Does every design project need research? / by Gavin Lau

I never start a project with the assumption that research is needed (although to jump straight to a spoiler — some kind of research almost always is). This isn’t because I like to jump right into design without doing any research, but because a useful way to identify what kind of research is needed is to start with the question, ‘Do I need user research at all?’

When don’t you need research?

In theory at least there are three broad situations where you might legitimately start designing without doing research first.

If you’re a genius!

Arguably, every design approach fits into one of two categories (see

The first is referred to as ‘genius design’. In this approach designers work from their own experience and trust that their understanding and creativity will get the best results.

The second is referred to as ‘participatory design’, ‘evidence based design’ or ‘iterative design’. In this approach designers create a base of evidence to create design decisions from. They try to generate empathy with their end user or audience and create concepts based on that empathy and the insights generated from their research. Alternatively they may involve the end user directly in the design process through a collaborative approach. They test their designs directly with users and iterate the designs based on what they have learnt.

Although historically genius design has a low success rate, this approach can be spectacular and generates great stories when it works. When this has been successful is in situations where people are designing for users who are very similar to themselves, most noticeably designers who love luxury goods, designing luxury goods for people with similar taste (Think Marc Newson and Jony Ive).

In reality most designers combine the two methods, most of us are designing for people who aren’t like us and we need to develop an understanding of our end user and their contexts. Having said that we can’t help but bring our own experiences and ideas to a project even when we are acting more as facilitators than designers. Every designer gets better results in some types of projects compared to others.

But in principle at least there is a place for designers who are exploring their own taste, creating products that are shaped by this personal exploration, and who would get a different (and less desirable) output if they were trying to design for others rather than for themselves. If these designers do any research at all it is usually not on the people they are designing for but on other designs, different aesthetic and functional approaches that are used as inspiration or to provoke thought.


When you are capturing your initial design sparks

Another area where we sometimes want to avoid research is to capture those initial connections and bursts of ideas that we get when we first start considering a project. There can be valuable insight in those initial loose associations your brain makes. In our practice we create a ‘Brain fart’ board. All of our initial ideas go here before we start any discovery work or research.


Assumption based design backed up with summative testing

The other approach where we might minimise or skip research is a lean approach where we work from assumptions then test our designs with users to find out if our assumptions were correct. Technically this isn’t working without research, but is just placing the emphasis on summative research rather than formative research. But if we know our end design has only a small number of possible options then a case could be made that it would take longer to identify the best end design through researching our users than it would to identify it through creating prototypes of the possible options then testing them.



Unfortunately, you probably aren’t a genius (apparently even more probably if you think you are one. Google the Dunning–Kruger effect and have a gander at

Also unfortunately, assumption based testing can’t really be used as a shortcut through user research (although there are definitely contexts where this a legitimate approach).

Even the brain fart board is sort of a duplicitous sneaky trick*.

When do we need user research then?

When you are designing for anybody who isn’t like you

Which for most of us is nearly every project. Especially in the commercial design world we usually aren’t designing products and services for other designers who match our social context. Without research we may be building massive risk into projects through making design decisions based on assumption, speculation and anecdotal evidence. We can mitigate this through prototyping and testing but this is a highly reactive way to work. It’s good at telling us if something is working or not but not necessarily why it is working or not. It’s understanding the audience for our designs that gets us the best chance of designing something that actually has meaning and works for our real users and consumers.


When you need radical or rapid innovation

Research by Donald Norman & Roberto Verganti ( proposes that historically most innovation comes from one of two things. A change in technology or a change in meaning.

To simplify this paper horribly new technology (think rail, the internet etc) allows us to do things we we couldn’t do before — allowing us to make large leaps in how we interact with and understand the world.

The other way we make great leaps is through a change in meaning, understanding something about the world in a way we didn’t before.

As designers we have little control over new purely technical innovations. But we can create changes in meaning, and user research is our most direct way to do this. It’s through user research that we discover unmet needs and opportunities that successful designs must cater for.

The example Norman and Verganti give is Nintendo discovering that console makers (including themselves) were all chasing after the same portion of the population (Current gamers) — incrementally trying to outdo each other through building faster machines with better graphics to create better experiences for these gamers.

Nintendo went after the portion of the population that wasn’t gaming, for whom faster and more complex offered little value. They concentrated on experiences (in the form of the Nintendo Wii) aimed at people who weren’t gamers, temporarily at least creating and owning a whole new market.


When you need to control the design conversation

In the UX world we often have to deal with what we call ‘executive features’. This is a feature that makes it into a product at the last minute (most commonly in a final project review) purely because the CEO came up with it and had the authority to insist on it. If all of the knowledge of our end users is held by the client then it is very difficult to judge or argue against an idea posed by that client. In this context they are after all, comparatively,  the experts on their users. By gaining an understanding of the users directly (or even better by directly involving the users in the design process through collaborative design) we not only gain an understanding enough to evaluate proposed ideas from outside of the project, but have the evidence to push back against risky ideas if required. Our experience has been that our clients usually overestimate how much they know about their customers or users.


Rule of thumb

If you feel uncertain about whether you need research or how much you need here is a broad rule of thumb you can use. How much hypothesis and assumption comes up in the design conversation? For example if you are designing a list of possible options the user has to choose from, when you decide what information to put in that list do you really know what the user needs to make that decision or are you all standing around a whiteboard imagining what they might do? If you have a list of house rentals do you show area, number of rooms, rental price? Do you really know what your user is looking for when they scan down the list or are you just going by what you are look for and assuming that this is universal?

As a more specific approach can you quantify the amount of effort (read: money) you will spend on research in the context of the amount of money you will lose or save if your design fails or succeeds? Working from speculation is riskier in some areas than others. If the consequence of getting part of the design wrong is relatively minor then research is less important. But if failing is going to cost you or if a lot of design decisions are hanging on a couple of unproven assumptions then you are taking a big risk not finding out about who you are designing for.

Where to from here?


Once you have decided you need research, there are a bunch of decisions you need to make about what kind of research you need to do and how to execute it. More than we can go into here, which is why we have dedicated a whole day workshop to it (Full disclosure: This article is written in the service of recruiting you for the user research course we are running for Design Assembly!). But here’s a couple of broad strokes you can take away with you.


Use a professional or do it yourself?

If you are researching for empathy or doing qualitative research then spending time with users yourself is extremely valuable. Research guided by professionals will be able to get a lot more value out of direct user contact as they know how to identify what research you need, how to  frame the user interaction and how to guide the research and synthesise the results to get the most directly useful results. But any exposure to users or customers is good for us as product owners and designers, we shouldn’t shy away from our users just because we arent professional researchers.

If you are researching for data (quantitative research — how many users have phones, how many prefer online vs personal contact etc) I would be a little more cautious about doing it yourself. The design of the data collection and analysis is only as useful as the competence of its execution. For example survey design and analysis are specialised fields where you can make a whole career if you have an affinity for that kind of research.

But that isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it, but read up on best practice at a minimum if you want useful results.


Be realistic about the confidence you can assign to your results

In design we work fast, and often work from small sample sizes and limited contact. This is fine but we need to be realistic about how much confidence we can put into our results. Ultimately any design project carries some risk with it. Our clients (and ourselves) invest money and time in design hoping for a particular return on that investment. Research and testing can help us to innovate and reduce risk but design at its heart is about predicting how someone will react or use something in the future. How will they react to a poster, how will they use an app, what they will do after seeing an advertisement. We can definitely increase our chances of getting the results we want through experience and research but at some stage we put it out there and hope it works (and in digital and service design luckily, can quickly iterate on it if it isn’t working). Design by its nature is risky, but well planned research can significantly reduce that risk.