“A prudent question is one half of wisdom.” – Francis Bacon

These sage words of advice from a 17th-century philosopher hold true today even in the context of modern web design: Building great experiences isn’t about making assumptions in order to come up with a product that fits a trend or a single designer’s imagination. Rather, it’s about knowing how to pose questions to users in the first place that will reveal what problems--and solutions--really need to be addressed. Not only does this approach leverage empathy so products can be built to be more intuitive, but it also helps designers prioritize project needs because they can quickly understand where to focus. Is it necessary to have a “call to action” button because it’s standard practice, or is it more important to know what button users actually want to see in the first place, and are therefore more likely to click on? Or perhaps what they need isn’t a button at all, but a microinteraction. You won’t know until you probe the question.

Designing for real people requires letting go of thinking rooted in the past and opening the mind up to new possibilities. What are users really looking for, and why? With this underpinning in the human psyche, rigorous design research can be the difference between ho-hum and home run.

Design research is a vital-- yet easily overlooked-- component of design thinking. According to the Stanford d.school, broader design thinking consists of five phases: Empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing

Although these phases don’t have to be linear (designers will often bounce between them), it helps to consider this sequence and think of design research as falling under the first two phases: empathizing and defining. When we think of design research this way, we avoid the pitfalls of prototyping too early, falling in love with our own ideas, or being swept up by the luster of a project that’s getting its finishing touches prematurely. Art for the sake of art is never the goal; instead, empathizing with users and defining what they actually need should be the focus of every designer before they move forward on a project.

When creating a new product or experience, successfully marrying “the numbers” (like in existing user data) with lived human experiences (perhaps found in your small focus groups) can be a challenge. That’s why it’s important to keep a few things in mind:

Define Clear Parameters

When setting out to do research, it’s important to delineate some big picture boundaries. What are we trying to find out, is our approach valid, and is it practical? Do we know who we are designing for, or do we need to develop an avatar before moving further?

Be an Objective Reporter

Think of yourself as a journalist when holding focus groups and conducting surveys by putting yourself in your user’s shoes when asking questions, and remain impartial to your own biases.

Keep in mind that participants in a small focus group do not replace real user data; rather, they add to existing data by providing insights on human behavior that can’t be observed in spreadsheets.

Present data to the team in a way that’s easy to understand, contextualized, and fair. For instance, don’t conflate online users with focus group participants, and admit where you may need to conduct more research or testing. What considerations need to be made?

Prioritize Empathy

Remember that design research isn’t the same as market research, which primarily relies on logic to extrapolate financial value for the company. Instead, design research relies on empathy to identify value for the user.

With a mindful approach to design research, web design teams have the potential to create an infinitely more impactful user experience. It’s up to designers to keep the user at the heart of everything they do, remembering that their own assumptions may not necessarily align with the real needs of the project. A careful initial evaluation combined with re-evaluations at each step in the process can help ensure an end product that truly serves the needs of the customer.

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