Design research, step by step

I often have people ask me how to go about a design research project. Here’s a handy step-by-step guide..

  1. The Research Question: this isn’t the same as a research topic. Research questions are answerable in a finite amount of time and yield specific, actionable answers. Some good examples:
    • “What do senior citizens find frustrating about taking their prescribed drugs?”
    • “How do high school students typically study for their driver’s licenses?”
    • “What would working mothers find valuable in shopping for groceries?

    Some bad examples:

    • “What’s an interesting new way to deliver online medical records?”
    • “How can we improve the driving experience?”
    • “What’s wrong with our marketing strategy?”
  2. Determine the Method: This is likely the hardest part because every method presents a potential drawback. In general, if you don’t know much about the topic, use a qualitative method (and no, that does not mean “just do a focus group.”) If you know quite a bit about your topic but want to measure change, improvement or any other knowable quantity, choose quantitative research. That does mean “do a survey” sometimes — but not always.
  3. Write and Test the “Questions”: I put that in quotes because sometimes it’s not exactly a set of questions. Maybe it’s a task flow and a set of observations the researcher must make. Sometimes it’s a semi-structured interview. Sometimes it’s a quant survey. Make sure you test these “questions,” even in a quick and dirty way with co-workers.
  4. Recruit Respondents: Remember your research question? That should tell you whom you need to recruit. If you can’t figure it out, then you need to revise your research question. Be specific but not too narrow in your choices. The more requirements you impose, the smaller your potential base. If you’re doing a qualitative research project, keep interviewing until you start getting the same answers. This usually starts around 8 to 10 respondents. You’re not interested in “statistical significance” but the experiences of the people you’re talking to. For quant studies, statistical significance does apply and you should strive to have a minimum of 40 respondents. Remember though that the higher the number, the lower your margin of error.Design researchers can also rely on professional recruiters to get people for you. Good professional recruiters should get you the right people for a reasonable fee.
  5. Prepare the “Stimulus”: If you’re testing a new office chair, make sure your prototype is ready. If you’re interested in something that doesn’t yet exist, consider using photographs to elicit ideas and reactions from respondents. If you’re testing a “concept” make sure that what you’re testing reflects what you really want to know. For example, a picture of a new office chair may not do you any good if what you really want to know is how comfortable the chair actually is.
  6. Set Up The Research Space: This is an under-emphasized by oh-so-important aspect of research. Ethnographic research requires you to select the natural environment of your subjects, for example, and you must ensure you have been granted access to that space. If you’re interviewing, decide what kind of place might be conducive to good answers. Noisy restaurants or malls are unlikely to get you personal information, for example. This matters for quant research as well, as there’s a big difference between an in-person, a telephone, and an online survey.
  7. Set Up the Interviews: For qualitative research, this takes a fair bit of back-and-forth. It’s helpful to enlist the help of a junior staff member or an administrator. Keep your records straight!
  8. Determine the Data Collection Method: If you’re interviewing people in their homes, a TV camera may not be a good choice. Small digital recorders are available for iPods now (I love mine). Digital photos are also useful, but less discrete. And, if you can spare the staff, have one person dedicated to note taking. This frees up the interviewer to really engage with the participate, establish rapport, and probe for opportunistic findings. For quant research, this question usually involves technical questions like, how am I going to import these data into a data analysis tool?
  9. Collect the Data: Do your interviews, watch your tasks, ask your questions, whatever. Remember to take notes throughout. These “field notes” are sometimes the most valuable you can have.
  10. Answer Your Question: Remember your research question? This is where it comes in handy. You now know exactly what to do when you’re looking through your photos, or your notes, transcripts or whatever.


Survey research

Survey design tips

Intro to qualitative methods

Social research methods


One response to “Design research, step by step

  1. Pingback: Getting meaningful insights from qualitative research « Design Research

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