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The types of design research every designer should know NOW

In UX design, research is a fundamental part in solving relevant problems and/or narrowing down to the “right” problem users face. A designer’s job is to understand their users, which means going beyond their initial assumptions to put themselves in another persons shoes in order to create products that respond to a human need.

Good research doesn’t just end with good data; it ends with good design and functionality users love, want and need.

Design research is often overlooked in that designers emphasize the result of how a design looks. This results in having a surface level understanding of the people they design for. Having this mindset goes against what UX is all about; being user centered.

UX design is centered around research to understand the needs of people and how the kind of products/services we build will help them.

Here are some research methods every designer should know on the top of their head when going into a project, and even if they are not the ones doing research, they can communicate better with UX researchers to drive engagement in the industry.


Primary research is essentially coming up with new data to understand who you are designing for and what you would potentially plan on designing. It allows us to validate our ideas with our users and design more meaningful solutions for them. Designers typically gather this type of data through interviews with individuals or through small groups, surveys, or questionnaires.

It is important to understand what you want to research before going out of your way to find people as well as the kind/quality of data you want to gather. In an article from the University of Surrey, the author points out two important points to address when conducting primary research; validity and practicality.

The validity of data refers to the truth that it tells about the subject or phenomenon being studied. It is possible for data to be reliable without being valid.

The practicalities of the research needs to be carefully considered when developing the research design, for instance:

– cost and budget

– time and scale

– size of sample

Bryman in Social Research Methods (2001) identifies four types of validity which can influence your findings:

  1. Measurement validity or construct validity: whether a measure being used really measures what it claims.

i.e. do statistics regarding church attendance really measure the strength of religious beliefs?

2. Internal validity: refers to causality and whether a conclusion of the research or theory developed is a true reflection of the causes.

i.e. is it a true cause that being unemployed causes crime or are there other explanations?

3. External validity: considers whether the results of a particular piece of research can be generalised to other groups.

i.e. if one form of community development approach works in this region, will it necessarily have the same impact in another location?

4. Ecological validity: considers whether ‘…social scientific findings are appropriate to people’s everyday natural setting’ (Bryman, 2001)

i.e. if a situation is being observed in a false setting, how may that influence people’s behavior?


Secondary research is using existing data such as internet, books, or articles to support your design choices and the context behind your design. Secondary research is also used as a way to further validate user insights from primary research and create a stronger case for an overall design. Typically secondary research is already summarized insights of existing research.

It is okay to use only secondary research to assess your design, but if you have time, I would definitely recommend doing primary research along with secondary research to really get a sense of who you are designing for and gather insights that are more relevant and compelling than existing data. When you collect user data that is specific to your design, it will generate better insights and a better product.


Evaluative research is assessing a specific problem to ensure usability and ground it in the wants, needs, and desires of real people. One way to do an evaluative study is by having an user use your product and provide questions or tasks for them to think out loud when they try to complete a task. There are two types of evaluative studies; summative and formative.

Summative evaluation- Summative evaluation seeks to understand the outcomes or effects of something. It is more emphasized on the outcome than the process.

Summative evaluation can assess things such as:

  • Finance: Effect in terms of cost, savings, profit and so on.
  • Impact: Broad effect, both positive and negative, including depth, spread and time effects.
  • Outcomes: Whether desired or unwanted effects are achieved.
  • Secondary analysis: Analysis of existing data to derive additional information.
  • Meta-analysis: Integrating results of multiple studies.

Formative evaluation- Formative evaluation is used to help strengthen or improve the person or thing being tested.

Formative evaluation can assess things such as:

  • Implementation: Monitoring success of a process or project.
  • Needs: Looking at such as type and level of need.
  • Potential: The ability of using information for formative purpose.

(source: 1)


Exploratory research is conducting research around a topic where little or none is known about it. The purpose of an exploratory study is to gain a deep understanding and familiarity of the topic by immersing yourself as much as you can in order to create a direction for how this data could be potentially used in the future.

With exploratory research, you have the opportunity to gain new insights and create worthwhile solutions for bigger issues more meaningful than what already exists.

Exploratory research allows us to confirm our assumptions on a topic that would often be overlooked (i.e. prisoners, homeless) by providing an opportunity to generate new ideas and development for existing problems/opportunities.

Based on an article from Lynn University, exploratory research tells us that:

  1. Design is a useful approach for gaining background information on a particular topic.
  2. Exploratory research is flexible and can address research questions of all types (what, why, how).
  3. Provides an opportunity to define new terms and clarify existing concepts.
  4. Exploratory research is often used to generate formal hypotheses and develop more precise research problems.
  5. Exploratory studies help establish research priorities.

(source: 2)


Generative research is about taking the research you have conducted and being able to use those insights to decide on which problem you want to solve and create solutions for it. These solutions are generally new or an improvement from an existing problem.

Because generative research is more or less the opportunity/solution creating stage, you must understand your users wants, needs and goals beforehand. Generative research allows us to observe a user’s nuanced behaviors in a natural environment which would can be understood more through ethnography, contextual interviews, focus groups, and data mining.

What is the difference between market research and design research?

You can market to users what they said they wanted but market research can’t tell you about solving problems customers can’t conceive are solvable (Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg)

The main difference between market research and design research is that design research is more fluid, intuitive. This means data is based on how people feel and simply through our human nature to connect with others in order to come to an understanding that drives change. The motive behind design research is about getting as close to connecting with another person in order to develop value for their goals. Market research is often based on logic and a need for a company to scope out their competition, but along with design research, both can be used in conjunction to design better user experiences through connecting with users and understanding them.


So why is design research so important? Design research allows us to understand complex human behavior by getting to the root of a problem by understanding a user’s needs, wants and goals. It also grounds us in what exactly shapes a user’s experience to help us solve for their top pain points. Overall, the data we collect through design research allows us to make decisions. This results in applying that data into useful applications that drive us to create products that are relevant, accessible and applicable for users and the people we work with, whether it be with stakeholders, product managers or other designers on a team.

If you have any questions about design, message me on LinkedIn and I’ll write about it!

To help you get started on owning your design career, here are some amazing tools from Rookieup, a site I used to get mentorship from senior designers:

Links to some other cool reads:



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