Complete Beginner’s Guide to Design Research – UX Booth | UX Booth

via Complete Beginner’s Guide to Design Research – UX Booth | UX Booth.

Research actually begins the moment we learn about a project, whether we acknowledge it or not. As user experience designers we aren’t content simply designing to specification. Instead, we ask questions. We take notes. We learn everything we can about our client and their audience—and that’s before we even begin! In this article, we explore the (purported) method to this (seeming) madness, appropriately known as design research.


Design research is an integral part of the oft–misunderstood user–centered design process. This process, employed by user experience designers, is both iterative and cyclical. Its outputs serve as its inputs. Initially, solutions are proposed based on embodied, observable phenomena related to the problem space. Next, a design solution is agreed upon and then prototyped. Eventually, it’s tested against its target audience. Finally, the process repeats itself.

Design research, as described in this article, assumes the reader follows a user–centered design process.

What is design research?

Design research describes any number of investigative techniques used to add context and insight to the design process. Although this article discusses research in the context of contemporary UX/Interaction Design for websites, Design Research has been practiced for decades (since the 1960s) in the architectural, industrial, and academic communities. For a deeper look into this industry, check out publications like Design Research Quarterly, or consider attending the Design Research Conference.

Design Research techniques can be incorporated before, during, or after the design solution is established. If done before or during the design phase, these techniques are collectively known as user research; if after, they’re known as user testing. User research attempts to answer questions like “whowill use this design?” and “how does this concept work in the context of our users’ workflow,” whereas user testing seeks to answer: “how effective is this design?”

The diagram below provides an overview of user–centered design techniques,highlighting research activities in red.

A constellation of design techniques.

Young, Indi. 2008. Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior. New York: Rosenfeld Media.


As previously mentioned, Design Research is conducted to add context to the design process.

It’s also used to combat the natural tendency to design for ourselves (or our stakeholders) rather than designing for our target audience. Don Norman, cognitive psychologist and author of The Design of Everyday Things, explains: “We tend to project our own rationalisations and beliefs onto the actions and beliefs of others.”
Without design research we tend towards a self–serving, uninformed design process.


The design team is ultimately responsible for analysis of user research. Analysis turns the data collected during research into actionable information. Prominent analysis techniques include (the creation of): personas, mental models, storyboards, nomenclature etc. Although the techniques described here will guide you in conducting research, the presentation and discussion of that data is more important.


Design Research is littered with unanswered questionsHow many usersshould we interview (before we can decisively conclude what’s wrong)? What kind of research should I conduct? Should I conduct qualitative or quantitative research? etc. No one technique or approach is correct. It all depends on the fidelity of the technique and the context in which it is applied.

How is user research done?

User Research has the potential to be a sizable undertaking, depending on whether or not the client is iterating on an existing website or commissioning a new one. Regardless, it’s the researcher’s job to explain to their clients what the project’s goals and budget imply for the forthcoming research initiative.

Fortunately, all signs point toward a more casual, habitual approach to user research. Many of today’s practitioners eschew expensive laboratory or field research for rapid behavioral observation.

The following tools and their “plain–English” descriptions are based heavily on the article Can You Say That in English? Explaining UX Research to Clients first run on A List Apart in November, 2009. Although this list is far from comprehensive, it’s enough to get your team started conducting user research.

On a final note, if you need more comprehensive user research, I highly recommend following Indi Young’s Mental Models.

How is user testing done?

As previously mentioned, user testing involves asking potential users of your product or service to complete a (set of) task(s) using a version—ideally a prototype—of your product or service in order to determine its utility and its usability.

Thanks to the Internet, the practice of user testing has seen a dramatic shift over the past few years; despite the fact that it’s less than 50 years old. Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte describe the prevalence of user testing in large organizations in their book Remote Research:

In-person lab research procedures were developed, refined, and standardized, and then became entrenched in the corporate R&D product development cycle. Practically everything gets tested in a lab nowadays: commercial Web sites, professional and consumer software, even video games.

Fortunately, user testing is becoming increasingly prevalent in smaller organizations.


Regardless of where it’s conducted, user testing always follows a similartesting protocol:

  1. Identify potential users (ideally done during user research, see above)
  2. Recruit potential users
  3. Create test guidelines
  4. Schedule test sessions with potential users
  5. Administer the test
  6. Analyze the results

A super–simple method for doing just this is explained in Steve Krug’s new book Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems.

The names of the various methods in which user testing is done depend largely on the relationship of the proctor to the participant:

  • Lab research

    A Usability lab circa 1987

    A modern usability lab circa 1987

    Lab research describes usability tests conducted in a highly–produced, simulated environment. Researchers typically observe the test behind a one–way mirror and employ screen–capturing software, video cameras, etc. to document the test.

  • Guerrilla research

    Guerrilla research is a modern, lightweight take on lab research. Instead of renting a lab, guerrilla research is typically done on the spot; users are simply asked to complete basic tasks with a website or service, and the entire operation is recorded for later use.

    More informationWatch Steve Krug administer a simple test.

  • Remote research

    On Bolt|Peters‘ website Remote Usability, they define remote research as “any kind of research where the user and research moderator aren’t interacting face–to–face.” Remote research is the answer to the increasing cost and hassle of earlier research endeavors juxtaposed with iterative, agile development. Ideally, users are both recruited online and tested online, so that the entire feedback loop is handled at both parties’ convenience.


Design research luminaries

The following people have contributed greatly to the field of experience design research. Follow the related links to see what they’re currently up to.


After pioneering and directing the User Experience department at Clear Ink in 1999, which included the construction of Natural Environment and Remote Observation laboratories, Nate co-founded Bolt | Peters. He now serves as el presidente, where he has overseen hundreds of user research studies for Sony, Oracle, HP, Greenpeace, Electronic Arts, and others. Beginning in 2003, he led the creation of the first moderated remote user research software, Ethnio.

Read Nate’s Blog


Mike Kuniavsky is a user experience design, process, and strategy consultant. He’s created successful and innovative user-centered digital technology for more than twenty years and for dozens of the world’s biggest companies. His typical work involves partnerships with senior level executives who want to create more successful products and a more compelling user experience.

Read Mike’s Blog


Steve is fascinated by the stuff of a culture—its products, companies, consumers, media, and advertising. All these artifacts and the relationships between them are the rules that define a culture—the stuff makes the culture, but it is the culture that makes the stuff.

Learn more about Steve


Dan is a founder and principal of Kicker Studio, a design consultancy for consumer electronics, appliances, devices, and interactive environments, specializing in touchscreens and interactive gestures. When he’s not researching the latest and greatest in interface design, he works as an interaction designer.

Learn more about Dan


Jared founded User Interface Engineering in 1988. He has more than 15 years of experience conducting usability evaluations on a variety of products, and is an expert in low-fidelity prototyping techniques. Jared is on the faculty of the Tufts University Gordon Institute and teaches seminars on product usability. He is a recognized authority on user interface design and human factors in computing.

Learn more about Jared


Indi is an applications and navigation guru who began her work in Web applications in 1995. Her clients range from technology start-ups to large financial institutions. Projects include global corporate intranets, consumer finance and investment tools, enterprise software lead generation sites, knowledge management tools, workflow applications, and business-to-business e-commerce.

Learn more about Indi








Tools of the trade

Much of design research is actually done in a question-and-answer sense; researchers ask questions, record responses, and analyze the results. As a consequence, the tools they use are mostly communicative or illustrative:

Sticky Notes

While you’re researching users, illustrating ideas, or performing a card sort, consider separating and physically playing with your ideas using sticky notes.


When you don’t want your notes to be sticky, but still want to allow people the flexibility to move them around and play with them, use these. They’re a cheap, worthwhile addition to any research meeting.


Like the other “analog” tools listed here, Moleskines are great for jotting down and exploring ideas with users and stakeholders alike. Invest in a few of these notebooks and then bring them along to any collaborative session.

Flip Video Camera

Although any video camera will do, the Flip is great because its small, lightweight, and convenient. Researchers conducting interviews or contextual observations will quickly put them through their paces. Consider buying a couple (and sometripods) for your team.


Need to get in touch with potential users? If you’ve already tried Twitter or bugged enough of your Facebook friends, consider sourcing users from your existing website usingEthnio. Ethnio works well because it gets users actually in the act of doing something with your website before you ask them questions about their experience.


Combined with an application such as Audio Hijack Pro, researchers can conduct audio (and video) chats with users and record their responses. Grab a copy.


Spontaneous, unobtrusive usability testing software for designers and developers. Nothing like bringing users to your laptop and asking them for feedback on the spot. Learn more about Silverback.

Related Resources

Introductory Letter to the Participant

This letter helps prepare research participants for the questions that you might ask of them.

Printing Template for 3M Printable Post-It Notes

Use this Microsoft Word template to print anything on 3×4 Post-It Notes. For example, copy quotes to the template and print them out for sorting on the wall. Or, during analysis of one transcript, assign one team member the job of typing up the verb+noun phrases you shout out, to print every 10 minutes or so.

EightShapes Unify

EightShapes Unify is a collection of templates, libraries, and other assets that enable user experience designers to create more consistent, effective deliverables faster. Useful for generating documentation after you’ve conducted your research.

Sample Usability Test Script

A six–page script that walks proctors through administering a hypothetical user test. This is a direct excerpt from Steve Krug’s Rocket Surgery Made Easy.

Usability Testing Checklist

Another excerpt from Steve Krug’s book, this guide explains what to do in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to guerilla usability tests.


This professionalizing programme, the only one of its kind in Switzerland, aims to train designers whose skills are based on the mastery of techniques, critical reflection and aesthetic evaluation.

It promotes the acquisition of the high capacity for innovation, organization and adaptation demanded by the new media design practices. It provides the opportunity to invent and develop devices, products or applications, as well as their content, through the use of the codes and tools specific to digital technologies and networks.


The dissemination of digital technologies and their diverse uses modify design production practices and research and make it possible to discover new fields of application. Design and interactivity thus contribute jointly and significantly to the evolution of the forms, objects, messages and services that characterise the era of technoculture.

At the intersection between creation, the media and innovation, the Masters in Media Design offers a field of experimentation favouring the development of projects in the areas of interaction design, information design, network communication, games, electronic publishing and the design of mobile media.

This programme is addressed to Swiss and international students and young professionals involved in visual communication, interactive design, computing or related disciplines.

The training combines the approaches to design, tools and expressive potential of emerging technologies with the practice of design. After an introductory workshop, the programme alternates theoretical seminars, courses and work led by internationally renowned contributors. During the first year, students acquire specific expertise in interactive design and establish an individual and prospective approach that they develop over the course of the second year, mainly devoted to the theoretical and practical work of the Masters thesis.


Human-Computer Interaction (M.S.) | Home

The M.S. in HCI is a four-semester, 36-hour program. All students are required to take a set of core courses, a set of courses in their chosen specialization; Computing, Digital Media (DM), or Psychology; and a master`s project.

The M.S. in HCI is a four-semester, 36-hour program. All students are required to take a set of core courses, a set of courses in their chosen specialization; Computing, Digital Media (DM), or Psychology; and a master`s project.

via Human-Computer Interaction (M.S.) | Home.


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Specialty Research Unit in Natural Language Processing and Intelligent Information System Technology
(NAiST) was established in 1996. We aim to research,design and develop applications, which can analyze, understand and generate languages,that human use naturally on Text, Speech and Image based on Natural Language Processing Technique.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) researches are essential to the enhancement of computer capability to process human-being language. Result of the researches originated various technique and computational linguistic theorem which cause the business software such as a language translator, automatic text extraction, information retrieval by using user own language as well as writing erificvation.

via NAiST.