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How To: Conduct Research That Designers Will Use

The designer came back and asked exasperatedly, “what do I do with this?”

He was looking at a research report that was meticulously done, but that did not help translate into something that could inform ideas on a solution or even physical designs.

I often get asked by clients, “How do you get from research to design?” I admit, it’s not an obvious transition. You learn something about someone, designers go back to their desks, and all of a sudden you have a specific solution. How do we know that creation was founded on what we learned?

It is a concern where we as researchers have to look at our own work and ask — are we serving designers with what they need in order to do their jobs? Are we speaking on behalf of the user in a way that will encourage creativity, possibility, vision?

When our research does not bridge the gap between knowledge and creation, our research is useless. UX Research is meant to engage, inspire, and ultimately mobilize those who use it.

This goes all the way back to when we embark on research and all the way to how we structure and communicate our findings. How can we make sure that research informs design?

  1. Ask the designer what he/she needs to know to do their job. I know it seems obvious, and sometimes the researcher IS the designer, and they still miss it. Even with designers, they may mentally disconnect the research activities from their design activities. I create objectives before I create any materials in the research, and those objectives are informed by what I want to know about the user and what the designer and developer want to know about the user.
  2. Ask yourself — “Does this get me closer to a solution if I know this?” One flaw that I see in analyzing data is that you analyze it and then you. report. everything. Not all information is useful. What information pushes the narrative of the user in a way where you can understand what goals they have, what type of solution they need, what user flows are necessary, what features are relevant, and what content is important at what time? These are all questions a designer is worrying about. If the information is “nice to know” but doesn’t inform them on this, you’ve wasted their time.
  3. Create an empathic story. A big part of design thinking is having empathy for your users. This is powerfully relayed in the way that you explain and contextualize your research. Who are your users? The quickest way to predict what someone will do in a hypothetical situation is to understand about their motivations, attitudes, emotions, and their triggers (events that get them thinking about something your client is probably interested in). Paint a picture of them on that level, and people will be able to empathize because motivations can be shared, how we enact them in different context, cultures, etc. can be different. I walk clients through an “emotional user journey”, a journey that shows not only what they do but how they feel at each point in time and why. It helps clients experience the ecosystem they may be stepping into on a gut level.
  4. Highlight solvable problems. In design thinking, we want to create statements of possibility, an open invitation to consider alternatives. “How Might We… improve the way we track people’s time so that time sheets aren’t so painful to fill out?” “How Might We… reimagine a toothbrush so that users can reduce their environmental impact?” Our research should help inform these ideation questions.
  5. Represent the user. Research is a process often with documents to consolidate learnings but it shouldn’t stop at the document. Reports, personas, user journeys, etc. distill the rich information you have experienced in this process. If the researcher IS the designer, that’s amazing. Then the user lives on in the designer in a primary form. If the designer is NOT the researcher, the user lives on in the designer’s memory of the presentation and interpretation of the report — a secondary form. If this is the case, the researcher should be providing advice, reviewing, or co-creating with the designer.

Research is not a powerful design tool unless you approach it knowing what it will be used for.

Why should businesses care that we approach research right? Research gives us confidence that we are looking at the right problems. All good projects must start with truly addressing real problems — otherwise you’re wasting a lot of money on creating something that is solving a problem no one had. Subsequently, how do we know we are meeting the needs of our users? Research helps businesses establish a baseline for success metrics. Good initial research helps us measure our return on investment.

Why should designers care that we approach research right? Research should be one of the most impactful tools in a designer’s toolkit. Research ensures decisions are focused and informed. It keeps stakeholders and designers honest about the design decisions they make (or argue over) because the rationale from the research should back it up. Research at the beginning isn’t the end-all-be-all. It’s an informed starting point. As we progress, we learn more. But it provides more confident user assumptions to start with. Designs can create targeted user tests (does our design solve the problems we revealed in the research?) so that we can continually clarify what we know and whether or not we are on the right track.

Research is okay when it addresses gaps in our knowledge: “I want to know you”.

Research is a powerful tool when it bridges the gap between knowledge and possibility: “I want to know you so that I can help you.”

About the author

Deborah Ko is the Head of Research and User Insights at PALO IT Singapore. She doesn’t use her psychology degree to psychoanalyze people (that’s just a hobby), but uses her powers for good — helping clients understand their users on a more psychological level and empowering the Design & Strategy team to create innovative user-centric products and services through rigorous research and user testing.




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Deborah Ko

Deborah Ko

behavioral psychologist, self-proclaimed sci-fi nerd, and ux enthusiast.

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