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What is Design Research?

Design research (sometimes called user research) is a study of the people who use your service, how they behave, and what their motivations are for using the service.

We hear from people in their own words, so we may gain an understanding of what they want and need from government.

Why is Design Research Important?

Learning about the needs of people allows you to create better government services, products and content.

You will learn the user’s motivations, struggles, and goals when interacting with government.

The role of a design researcher is not to consult with, audit, or teach participants. The role of a design researcher is to be an active observer and listen without bias or assumptions.

Design research helps to

  • Discover the need for products and services sooner rather than later
  • Establish a good foundation to make sure you are designing the best, content, products, services, or programs
  • Lower cost of projects in the long term
  • Improve processes to deliver services faster and be more responsive
  • Reduce the number of questions and complaints to call centres

When to do Research

You can do design research at any stage of a project. Where you are in a project will determine what kind of research you do.


Your focus in the Discover phase is on generative research and finding out what the problems are.

Already have a solution in mind? Design research is a great opportunity to challenge your assumptions.

It is best to challenge assumptions early to minimize unexpected surprises. When you discover areas of success and failure early, it is easier to plan what to do before lots of time has been committed to a solution.

You should

  • Conduct interviews to discover user problems and needs
  • Shadow someone to observe what they experience
  • Run a usability test on an existing service to identify challenges when completing tasks

Explore & Experiment

In the Explore & Experiment phase, you should explore multiple concepts and options to solving problems. The goal is to explore different paths to solve the problem and worry about polishing the details in later phases.

You should

  • Collaborate with co-creators to brainstorm and test different approaches
  • Conduct intercept testing with a few different concepts and observe the participant’s reactions
  • Conduct preference tests to figure out the pros and cons of several concepts
  • Focus on testing with low fidelity prototypes to test your hypothesis

Build & Maintain

By this phase, you will have narrowed down on a concept and are working out the details.

You should

  • Conduct a card sorting exercise to structure menu items on your web page
  • Intercept test on specific elements of the product. This is to ensure participants understand what you are asking them to do
  • Run a usability test on high fidelity prototypes or working software to identify potential usability issues. The purpose is to take a product idea and iterate to make gradual improvements based on feedback

Qualitative & Quantitative Research

Qualitative and quantitative research methods will help you understand a problem from different perspectives.


Qualitative research investigates the everyday life and experiences that cannot be measured by numbers, such as:

  • Meaning
  • Interpretations
  • Symbols
  • Processes
  • Relations to social life

The goal of qualitative research is to understand why people behave, act and interact the way they do.

Qualitative research also looks for behavioural patterns, and doesn’t need huge sample sizes to find usable insights.


Quantitative research uses numerical data from a population to determine patterns within groups of people.

The goal of quantitative research is to get measurable data that can be analyzed with statistical procedures.

Quantitative research looks for numerical trends and statistical significance.

Bring the Methods Together

If your project only has quantitative data, think about how insights from qualitative research can give human insight and understanding to the data.

If your project only uses qualitative data, think about how you can use numerical measures to understand larger patterns and trends.

Conducting Design Research Remotely or Online

It is preferable to conduct design research in-person. Face-to-face interactions allow you to build trust and to observe what people are thinking, feeling and doing. However, sometimes it is not possible to be in the same place as participants.

Conducting design research remotely can open up opportunities, such as:

  • Collaborate with more participants
  • Cover a wider geographical area of participate
  • Discuss difficult topics that might be hard to talk about face-to-face
  • Reduce project costs with less travel

Each stage of a project has unique challenges with using a remote approach. These will be covered throughout this guide.