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Last updated on 10/3/22

Understand Why Research is Important

Imagine you're doing design research on smartphone use. If you ask a person how much time they spend on their 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 please the interviewer, sound intelligent, or are completely unaware of the reality. That's why design research is important: your goal is to learn about users and their actual behaviors beyond what they say they do.

Research is a way to gain critical 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 start over completely.

To begin, 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.

  • Observing in a context where behaviors are acted out.

From this work in the field, they can extract insights and key takeaways to share with team members to inform the product, service, or feature direction. 

Design research, sometimes called user research, is thinking critically. Through this process, a design researcher can confirm assumptions or provide an alternative reality. Therefore, they must be aware of effective ways to frame research, ask questions, and examine bias. 

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.

We'll look at research methods, interview techniques (and how to ask better questions), ethnographic methods, and ways to analyze your data and findings throughout this course. Research is only valuable if you apply what you learn.

Research in the Real World

Erika Hall is a leading design researcher and the author of Just Enough Research (highly recommended). She also talks 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 you bring to everything you do, and they are informed by your background, thoughts, habits, and attitudes. They can take many forms but often involve making assumptions around gender, race, religion, ethnicity, education. So how can you understand the users you are designing for if you've already decided 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. However, it's better to acknowledge that you have them rather than ignore them. Awareness, or consciousness, is the first step to looking past any assumptions.

Google's research has shown that education is the first step to minimizing bias. 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 everyday unconscious biases 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:

Let's recap!

  • Research is important because you learn about users and their true behavior and beyond what they say they do.

  • Research allows you to confirm assumptions or provide alternatives.

  • Conducting research around your product will save you time and money in the long run. 

  • Biases exist. When you're approaching design research, be aware of your individual biases and minimize their influence on your design research.

Once we are all set up about the why, let’s discover together the different research methods!

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