Conducting design research for startups

Research is a scary word. For startups, research sounds like something that will take lots of time (which you don’t have) or cost lots of money (which you can’t afford). It’s unclear what the tangible benefits are. And worst of all, undertaking research means admitting that there are things you don’t know.

But for a startup, conducting research is vital. It’s a tool that gives you a better grasp of your surroundings and will allow you to save a TON of time and effort.

And moreover, regularly doing research will lead you to keep asking questions and develop a question-asking-mindset. Everything then, in turn, becomes a process of formulating hypotheses, identifying assumptions, and working to validate (or disprove) those assumptions. The more you do, the more knowledge you gain, and the better your understanding of your situation becomes.

Author of The E-Myth Michael Gerber defines this trait as one of the key indicators of people who are exceptionally good at business. It’s not because of what you know, but because of an insatiable need to know more.

Types of Research #

So what is research? Erika Hall, in Just Enough Research, defines it as:

simply systematic inquiry… a process to increase your knowledge [that] depends on what you need to know

She distinguishes between a few types of research:

  1. Personal research. An example is doing a Google search for your own benefit. Who is Jane Doe? How many calories are there in a banana?
  2. Pure research. This is peer-reviewed, scientific research. This includes answering questions such as: why do humans sleep? What’s the iron content of the Martian surface?
  3. Design research. Design research is what startups need.

The phrase design research has a long history. In the sixties, it used to refer to studying design itself. However, practicing industrial or interactive designers now use design research to refer to part of the work itself: the research is part of designing.

Design research focusses on understanding the people for whom we are designing (the ‘end-users’ of our product). For a product to be successful, it must serve the actual needs and desires of actual humans. That’s why research is required.

Reasons to Research #

Choosing the best research activities depends on what the reason you have for conducting research is. Some broad reasons for conducting design research are:

  • Generative / exploratory (“What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?”)
  • Descriptive / explanatory (“What and how are the ways of solving this problem?”)
  • Evaluative (“Are we getting close to solving the problem?”)
  • Causal (“Why is a specific phenomenon happening?”)

The type of research you need to focus on depends on the stage you’re at in building your business.

Startups usually set out to provide a solution to a certain problem. So, in the beginning, you’re most likely to focus on the first two types of research: trying to validate that the problem you’ve identified actually exists, and that the solution you’re proposing actually solves the problem.

Once you’ve understood that, and after your product is launched and people are using it, research moves on to the latter two types. Are you getting close to solving the problem people have? Are you hitting your key metrics? Is there unexplained behaviour happening (drop-off/churn) and what’s the cause of it?

I’ve conducted various phases of research for the startup I co-founded, Sound Off. We started with concept testing sessions to understand how desirable our proposition of a voice journal app was, as well as usability testing using low-fi prototypes to rapidly check comprehension of our solution. As our app launches in beta, we’re starting to shift to running evaluative research activities. This will help us understand how people use the app and identify key demographic markers of the most engaged users.

Guiding Principles #

So how do you undertake design research? How can you use it to inform what you’re doing and build a better business?

There are dozens of books, lectures, and resources that try to explain what th best process is. You can study entire university degrees on research methods alone. For now, here are a few guiding principles:

Know what you’re trying to solve. Identify your purpose, using the list above of reasons.

Choose the right activities. There’s a ton of research activities you can choose from surveys, interviews, desk research, multivariate tests, usability tests, first-click tests. Make sure you know the pros and cons of each one and figure out what works best for you.

Ask the right people. There’s no point in investing time and money into researching your product with the wrong people. Get the audience right as early as possible. Moreover, asking people to give up their valuable time

Don’t ask people what they like. You’ll learn more from observing how users behave, than from asking what they like. Someone’s aesthetic taste won’t affect how they use a product, for example. Here are four questions to avoid asking.

Be wary of your own biases and blind spots. You can’t eliminate this completely, but keeping note of any potential or obvious biases in your process will allow you to weigh the results appropriately.

Stay ethical. I know we’re not talking about researching new cancer drugs, but all research that includes people and their personal information must be conducted in an ethical way. Check for informed consent (make sure that your participants are able to give consent and are of sound mind), be transparent about what’s involved, and keep personal data private.

Further Reading #

Here are some of my favourite resources:

In a perfect world, there would be enough time to conduct research, infinite money, and client buy-in. Just Enough Research by Erika Hall is the bible for doing research in the real world, when working with real constraints. She explains how to gather actionable insights, fast, by doing just enough research.

Imagine there was a way to solve big problems and test new ideas in only five days. Well, there is: the design sprint. Jake Knapp created this process at Google Ventures, and his book, Sprint shows you how to run one.

Checking whether a digital product (like an app or a website) is usable is a fundamental research activity and essential for any startup. Fundamentals of Usability by Marieke McClosekey is the best online resource I’ve seen on how to conduct great usability testing sessions, and how to perform a heuristic analysis.


Thanks for reading!

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