Design research is only as good as the action it enables

Design research is only as good as the action it enables

When Topp’s design teams engage users and test prototypes, we’ve got one ultimate goal: to enable our teams or our clients to take action. It’s common to start design projects with a research phase, but in our experience, the hand-over between research and design can be tenuous. Embedding user engagements in the design process instead, tends to lead to action.

There’s long been a debate in the design community about quantitative vs qualitative research, and which is though of as “better”. From our perspective, all the tools for user research — both quant and qual— can have value in the design process, as long as they’re geared toward action. So rather than judging one research method as “the best”, we acknowledge their strengths, weaknesses, and best uses of each. This article outlines 6 examples of research activities, both quant and qual methods, and when to use them to their strengths.

Research activity selection process, at a glance

The numbers and statistics produced by quantitative methods can signal the existence of a problem, but tell us little about its cause, or how to solve it. This is the main reason most design researchers use qualitative methods, exclusively or alongside quantitative ones. Qualitative research helps us empathise with users, to understand their needs and environment. This kind of empathy not only tells us why a problem exists in the first place, it also lets us build a narrative about a potential solution, that the design team can organise around. A narrative based on real user experiences helps us share intent and knowledge, between the stakeholders that assign budgets, the designers that propose the solution, developers that implement it, and the testers who test it.

The narrative is just as valuable a research outcome as data or insights.

User research can produce a wide range of outputs, and demand more or less effort, depending on how you’re engaging users. A few hours of covert observations can get some ideas going, and an A/B testing sprint can give you a backlog of problems to solve. A qualitative and quantitative combined study can result in a detailed report that drives the whole project, but might take months to complete. This is why we tend to use the term “user engagements” at Topp, which encompasses a wide range of formal and informal investigations, rather than “user research”, which implies something more academic.

What are we trying to achieve with user engagements?

As a design team, everything we do should get us closer to a solution. So every user engagement should have some impact on how we eventually execute the solution. This could mean nailing the project definition, isolating a research question or direction of inquiry, deciding on features, or crystallizing a design detail. From the design team’s perspective, the most valuable data or insight that comes from a user engagement enables design action. We know it’s valuable if it does one or more of the following:

  • It helps us distinguish between wants and needs
  • It points out a new opportunity
  • It narrows down or changes the task at hand
  • It tells us what to avoid (and why it should be avoided)
  • It gives us empathy for the user’s context, in a way that changes how the product is designed
  • It clarifies what is required for the product to be valuable to users

To extract these types of insights from user engagements, asking “why” becomes very important. What was the reasoning behind this reply, this choice?

For example, when users rate down a blinking blue light, is it really about the colour?

Or is it actually about something else? Perhaps the blinking pattern is too aggressive, or the bulb size is too big. Does the light need to be removed altogether? The “why” behind the “what” has an enormous impact on the action we eventually take.

Qualitative Methods: Gather insights to get to action.

There are myriad qualitative research methodologies out there, but we’ve focused on three specific ones, because they’re scalable, and they lead to action.

By scalable, we mean they can yield useful results after meeting 7–10 users, and can also be used at large enough scale that you’re essentially doing in-market testing. As a rule of thumb, when you surpass 10 users you start getting repetition in responses, resulting in a diminishing return of insights. When you get past 15–20 users, the engagement can take months, and the benefits of choosing a qualitative methodology diminishes.


Observation is a good way to find inspiration at the start of a project. Observations give you insights about behaviours: what people actually do, not what they say they do. The design actions that come out of observations are ideas to try, problems to address, and values to aim for. The effort you put into observations scales up well. It can yield insights when you spend a single session spent passively observing and taking notes for a few hours. It also yields insights when you visit multiple locations in multiple markets over several weeks with an interview protocol.

Monitored Testing

Monitored testing is a good way to inform how to iterate or inspect the execution of a design. It’s not enough to just imagine what would happen if you implemented a particular solution — the emotional aspects of most products demand that you actually experience them. Experimenting and making multiple prototypes is the key to evolving a design quickly. By monitoring a prototype in use, in combination with interviews, you’ll encounter both direct problems and new opportunities.

One misconception about testing is that it has to be done according to a protocol that you repeat strictly each time. But it also yields valuable results when performed iteratively, on prototypes that change with each iteration.


Interviews can complement observation and testing; they can also stand alone. As a stand alone method, it’s good to start by finding inspiration and thoroughly understand a topic. As a complement to other methods, it’s a good way to understand motivations and fears (the “why”).

Jon Kolko outlining the value of qualitative research

Quantitative Methods: Gather data to get to decisions.

User engagements that gather data points are often done to facilitate decisions on what to spend efforts on, before defining a final product. But it’s also a method for inspection and iteration of close-to finished products, that leads to design actions. These are three examples.


Surveying is a rather limited method, as it mostly provides answers to the questions you know to ask. But it can be a low-effort tool to inform a position: confirm or debunk a prejudice, answer a question, or

SurveyMonkeys guide to quant vs qual in surveys

Smoke Tests

A smoke test is a way of measuring the desirability of a digital experience idea, for example by creating a fictional ad campaign and website, then seeing how many people click through on it. When used to evaluate fictional solutions smoke tests sit in an ethical grey zone — they don’t cause any direct harm, but they can definitely be misleading — but have the advantage of delivering hard numbers based on the reactions of real world users.

You perform smoke tests in order to inform or iterate; to eliminate ideas from a large pool in order to focus your efforts. They’re much less useful, though, for generating new ideas or solving problems. Smoke tests only answer the question “is this more desirable than that?”, and tell you nothing about why. You need a large enough volume of smoke tests, with similar executions, in order to produce comparable results.

Smoke test in the context of software development is slightly different

In-Market Testing

In-market testing means releasing a (usually digital) product in a limited, monitored way. This can be a good way to inspect a nearly finished product, by gathering data on key indicators like performance, adoption, and discoverability. Depending on how the test is set up for monitoring, different types of outputs can be generated. Like smoke tests, in-market testing can be used to kill off ideas, but it can also be a way to find new problems. In-market testing requires a nearly finished product or feature to be valuable. The more complex the product, the more complex the testing.

Spotify is one company known for their in-market testing.

It’s Always About Increased Confidence

All types of user engagements should be designed to enable your team to act with more confidence. They should give stakeholders confidence that the product is desirable, give developers confidence that it’s stable, and make designers confident that they are solving the right problem.

User engagements are active. They create opportunities, and they let you iterate and execute versions of a product. Engagements that are done within the design process may take more or less time, and produce outcomes with higher or lower fidelity, but they should always propel the design forward. They should be performed by designers, together with small groups of users, preferably face to face. This allows multiple things to happen at once. Non-verbalised problems are often spotted in face-to-face settings, that would never appear in a phone interview or survey.

This is when the new behaviours and opportunities are found, because similar tendencies are observed across users. When users say one thing and do another, this is the moment when new ideas are born. More importantly, these moments offer clarity for designers, and bring us closer to action — the highest goal of any kind of engagement.

This article originally appeared on UX Collective

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