It’s Never a Good Time to Do Research

Which is why you should be doing research all the time

Erika Hall
Mule Design Studio


Do not, my friends, become addicted to evidence. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.

There is a myth out there that—like all pernicious untruths—just seems positively unkillable.

Myth: There is a right time to do design research

The time might be next quarter, after this release, when the designers have some downtime, when the budget has some room, if the prototype doesn’t test well, or last year before we made that terrible assumption that tanked our business. It’s usually any time but, you know, nowish.

Like most myths, this contains a truth about human nature. The truth is that people tend to procrastinate and avoid activities that make them anxious in favor of those that deliver immediate satisfaction, and then justify their behavior with excuses after the fact.

People are amazing at coming up with excuses. This is the best evidence that every human is a born creative problem solver.

In professional life, we turn excuses into maxims, dress them up in Allbirds and do business under their banner.

“We are a data-driven organization.”

“We are a delivery-driven organization.”

“Real-world knowledge is irrelevant to blue ocean/blue sky/blue moon/blue cheese opportunities.”

“We don’t have time.”

“We don’t have money.”

“We are freakin’ geniuses.”

Sometimes, at a moment when the stakes seem particularly high or the people in charge have read a sufficiently convincing article, organizations will say, OK, now we can run a study.

In other words…

“Do not, my friends, become addicted to evidence. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.”

In our daily lives, we are doing research constantly. This is why Alphabet Inc. is worth $779 billion. Query formation is the most critical life skill that no one talks about.

Research is simply systematic inquiry.

  1. Think of a question
  2. Gather evidence
  3. Consider what it means

Repeat until sufficient confidence is reached. This is the basic process no matter what method you are using. It could take 5 minutes or 5 years. The more substantial the decision, the greater the standard of confidence required.

Yes, a lot of personal research is terrible and leads to bad conclusions. You know when it’s most likely to be terrible? When people seek to have their hopes or fears or biases confirmed, to be proven right rather than to find the truth. (In business, that’s called “validation.”)

Of course research conducted by individuals to make personal decisions is different from research conducted by businesses to make business decisions. Often personal research is better.

Research is better when the standard is “find useful answer” not “look smart in front of others”. It’s weirdly easy to be more rigorous when your own time and money are on the line.

Imagine you were going to buy a new car and I said that you couldn’t talk to anyone who had recently bought a car or read any reviews, or consider the real-world driving conditions. All you could do is run a 10-question survey of whoever volunteered to answer with no incentive and no follow-up. Or maybe you are planning a summer vacation. Since you looked up vacation destinations online just last year, there’s no need to do it again. Work from memory, my friend. I’m sure nothing has changed. What if I forbade you to ask any questions about anything except for on one Sunday per month? You’d be entitled to make a rude gesture and tell me to get out of your way.

I know people who won’t go invest 2 hours and $15 to see a movie without doing research. I won’t post a joke on Twitter before a bit of light fact-checking. Individuals who make informed decisions in their daily lives have a strategy and a sense for evidence-gathering. But there are organizations that will invest 20,000 person hours and several million dollars based on intuition, or whatever data is closest to hand.

While the methods and the amount of collaboration required may differ, what goes for individuals goes for organizations. Every single time you are faced with a decision, you need to ask “Do we have the right information to make this decision?” If you are continuously making decisions, you need to continuously ensure that those decisions are well-informed. Of course it feels easier to make things without asking questions. It always will. Like everything else uncomfortable in life, if you don’t make a habit out of it and connect it to rewards, you will find excuses to avoid it. This is as true for organizations as it is for everyone eating Pringles on the sofa wishing they wanted to motivate.

The reward is that when everyone is working from clear goals and good information—the same good information—everything goes faster, feels more meaningful, and has a much higher chance of success.

And it’s more fun. Really.

As long as you treat research as a special, inessential activity, you will never find the time for it. When you embed asking questions, gathering evidence, and considering what it means into how your team makes decisions as a matter of course, you will wonder how you ever got along without it.

I didn’t start out in this business to specialize in research, but it quickly became clear that asking questions is the most uncomfortable part of the design process for a lot of people. This unnecessary, but wholly understandable, discomfort ends up obscuring opportunities and contributing a lot of risk. If your team needs help getting past the objections to a steady pace of learning and doing, give us a call.



Erika Hall
Mule Design Studio

Co-founder of Mule Design. Author of Conversational Design and Just Enough Research, both from A Book Apart.