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Design research's three valuable stages

Research is incredibly important to good design. If you don't know who you're making something for, or what they really need, making the right thing comes down to hunches, guess work, and luck.

I think research can be split into three parts, each of which has its own value. I think this is important because many designers will find that they can do all three of these things, for various reasons. This can put people off trying, because they think they've failed, and success is impossible until they change jobs.

Here are the three valuable parts of research, and the value of each:

  1. Knowing that you don't know

    This is the easiest part of research because you can do it alone, and if you're in any way open minded as a designer you'll have done it already.

    Knowing that you don't know your user means that you won't make more assumptions than you have to, as a designer. Knowing that you don't know is about realising that anything you don't research is an assumption, and that it could be wrong.

    Even if you don't do any of the other parts, this part is great for setting your expectations.

  2. Finding out the truth

    This is the part where you go out into the world and talk to/observe people, or do other types of research that help you to understand the people you're making something for.

    This is where it gets difficult because you need support from your organisation to take the time, and spend the money. Lots of people aren't able to do this. Lots of people work for other people who don't want to do this because they assume they already know the user - see the previous part.

    If you can do this part, even if you can't do the next part, the value is that you'll know the truth, and it can inform even small design choices that you are able to make on your own.

  3. Making people pay attention

    Making people pay attention is sharing your research findings and having people act on it.

    This is difficult because even if you believe in your research findings, other people might not, and those people might have more power to make decisions than you do. If these people don't care about your research findings, changes will still be made that your research findings disagree with.

    This is the most difficult part because it relies on a good understanding of organisational politics - you either need to be able to convince every person above you that research is important, or you need someone above you who feels the same way and will do that for you.

    The value of this part is huge - with decision makers who are willing to pay attention to your research findings, you'll be making things that really help people.

    Unfortunately this is also the hardest part, and often the part that people will only succeed at by finding a new job.

If you're doing one, or two of these three parts of research, know that you're still creating some value.

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