How to Empower Your Designers to do Good Research

Good design is a competitive advantage that enhances the customer experience when you embed research into your process. Here are ways to make practical changes to improve user research within your design team.

3 mins read

Before Roald Dahl wrote “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” he spent his childhood attending an all-boys boarding school. Not every aspect was enjoyable, but one perk stood out: lots and lots of chocolate. 

Cadbury chose the school as its testing ground for new products and sent the school packages of treats. The boys ate the goodies, gave feedback and the company adjusted accordingly. Dahl spent his free time dreaming up chocolate bar flavors to impress the team at Cadbury. All of this, of course, was the inspiration for his novel’s adventure into the magical world of a chocolate factory.

A consumer grabbing a chocolate bar off the grocery store shelf likely had no idea the bar’s flavors were first tested by boarding school kids. User research like this is all around us all the time. It often goes unnoticed, which is a testament to how seamless and functional an end product’s design is.

As our co-founder and CEO Prayag Narula would say, “Qualitative research is the key.”

He recently discussed this very topic and why more companies should build a culture where design and research are intertwined. Here’s how to make practical changes to improve user research within your design team…

Fuel your curiosity

Jane Suri, the Executive Design Director at IDEO once said, “Undertake a focused discipline of curiosity.” What does this mean? Great designers cannot design what they don’t understand. Research is what fuels this curiosity, providing constraints that enable creativity. 

“What this discipline of curiosity does is it builds user empathy,” Prayag said. “Reports don’t build user empathy. Designers do. People do. Curiosity helps them understand their users, but also it helps them build user empathy for themselves and the rest of the organization.”

Researchers and designers are both fueled by curiosity, but the best results come when the two work together. They don’t just need each other. They want to work with each other.

The best researchers are mentors

To achieve this partnership, both designers and researchers need to work in slightly different ways than we typically expect. It also requires practical and cultural changes within the organization.

Veering off from the standard job description, researchers are more than data collectors.  “A research team’s job today is to build a culture of research into their organization,” he said. “Researchers are more mentors and teachers than they are researchers.”

Researchers have a unique vantage point of the user experience. They uncover pain points both in how a product functions as well as pain points within an organization. When researchers become mentors and share how to gain this user insight, the design team can better align with the user.

The real power of research in an organization is when data drives design decisions by elevating the voice of the user. Researchers, at their best, can proactively build a research roadmap.

The best designers are learners

On the flip side, great designers actively seek new solutions to their customers’ problems. They conduct their own research. Designers should begin with a scaffolding of research to better understand the user’s needs. When designers themselves hold curiosity and empathy about the user, their ability to create impactful products soars.

Breaking away from a more traditional model, designers who actively do their own research better understand their users. The best designers know the only way to get true insights is to talk directly to the people using their products every day.

How to integrate design and research

In the past, we’ve seen designers and researchers work separately, sharing data only when necessary to drive product design and changes. Prayag argues that both teams should be working together with a curious approach to user empathy.

While researchers are working on a roadmap, designers and even engineers should be part of the process. Learning how to replicate the researchers’ best practices allows everyone to come away with the knowledge of how to conduct their own foundational research. An organization gains a competitive advantage when the two share tips, tricks and technology — areas they’re experts in — with the rest of the organization.

Become great at user interviews

In this ideal equation, both designers and researchers become pseudo journalists by talking to users. Interviewing users can feel overwhelming at first. Like staring at a far-too-long restaurant menu, it can take a second to navigate new terrain. In another blog post, Prayag laid out 10 practical tips for how to go from conducting good user interviews to conducting great user interviews

Top tips for user interviews

  • Use a script that sounds natural 
  • Ask questions in the same order in every user interview to minimize context creating any bias
  • Learn to embrace silence 
  • Keep recordings to create an organization-wide knowledge base of users
  • Stop taking verbatim notes and focus on the “now” moment with qualitative research tools that automatically record and transcribe all user interviews

Great research is all around us, like testing chocolate on tough critics at boarding school. The real power comes when this powerful research combines with insightful design. Good designers are researchers and good researchers are teachers, and an organization that separates these teams risks getting left behind.

In today’s world of really trying to understand your customers and user-centered design, good designers are researchers, good researchers are actually mentors and good companies are there to promote this relationship.

Investing in high-quality research is the future of design.

Photo by Efe Kurnaz on Unsplash

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