What is Design Research? (And why you need to know about it)

Paul Blunden
6 min readOct 12, 2021
Photo of a desk with laptops, coffee and iphone. Two people are handing a wireframe from one to the other

Design Research is the study of people mental models, behaviours and jobs to be done with the aim of creating products and services that are customer centric from inception to delivery.

Design Research allows us to learn about human wants and needs, whether it be external customers or internal users. What motivates them? What inhibits them? What do they expect from this experience? How do they engage? What are their influences? Their behaviours also relate to different emotional, practical, political, social, economic and aesthetic needs, creating a huge amount of (otherwise) unknown variables.

The methods used for Design Research are different to traditional market research. It aims to uncover complex (maybe even unknown) needs and behaviours. It can identify environmental influences or personal contexts from which users will form different experiences. These investigations blend with extensive consultations and wider industry research to form data, imagery, reports and a set of tools that can eventually create accurate insights.

Design Research is not about assumptions or pre-emptive ideas. The goal is not to gather data which proves or disproves theories. Implementing Design Research is a change in mindset — creating a full idea of the user in the early stages of design before deciding on a strategy. By studying what users do and say, we can create the theory behind user interface design, usability, product design, and in some cases, organisational vision.

Why is Design Research so important?

Design Research should be a key part of digital transformation, technological innovation or implementing smaller digital changes. Whatever industry you work in, involving external customers (or internal users) in your projects allows you to create an innovative and unique strategy to suit their needs specifically.

As well as being used to collect information on the needs and wants of users, Design Research can also be used to validate existing ideas or build credibility for future projects or changes. Even on a basic level, it can directly support the work of UX designers, UX strategists, Usability teams, Product Owners, Online Marketers and more.

It can also identify potential relationships or areas of growth for the wider business, and encourage stakeholder engagement from other areas of the organisation. While traditional market research provides potential insights within one particular area, Design Research is able to positively affect a multitude of different teams.

Properly structured design research answers questions and defines known (or unknown) wants and needs from both the users and the organisation. This process can turn digitisation programmes into full strategies and organisation-wide opportunities: it gives you the support to transform in a strategic way, with real evidence about what users need.

The 4 Stages of Design Research

  1. Discover

The discovery stage is about involving your customers and helping to identify the problem. This stage makes their wants and needs visible, and widens the problem area. If you are open minded about the opportunities this stage can offer, the evidence can move the problem from a tactical suggestion into a strategic plan.

  1. Generate

With the problem area established, this stage explores how the solution should be framed. Generative research incorporates the needs of the users to define the experience (or solution) which needs to be delivered. (It is not about the interaction design — that comes next.) Without generative research the project can stall, or worse, go straight into design. That is when ‘user experience design’ becomes just ‘experience design’, and the user is lost. This stage helps to understand what people are thinking and why they behave in the way they do, so that you can incorporate these personal responses and reactions into the design.

  1. Evaluate

This is where you start to create the experience. This stage evaluates concepts and prototypes as they evolve toward the final solution. Evaluative research is the way to make sure that the original problem is addressed, the desired experience is delivered, and that it works.

  1. Optimise

After it’s live, the solution should be optimised to ensure it delivers the maximum and planned return on investment. Qualitative research at this stage also supports your tech stack optimisation strategies.

Why do I need to know about Design Research?

Design Research crosses the boundaries between small and large organisations. It stretches across different roles, from Web and UX Designers to Product Owners, all the way to Marketing, Finance, and up to CTO and CEO level.

For User Experience: In a post-pandemic climate, there is an obvious absence of physical relationships between users or customers and suppliers. When transforming these relationships into digital formats the experience should be focused on human interaction and how the digitisation can best serve the users.

In Usability testing: Design Research generates a framework for which Usability can be tested against. The initial wants and needs of the user can provide a baseline for Usability teams to work from, and offer them the opportunity to experiment with creative and innovative solutions going forward. Bringing in the user simply as a ‘test’ subject at the final stage, means that there is no cohesive overview of their needs and how this affects each element of the design — and it’s likely to mean costly reworking or a disjointed experience.

Throughout the Design process: It helps the designer to think about the person, rather than just the product. Instead of starting with a solution and trying to work backwards, they are entering from the other side — the problem space.

To support Market Research: When planning small digital changes or larger transformations, it’s impossible to know the needs of the customers or users without research. By integrating design research from the start, customer needs can help to shape strategies or even create new business goals that weren’t initially visible. This is a different mindset from traditional market research which sets out to test existing principles, but they can work alongside each other.

Incorporating Design Research

It can be difficult to know how to incorporate Design Research into your existing way of working. Rather than thinking of how you can add it in, think about how it could solve some existing problems:

Resolving internal conflict

If you’re trying to define opportunities or problems as a team, it can be difficult to prioritise what needs to be done. Alternatively, just having a single person (or sole team) managing their own area of interest, can also be damaging because their vision may be too focused, too exclusive or too limited. Design Research provides evidence for the key areas on which to focus, creating an unbiased, independent strategy.

Creating clarity

There could be a lack of alignment amongst stakeholders or leaders about how to make changes, or a lack of engagement from a higher level about digitisation. Design Research offers evidence-based data to reassure organisations about their ROI and support creativity, innovation and growth.

Identifying potential opportunities

If products are too heavily focused on back-end benefits or business priorities, it’s easy to miss what customers are looking for. A narrow or static focus means that organisations are missing out on potential digital innovation or positive new experiences for their customers — which could drive real change or expansion within the business.

Providing confidence

Design Research offers knowledge about specific markets, behaviours or future needs, which can help outweigh the risks and ambiguity involved with investing in digital change.

The business case for Design Research

Think about the case for Design Research in your business. If you’re looking into any kind of digital transformation or moving into digitisation, there is obviously a need to adapt or change part of your product or service. Whether the goal is to drive growth, increase income or improve ways of working, there is an understandable tendency to jump into the most obvious technological or design solution available.

Utilising technology to achieve these goals can be efficient, cost-effective and easily managed, if you incorporate design research at the start of that process. Producing technological solutions without Design Research at the core can result in expensive and timely reworking at the end. It can also help with establishing the desired parameters at the start from which you can measure the effectiveness of the changes and monitor the ROI.

Design Research can build a framework to spark a new idea: whether it’s as simple as a different CTA or a new checkout process, or even the opportunity to fuel a complete digital transformation. The purpose of Design Research is that the users (and their needs) generate the process, rather than working from a directive which comes from the business.

To put it simply, if Design Research isn’t part of your current process, you might need to start again.

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Paul Blunden

Paul is Founder and CEO of UX24/7 and has spent more than 20 years in UX and Design Research.