Design Research Essentials

Mar 27 · 2 min read
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“If your design isn’t based on evidence, what is it based on?” Erika Hall

Why: Evidence-based design

Research is an essential tool that helps us understand our surroundings. Imagine the things an enterprise can accomplish when it seeks to maintain intimate knowledge of its people. Research is a systematic way to ask questions and increase our knowledge of the people we are designing for. This is how we create experiences.

What: Timeless Research

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of design research. Foundational research helps establish a fundamental understanding of a particular group of people. You might observe them in their daily routines. You might survey a broad base or interview a select few. It can help you understand what is, so that you can formulate an idea of what could be.

This is distinct from usability testing, in which you are testing a created prototype. You might have participants try to complete a task using your prototype.

Even in the case of usability testing, you should always be getting foundational information from your participants. A designer from Microsoft put it this way:

“If an insight we uncover is only useful in one place and at one time, it becomes disposable… Timeless research is really about building long-term organizational knowledge and curating what you’ve already learned.”


Know your objectives. Data cannot generate meaning or understanding. There needs to be a question in mind or a hypothesis to compare against. For every research effort, you should know, “what are we trying to learn” and “what will we do with this information.”

What you want to know ≠ the question you ask. People are not great at articulating their own preferences or predicting their own behaviors. The answers to “Would you use this?” or “Which of these do you like” do not translate to real behaviors or good design decisions. The best way to predict future behavior is to look into past ones.

Let them drive. For usability tests, always let them drive, and take special care to make the testing environment and scenario as natural as possible. Anything that removes the sense of reality will skew the results.

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