Research for Design: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding User Research and Data-Driven Design

Prathyusha Shastry
8 min readMay 4, 2023


It has been ages since we reached the realization that design is so much more than just a pretty face. In fact, effective design is based on ‘data’. For beginners just starting out in design, understanding data can be overwhelming. That’s why this article aims to explore the outline of conducting design research, and how they can be used to inform the design process.

Whether you’re a designer just starting out or a business owner looking to improve your products or services, this beginner’s guide to research for design will give you the foundation you need to create user-centered, data-driven designs.

Re-evaluating the Value of Spontaneity in Design: Is It Overrated?

Of course, we applaud designers who are prompt, always on their heels and sitting right at the edge of their seats to jump back to their drawing board. There is a common perception that spontaneity among designers is highly valued and celebrated in the design industry. While spur-of-the-moment ideas and creative bursts can lead to breakthroughs and innovative solutions, relying solely on spontaneity can also be problematic.

A man sayinh “ haha, I just thought of something smart”

Design is not just about inspiration and creativity, but also about problem-solving, planning, and strategic thinking. To create successful designs, designers need a thorough understanding of the problem they are trying to solve. This includes the audience they are designing for, and the constraints they work within.

Spontaneous ideas can be great, but they need to be backed up by research, analysis, and testing. By conducting user research and gathering data, designers can gain valuable insights into user behavior, preferences, and pain points, which can be used to inform the design process.

As designers, do we empathize enough?

Designers empathize with the audience they design for. When we say empathy, we mean immersing ourselves in their world to better understand their needs, motivations, and behaviors. By doing so, we will not only be able to design a better product but a product that will be used by the target audience.

Design research is an essential component of the design process because it helps designers gain a better understanding of the problem they are trying to solve, the audience they are designing for, and the context in which the design will be used.

What is good research?

It is about stepping back from the problem description, understanding it is part of a whole and hence understanding the whole system through extensive, suitable methodology is what is effective research.

Good research leads to good designs.

“A good design is a Renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human needs, and beauty to introduce something the world did not know was missing — Paola Antonelli”.

Different phases of research

  • Explorative: gaining a general understanding of the domain, mapping the business using service design.
  • Generative: the process of gathering data and insights to identify and define new design opportunities and concepts. This research helps to generate new ideas and hypotheses that can be explored and tested during the design process. The purpose of generative research is to gain a deep understanding of users’ needs, behaviors, and motivations in order to create innovative and effective design solutions.
  • Formative: The process of testing new hypotheses before and during the delivery of a product. For example, testing a checkout process and quantifying a certain conversion rate.
  • Summative: Performed at the end of the project to validate success; integrates into the established metrics for success.

*This article covers the first two.

Research broadly falls into two categories:

Qualitative research is about exploration. It is a method used to gain an understanding of people’s experiences, attitudes, and behaviors through non-numerical data such as interviews, observations, and open-ended survey responses.

Quantitative research is about measurement. It focuses on gathering data and then turning this data into usable statistics.

A step-by-step outline for good research:

1. Start by gaining a thorough understanding of your problem domain
(If you have not yet found your problem statement).

To solve a problem, start by understanding the system and stakeholders. Apply systems thinking and ask exhaustive questions to find leverage points and gaps. This leads to tailored design solutions that meet user and stakeholder needs.

2. Fix your preliminary design brief.
Having identified your problem statement, identify the essentials like what, who, when, where and probably how. A preliminary design brief should include the following components:

  • Project overview: This section provides a general overview of the project, including the project’s goals, objectives, and target audience.
  • Scope of work: This section outlines the scope of work for the design project, including the deliverables, timelines, budget, and any constraints or limitations.
  • Basic project needs and requirements: This section describes the design’s functional and non-functional requirements.
  • Inspiration and references: This section includes any inspirational materials, references, or examples that the client or design team may have for the project. (Optional, depends on the type of your project)
  • Evaluation criteria: This section outlines the criteria used to evaluate the design’s success, including any key performance indicators or metrics. (Optional, depends on your project’s scale)

3. Diverge! Diverge! Diverge
This is the stage where you conduct secondary research and literature studies. Secondary and literature research are important because they allow researchers to gather and analyze existing data and information on a particular topic or subject. This can help in identifying gaps in knowledge, exploring various perspectives and approaches, and providing a comprehensive understanding of the topic.

By reviewing existing studies and literature, researchers can build upon previous research and develop new ideas, theories, and hypotheses.

4. Formulating your research question
Forming a research question guides the research process and helps to focus the study on a specific area of inquiry. A research question in UX research typically relates to the user experience of a product, service, or system, and aims to address a particular problem or gap in understanding.

A good research question should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It should also be aligned with the goals of the study and the needs of the users. Some examples of research questions in UX research might include:

  • What are the pain points in the user experience of our e-commerce platform, and how can we address them to improve customer satisfaction and retention?
  • How do users interact with our mobile app, and what changes can we make to improve usability and increase engagement?
  • What are the key factors that influence users’ decision-making processes when using our financial planning tool, and how can we optimize the design to better meet their needs and preferences?

5. Create a UX research plan
Finding the right research methods for a particular study depends on several factors, including the research question, the type of data that needs to be collected, the resources available, and your preferences and skills.

Identify what kind of research methodology are you going to adopt…what kinds of variables are to be studied…Qualitative vs quantitative methods. And so on.
Examples of some commonly used methods like Ethnographic studies, Surveys, shadowing, field study with user interviews, contextual inquiry, etc…
Refer to IDEO 51 method card :

20 Useful Online Tools for Design Thinking | SessionLab

6. Collect your data:
Identify participants, tools, and environments for your methods. Participants are recruited based on the criteria established by you, the researcher, such as age, gender, location, or other factors relevant to the research questions. Participants may be recruited through social media, online communities, or other channels.
You might send out a biographical questionnaire to find appropriate participants. (Along with a consent form).

Biographical questionnaires collect information about a person’s life history, experiences, and background. It is a type of survey that asks questions about various aspects of a person’s life. These aspects include their family background, education, employment history, interests, and other relevant information.

NOTE: Participants’ consent, confidentiality, and anonymity are of the utmost importance.

7. Analysis and synthesis of the collected data:
The data collected from the various methods are analyzed using appropriate statistical and qualitative analysis techniques. This is done to identify patterns and themes in the data. Then you synthesize the findings from the analysis to develop insights and recommendations for improving the mobile app user experience.

8. Modeling the data:
The findings and recommendations are reported to stakeholders, including the design team and other relevant parties, to inform design decisions and improvements to the mobile app.

Modeling involves creating representations of user behavior and experiences based on the data collected from your research methods.
Mapping tools that are used to represent are: Model Personas, Journey maps, workflow maps etc.

Multiple Personas on one customer journey map — UXPressia Blog

9. Refined design brief and requirement list.
Based on the insights gained from the research, we can then redefine the design brief. The design brief should reflect the new information we have learned from the research and should guide the design process going forward.

The new design brief should be updated to include user needs and goals, Design objectives, constraints and limitations, and success metrics. It is always a good practice to include design prompts that provide a rough outline to the designer who will follow…or for yourself!

Tips to nail research:

  1. Before conducting the study, it is a good practice to pilot-test the research methods to ensure that they are appropriate and effective in collecting the desired data.
  2. Create a UX research plan that aligns with the goals of the study and the needs of the users.
  3. Use a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods to ensure that your data is well-rounded.
  4. The best way to address your research bias is to be aware of it.
  5. Iterate and adjust your research plan as necessary.

By empathizing with their audience and using research to inform their designs, designers can create products and services that meet the needs of their users and achieve their design objectives.

Thank you for reaching the end of the article! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments down below.

Comment down below for a part 2 — detailed version of this article.



Prathyusha Shastry

Communication and Interaction designer | Masters in design from National Institute of Design | Website