Step 1: Ask the right questions

The discovery phase is critical. The word ‘research’ might suggest a long, slow and probably expensive process. But it isn’t (or, it doesn’t have to be). Design research isn’t scientific. It is simply about understanding things through a particular lens.

Research might start with understanding your business, your product portfolio and your customers. A great deal of design insight can be gleaned during the early days of an engagement, just through talking and listening. But there is a skill involved, in recognising who to talk to, how to get them talking and knowing what kind of questions to ask. Not all designers seem able to engage with their clients in this way but it is a critical first step.

Understanding your customers is also critical, of course, and there are many ways to accomplish this quickly. Certain aspects of human behaviour are evolutionary and apply across all design projects: a knowledge of cognitive psychology is critical here because certain principles and patterns can immediately be applied as a first step in designing a product or service.

User empathy can be increased further simply by visiting and talking to customers. We’re not talking about large, formal studies: the bulk of design insight can usually be taken from talking to between 5 and 10 people. It is a simple conversation from the customer’s viewpoint, but to get maximum benefit the designer may be employing subtle techniques of active listening and recognising design opportunities from oblique angles – the best insights do not come from scripted conversations but from off-the-cuff comments. This is what has been called the ‘scent’ of good design, and it is why I believe all designers should conduct their own research. The scent is too easily lost if one person does the research and another the designing.

Crucially, the designer must be able to communicate research findings to the rest of the company and development team quickly and effectively. This, again, is a skill that not all designers show.

Research has always been a part of my practice as a writer and designer: understanding the business and technologies, visiting customers on site to understand their lives, and testing products during and after development to test for validity and to keep finding improvements.



  • Field study (aka ‘ethnographic research’): visiting customers in their own environments to understand their problems and requirements. Not asking what they want, but watching what they do.
  • Informal ‘guerrilla’ user testing: showing people ideas or prototypes and watching how they use them, then talking about problems and improvements. Cheap, quick, effective.
  • Formal (lab-based) user testing. More expensive than guerrilla testing and not always as effective, but useful for proving or validating products.
  • A/B testing.
  • Preference testing (like A/B testing, but with more talking – so that you know why people prefer one option to another).


Contact me now if you’re interested in design research or user testing.