3 Essential research tips for product designers

In my current role as a Designer at Trivago, I oversee lightweight research activities while collaborating effectively with dedicated research teams for support. I’ve conducted 30+ moderated user interviews, 15+ unmoderated usability tests, and more.

In this article, I aim to share three easy steps to enhance your research journey. These insights are drawn from my experiences in conducting research, collaborating with researchers, and readings from influential sources such as ‘Think Like a User Researcher,’ ‘Just Enough Research,’ ‘Continuous Discovery Habits,’ ‘Nielsen Norman Group,’ and various articles.

1. Identify the desired shift in user behavior or business metrics.

Before choosing a research methodology, ask yourself why you need research. What changes do you expect? Avoid selecting a research methodology blindly. I’ve found myself in situations where I was prompted to run a usability test or survey due to frequent use, only to realize that it might not be the most suitable research methodology.

Meme: Research question
Characters from Dilbert comics

So, how do you decide on the research methodology? It all depends on your research question and what you are trying to understand. I would highly suggest documenting the research question before proceeding.

“If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” — W. Edwards Deming

Same research questions
Sample Research questions

How do you formulate the right research question? Ask a lot of questions: What information do you have? What do you want to know? What outcome do you expect? Engage in discussions with your researchers. Most good researchers I’ve worked with ask lots of questions, and this helps build clarity. Once you have the research questions right, you can deep dive into finding the appropriate methodology, scenarios, and tasks.

Key Callout:

Create an explicit research question (actually write it down with a question mark at the end): I would suggest breaking down both the primary and secondary research questions. Don’t start any research until you have formulated this question. Additionally, understand the desired outcome of the problem you’re trying to solve. Avoid using open-ended words, such as ‘Explore’ and ‘Understand’; instead, opt for something concrete like ‘Evaluate’ and ‘Identify.

2. Craft your research methodology based on research questions.

Let’s zoom out a bit to understand the basics of research before delving into how research questions influence research methodology. As David Travis and Philip Hodgson point out in the book ‘Think Like a UX Researcher,’ fundamentally, all UX research answers one of two questions: (a) Who are our users, and what are they trying to do? (b) Can people use the thing we’ve designed to solve their problem?

In essence, the core of UX research lies in thoroughly understanding the problem and subsequently assessing its usability. Let’s break it down below to delve deeper and explore common methodologies.

Research Fundamentals
Research Fundamentals

So, when planning research activities, identify your stage in the research and combine it with your research questions to guide the purpose. The following provides details on the most common research methodologies.

Common Research Methodology
Common Research Methodology

A small tip: Don’t miss out on a usability test if you want to improve an existing system.

‘If you can do only one activity and aim to improve an existing system, do qualitative (think-aloud) usability testing, which is the most effective method to improve usability.’ (Source: NN Group.)

I have excluded approaches like Diary Studies, Focus Groups, etc., from the common research methodologies list as they might be less practical for designers.

Key Callout:

Run a research activity for your biggest risks and assumptions in the Discovery phase: This is something I learned from Teresa Torres’s continuous discovery sessions, which I find highly useful. In the initial kickoff for any project, we tend to document all the assumptions we might have and use different methodologies based on the research question to test the most critical ones. (Source.)

3. Use Data Triangulation to make well informed decision

Landscape of User Research methods — Simplified version (Source)
Landscape of User Research methods — Simplified version (Source)

“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things “— Margaret Mead

At each phase of the project, I highly recommend using a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. The choice of the research methodology will depend on the research question. In most cases, I try to incorporate both in each phase, as each methodology has its own pros and cons.

For instance, during the Discovery phase, interviews serve as qualitative metrics to understand the underlying reasoning. However, you might need quantitative metrics, in the form of a survey, to substantiate why solving the identified problem is significant.

Similarly, in the Evaluation phase, usability testing provides qualitative metrics to understand the reasoning. Combining these with quantitative metrics, such as Conversion Rate, Task Completion Time, and Bounce Rate, can help you comprehensively justify the effectiveness of your designs.

Key Callout:

Define your qualitative and quantitative UX success metrics in the Discovery phase: It’s possible that after releasing a feature, it may not have the expected impact on business metrics. In that scenario, you might want to highlight the behavioral outcomes for that particular feature. To address this, use UX quantitative metrics (System Usability Scale Score, Task Success Rate, etc.) to support your position and qualitative metrics to provide insights into the reasoning behind it. Define them upfront to avoid dealing with challenges later.

Bonus Tips: Mistakes to avoid

1. Avoid asking leading and direct questions: People generally like to be liked, and when asked leading questions, they tend to align their answers with the question.

Avoid asking leading and direct questions

On the other hand, direct questions may not provide a complete picture; individuals often give answers that reflect who they aspire to be.

Reason why you should avoid direct question.
Reason why you should avoid direct question (Characters from Dilbert comics)

2. Resist your love for large numbers: I remember a colleague saying that these designers/researchers test designs with 5–10 users and they come up with a set of proposals. So naive of them.

Well, it might sound logical that the larger the sample size, the better the results should be, but by no means can more users necessarily result in better results. A well-defined usability test with 5 users may yield better product improvement opportunities than running an ill-defined user survey with 1000 users.

Usability test meme
Characters from Dilbert comics

3. Understand the strength of User research data: Not all user research data is equally reliable, and research strength plays an important role.

Strong evidence methodologies involve behavioral data, primarily focusing on target users performing tasks. On the other hand, weak evidence methodologies consist of opinion data, centering around what people say.

Remember, ‘Pay attention to what people do, not what they say.

Strength of User research evidence (Source: Think Like a UX Researcher)
Strength of User research evidence (Source: Think Like a UX Researcher)

To conclude:

  1. Identify the desired shift in user behavior or business metrics.
  2. Craft your research methodology based on research questions.
  3. Use Data Triangulation to make well informed decision.

Bonus: Avoid asking leading and behaviour questions, Resist your love for large numbers, and Understand the strength of User research data.

More reads:

This article wouldn’t be possible without the support of the fantastic researcher Maria Angélica, who assisted me in my research journey, and Daniel Roux, who provided constant support and motivation throughout. Thanks to both of them for refining the article.

Have something to add? Please leave a comment on the article, or hit me up on LinkedIn /Twitter.

3 Essential Research Tips for Product Designers was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.