Which Type of Design Research Should You Use?

So, you are ready to introduce a new design for your brand. It looks modern and appealing, and you think it will create a strong impact. But how can you be sure that your customers feel the same way and that this design resonates with them?

Reflecting on how you, or your agency, developed and tested a new idea is important to ensure that it will connect with customers.

Ideally, design research was part of your process from the start. Analysis of customer behavior, perceptions, and reactions can inform concept development and confirm strategic directions. It will minimize risk and reveal new opportunities. Not every research method is right for all projects, however, and the following types of research will help you determine appropriate methods to gain valuable insights.

“Desk” Research

Secondary research is an important first step in the research process to see what information is already available and avoid wasting time and resources. Literature reviews allow researchers to build on others’ work and progress knowledge collectively. There may be key insights that can be leveraged from another study or existing data, and even if the information is not specific enough for your project, it will give you more context to conduct your own primary research.

When to use: As a first step in all projects.

Observation & Data Mining

Observing customers in real-life scenarios is more likely to accurately predict future behavior. This type of research may be structured, where a researcher looks for specific behaviors in a pre-determined schedule and setting; or unstructured, where the observer is more freely viewing interactions. Ideally, the researcher’s influence on a situation is minimal, and informed consent of participants needs to be considered.

While a context that is specific to your industry will give you confidence that observations will be relevant to your project, branching out to other industries may lead to new insights. Another type of observation is to look for patterns in behavior using data analytics. Data is often more revealing of true customer opinions since people may not know how they truly feel, or may modify their behavior according to social norms if they know they are being watched. Exploratory reviews and observations can lead to unexpected findings. With the rise of AI language models, AI can also be used as a form of data mining to assist in synthesizing research and gathering data.

When to use: If you think asking people directly about their needs will not give true answers, people are unsure how they feel, or it is not possible to ask them.


Interviews can take place over the phone or in-person. This method will give you an in-depth understanding of each person, and allows you to ask specific follow-up questions. Interviewees might be customers, users, experts, employees, or management. Using a discussion guide will keep your interview focused and on time, and open-ended questions including “how” and “why” will lead to more complex answers and information. Interviews are most often used at the beginning of the design process to discover initial opportunities and gain a basic understanding of customer needs and challenges.

When to use: If you are looking to ask in-depth and follow-up questions.

Focus Groups

This method is a way to learn from a small group of people, and have discussions about motivations and behavior. Since the group should be representative of a larger target audience, each participant needs to be selected carefully. Focus groups can be used at different stages of the design process to either generate context for a project or test concept directions. One downside to this method is that vocal participants can sometimes take over a conversation and influence others, so an experienced moderator is necessary to direct discussions and help each participant feel comfortable to speak and included.

When to use: If you are looking for in-depth opinions of a diverse group of people in one setting.


Surveys, on the other hand, generate data from a large group of people. Like focus groups, survey respondent demographics should be representative of your target audience or customer base. They can give you assurance that a concept is resonating across a large sample size, or provide a big picture overview of attitudes and patterns of behavior. If you are looking to break down your analysis by a specific demographic variable, such as age or income, surveys can give you the data you need. Questions should be concise, easy to understand, and relevant to avoid overwhelming and frustrating participants. They also need to be carefully crafted to help you obtain useful information, so consideration of the type of question asked (multiple choice, ranking, open-ended, etc.) as well as the answer choices available is important.

When to use: When you want more assurance that a design is resonating with a larger group of people.

Rapid Iteration & Guerrilla Research

Rapid iteration is a method where you quickly test prototypes to evaluate their potential success as early as possible. If the reaction is positive, revisions are made to improve a concept. If an idea does not work, researchers and designers find out quickly and avoid wasting too much time perfecting it. Similarly, “guerrilla research” is a low cost, quick method to gain immediate feedback, such as asking opinions of passersby or coworkers. While this research can lack scientific rigor, it provides a starting point for further research and works for projects with limited budgets and time.

When to use: If you need a low cost test that can be performed quickly.

Whether formal or informal, research efforts will better inform the design process. Each type of research has its pros and cons, so careful consideration of methodology based on your project type is important.