Designers Need to Research

There have been many articles written on whether designers should learn to code. I believe it to be part of the craft, and something that will help you be a better designer by knowing the medium in which your designs are built. However, I feel user research is one skill that is more helpful to master as a designer than coding.

Far too many designers’ only knowledge of users comes from popular articles and misunderstanding research conducted by others. They rely on best practices and use basic design principles like enforcing consistency to create aesthetically pleasing designs. While this may ensure a design that looks good, it does not necessarily make a design easier to use or more importantly, even minimally useful. It is all too easy to create a design that is not needed based on best practices and consistency[1]

Learning how to conduct user research and actually meeting the people you are creating a design for is crucial to knowing what they really need and what would be useful to them. Note, I do not subscribe to the belief that any research is better than no research. Research conducted without any understanding of how to minimize bias and poorly phrased tasks or questions will lead you in the wrong direction. I know this because I have done bad research myself.

When I conducted my first usability research studies, I would ask people to perform very explicit tasks. This was based on input from internal domain experts for the system that we were designing. The tasks were supposed to be representative of what people needed to do to accomplish a particular goal. What I found is that people are often very good at following directions and only the most basic problems would be exposed.

I learned that I needed to make the tasks more natural and less specific. To do this, I would start the session with an open interviewing technique by asking the participant to describe the activities they needed to perform to accomplish their goals. When they reached an activity that aligned with what the team was interested in testing in our design, I could then let them show how they do that activity using their own process and words. Jared Spool has a great article on the specifics of conducting Interview Based Tasks.

Another early mistake I made would be to move or redirect a participant too quickly when they would stop during a task. Learning how to sit awkwardly in silence took a lot of effort for me to master. I learned to wait and when I do speak it is only to prompt them to share what they are thinking. This often leads to gaining a much deeper insight into what people are having a problem with beyond just noting task success/failure. Another good article on minimizing mistakes in conducting user research is by Jim Ross on The Biggest Mistakes in User Research.

These are just a couple of examples of many that have been part of my learning how to be a better designer by doing research. Everyone has to start somewhere when beginning to do user research, and I still make mistakes myself from time to time. So it is my view that all designers should learn how to not only conduct research, but look at how to improve their understanding of research techniques and limitations. I think learning how to conduct good user research is much more important to becoming a better designer than learning how to code.


  1. Consistency in Design is the Wrong Approach
    Jared Spool – (retrieved on 5/23/2019)
  2. Interview-Based Tasks: Learning from Leonardo DiCaprio
    Jared Spool – (retrieved on 5/23/2019)
  3. The Biggest Mistakes in User Research
    Jim Ross – (retrieved on 5/23/2019)
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