nimble process runs the risk of misaligned concepts when designing prematurely without established themes.

Concrete and formal

Other times, the way researchers and designers come together is more concrete, formal, and deliberate. The role of researchers and designers is more prescribed, meaning researchers own the backstory while design builds the vision. When interactions are more formal, the team may need to take extra care to provide referenceable moments from data collection to reduce bottlenecks in translating research insights into designs.

The primary advantage of converging more formally is the ability to design with established research themes, which can lead to more user-aligned concepts. The concern, however, is that researchers become gatekeepers of the user’s voice while designers may become less engaged in data collection.

In reality, researchers and designers converge organically, concretely, and everything in between throughout a project. Styles of collaboration exist on a spectrum, but most important is that everyone is part of shaping and sharing the project narrative.

UX teams come together in organic and concrete ways throughout the research and design process.

What determines if interactions will be more organic or concrete in nature? It depends on the makeup of the project. Here are some factors that impact how research and design paths converge:

  • Type of engagement: Discovery research tends to be more informal while evaluative testing tends to be more prescriptive in the findings.
  • Size of project team: What is the bandwidth of the teammates, and how much time can they spend throughout the project?
  • Type of client: How experienced is the client with user-centered research and design?
  • Type of designer: Does the designer prefer explicit direction, or are they comfortable interpreting the data themselves?
  • Type of researcher: Do they prefer to outline findings for their team or encourage discourse along the way?

Many mini handoffs

Let’s go back to the question that started this query. What does the handoff between research and design look like? When sharing the findings within this article with my coworkers, one person reflected on the original question, “There’s a reason why you said ‘handoff.’ It’s a series of handoffs. After you handoff, you have to stay close so you can receive ‘it’ again.”

Ah-ha! There are handoffs, plural.

The concept of a singular, pivotal handoff point between research and design is flawed. Namely, the richness and nuances of the data can fall through the cracks or get misinterpreted. This approach silos workflows and increases the likelihood of misaligned research and design paths, ultimately leading to different destinations.

However, the idea of multiple mini-handoffs enables researchers and designers to perform the tasks specific to their skillsets while enabling growth on collaborative teams. As one researcher said, “It feels fluid because it should be.”

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