The Importance of Design Research

MentorMate
11 min readDec 12, 2022

Think about some of the digital products you used recently. Were they easy to navigate? Were they intuitive and flowed logically? If they were, chances are the team behind that product conducted design research before developing it to understand precisely how it should behave to provide a streamlined, easy to use experience to you, the user.

What is design research?

Design research is the structured investigation of human behavior, motivation, and context. At MentorMate, we use design research to understand our users better and bring value to the problems we’re solving for our clients. It allows us to prioritize our end users within the needs of our clients. Design research drives value by ensuring that teams are building the right thing before any development of the product occurs.

What value does design research add?

When discussing design research with clients, one of the first questions we get is, “How much will it cost?” And that’s a fair question! Design research does usually add to a project budget and timeline. But it also brings so much additional value and cost savings with it.

Design research fixes design flaws and focuses on the scope before development begins.

Generally, every $1 spent on research saves $10 throughout the development phase of a digital product. It also has the potential to save an additional $100 on post-development revisions you would’ve needed to make had you not conducted design research.

Research also brings value to projects by allowing us to create strong, data-backed decisions as we design our work. When working with clients, design research is the best tool to answer two commonly asked questions.

What is the right thing to design?

Did we design the thing right?

When we conduct design research early in a client engagement, we look to discover what problems users encounter. Sometimes, we run into clients who come to us with a solution rather than a business need or question. In those cases, it’s our job to investigate whether that solution is the best fit for them. We bring value to our clients through design research by speaking to actual users and determining if their solution fits the problems and needs of the people using their product.

Design research eliminates bias.

We all view the world through a unique lens. We can’t necessarily expect to know everything our users need, want, or experience. We use design research to speak to our end users, understand what they’re going through as they interact with our products, and understand the context better.

Design research gives us data to move our assumptions and biases aside and look at the evidence we have in front of us to tell us what people want or need. If we were to ask people, “How do you get to work?” we might personally assume that they’ll say some things like, “I walk to work,” or, “I drive my car.” But the reality is that people will give us different answers. Some people will tell us that they ride in on the train. Others will tell us they telecommute and don’t go into work. There’s a huge variety of answers out there, and the things that come to mind for us first might not be the reality for most of our users or audience.

Design research helps us understand and empathize with our users so we can make the best and most correct solutions for them through our design and development work.

Design research establishes speed and velocity through structure.

With design research, we have a proven methodology that allows us to gather insights about users and their needs quickly. We’re no longer grasping at straws or trying to empathize through snatched conversations. Instead, we have a process that scales consistently to the needs of a project or the complexity of the question. It helps us more quickly understand what our proposed solutions need to be than if we just approached things without establishing empathy or understanding for the design user perspective.

Types of design research

We practice several types of design research here at MentorMate — generative vs. evaluative, qualitative vs. quantitative, and attitudinal vs. behavioral. All these are equally valuable, but using them depends entirely on what we’re trying to learn. We don’t use every single type every time we conduct design research.

Generative vs. Evaluative Research

Generative research helps us refine or define a problem statement and identify what opportunities exist within a particular industry or product space. We use this early in our design projects to understand where we’re operating, our user context, and what we can do for our clients.

Generative research is typically qualitative and much more open-ended than later research engagements. Another kind of research is called evaluative research. You’re usually either doing generative research or evaluative research.

Evaluative research is when you have an existing solution to a problem. When you do evaluative research, you want to understand how practical that solution is. Often, what we’re doing is asking people whether or not they like what they’re seeing. We’re establishing empathy by deciding whether or not our solution meets their needs, or we’re doing something like usability testing, where we’re trying to figure out if the design we’ve proposed is functional or easy enough to navigate.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research

Other types of design research include qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative research is what we do when speaking to people or observing people within a specific context. We’re looking for cues to understand their motivation or why they behave a certain way.

Quantitative research is when we’re looking at numbers. This is what we see when we look at things like Google Analytics or when we do surveys with people. We’re getting much more specific data that shows us patterns or themes but doesn’t necessarily help us to understand the motivation.

Attitudinal vs. Behavioral Research

Attitudinal behavior is when we try to understand directly from our users what they think or believe about a specific topic or in a particular context. Sometimes we ask them how they feel about something. Other times we ask them how they think they’ll behave or react in a given situation.

Behavioral research is different because we observe what people do. Sometimes we look at the same scenario, but we start with attitudinal research and ask people how they think they’ll behave. Then, we follow up with behavioral research, watching how they behave in that situation. You might think that you’d get similar answers, but what someone says they will do doesn’t align with what they do.

It’s essential to understand what a person believes about themselves, how they behave in any given context, what the reality is, and what factors drive that actual behavior.

The MentorMate Design Research Framework

At MentorMate, we use a framework called DECADES to ensure that we hit on the most critical considerations every time we approach a design research project. DECADES is a simple seven-step process to ensure well-considered and well-defined design research initiatives. It doesn’t tell us how to implement or go through the process specific to every single type of design research methodology. But it reminds us of the pieces we need to consider for our research to be effective, no matter our design methodology.

DECADES stands for:

Determine your objectives

Establish your research questions

Choose your methodologies

Assemble your research plan

Do the research

Evaluate your insights

Share your insights

Determine your objectives

The first thing that we do is determine our objectives. A design research objective is the most crucial thing you can do when you start to plan out your design research. Your research objective is going to articulate what it is that you hope to accomplish with your research. It’s going to help you control the scope of your design research engagement, and it’s going to help you manage your client and customer expectations as you move through a design research project.

A good objective is open-minded, narrow in scope, answerable, unbiased, specific, and free of assumptions. It’s vital that you look at your objective and you don’t take on something too big to handle. Your objective should be specific enough that people understand what you’re hoping to accomplish and can bring it into something attainable through the available resources, people, and exercises.

An objective might sound like this: we want to find out what features our users think are valuable in our product. That’s fine, but it could be more specific. A slightly better objective would be: we want to understand our users’ assumptions around what types of interactions are valuable to them within a particular context so that we can determine what features we need to include in our MVP product release.

Establish your research questions

The next thing that we do is establish our research questions. Every objective is likely to have one or more questions we need to answer to meet and satisfy the needs of that objective. If we wanted to understand my users’ experience so we could determine what features to include in my MVP product, we have many different things I want to know about them.

  • We want to know who our user is
  • We want to know what they do in their day-to-day relationship with the products that we’re building
  • We want to know what their expectations are based on other use cases that should apply to the product that we’re creating for them

Several questions are going to come out of the objective. We’ll use these questions to choose the methodologies we hope to implement through our design research.

Choose your methodologies

The next step in the DECADES framework is to choose your methodologies. There are a lot of different ways to do design research. User interviews, usability testing, observational research, and surveys are just a few examples of a long list of research methodologies available. But the important thing is to choose methods that best serve the needs of the research objective and questions.

Assemble your research plan

Once you’ve chosen the design research methodologies, assemble a research plan. A research plan is a document that we use to keep design researchers, internal and external stakeholders, and our research coordinators aligned on how to execute and do our research. A research plan is an important document, but it’s not something we create just for documentation. It’s a living, breathing piece of work with many contributors.

Through our design research plan, we determine and record the scope and activities, the different resources needed, where and how to execute, stakeholders, budget, and many other practical considerations. This plan is best used to keep people aligned on all the research work details. Without a design research plan, it’s too easy for the scope to expand, for clients to expect something different than what we intend to give them, or for people to miss pieces, we need to accomplish our design research. Your research plan keeps you aligned, so it’s critical not to skip this piece of work.

Do the research

The next step is to do the research, which is actually one of the easier pieces of a design research engagement. However, don’t take it too lightly. Conducting effective research requires a lot of different skills and roles. You need a research lead who can help pull everything together and a moderator. Sometimes that’s the same person. It’s also beneficial to have a research coordinator and somebody skilled in creating prototypes for you to use in usability testing. Be sure to evaluate your methodology and get the right people early so you can plan and move forward together as you research.

Evaluate your insights

The next thing you’ll do is evaluate your findings. Aside from setting appropriate objectives, this step is probably the most essential piece of our work. When we evaluate our findings, we take the data and apply our expertise to turn it into something insightful. We take data and turn it into knowledge that we then turn into insights.

Evaluating findings typically takes the form of something called synthesis. When we do design research synthesis at MentorMate, we bring in a diverse set of perspectives and roles to help us unpack and organize the data in a way that allows us to see a lot of different patterns emerge. Typically, this actually looks like us using a physical or digital whiteboard. We keep things low fidelity, use a lot of sharpies, and physically move the data elements around. We call this exercise affinity mapping, and it lets us see themes emerge by physically grouping things together.

Once we’ve physically grouped things through different lenses, we take everybody’s expertise and discuss our perspectives and knowledge. Through those discussions, we ask ourselves, “Why did this happen? What if this had happened instead?” And we come up with insights that shape what we see. These insights help us drive outcomes as we proceed with our design research.

Share your insights

The last thing that we do is share our insights. Design research isn’t worth much if we don’t share our insights with people who will use them to drive outcomes. When you share your insights, there are a couple of key things to keep in mind.

First, simplify what you’re sharing. Our job as design researchers is to sift through all of the data and turn our findings into clear, concise, and actionable statements and recommendations. As we do that, we also need to make sure that we’re paying attention to who our audience is. When we share our information as actionable items, sometimes that means that we’re communicating with our technical leads, but other times it means sharing business stakeholders. These are two very different audiences who sometimes speak very different languages, and we must communicate with them differently. Before sharing our insights, we should always consider our audience and who they are.

Next, we need to ensure that we share with the correct audience. It’s too easy sometimes to think that our business stakeholder is our only audience. Our design research can influence everything that our project team and product team are doing together. Sharing insights with technical leads and business analysts is just as important as sharing them with clients and stakeholders.

Lastly, we need to eliminate gatekeeping when we think about sharing insights. It can be tempting to limit sharing your design insights with the design team. But that’s far too limiting a group. Again, design research influences all aspects of product development and creation. It’s not fair to our end users or to keep our design findings so close to the design team that others can’t take advantage of them.

By sharing our design research and insights broadly, we make their value available to everybody working with us, creating the best value for our end users.

Final Thoughts

Design research is a critical part of the broader product development process. While it certainly adds to a project’s overall budget and timeline, the value gained by the insights observed during design research pays for itself many times over in the end. Not only that, but you ultimately develop a product that’s not only usable but useful as well — which is the ultimate goal.

Original post found here.

Authored by Annika Hey:

Annika leads MentorMate’s Experience Design group based in both Minneapolis, MN and Sofia, Bulgaria. Since joining the MentorMate team in 2015, Annika has built a design team that excels at strategically approaching design and user research in a manner that best aligns our clients business needs with a seamless user experience.

Prior to working with MentorMate Annika fine-tuned her approach to design by working with clients such as General Mills, StarTribune, Medtronic, Bridgestone Tires, and many more.

--

--

MentorMate

Blending strategic insights and thoughtful design with brilliant engineering, we create durable technical solutions that deliver digital transformation at scale