Design & Research: A practical guide to working well and efficiently together

Co-authored by Nicolo Arena and Caroline Wilcock

Here at Bulb, we have a Design & Research team with two separate roles for each discipline: product designers and user researchers. Together, we create solutions that meet our members’ needs. Here are a few practical steps we take to ensure that we’re all aligned whilst juggling several projects at the same time.

Inline research insights in design files

We write research insights directly into Figma, the design software we use, as well as storing them in specific research documents. This means that the rationale behind our designs — why we made certain choices, and the data that influenced those decisions — are always visible. As a result, all of our design decisions are based on research.

Screenshot from Figma, where the research insights are right next to the design

Patterns in Solar are informed by research

We also integrate research insights into Solar, Bulb’s design system. This ensures that design patterns we build are grounded in research. We regularly review the design system to continuously capture new insights. It’s useful for everyone, as it allows us to point to concrete reasons why a pattern looks or acts the way that it does. It’s useful for researchers as it ensures that user needs are truly reflected in the design patterns we create.

The checkbox component in Solar, our design system, with guidance from a research insight

Designers run their own research

Although we have two specialised roles, there’s a lot of crossover with what we do. Our designers have worked hard to learn good research practices and are confident running usability testing themselves. They work with researchers to sense check their research plans and discussion guides. Being able to independently carry out research empowers us to gain as much knowledge about our members as possible. However, it’s important to be mindful that designers performing research on their own designs can result in unwanted bias, so we try to make sure that a researcher is on hand to sense check and that a secondary researcher is always in the room with the designer for balance.

Designing and researching in parallel

We like to move at a fast pace to get things done quickly and we want research to influence designs from an early stage. Researchers immediately provide feedback to their design counterparts straight after research sessions, so we can get cracking at improving the designs as quickly as possible.

Pairing on design

When designing, researchers will often sit with designers whilst they work to discuss how we can turn insights from research into design changes. They act as a voice for the members whilst creating new features. We also sit physically next to each other so it’s easy to work together. Sounds simple, but don’t underestimate the importance of this — it’s so much easier to quickly grab the other person and check something in person rather than work something out over Slack. That being said, interruptions can be distracting too, so we use the “headphones” rule to avoid breaking the other’s flow (if headphones are on, wait until a bit later).

UX and Research is a team sport at Bulb

Not only do designers and researchers always try to work together as a pair, we also collaborate with the whole company: energy specialists, product managers, developers and QAs. For example, when we do usability testing, everyone has an opportunity to observe the session. We frequently sit down with our teammates in the Experience team to understand how they work so we can develop tools to make their lives easier. Imagine it as a ping pong game with lots of feedback going back and forth. Together we work to keep our members at the heart of everything we do.

Energy Specialists at Bulb contributing to the design of internal tools

Design without research means that the product won’t meet the needs of the people who use it. Researching without design means that the insights may not get implemented at all. This is how we keep up with the fast-pace at Bulb. And support from our counterparts reassures us that we’re heading in the right direction.

Co-authored by Nicolo Arena and Caroline Wilcock