Design research is not an academic exercise

Last week, I described the difference between research and design. Today, let’s look at why design research is rare among small to medium-size companies and discuss in more concrete terms what research looks like.

Research can evoke images of dusty books and laboratory vials bubbling over Bunsen burners. It can seem like an academic exercise divorced from practical applications that could actually generate revenue. Under that assumption, research is luxury that few can afford.

But research doesn’t require a lab coat, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.

In fact, not doing research is probably costing your company piles of money, but leave that for another day.

So what does research look like?

Well, if you’ve spent an hour in Google Analytics (GA) looking at where website visitors are coming from, and then checked that against conversion rates, congratulations — you've done some quantitative research. ("Conversion" just means a completed goal, like making a purchase, signing up for a newsletter, becoming a member, and so forth.)

Research is mostly about identifying patterns of behavior.

For example, let’s say you notice an unusual spike in conversions through your site on certain days within the past quarter. More people are buying through your website on those days — why is that?

Since your designers have been annotating all their design interventions in GA, you can see that there appears to be a correlation between increased conversions and posts to your Google My Business (GMB) account. GMB is driving traffic, which is increasing conversions.

Next, you open Hotjar, which records the activities of every visitor to your website (anonymously). You filter the recordings to view just those visitors who have arrived on the site from GMB, and you watch how each one uses the site.

You look for patterns:

  • Are some posts more effective than others at increasing conversions?

  • Do posts that promote blog content lead to more or fewer conversions than those that point straight to a sales page?

  • Are visitors on mobile devices more or less likely to convert from those posts?

  • Should we test different types of posts using variables like visual design, tone, or time of day to see which increase conversions more?

Next, maybe you create a pop-up on particular pages, which you only show to visitors who come to your site from GMB. The pop-up message invites them to participate in a short interview to find out what drove them to your site, what alternatives to your company they’ve considered, and why they did or didn’t ultimately buy from you.

Now you’re mixing quantitative, observational, and quantitative research to develop hypotheses.

You are doing design research, and you didn’t need to break the bank or hire a new, full-time employee.

Far from being an academic exercise, research is the most reliable way to generate more revenue. If your research doesn’t have a measurable impact on your revenue, you're doing something wrong. (More on that another day.)

Consider the alternative to research, which is basically guessing and hoping for the best. (“Intuition” has it’s place, but if the majority of your communications is based on employees’ personal preferences or habits, intuition is a just nice word for guessing.)

Facilitating research is a practical way you can help your company grow and improve organizational culture.

You could actually do the research yourself. I believe that anyone with an open mind, enough time, attention, and enthusiasm can do good research.

But most people don’t have the time or the enthusiasm. You already have a full-time job, right? Learning your way around Google Analytics and conducting user tests probably isn’t something you’re going to start doing for fun on the weekends.

But you can pave the way for research.

How? What can you do to help transition your organization from one that makes decisions based on personal preferences and habits into one that is based on customer-centric data?

Stay tuned,

Kyle Bowen