Design Research Tools: Meaningful or Menial?

By Hannah Greene

To persona, or not to persona, that is the question.

As a professional designer, I often long for ye old college days when the only real constraint on a project was my own will power. When doing impromptu workshops and interviews were as easy as buying a pizza and watching the students flock towards the sweet scent of free cheese and pepperoni. However, every college journey must (and should) end and the reality of making a living off of a creative life sets in. Now, every project has a budget, a hard deadline, or a myriad of deliverables. The whirlwind of the design life (especially #agencylife) takes hold and meaningful processes become menial checkpoints to move on, move up, and keep breathing.

This downgrade frequently happens in the first—and arguably most important—phase of design: research and strategy. How can you begin to design when you don’t have a baseline of proper opportunities to design from? To prevent wasted time and increase efficiency, we’ve defined four tools and how to keep them from crossing the line between meaningful and menial.

The whirlwind of #agencylife takes hold and meaningful processes become menial checkpoints.

All of the below methods are based on the assumption that you’ve got a base of user interviews to pull data from. While proper design research methods are a whole blog post unto their own, checkout this guide from Harvard and How To Run a Design Research Interview for some good nuggets.




Meaningful: Mass supportive quantitative data
Menial: Replacement for interviews

At ZoCo, we use surveys frequently to help build quick, supportive quantitative data. When scope or timelines only allow for a handful of interviews, we use the highlights from those interviews to create questions to illustrate the breadth of a problem or experience.

While some people love taking surveys, we’ve realized that a good survey should be short, sweet, and to-the-point (around 10-20 questions). While it’s easy to take up 5 questions just asking about age, gender, location, education experience, and more, how much of that information do you really need? This evaluative mindset should be used for every question in the survey. Pretend you’ve gotten all your data back—now what? What do these answers tell you? Will it really help clarify part of your problem? I’ve learned this through experience. Do you know how terrible you feel after sending out a survey and only being able to use half the data? It’s kind of lame. This guide from Qualtrics runs through some more great techniques for creating efficient survey questions.



Meaningful: Motivations, beliefs, behaviors, environments, and ideal experiences spliced with real information, quotes, and actionable implications
Menial: Demographics and surface-level qualities

Personas can be one of the most important tools in your arsenal, but they are widely misused and ultimately abandoned as the design process continues. My general rule of thumb: if there are no interviews, there are no personas. It is simply impossible to create an actionable, realistic profile from background research and surveys. Anyone can research age, income, family status and the like, but what actually makes a persona work?

Think of a persona as you would your best friend or spouse. You know them like the back of your hand. What they believe, what motivates them, where they are at (physically and mentally), and what they would say about certain things (well, most of the time..). Now, focus that level of detail to the information gathered from your personas. There are some grey areas that need defined, but with the subtleties of reading someone’s reactions you can distinguish an excited ‘Yes’ from a reticent ‘Yes’ and develop a character.

Now, you have a baseline for a persona. What next? Look at all of the information laid out and draw as many implications as you can from it. For example, we were building a digital solution for healthcare and one of our personas was the wait-it-out person who would delay seeking care until the problem became unbearable. From that, we drew an implication dealing with communicating severity and possible outcomes over time. Note: try not to become too specific with the implications because they may actually limit your brainstorms.

Now that you have depth to your personas and implications to design around, you’ve successfully evaluated your core users and have a wide range of actionable insights. Doesn’t that feel great?

User Journey

User Journeys

Meaningful: Defining, exploring, and informing. Evaluate current processes and experiences, think through new features, explore different workflows
Menial: A detailed user manual for every journey or only a small piece of the puzzle

Boy, how I love user journeys. They force you to understand the holistic experience before, during, and after use your product. Done right, a user journey will visualize complications, pain points, redundancies, or efficiencies.

To start your user journey, create a horizontal timeline detailing each step using the product. Be sure to consider points before, during, and after use. The more detailed your steps, the more insightful your journey can be. Note: only diagram one use case at a time. This means you’ll probably need to create multiple user journeys.

Next, create the depth of your journey. This often includes what a user is thinking, their touchpoints, actions they’re taking, background tasks, and emotions. A journey for a web-app is different from that of a product or an environmental experience. Use your judgement and create as much depth to the journey as you need. Warning: too much detail can pigeon-hole your designs or derail a meeting. As a good rule of thumb, don’t make these journeys seem like a user manual. Whether the person clicks or hovers, slides or scrolls to see something is not a decision to be made at this stage in the game.

Finally, fill out your beautiful journey. Don’t feel pressure to put information in every segment. That will ultimately hide the patterns and important insights. Your finished journey will become a diagram to support design decisions or lead design brainstorms.

Market Research

Market Research

Meaningful: Evaluative, user-based features, market share, products in parallel industries
Menial: Listings of companies within a market

My mentor gave me one of the best pieces of advice: “Just because there’s a market gap, doesn’t make it an opportunity.” This has permeated all of my consequential design decisions. Just because there aren’t any competitors, or that no one has features A, B, and C doesn’t mean there’s an opportunity—and that can be hard to hear.

Just because there’s a market gap, doesn’t make it an opportunity.

Effective market research comes back to your user (it’s almost like this is all about user experience, huh?). Use your interviews to define the features to look for in competitors. Look at support blogs and check out the problems users are having with different platforms. Read through reviews and see what people love about it. Determine the market share split. Use a matrix with axes defined by customer needs.

Another option, particularly for innovative products or those with few direct competitors, is to look at parallel industries. If your product is a fire extinguisher for aging populations, you probably won’t have many direct competitors. Instead, look at how other safety companies are tackling seniors, what tools they are likely to have in the environment, or emerging technologies that can relate to your product.

All of these insights will help define true opportunities rather than just a feature comparison to help you make informed design decisions.

Moving Forward

Now, I’m not claiming to be the end-all-be-all master of design research tools, I’ve just tried them over and over and learned from my failures. This list is not a checklist of to-do items, but a toolbox from which to create each unique project. At ZoCo, we place heavy emphasis on strategic decision making, so we always include front-end research to varying degrees for every project. In the end, know your audience, maybe offer them some free pizza, and kickstart your project with a solid foundation.

Hannah Greene