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GuidesUser experience (UX)A comprehensive guide to understanding design research

A comprehensive guide to understanding design research

Last updated

27 March 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Katie Reed

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Design research is a broad term that helps designers understand the needs of their target audience by understanding what makes them tick. What do they like and dislike? What motivates them, and what do they struggle with?

Design research isn't about logos or product design but rather about the experiences of your target market and how your product can fill their needs. 

Since design research is not as well understood as it could be, it is sometimes overlooked by companies who want to move quickly through the design phase of their product. Some companies may think that since they are already doing market research, they really don't need to spend the additional dollars. But neglecting to do thorough design research could likely limit the resulting success of their product.   

What is design research?

A simple definition of design research is the analysis of the people who are your target market. It is about the people who use your product or service, what motivates them to purchase, and the behaviors that prompt the need.

Design research also involves understanding their problems and how your product can solve them. It delves into how they will use your product and the applications that they will use it for. It is about their experiences and their preferences. Likewise, it is customer-centric research, compared to research that centers around your product.

This research method helps designers capture the information they need to make the best design for their customer's needs and do so upfront before it gets to final production when rework or redesign is required. It is vital for cutting costs in production and design and will help deliver a product that is more in sync with the customer's needs.

Design research is a way of discovering how your product or service could optimally benefit your target audience.

Design research versus market research

It is easy to understand how there is confusion between design and market research. However, there are key differences.

Market research works to identify the target market and uses financial benchmarks to gauge success. It examines how the products can be marketed and where they are needed. But design research assumes that the target market is already identified and centers around that customer, their behaviors, needs, and how your product fulfills them.

Both types of research are essential. As competition intensifies, the customer experience becomes even more essential to fulfilling their needs and offering a product or service that satisfies them.

Market research is used to help the company make decisions that will impact them financially. For example, how will this increase market share or bring more profit to the bottom line? Design research, however, provides data on how the product will be used by the customer and the experience they will have when using it.

Why should you do design research?

There are several reasons to conduct design research when working on new projects or modifying, improving, or adding features. Centering the research around your current optimal market allows you to get to know your customer, their needs, and their surroundings. It can save money on product management and redesign costs or even prevent the introduction of a less-than-successful product. 

Some examples of why you should conduct design research are:

To learn consumer behavior

This segment of design research allows you to get to know your targeted customer—get to know who they are, what their problems are, and understand their expectations. Analyzing this information can help develop a product or service that can better fulfill your customer's needs and requirements. 

Customer behavior gives you a different set of data than market trends, so you can more accurately predict buying patterns, behavior, and experiences unique to your audience.

To uncover actionable insights

Design research helps designers uncover insights they need to navigate and design more efficiently and with greater accuracy for the design to more fully satisfy the target market consumer's needs. It can help uncover design facets that may have been missed or overlooked.

To keep irrationality at bay

It is often easy for a designer to make unfounded assumptions based on a bias or prior knowledge or expectations. People, in general, are irrational and unpredictable. Design research can minimize bias and keep assumptions along with irrationality at bay.

To get a greater bottom line for less money

Many times, companies choose to forego design research. They may not be aware of its contribution or think that design research and market research are interchangeable. However, once they know the value and the return on investment that design research yields, they can realize a healthier bottom line.

Sometimes, companies push hard to market new products without fully researching before their roll-out. Maybe it’s the excitement, riding on the tails of trends, or financial reasons, but without conducting comprehensive design research, even the biggest brands can introduce products doomed to failure. 

For example, when Google Glass hit the market, there was an obvious disconnect between the users who found wearing the product uncomfortable, the bars and restaurants that banned it, and the price that consumers found to be too expensive when compared with other tech products offering similar features.

When should you conduct design research?

There are many times in the process when design research is warranted. Ideally, it should occur early in the initial conversation about products since the results can impact the development and production of the product as well as the marketing plan and sales strategy. 

Other opportune times for design research are:

Adding new features

If you have decided to add new features to an existing product or service, you most likely have already completed market research or competitive analysis to decide how to improve the product. You can learn how your new features can better serve your audience through design research.


The redesign process is similar to adding new features. Combine design research with market research to get the customer input and preferences and how that would benefit the customer and translate into profit.

Create a new design

In order to effectively design research data on a new design, it is usually preferred to go in with a prototype that a customer will relate to. This could be a new product altogether, a new design of an old product, or a modified design of an existing line item.

Attract a new audience

You may need to invest substantially into researching a new audience for your product.  A new audience will have an entirely different demographic and will have different needs and interpretations. However, though it may be some expense on the front end, it will be savings on the back end, knowing you understand the target customer and their needs.

Understand a product's end-to-end lifecycle

Products and services are always changing. So, with products changing, your customer is changing too. Doing design during the lifecycle of your product can help you reevaluate if you are continuing to meet the needs of your audience and can usually be reflected in your bottom line.

Methods of design research

So now that you know what design research is and when you should do it, you may be thinking, “How is design research done?”

You can get the data you need from design research in several ways. Here are some of the most common methods:

User interviews

Probably the most common way to do a design research study is to sit down with the end user in an interview segment. You could use unstructured face-to-face interviews where the interviewer asks unscripted, open-ended questions, such as "Why would you purchase XYZ again?" 

User interviews often uncover issues that users may experience that a designer may have overlooked because they are too close to the product design.

Case study design

Case studies, which are in-depth studies of focused situations, are used for testing the viability of theories and how they relate to practice in the real world. This type of research focuses on a narrow part of the design and deals with questions specific to that specific item or part.

Exploratory design

If your product has not been as successful as planned, it could be due to a lack of research early in the design process. This type of design research allows researchers and designers to evaluate the product fully. It allows researchers to explore questions that have not been answered in the past. 

Observational research design

In addition to listening to responses during design research, observing the respondent can also give clues to their responses. Combining user surveys while using observational techniques can add value to the research.

Descriptive research design

This type of design research is a method that narrows down a particular phenomenon and concentrates on that with great detail. The goal is to observe and describe the process and draw conclusions from it. It is almost always used in narrow scopes where a small or minor detail is examined.

Longitudinal studies

This design research method studies the events over longer periods than a user interview or survey. A survey may take an hour or two, while longitudinal studies can take weeks, months, or even years to get the data sampling needed.

Surveys and questionnaires

Surveys and questionnaires used stand-alone or in conjunction with user interviews are common ways to gather data that are easy to compile and can be collected in great quantities. Many researchers use closed-end structured questions, so the data is easy to analyze and extract their findings.

Card sorting

Card sorting is a method of design research where topics printed on cards or sticky notes can be arranged in an order that they deem most relevant. It can be as simple or as complex as you need it to be and can cover several topics. Card sorting allows design research participants to put topics and subtopics in relevant groupings, which may differ from the original design hypothesis.

Usability testing

This method of design research evaluates the way and simplicity in which a user views your product. This process lets the user try out prototypes and can evaluate how easy it is for them to use. 

This is most effective when designers become so close and involved with their design that they may miss things that a user may encounter as a struggle. Consider a new app user. How they navigate the app may differ from the designer working with it for a long time.

Contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is an interview method that can be either structured or unstructured and usually takes place in the user’s own environment. This design research method is used early in the conception stage of a product. It allows designers to better understand the rudimentary requirements, the required or desired features, the content strategy, and any basics before beginning other research.

An example of contextual inquiry is asking users what they like best about a product or asking them what they would suggest making it better or easier.


Design research is essential to conceive an idea, redesign, or demographic expansion of your product or service. It offers a return on investment with its emphasis on your target audience, their usage patterns, and their customer experience. Unlike market research, it studies the customer, their behaviors, and their preferences, making the customer central to the research.


How is design research done?

There are several ways to do design research. Methods include user interviews, contextual inquiry, card sorting, surveys, and case study design. It can be done at any time during the conceptual phase, the design phase, or any time during the product or service's lifecycle. It is a research study based on customer habits, surroundings, and experiences.

What design research methods do you use most?

The design research methods depend on the data you are trying to collect. Perhaps the most common form of design research is the user interview. This method researches the target customer by asking a series of questions. This may be through face-to-face interviews, phone, teleconferencing, or surveys.

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