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Last updated on 12/5/18

Why does research matter?

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Let's imagine you're doing design research on smart phone use. If you ask someone how much time they spend on their smart phone every day and the response is "10 minutes" that's a bit hard to believe. When responding to a question like that, people may want to try to please the interviewer, sound intelligent, or may just be completely unaware of the reality. That's why design research is important: your goal is to learn about users and their behaviors in reality, beyond what they say they do.

Research is a way to gain key insights into user needs and behaviors in order to build better products. It's an early investment of time (and money) that will have long term benefits. It's much smarter to design for the right audience from the start, rather than having to completely start over.

To start, the design researcher makes a plan based on the project goals. As much as possible their research involves getting out into the world, understanding the environment, and observing in a context where behaviors are acted out. From this work in the "field" they are able to distill insights and key "take aways" which are then shared with team members in order to inform the direction of a product, service or feature.

Design research, sometimes called user research, is thinking critically. In conducting research a design researcher is able to confirm assumptions or provide an alternative reality. The researcher must be aware of the way that they frame their research, the questions they ask, and the biases they bring.

Ultimately design research is about embracing curiosity and being open to learning from and being inspired by others. Small unexpected insights can have a huge impact.

Throughout this course we'll look at research methods, how to interview (and how to ask better questions), home in on ethnographic methods, and examine ways to analyze your data and findings. Research is only valuable if you apply what you learn.

Research in the real world

Erika Hall is a leading design researcher who also is author of the book Just Enough Research (which is highly recommended). She also has the ability to talk about the importance of research with a sense of humor, while walking us through examples she has encountered in her own practice at Mule Design. 

You don't always have to be right. It's more powerful to have a good question than the right answer. Erika Hall at UX Salon. [29:49 min]

A few key ideas:

  • Knowledge is the way to close the gap between assumptions and the real world.

  • Better informed decisions ensure that better design gets out into the world.

  • Data doesn't change minds. You need a human element. 

  • You and your team may have different worldviews, so you need to know what you're talking about.


Finding the right answer is different than wanting the right answer. - Erika Hall

Know your bias

Biases are subtle judgments we bring to everything we do, and they are informed by our own background, thoughts, habits, and attitudes. Bias can take many forms, but often involves assigning assumptions around gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or level of education. How can we understand the users we are designing for if we've already decided in advance what they need and what they are like? 

When you're approaching design research, you need to be aware of your individual biases and minimize their influence. Rather than trying to ignore them, acknowledge that we all have them. Awareness, or consciousness, of these biases is the first step to looking past any assumptions.

Google's research has shown that the first step to minimizing bias is through education. They've created a series of tools called Unconscious Bias @ Work to start the conversation.

Google on Unconscious Bias. Think about your expectations [about people] at the start of this video, and again at the end. [3:58 min]

Rafael Smith of IDEO discusses the unconscious bias around us every day and addresses the inaccurate judgments we make about people. He points to opportunities to minimize negative influences.

Design for Unconscious Bias – Rafael Smith of IDEO [21:04 min] Notice how Rafael uses storytelling to communicate his ideas: he opens his talk with an exercise to prove a point, weaves in his own personal narrative, and walks through real world examples. 

Additional resources:

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement