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Research Methods

Design research has many methods, drawn from other disciplines or created by designers over the years. These methods can be roughly divided into three categories: observations, interviews, and activities, including having subjects make things and self-report on their activities.

Whole books have been written on the methods of design research (see For Further Reading at the end of the chapter), so what follows is a representative sample of the most common methods.


The easiest and possibly the most fruitful of all design research methods is simply observing what people are doing in a conscientious manner. Designers can covertly watch or interact with people or tag along with subjects to ask them questions about how and why they are doing what they are doing.

  • Fly on the wall. Go to a location and unobtrusively observe what goes on there. For instance, a designer could go to a mall and watch how people shop.
  • Shadowing. Follow subjects as they go about their routines. This technique usually requires permission, as the designer is following the subject throughout the day, recording what is done and said.
  • Contextual inquiry. A variation on shadowing, contextual inquiry involves going to the subjects' location and asking questions about their behaviors, such as "Why are you doing that? Could you describe that to me?"
  • Undercover agent. Observe people by interacting with them covertly, posing as someone "normal" in the environment. A designer who wants to know about a service can pretend to be a customer and use the service.

When conducting observations, dress not to impress. The point is to blend in with the environment so that the observer isn't the one being observed. Observers should wear neutral, nondescript clothing that is appropriate to the environment. The more observers look like they belong, the more they'll become part of the background. Bring props if necessary. Some environments require certain items for the observer to seem normal, such as a backpack in school settings, a hard hat on construction sites, or a suit in a conservative office.

Observers should choose their locations wisely and be willing to change to another one if the original doesn't seem to be yielding good results. Observers should sit or stand in places where they can observe without being noticeable. It's best to be at an angle when observing subjects instead of directly in front or back of them, because an angle gives a clearer line of sight.

Camera phones are excellent for inconspicuously snapping photos in public spaces. Remember, however, that any such photos should be used in an ethical manner.


It's amazing what you can find out if you just ask. Talking to people and hearing their stories is a great way to uncover attitudes and experiences—but designers do need to be careful: what people say they do and what they actually do are typically two very different things. Here are some methods for talking to users:

  • Directed storytelling. Ask subjects to tell stories about specific times they performed an action or interacted with a product or service. Moments to ask about are the first time they performed an action or used a product ("Tell me about the first time you used the system to place an order"), a time when the product or service hasn't worked ("Can you describe a time when you couldn't do something you wanted to with your mobile phone?"), and a time when they did something new ("Why did you try to use the screwdriver to pry open the phone?").
  • Unfocus group. A method from design firm IDEO,2 this approach turns the traditional focus group on its head. Instead of assembling a group of users in a room to talk about a subject or product, this method suggests assembling a group of experts in the field, hobbyists, artists, and others to explore the subject or product from different viewpoints. The purpose is not to get a typical user's perspective, but instead an atypical view of the subject.
  • Role playing. With a willing group or individual, role playing different scenarios can draw out emotions and attitudes about a subject, product, or service in ways that can be very fresh ("I'm going to pretend I'm a customer and interact with you. Is that okay?").
  • Extreme-user interviews. Another method from IDEO, in this approach the designer interviews people on the outer edge of the subject matter. For example, a designer working on an interactive TV project might interview a subject who doesn't own a TV.
  • Desk/purse/briefcase tour. Ask subjects to give a tour of their desks or the contents of their purses or briefcases (Figure 4.2). How people use their desks and what they carry with them can reveal a lot about their personalities and work habits. Are they messy or neat? Organized or disorganized? Do they have special systems for working? Are there family pictures?
    Figure 4.2

    Figure 4.2 A desk tour can reveal how people structure their personal space to work and uncover objects and methods users neglected to mention.

When talking to subjects, it's best to have what Buddhists call the "beginner's mind." Designers should be open and nonjudgmental and should not assume that they know the answer beforehand. Simple questions can reveal powerful answers.


A recent trend in design research calls for designers to not only observe and talk to users, but also to have them engage in an activity that involves making an artifact. This process allows designers to draw out emotions and understand how people think about a subject. Doing activities frees subjects' creativity and allows them to express themselves differently than they would in an interview. Here are some methods for making artifacts with subjects:

  • Collaging. Using images and words, have subjects make a collage related to the product or service being researched (Figure 4.3). For a mobile phone project, for example, designers might have subjects make a collage on mobility. The collage images can come from magazines, the Web, or stock photographs, and should contain a wide range of subjects and emotions. The same is true for the words. About 200 words, both positive and negative, should be printed out on strips of paper for use. Subjects should have a way to write their own words as well.
    Figure 4.3

    Figure 4.3 Creating collages can give visual and verbal clues as to how subjects think and feel about a topic.

  • Modeling. Using modeling clay, pipe cleaners, Styrofoam blocks, cardboard, glue, and other modeling tools, designers can have subjects design their version of a physical or even digital product. For example, a designer could have gamers design their ultimate game console or have air traffic controllers design an ideal set of controls.
  • Draw your experience. Give subjects drawing materials and paper and tell them to draw their experience with a product or service (Figure 4.4). A project about e-mail, for example, might have subjects draw the lifecycle of e-mail on their computers.
    Figure 4.4

    Figure 4.4 Drawing experiences can bring out subjects' hidden experiences and emotions.

An important part of having subjects make things is having them explain their choices after they are done (Figure 4.5). Otherwise, the designer may be left with a perplexing object and no way of understanding it. Ask, for instance, why a subject chose negative words in the collage or why a subject built the robot that way. However, for the best results, designers shouldn't tell subjects beforehand that they will be explaining their choices; this could inhibit them as they complete the activity.

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 An essential part of having subjects make artifacts is having the subjects explain their choices afterwards.

Making artifacts requires more advance preparation than other forms of research. Designers need to gather and choose the materials for making the artifacts as well as the tools to do so.


Another type of activity is self-reporting. In this approach, subjects, not the researcher, record their activities and thoughts, and the researcher then collects and analyzes these records after the subjects are done. Self-reporting is an excellent tool for longer studies in multiple locations, when it would be impractical to send designers to do all of the research in person. Self-reporting can also be good for documenting moments that subjects might be reluctant or embarrassed to present to a designer in person. Self-reporting methods include the following:

  • Journals. Subjects keep a journal of particular activities. A classic example is the journals kept by the Nielsen families, who write down what they watch on TV for two week's time so that the Nielsen ratings can be compiled.
  • Beeper studies. Subjects wear a beeper, which the designer sets off during the day. When the beeper goes off, the subjects record in a journal what they are doing at that time.
  • Photo/video journals. Subjects are given cameras and told to document activities and their daily lives. Research on dining experiences, for instance, might ask subjects to document every time they cook or eat something.

Self-reporting requires a lot of time and effort from the subjects, so the subjects should be selected (and compensated) accordingly.

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