Core practices and fundamental ideas and techniques used in research.

ThE BasIcs

research Is a discipline with many applications. This chapter introduces the core practices and fundamental ideas and techniques you will use repeatedly in many situations. Well cover who should do research, different types of research and when to use them, and roles within each set of research activities. To help counter any skepticism about the business value of research, well also review some common objections and how to overcome them. who shouLd do reseArch? everyone!

Ideally, everyone who is on the design team should also participate in the research.

If you are a sole practitioner, well, thats easy. You will have excellent direct experience and can tailor the process and documentation to suit your needs. (Just be particularly mindful of your personal biases.) If you work with other people, involve them from the start. Presenting them with the worlds most stunning report will give them a terrific reference document, but its far less likely to inspire them to approach their work differently. (Do you disagree? Perhaps you are an economist.)

When you find yourself making a case for a skeuomorphic, bronze astrolabe interface based on the research youve all done together, youll be able to spend less time explaining the rationale and more time focused on the merit of the conclusion. As you saw in the interviews, we found that our target group of amateur astronomers exclusively uses nineteenth-century equipment for stargazing….

People who have a hand in collecting the insights will look for opportunities to apply them. Being the smart person is more fun than obeying the smart person, which is how the researcher/ designer dynamic can feel if designers are merely the recipients of the analysis.

At my first design agency job, the research director was a charming PhD anthropologist with a penchant for vivid, striped shirts. Despite being fresh out of academia, he was much more of a scout troop leader than a fusty professor. Interviews and usability tests were scavenger hunts and mysteries with real-world implications. Unlike heinous, contrived team-building activitiesrope courses and trust fallsdoing research together actually did make our team more collaborative. We were learning interesting, valuable new things, and everyone had something different to contribute. The content strategist would notice the vocabulary real people used and the developer had good questions about personal technology habits. The visual designer was just really into motorcycles, and that helped sometimes too.

Someone needs to be the research leadthe person who keeps everyone on track and on protocol and takes ultimate responsibility for the quality of the work. If you take this on it might mean that youre the primary researcher, gathering the data for others to help you analyze, or you could have more of an ensemble approach. The most important thing is that everyone involved knows the purpose or goal of the research, their role, and the process.

Find your purpose

One of our maxims at Mule is that every design project ultimately amounts to a series of decisions. What are the most important features? What is the best navigation scheme? How big should the logo be?

For any given project, we include only the research activities that support the specific decisions we anticipate. If the client has only identified an audience and wants to explore ways to better serve them (What can we offer of value to high school science teachers?), our research will be more open-ended than if the design problem is already well defined (How can we get high school science teachers to download and use our lesson plans?).

This has been playing out on the fields of mobile first. Many organizations are seeing a significant increase in their mobile traffic. They know they have to do something different for users on mobile devices, but arent quite sure what. So, theyre looking for ideas, or should be. Its too soon to jump to fine-tuning solutions. For example, should the Fantastic Science Center, our fictional museum client, rewrite all of the exhibit descriptions for a mobile audience, or build a native event reservation app, or encourage school group students to post exhibit photos to Facebook from their phones? Organizational research will tell you which interactions benefit the museum most, while user research will indicate which are most plausible and the circumstances under which they will take place. Maybe you will discover that school district policy prohibits students from using their phones on field trips, but parents are likely to take photos of family visits to share with their Facebook friends. In that case, parents are the ones to target with a social media marketing campaign.

There are many, many ways of classifying research, depending on who is doing the classification. Researchers are always thinking up more classifications. Academic classifications may be interesting in the abstract, but we care about utility, what helps get the job done. Research is a set of tools. We want to make sure we can find the right one fast, but we arent too concerned with the philosophy of how the toolbox is organized.

To choose the best research tool for your project, youll need to know what decisions are in play (the purpose) and what youre asking about (the topic). Then you can find the best ways to gather background information, determine the projects goals and requirements, understand the projects current context, and evaluate potential solutions.

Generative or exploratory research: Whats up with…?

This is the research you do before you even know what youre doing. It leads to ideas and helps define the problem. Dont think of this as just the earliest research. Even if youre working on an existing product or service, you might be looking for ideas for additional features or other enhancements, or new products you could bring to an audience youre already serving.

Generative research can include interviews, field observation, and reviewing existing literatureplus feeling fancy about saying generative research.

Maybe the museum is trying to decide how to allocate that grant money and has discovered that a lot of parents who recently had their first child are coming to the website and you want to figure out what else you can offer them. Your question might be, Whats up with new parents anyway? Your goal would be to see the new parent experience from their eyes, to understand what they do and what they need. Your generative research activities might include interviewing new parents on the phone, following new parents around on a typical day, or looking at the questions new parents ask on social websites.

Once youve gathered information, the next step is to comb through it and determine the most commonly voiced unmet needs. This sort of research and analysis helps point out useful problems to solve. Your thinking might lead to a hypothesis, such as Local parents of young children would value an app that offers ideas for science events and activities based on their childs developmental milestones. Then you can do further (descriptive) research on how parents recognize and commemorate those milestones.

Descriptive and explanatory: What and how?

Descriptive research involves observing and describing the characteristics of what youre studying. This is what you do when you already have a design problem and you need to do your homework to fully understand the context to ensure that you design for the audience instead of yourself. While the activities can be very similar to generative research, descriptive research differs in the high-level question youre asking. Youve moved past What is a good problem to solve? to What is the best way to solve the problem Ive identified?

At Mule, weve done a lot of design work for eye health organizations. Despite the fact that several of us have really terrible vision (and very stylish glasses), none of us had any expertise beyond whether the chart looks sharper through lens number one or lens number two. The Glaucoma Research Foundation offered a clear design problem to solve: how to create useful, accurate educational materials for people who had been newly diagnosed with an eye disease. So, a round of descriptive research was in order.

To inform our design recommendations, we interviewed ophthalmologists and patients, and reviewed a large quantity of frankly horrifying literature. (Please, have your eyes examined regularly.) By understanding both the doctor and patient priorities and experiences, we were able to create online resources full of clear information that passed clinical muster and didnt provoke anxiety.

For the Fantastic Science Center, descriptive research comes into play once weve identified a design problem, such as providing an online robotics course for students around the world. Maybe this supports the organizational goal to create a global robot army. It would be important to understand how online learning would best fit into the lives of the target students. For example, do they have their own equipment or do they share? How do target users find out about new online activities? How do the needs of students who only have mobile devices compare to those who have access to a laptop or desktop? Which activities are they already engaged in that might compete with or complement such a course?

Evaluative research: Are we getting close?

Once you have a very clear idea of the problem youre trying to solve, you can begin to define potential solutions. And once you have ideas for potential solutions, you can test them to make sure they work and meet the requirements youve identified. This is research you can, and should, do in an ongoing and iterative way as you move through design and development. The most common type of evaluative research is usability testing, but any time you put a proposed design solution in front of your client, you really are doing some evaluative research.

Causal research: Why is this happening?

Once you have implemented the solutions you proposed, and have a website or application up and running out in the world, you might start noticing that people are using it in a certain way, possibly a way that isnt exactly what youd hoped. Or perhaps, something really terrific is happening and you want to replicate the success in other parts of your operation. For example, youve noticed that ever since the Fantastic Science Center redesign launched, tickets for the Friday evening science-loving singles event are selling better, but ticket sales have completely dropped off for the Sunday afternoon film program. You need to do some causal research.

Establishing a cause-and-effect relationship can be tricky. Causal research often includes looking at analytics and conducting multivariate testing (see Chapter 9). This means reviewing your site traffic to see how visitors are entering and moving around the site and what words they might be searching for, as well as trying design and language variations to see which ones are more effective. Causal research might show that your film program traffic all came from one referring website that no longer links to you. Or, you might have to expand beyond looking at site performance to see what else is going on. Maybe a competing organization started an event with a very similar name and confused your target audience.

As long as youre clear about your questions and your expectations, dont fret too much about the classification of the research you want to undertake. Remain open to learning at every stage of the process. And share this love of learning with your team. Your research will benefit from a collaborative approach that includes assigning specific responsibilities to different people.


Research roles represent clusters of tasks, not individual people. Often one person will take multiple roles on a study, or a single role can be shared.


The author plans and writes the study. This includes the problem statement and questions, and the interview guide or test script.


The interviewer is the person who interacts directly with the test participants.


The coordinator plans how time will be used during the study and schedules sessions, including arranging times with the participants.


The notetaker is responsible for capturing the data during a test session. It is best that the interviewer and notetaker be two separate people so that the interviewer can devote full attention to the participant. If this is impossible, the interviewer can arrange to record the session as unobtrusively as possible. Having both written notes and a recording makes data analysis easier.


The recruiter screens potential participants and identifies the respondents who would be good subjects. The recruiter and scheduler can easily be the same person.


The analyst reviews the gathered data to look for patterns and insights. More than one person should have this role.


The documenter reports the findings once the research study is complete.


Often its useful for clients or other available team members to watch the research in progress. This is appropriate as long as the presence of the observers will not influence the research itself. As a substitute, you can make raw recordings available.

You can change roles with each set of activities if that works best, or develop a routine that allows you to focus on the information gathering. Just as with design and coding, every time you complete some research, youll have ideas for how to do it better next time and youll have found new ways to incorporate learning into your work.

Listen. Be interested. Ask questions. Write clearly. And practice. Whatever your day job is, adding research skills will make you better at it.

The research process

Well cover ways to organize research activities in extensive detail in Chapter 3. For the purposes of this section, what matters is that everyone working together has a shared understanding of how the work will proceed. This can be as simple as a checklist.

In addition to organizing the efforts of your immediate team, you might need to get approval to do research at all, either from the client or from decision-makers in your organization. Handle this as early as possible so you can focus on the work rather than defending it.

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