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Complete Beginner’s Guide to Design Research

It actually begins the moment we learn about a project, whether we acknowledge it or not. We ask questions. We take notes. We learn everything we can about our client and their audience—and that’s before we even begin! Let’s explore the (purported) method to this (seeming) madness, known as design research.

Design research is an integral part of the oft–misunderstood user–centered design process. This process, employed by user experience designers, is both iterative and cyclical. Its outputs serve as its inputs. Initially, solutions are proposed based on embodied, observable phenomena related to the problem space. Next, a design solution is agreed upon and then prototyped. Eventually, it’s tested against its target audience. Finally, the process repeats itself.

Design research, as described in this article, assumes the reader follows a user–centered design process.

Back to topWhat is design research?

Design research describes any number of investigative techniques used to add context and insight to the design process. Although this article discusses research in the context of contemporary UX/Interaction Design for websites, Design Research has been practiced for decades (since the 1960s) in the architectural, industrial, and academic communities. For a deeper look into this industry, check out publications like Design Research Quarterly, or consider attending the Design Research Conference.

Design Research techniques can be incorporated before, during, or after the design solution is established. If done before or during the design phase, these techniques are collectively known as user research; if after, they’re known as user testing. User research attempts to answer questions like “who will use this design?” and “how does this concept work in the context of our users’ workflow,” whereas user testing seeks to answer: “how effective is this design?”

The diagram below provides an overview of user–centered design techniques, highlighting research activities in red.

A constellation of design techniques.

Young, Indi. 2008. Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior. New York: Rosenfeld Media.


As previously mentioned, Design Research is conducted to add context to the design process.

It’s also used to combat the natural tendency to design for ourselves (or our stakeholders) rather than designing for our target audience. Don Norman, cognitive psychologist and author of The Design of Everyday Things, explains: “We tend to project our own rationalisations and beliefs onto the actions and beliefs of others.”
Without design research we tend towards a self–serving, uninformed design process.


The design team is ultimately responsible for analysis of user research. Analysis turns the data collected during research into actionable information. Prominent analysis techniques include (the creation of): personas, mental models, storyboards, nomenclature etc. Although the techniques described here will guide you in conducting research, the presentation and discussion of that data is more important.


Design Research is littered with unanswered questions: How many users should we interview (before we can decisively conclude what’s wrong)? What kind of research should I conduct? Should I conduct qualitative or quantitative research? etc. No one technique or approach is correct. It all depends on the fidelity of the technique and the context in which it is applied.

Back to topHow is user research done?

User Research has the potential to be a sizable undertaking, depending on whether or not the client is iterating on an existing website or commissioning a new one. Regardless, it’s the researcher’s job to explain to their clients what the project’s goals and budget imply for the forthcoming research initiative.

Fortunately, all signs point toward a more casual, habitual approach to user research. Many of today’s practitioners eschew expensive laboratory or field research for rapid behavioral observation.

The following tools and their “plain–English” descriptions are based heavily on the article Can You Say That in English? Explaining UX Research to Clients first run on A List Apart in November, 2009. Although this list is far from comprehensive, it’s enough to get your team started conducting user research.

On a final note, if you need more comprehensive user research, I highly recommend following Indi Young’s Mental Models.

Back to topHow is user testing done?

As previously mentioned, user testing involves asking potential users of your product or service to complete a (set of) task(s) using a version—ideally a prototype—of your product or service in order to determine its utility and its usability.

Thanks to the Internet, the practice of user testing has seen a dramatic shift over the past few years; despite the fact that it’s less than 50 years old. Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte describe the prevalence of user testing in large organizations in their book Remote Research:

In-person lab research procedures were developed, refined, and standardized, and then became entrenched in the corporate R&D product development cycle. Practically everything gets tested in a lab nowadays: commercial Web sites, professional and consumer software, even video games.

Fortunately, user testing is becoming increasingly prevalent in smaller organizations.

Testing protocol

Regardless of where it’s conducted, user testing always follows a similar testing protocol:

  1. Identify potential users (ideally done during user research, see above)
  2. Recruit potential users
  3. Create test guidelines
  4. Schedule test sessions with potential users
  5. Administer the test
  6. Analyze the results

A super–simple method for doing just this is explained in Steve Krug’s new book Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems.

The names of the various methods in which user testing is done depend largely on the relationship of the proctor to the participant:

  • Lab research

    A Usability lab circa 1987

    A modern usability lab circa 1987

    Lab research describes usability tests conducted in a highly–produced, simulated environment. Researchers typically observe the test behind a one–way mirror and employ screen–capturing software, video cameras, etc. to document the test.

  • Guerrilla research

    Guerrilla research is a modern, lightweight take on lab research. Instead of renting a lab, guerrilla research is typically done on the spot; users are simply asked to complete basic tasks with a website or service, and the entire operation is recorded for later use.

    More information: Watch Steve Krug administer a simple test.

  • Remote research

    On Bolt|Peters‘ website Remote Usability, they define remote research as “any kind of research where the user and research moderator aren’t interacting face–to–face.” Remote research is the answer to the increasing cost and hassle of earlier research endeavors juxtaposed with iterative, agile development. Ideally, users are both recruited online and tested online, so that the entire feedback loop is handled at both parties’ convenience.

    More information:

Back to topDesign research luminaries

The following people have contributed greatly to the field of experience design research. Follow the related links to see what they’re currently up to.

Nate Bolt

After pioneering and directing the User Experience department at Clear Ink in 1999, which included the construction of Natural Environment and Remote Observation laboratories, Nate co-founded Bolt | Peters. He now serves as el presidente, where he has overseen hundreds of user research studies for Sony, Oracle, HP, Greenpeace, Electronic Arts, and others. Beginning in 2003, he led the creation of the first moderated remote user research software, Ethnio.

Read Nate’s Blog

Mike Kuniavsky

Mike Kuniavsky is a user experience design, process, and strategy consultant. He’s created successful and innovative user-centered digital technology for more than twenty years and for dozens of the world’s biggest companies. His typical work involves partnerships with senior level executives who want to create more successful products and a more compelling user experience.

Read Mike’s Blog

Steve Portigal

Steve is fascinated by the stuff of a culture—its products, companies, consumers, media, and advertising. All these artifacts and the relationships between them are the rules that define a culture—the stuff makes the culture, but it is the culture that makes the stuff.

Learn more about Steve

Jared Spool

Jared founded User Interface Engineering in 1988. He has more than 15 years of experience conducting usability evaluations on a variety of products, and is an expert in low-fidelity prototyping techniques. Jared is on the faculty of the Tufts University Gordon Institute and teaches seminars on product usability. He is a recognized authority on user interface design and human factors in computing.

Learn more about Jared

Indi Young

Indi is an applications and navigation guru who began her work in Web applications in 1995. Her clients range from technology start-ups to large financial institutions. Projects include global corporate intranets, consumer finance and investment tools, enterprise software lead generation sites, knowledge management tools, workflow applications, and business-to-business e-commerce.

Learn more about Indi

On Twitter






Back to topTools of the trade

Much of design research is actually done in a question-and-answer sense; researchers ask questions, record responses, and analyze the results. As a consequence, the tools they use are mostly communicative or illustrative:

Sticky Notes

While you’re researching users, illustrating ideas, or performing a card sort, consider separating and physically playing with your ideas using sticky notes.


When you don’t want your notes to be sticky, but still want to allow people the flexibility to move them around and play with them, use these. They’re a cheap, worthwhile addition to any research meeting.


Like the other “analog” tools listed here, Moleskines are great for jotting down and exploring ideas with users and stakeholders alike. Invest in a few of these notebooks and then bring them along to any collaborative session.

Flip Video Camera

Although any video camera will do, the Flip is great because its small, lightweight, and convenient. Researchers conducting interviews or contextual observations will quickly put them through their paces. Consider buying a couple (and some tripods) for your team.


Need to get in touch with potential users? If you’ve already tried Twitter or bugged enough of your Facebook friends, consider sourcing users from your existing website using Ethnio. Ethnio works well because it gets users actually in the act of doing something with your website before you ask them questions about their experience.


Combined with an application such as Audio Hijack Pro, researchers can conduct audio (and video) chats with users and record their responses. Grab a copy.


Spontaneous, unobtrusive usability testing software for designers and developers. Nothing like bringing users to your laptop and asking them for feedback on the spot. Learn more about Silverback.

Back to topRelated Resources

Introductory Letter to the Participant

This letter helps prepare research participants for the questions that you might ask of them.

Printing Template for 3M Printable Post-It Notes

Use this Microsoft Word template to print anything on 3×4 Post-It Notes. For example, copy quotes to the template and print them out for sorting on the wall. Or, during analysis of one transcript, assign one team member the job of typing up the verb+noun phrases you shout out, to print every 10 minutes or so.

EightShapes Unify

EightShapes Unify is a collection of templates, libraries, and other assets that enable user experience designers to create more consistent, effective deliverables faster. Useful for generating documentation after you’ve conducted your research.

Sample Usability Test Script

A six–page script that walks proctors through administering a hypothetical user test. This is a direct excerpt from Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy.

Usability Testing Checklist

Another excerpt from Steve Krug’s book, this guide explains what to do in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to guerilla usability tests.

Back to topDesign research books

Back to topAdditional resources

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew Maier is a lifelong student of the design community who believes that creation and learning are synonymous. His current interests include security, law, cities, and autonomy. He lives in Washington, D.C., in Dupont Circle.


  • Paz Reply

    An incredibly interesting read! Very elaborate and yet not over-complicating things. I also love the 1987 usability lab :) Definitely a good resource – bookmarked! I’m currently getting into the field of ucd/ux myself and I made this infographic about the user centred design process which covers some of the things you mentioned here too. You can find it at if you’re interested.

    • Matthew Kammerer Reply

      Thanks for stopping by. I saw your infographic earlier today and am going to include it in an upcoming post :).

  • Jacob Creech Reply

    Neat article. Love the graphic at the start about the testing process – it sums it up very nicely!

    A really good collection of resources too. Thanks for sharing.

  • abhisek Reply

    Wow! Simply wow! the best UI-howto article I have ever come across. Great work, indeed. Keep it up.

  • Aidan Reply

    This is an interesting and enlightening read. It will be great if all products conduct their design research before dumping them into the market for testing.

  • Jordan Walker Reply

    When it comes to user interface examples and best practices – these articles always take precedence!

  • monrobot Reply

    Great, comprehensive article, but seriously – there are cheaper notebooks available than Moleskines. They are a designer meme.

  • Claudio Merino Reply

    clap, clap, clap, you made my day guys. the end list of resources is pretty amazing. checking silverback :).

    and @monrobot, I imagine that any notebook can do the job, but is like an iPad or a mac, you have to had one to understand the feeling :).

  • Nishal Reply

    Excellent Read. Coming from Programming background, this is a nice place to start working on.

  • Design Informer Reply

    Excellent article Andrew. I’m actually trying to learn as much as I can about User Experience and articles like this are very beneficial. I love UXBooth. Keep up the great work.

  • UXbuzzwordKiller Reply

    Hate to be jerk here, but what graphic designers out there apply this much logical thinking to their work? Like 12%? And that whole 12% are all engineering major dropouts who switched to design.

    What the heck kinda diagram is that? It’s like a weird, subjective hybrid of a flowchart and a DFD that barely works. It’s just a bunch of hip buzzwords flowing all over the damn place.

  • Morten Jonassen Reply

    Very interesting read here – with a lot of nice resources. I would also like to recommend Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton, which is a very nice read. I think that especially contextual inquiry or “Ethnographic research” is an interesting research method as it enables us to capture the true empathical aspects of the users.

  • Sneh Roy Reply

    A beautiful, well written article packed to the brim with useful information! Thanks!

  • Lis Hubert Reply

    Awesome read! A all inclusive user research resource. Well done!

  • Lisa Reply

    Great resource! Will definitely be recommending this article. I’ve picked up a few tips myself and i’ve been working in ux for many years :)

  • css Reply

    Excellent blog, Keep posting like this.

  • Boon Reply

    Thanks for this! Really useful as I am planning a website redesign, and don’t have the money to spend on professional UCD consultants!

  • realdesignresearcher Reply

    Firstly I’d like to thank you for writing this article because its great to get the word out about the different varying aspects of what design research is.

    However, I did notice a few discrepancies I would like to point out. Although this article lists many valid points and is well written, the name of the article should be “Complete Beginner’s Guide to Interaction Design” and not “Design Research”. The field of interaction design and those in that field, information architects, are completely different than design researchers. Design Researchers use a completely different design process. Though they sometimes share certain characters the research objectives, participants, methods and presentation varies. It’s debated whether Interaction Design is a sub-category of design research or whether it deserves a category of its own but its better to be as specific as possible to avoid confusion.

    Also, I just wanted to mention that I am not sure how great an idea it is to encourage people to do this sort of research on their own. The best firms (and not necessarily the most expensive firms) have professionals that have masters degrees and 10+ years experience. It may only hurt the reputation of the field to have people try out these techniques and find disappointment because of their lack of refined skills, professionalism and experience. This guide is a bit like how to take a car apart and put it back together with a short description of instructions.

    Overall though I thank you for your aim to define interaction design and spread the word.

  • JD Reply

    I think you need to double check your book links;

    The Mental Models book actually links out to Morville and Rosenfeld’s Info. Arch. for the WWW

    The Remote Research book links out to Elements of User Experience by Garrett

    The Rocket Surgery book links out to Ambient Findability.

    The Understanding your Users link gets there – but has an odd intermediate step.

    Great article though, Thanks! :)

    • Andrew Maier Reply

      Hey JD, thanks for that! (You likely understand where they came from, yes? I simply copied the complete beginner’s guide to IA’s book links.) I updated them; you should be good to go :)

  • Stephen Reply

    Great post! I really liked it. Keep writing things like these!

  • Sanford Chobot Reply

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  • Owain Reply

    You know this is a strong article when it’s still relevant in 2015. Great read

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