12 Design Research methods to get inspired by users

A typology of methods to build an inspiring research programme

User interview

A 1–2 hour interview with a current or future user, ideally at home or in the context of the thing you’re designing. For example, interviewing someone at their gym for a project about wellness.

The goal is to build up a deep understanding of an individual’s life, decisions and challenges. There are two reasons to interview people: firstly, to be inspired by the way people are encountering and solving problems; secondly, to build empathy for users.

Your aim is to see the world through their eyes.

The ideal ratio of interviewers to interviewees is 2:1 or at most 3:1. Avoid taking too many people to an interview as it can make participants nervous and ultimately make it harder to build a rapport.

Interviews are structured conversations — you should plan the questions you’re going to ask in a ‘discussion guide’. The guide should keep you on time and make sure you cover all the questions you need to ask.

Learn more about the structure of a Design Research Interview here.

Expert interview

As with the user interview, it’s a 1–2 hour interview in the expert’s normal environment. The interviewee should have deep experience or knowledge in the relevant area, or in a different industry where the same underlying problem has been solved in a new way. For example, when designing a health-tracking tool, we met with a financial advisor who used tools to support goal-setting.

Finding experts can be difficult and you may need to meet them at their place of work. On the plus side, when meeting a professional, like a physiotherapist, in their office, this is the best way to see how they work with patients.

As above, you should structure your conversation with a discussion guide.

Extreme interview

An ‘extreme’ participant should exhibit sharpened traits of your core users. For example, interviewing a professional racing driver will tell you a lot about the experience of good driving.

Extreme examples are, by definition, few and far between, so they can be hard to find. When trying to identify an extreme, ask yourself if there is professional elements to what they do? If you’re looking at a food project, go and talk to a professional chef.

Think marathon runners, deep sea divers, hackathon regulars.

Another route to extreme participants is to search for people who live with pronounced limitations (either self-imposed or not). We’ve interviewed people who live ‘off the grid’ in terms of electricity supply for an energy project; and we spoke to a zoo keeper to get inspiration for a hospitality experience (we’ve actually done this).

Group session

Generally these should be handled with care. Bringing together a group of participants has challenges. While it might feel efficient to speak to several people at once, there’s a danger that one vocal participant will guide the group.

At IDEO we don’t use focus groups.

However, we have recently run small groups of four people through formative testing. Formative testing takes well-formed ideas and looks for ways to refine them. In this case, a group setting can be effective, as you guide the group through several concepts and ask for specific feedback.

The biggest challenge in a group session is getting to know people well enough to build empathy. This is why they work later in a research programme, after you’ve got to know your users.

Expert panel

You can think of this as an expert group session. Convene a small group of experts and inspirational people to discuss the topic you are working on. As with individual expert interviews, the most inspiring people may come from analogous industries.

This is potentially the hardest type of research, simply because getting hold of the right people is very difficult. Although if you do manage to bring these people together, the discussions can be incredibly rich.

When experts do agree to take part, a big part of the appeal is to meet the other participants. One of the best examples for IDEO was a discussion around hotels, where we got designers from Facebook, Pinterest and Spotify, amongst others, all in the same room. They were just as interested in meeting each other as meeting us.

Analogous experience

Analogous experiences should take you away from your desk, out into the real world, where similar problems have already been solved. The most inspirational examples will be found beyond your client’s industry.

For example, healthcare can learn a lot from the hospitality industry; financial institutions will find inspiration in the world of personal fitness.

Analogous experiences can be as simple as using apps or buying something from a website. The key is to look for situations where similar problems have been addressed. To use another IDEO story, a team working on an anaesthetic gas product went scuba diving to experience the procedures and techniques that the instructors use to build trust.

Empathy experience

An empathy experience is about putting yourself in the user’s shoes.

One of my favourite case studies was a project for a drugs company developing a cancer drug. We wanted to understand the experience of taking the drug, but none of the designers, or even the client, had the condition, so it was difficult to truly understand what the day-to-day regime actually feels like. After interviewing the patients, it became clear that the pill itself was the source of a very unpredictable experience — each day the effect might be anything from mild sickness, to severe vomiting. In order to recreate something akin to this experience, our team put together mock-up pill packs with random-flavoured Jelly Beans — whenever they took one, it could be anything from ‘cherry’, to ‘blue cheese’ or ‘dog food’.

The resulting experience, while still a proxy, served to help the designers and the client to see things from the patient’s perspective. Designing from a position of deep empathy is both inspiring and humbling.

Desk research

A vital part of the research process is gathering knowledge from the internet and other existing literature. When your prior knowledge is limited, it’s important to get up-to-speed quickly. There will be a wealth of information online relevant to any project. Search for other research relating to your challenge — you may find blog posts, project pages or scientific papers, which are all useful, though it’s important to give yourself time to explore and understand the current issues.

Your client may also have a collection of prior research and inspiration. Make time to analyse the materials given to you and if possible, have the client give you a presentation of the existing material.

Infographics are often useful in quickly understanding complex information, but seek out the source material as you should understand the underlying data.

Good desk research can help shape the questions you’ll ask in interviews, so the sooner you start it the better. It can also be an ongoing activity as you learn new things through other research methods.

Data mining

The use of data in the design process is a new approach to finding inspiration from existing sources. While it can be difficult to directly manipulate data without specialist software and skills, don’t be afraid to go to explore the raw data yourself.

My instinct is that in the future, data science will become a core part of the design process, so I would encourage designers to consider it. In order to extract meaning from the data, play around with visualising it to get a sense of what it’s telling you. Using Excel or Google Sheets to draw a quick pie chart or bar chart will illustrate the broad themes, and make it easier for you to begin interrogating the data.

I’ve written in more detail about this in the Front Line Interaction Design collection in the How To Design With Warm Data.

Behaviour tracking

Behavioural tracking is another experimental area for research and something that we are just starting to build into the exploratory stage of a design project. The increase in ‘quantified self’ apps and products enables us to record data around people’s behaviour more easily than ever before.

You may find participants are already recording themselves with products like Fitbit and Withings. Even if they aren’t tracking already, people are becoming more open to the idea, and willing to do so as part of their engagement with your project.

There’s a lot to explore here; best practice has not yet been defined. It may also be the case that certain groups of people are more open to this kind of research, so proceed carefully and work out what’s best with your particpants.

Surveys

While we would always seek to build insight and inspiration through one-to-one interviews, surveys can give a broader view of user needs. Inexpensive tools like Survey Monkey and Google Forms make it easy to distribute questions to a much larger group of people than you can meet in person.

We use surveys after we’ve run qualitative one-to-one sessions, the observations taken from these interviews can then be quantified across a broader group.

Spend time crafting the questions and testing the way people answer. Avoid leading questions and give careful thought to your multiple choice options. Treat the design of your survey like the planning of an interview, spending as much time as you would when writing a discussion guide.

Make sure you capture some information about each participant so you can understand what kind of profile they represent. You may want to specify the type of participant as part of the introduction to the form, in order to screen out candidates don’t represent your target audience. Be careful though, as the more personal information you ask for, the more likely people are to be put off. You shouldn’t ask for any more personal information than you need.

Once you launch your survey check the first 10–20 responses to see how people are answering the questions; if some questions are being misinterpreted update the form. Think of this as a prototyping approach to reduce risk.

Guerrilla Research

Rather than one specific technique, this encompasses many approaches to testing with people in more inventive ways. These methods all take place in the real world and aim to gather insight and observation quickly and inexpensively. The goal is to get honest responses from people as they encounter every day situations.

One successful approach I’ve used in the past is using Google Adwords to test new product propositions; we set up adverts with a range of different value statements and recorded which got the most clicks. This approach is fairly cheap, but it’s not free.

We’ve also used Reddit and Quora as a route to talking to people, especially expert communities. Of course in this case you will be using your own profile on these platforms and so you’ll need to be careful about other community members’ perceptions of the way you’re using their network.

Think of quick ways to test elements of your design. Your goal is rapid validation so that you can quickly iterate your thinking.

I’ve written more detail about this in the Front Line Interaction Design collection in the Digital Guerrilla Research.

Let me know how these techniques work for you, and if there are others you think should be included.

Special thanks to A.C-W for her editorial input