I was teaching designers this week, and it struck me: people don’t question the need of doing research any more. There used to be a few confident, experienced ones every semester who thought and said: they could do well enough without talking to users (insert anecdotal evidence here). I don’t think I heard this opinion this year, maybe not even last year. Even though the class consisted of people trying to get into product design and learn the basics, a few of them already did interviews and usability tests. So we are done? Everybody knows they need to do research and just wonders how to get started setting up sessions and recruiting participants?

Not really. The question still remains: what is the value of doing design research? Why is it meaningful when creating products and how does it inform the design process? Just accepting at face value: “you have to do research” is not enough, should not be enough. So I tried to highlight a few key points on the mindset.

You are not your user?

I got to hate this sentence over the years. Of course it’s true, but it doesn’t say anything about what’s the reason and benefit of getting to know your users.

Design research is about understanding your users, with some tools and approaches borrowed from real scientific research (but there are also a huge differences, no lab coats for one). Critical thinking, doing the detective work of finding patterns, solving puzzles and making connections are a few things integral to it. These also mean, you don’t need special education, most people are able to learn and do it with some preparation.

Design research solves your product puzzle.

While you create your product you need to make tons of decisions, and most of them will be educated guesses. You almost never have the time or resources to get proof on every decision you make. To get educated you need lots of well processed information, and research provides this through facts, reasons, and insights.

  • Research informs your intuition: By talking to enough users, you get the kind of instinct that quickly tells which ideas are great and which ones are terrible. This intuition is like a muscle memory, but for your brain that helps you to make better decisions for your users.
  • Research inspires your imagination: There are those user sessions where you seemingly randomly have a great idea, just from hearing the users talking about something they have done, or watching them struggle with a task. I see two states of mind combined in these situations: on one hand you are in the process of trying to solve a problem you have with your design, on the other hand you are focusing on a user’s pain points. The outside reinforcement from the user’s issues kick starts your creative juices.
  • Research helps to recognize emerging patterns: Either through analysis, or sometimes you can directly form patterns just by listening to users (minus the confirmation bias). Some of these patterns just tell basic things, like paint points happening together, or common workflows. But many of the patterns will be the stories that help you to better understand your problem space and your ideas. Part of this is natural storytelling ability of people: we are wired to understand information through stories.

Besides helping in creating the product at hand, research helps you and your team in other ways too.

Making it personal

I see two ways how designers can personally get better with participating in research: curiosity and empathy.

One of the greatest trait a designer, or really any maker can have is curiosity. And a great way to practice your curiosity is to do research with people. People are complex, they say and do unpredictable things. Talking to them on an interview, or watching them on an observation opens up new doors where you can be curious. Practicing this is important even if you feel like there is not much to learn on a session. Getting curious may lead you to new perspectives and finally to new type of ideas.

Empathy is something I’m explicitly looking for when hiring designers. The ability to understand other people is probably the most important skill to have if you intend to design products for other human beings. The only way to raise empathy is to spend time with people and actively listen to what they have to say.

I hope knowing these points will help these designers to realize later on when they need research, to not only see research as another check mark on the project road map.