What's the difference between design research and design?

Last week, I wrote that the best way to measure the value of a design is not by measuring how much a designer produces, but by making a place for design research within your organization.

A list member responded by asking how design research differs from design. Here’s the relationship between research and design:

Research is the study of users’ needs and behavior in relation to a company's business goals.

Design research uncovers what people actually do — not what they saythey do. It also examines how that behavior matches up with business goals, and the findings are used to produce, iterate on, or test a design.

Design research:

  • informs design (before development)

  • ensures that a design in development is on track to meet user needs and business goals (during development)

  • verifies that a design is performant (after development)

Rinse and repeat.

Design is the manifestation of a company’s ability to align user needs and business goals. It is the expression of a company’s priorities and a device (either more or less effective) for influencing people’s behavior.

Design is a public-facing assumption. It’s a bet on human behavior based on a company’s values and knowledge. Ideally, design research is the foundation for that assumption and a means to continually question that assumption.

Every company incorporates design into it’s operations, but not all companies incorporate design research.

Companies that don’t support design research make design decisions based on intuition, and they’re often coasting on assumptions about their customers that were formed years ago. Never having been tested, those assumptions may have been wrong to begin with and the problems have been snowballing ever since.  

“The website works well enough, and if people have questions they’ll just call us.”

Research tends to set fire to those assumptions by showing that customers are actually exercising their right to choose and what employees consider to be minor inconveniences are costing the company piles of money.

Research is to design what an editor is to a book.

You can publish a book without an editor, but it will have a greater chance of succeeding with the help of an editor. 

Next week, I’ll dig into some real-life examples of design research and the practical benefits of research.

Thanks for reading,


Kyle Bowen