Say you’re a designer and you’re embarking upon a new project. What should be the first step of your process? Sketches? Photoshop comps? A prototype? If you’re skipping directly into any these steps, there’s a good chance that you’re missing a critical first step for any design project: research.
Incorporating a research phase into your design project increases the chances that your design will succeed. Design is about solving problems within a set of constraints. Research helps to identify both the problem and the constraints. Design without research is simply a shot in the dark. You might end up with a final product that doesn’t truly solve the problem at hand.
The good news is that you don’t need a PhD to conduct design research. While some companies may have an entire staff dedicated to research, with some basic training anyone can play a roll in performing research. In fact, most design research can be performed using simple six-step process:
- Define the problem. All research should start by determining what problem you’re trying to solve. Are conversion rates too low? Are users unaware of how to use an existing feature in an application? Are you trying to learn more about the audience you’ll be targeting for your new promotional campaign? The outcome of this step should be a set of specific questions that you’ll be able to answer at the end of the research process.
- Select the Approach. There are various types of research approaches that you can take depending on the problem you’re looking to solve. If you’re starting with an entirely new product, you might perform user research to understand the needs that the product needs to solve. If you’re fixing problems with an existing product, you might perform evaluative research to understand what areas of the design need to be fixed or rethought. In either case, you’ll probably also perform organizational research to determine what specific problems your design needs to address and to identify the stakeholders who will ultimately approve your work. If you’re analyzing other available products in the marketplace, you may want to perform competitive research.
- Prepare and Plan. In this stage, you’ll want to start with a problem statement that you’re looking to solve. You can then determine the duration of the study, identify who on your team will be performing which roles (interviewer, note taker, etc.), and identify the subjects of the study (potential customers or users of the existing application).
- Collect the data. If you’re performing qualitative research, data may come in the form of notes collected during user interviewers or observational sessions. Quantitive research may come in the form of results from user surveys or existing software analytics data.
- Analyze the data. At this phase, you’ll begin attempting to identify any patterns and insights from your research data. You can begin to think about how this data may impact your ultimate design solution. However, you’ll want to avoid looking at specific solutions at this point. The goal of research is simply to present data that will be used during subsequent phases of the design process.
- Report the results. Depending on the type of research, you might be reporting these results to your client’s stakeholders or to an internal team at your company. Deliverables can include both raw research data as well as observed patterns.
Ideally, the results of your research will leave you well-prepared to begin the next phases of the design and development process.
Looking to learn more about design research? I highly recommend by the book Just Enough Research by Erica Hall from A Book Apart. It’s a concise read that dives into further detail about the processes and research types discussed in this post.