Experience Management

What is design research methodology?

How can design research principles of being curious about your target market and learning what they need give you the ultimate edge in creating the best customer experiences?

What is design research?

Design research has become more important in business, as industries move towards designing high-quality customer experiences. How can companies create truly valuable products and services that focus on the customer and provide value that enhances their experience and lives?

Design research is not about how a product looks (that’s called product design). It is a research approach that uses curiosity to look at the customers themselves and create a broad understanding of their perspectives.

Ideally, design research happens early on in any conversation about products, as the results of the research directly impact the sales strategy and the development cycle of your product line.

Design research is markedly different from market research.

While market research explores what products and services can be marketed and where, design research looks at the reasons behind how your target market behaves in the first place and why they might appreciate a solution that helps them improve their interactions and experience.

This research aim is to understand the user well so that you can see what your users need, why people behave in the way they do, and what is the optimum interaction possible. It doesn’t use the preconceptions or assumptions that a business might hold about its target markets’ needs but relies on the target market to show the business a complete picture of which areas they should be concerned with.

Another key difference between market design and design research is the model of return on investment.

The return on market research is information that improves the decisions that the company makes to increase revenue and purchases. The data returned can be primary or secondary in nature, are usually larger datasets with quantitative results, and based on financial numerical figures that can be easily comparable.

Design research returns information on the values that target markets hold, which indicates how products and services will be experienced and used. The data returned is often primary research that is usually qualitative contextual information that needs to be interpreted, and it answers the ‘why’ behind what target markets believe and empathize with.

Why should you do design research?

The design research phase for any product development may be time-consuming, but it’s a crucial stage that shouldn’t be overlooked. The results gained from the process actually helps the business gain a number of strategic advantages:

  • A true picture of your customers’ values

Your business exists to serve its customers and provide them with what they want, in a way that promotes your brand and gets them repeat-buying again. If your products and services aren’t connecting with your target markets, or if you don’t know where to start, look at what your customers need.

The best products are those that make your life easier and people ‘can’t live without’ because they perform important functions and achieve the right result. If you don’t understand your customers to a value-driven level and know what their problems are, you can’t make them a solution that they’ll appreciate and give them an experience that resonates on a deeper level.

  • Creates efficiencies in time and money for the business

Be a company that learns from its target market and responds appropriately, and not a company that tells the market what it should buy. There may be the temptation to create a product or service that you think will really help people, and to continue down this path to product development completion. Then, you’re dismayed that the product isn’t received well and you’re left wondering what parts should be changed.

By not hypothesizing early and keeping an open mind to what your target market wants, the company can avoid uncertainty and embarrassment by acting with a clear understanding of its target market. Design research prevents a loss of time, money, and wasteful energy in the long run, and gives you and your investors confidence that what you create will sell and give your customers a great experience.

  • The discovery of further or better opportunities

As your company is not making assumptions, it can be agile in its approach to the insights you receive. You have a wealth of knowledge that can help you spot:

    • What are the priorities your solution must address?
    • The missing information that you didn’t know about, that shifts your ideas or opens them up to include more?
    • The gaps in knowledge you may want more information on for later?
    • Which needs your solution will help address?
    • What should you not do or stop doing?

By observing your solution from this curious mindset, you can pick options that help you create the best solution that your customers will love and outdoes your competition. If you have happier customers, you have the potential for greater brand loyalty, more sales, and increased customer satisfaction.

What are the best design research methods?

To get you started on answering the core questions of who your customers are, what are their needs and how do they interact with the world, let's explore some of the design research methodologies.

Primary research

For design research, primary research will be your best friend. Primary research is an investigative activity that provides first-hand data and information directly from the target market.

Your research team will ask a representative sample number of customers open and closed questions to gain both qualitative and quantitative answers. Typical ways of conducting primary research are through customized surveys, focus groups, and interviews.

Some key questions that help you understand your customers’ needs about a topic include:

  • What problems do you find in dealing with [scenario]?
  • Why have you chosen those specific problems?
  • What is the most important problem out of the list?
  • What do you think would help to resolve them?
  • How would a solution to [scenario] help you?
  • Why is it important that the [scenario] is fixed?

Along with demographic questions (about defining age, gender, status, etc.), you can collect an understanding of customer beliefs and background factors that may have had an impact.

Secondary research

Secondary research is useful in understanding information and opinions from different time periods. It is research that uses second-hand sources of information, like existing statistics, articles, or already-given expert testimonials.

For design research, secondary research can give you information that you might not be able to gain from primary research, like historical data or unbiased opinions. A customer may answer an interviewer in one way and answer differently to a peer or in a different setting, so it’s useful to gain other sources of information that can give greater learnings.

Some examples of secondary resources are listening to conversations on social media channels and forums or looking at personal blogs of key customers. Other research papers on the topic can be classed as secondary research as well.

Do I use primary or secondary research?

Don’t forget that the overall goal is to understand your target customer.

We recommend that both primary and secondary research be conducted so you can understand the current situation of your customers that you can reach through primary research, and gain information on customers you can’t connect with through secondary research.

In addition, secondary research can give additional information to help support the findings of primary research, which can help with validation and understanding.

Other design research methodologies

There are other interview research sub-styles that span both primary and secondary research methods for you to consider:

  • Exploratory research

Exploratory research gives you clarity about a topic where there isn’t much known about it already. For business product development where there is no defined issue or area, exploratory research would be best.

As little is known upfront, the line of inquiry can be quite flexible, allowing for deep-diving into topics and returning to the broad topic in general.

What is gained can be used to define further topics of discussion, interesting areas that you’d like to explore further, and to start drawing conclusions on findings.

  • Evaluative research

Evaluative research looks at what a customer thinks about a scenario after they’ve had a chance to assess the issues and problems. It could be a review of a product, role-playing a customer interaction, or asking for their reaction to a challenge.

By centering the customer on a specific scenario, any information gained from evaluative research can help your business understand the needs and beliefs of your target market.

This type can further be broken down into two types of evaluative research: Summative evaluation looks to understand the outcomes of a situation, whether it’s seeing how financials are affected or if there’s an impact in other ways. Formative evaluation looks to improve the situation’s usability or interaction, whether that focuses on how successful a product was in fulfilling a need or highlights areas that need updating.

What do you do with the design research?

As complex human beings with a myriad of thoughts, feelings, and actions based on beliefs and values, your target audience is complicated to understand and predict. Your design research is a collection of data that needs to be understood to then create actionable insights.

  • Collect and process your data

The next stage of the design research is to collect together all data points from participants and bring all the comments and answers into one place.

From here, begin cleaning the data, which removes any mistakes and formats the data correctly. This can be done in a spreadsheet or a survey technology platform can send out surveys and collect the data automatically.

Review the data and categorize it into subjects or topics and add in taxonomies or metadata fields that help you sort the data easier.

  • Interpret the data

When you have the data ready, you can start an evaluative process to see what the data tells you and where the data connects together.

The data can be grouped together by similar views or backgrounds. It can be prioritized by answers that have the biggest impact quickly or give the greatest discovery.

With qualitative answers, these can be evaluated using sentiment analysis to see common words and whether these are positive or not. Another way is grouping similar opinions together to create numerical quantitative data.

This quantitative data can be turned into dashboards or charts to help illustrate the data points. The aim of this phase is to look for detail that helps focus the wider data into more manageable chunks that tell a story.

  • Create insights

It’s possible at this phase to look at what the data is saying and explore the relevance of this for your business and interests. Does the information you have now match up to what you currently believe? Where is it different?

You may find similar reasons behind positive patterns of behavior appearing with people in certain age groups, which gives you confidence in approaching this age range and being able to connect with their reasoning and predict their behavior in the future. There could be a user problem that comes up again and again, which tells you that this is a real pain point for your target market. You could discover a whole area you’ve overlooked that actually should form the core of your new product’s development cycle.

Sometimes the insights might not be so clear-cut. In these cases, use the data you do have to hypothesize about a cause and effect, or a pattern, and then do further primary research to investigate the information. This will either confirm your assumptions creating a strong foundation to move on from, or provide more information to help you discover more.

    • Act on the insights to be productive and successful

It’s so important to do this phase when you have your insights. To make changes to your customer experience and increase the chances of creating an unbeatable product against your competition, you must use what you have learned and apply it to a positive effect.

What this means is putting in place a plan to fold in the insights back into the company. This could mean immediately having high-level senior conversations about the direction of the products and the business goals based on your knowledge, getting insights included into product development cycles so that the customer needs are being incorporated into possible solutions, or simply getting together the right stakeholders to decide on how to move forward.

If your business can build a solution that caters to what your target audience wants, how they want it, and know that it will definitely solve their problem, you’ll be off to a flying start to success.


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Qualtrics // Experience Management

Qualtrics is the technology platform that organizations use to collect, manage, and act on experience data, also called X-data™. The Qualtrics XM Platform™ is a system of action, used by teams, departments, and entire organizations to manage the four core experiences of business—customer, product, employee, and brand—on one platform.

Over 12,000 enterprises worldwide, including more than 75 percent of the Fortune 100 and 99 of the top 100 U.S. business schools, rely on Qualtrics to consistently build products that people love, create more loyal customers, develop a phenomenal employee culture, and build iconic brands.

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