Making the most of previous design research

How to get started with design research in the middle of a project when the process has already begun.

A closeup shot of design research on post-it notes on a wall.

There is no shortage of stellar resources on design research for creating new products and services or reinventing existing ones. But as helpful as these resources are, they generally describe a complete process, from beginning to end. This makes sense when authoring a book or a blog post, however, in real life, you sometimes find yourself coming into a project in the middle of the process where some research has already been done and it’s your job to pick up where someone else left off.

Whether it’s just a few people transitioning off a project or a complete reboot, as the person responsible for design research moving forward, you want to get the best use out of existing research while adding your own perspective to uncover new insights. And you probably want to do it as quickly and inexpensively as possible too. This is, after all, real life. So where do you start when you’re not at the beginning?

The overall steps are similar to any design research project, but the focus, in this case, is on getting as close to the experience of conducting first-hand research as you reasonably can. To do this, you’ll immerse yourself in the existing work, augment it with some of your own research, and remix it to draw your own conclusions.

Immerse: Go through all the primary source material

The existing research material will usually consist of three main parts: primary sources and collected artifacts, synthesis of the material into themes, and a summary for presentation. It’s OK to start with the summary to get a feel for the subject and how much work has been done. But skip any synthesis material for now since you’ll want to do this yourself later.

What you really want to dig into is the source material. Read transcripts word for word. Listen to audio recordings all the way through. If you don’t have transcriptions of interviews, transcribe them. Print out all the photos and create a collage where you can see them all together. The purpose of this step is to simulate the collection of this material as if you had done it yourself. Don’t worry about taking notes or grouping into themes at this point. Just experience it. The repetition you get by going through it again later for synthesis will help.

In a recent article by the Google Design Team, they recount their research into improving Google Maps for motorbike riders by traveling to Indonesia to ride around with people and experience first-hand what it’s like to navigate through a chaotic city like Jarkarta while trying to follow turn-by-turn navigation. As they put it quite simply, immersive research leads to better products. This is your way of immersing yourself in the material as you see and hear it for the first time.

Augment: Do some of your own research

In Fast Path to Great UX (2011), Jared Spool revealed what he described as a “silver bullet” for designing better experiences: direct exposure to real users interacting with your product or prototype. In his team’s research into what to makes great design teams, they found a direct correlation between the time they spent with real people and improvements in their designs.

No matter how much material has been previously collected on a project, there is nothing like doing first-hand research yourself. In this case, the question is how much. You don’t need to start over, but you’ll have to figure out a balance between what they did and what you might need to add. Start with a user interview or two to see if what you’re hearing is consistent with the other material. Do a round of user testing, not so much to track success rates, but to get a feel for how people are thinking about the domain. By augmenting their research with your own, you can validate what you’ve learned and better internalize it.

On a recent project to improve moving resources for the military, I reached out to a family friend of ours in the Army. He was currently stationed in Korea on a short assignment while she and the two kids remained in Virginia. They didn’t have orders, but they knew a move was in their near future. We started with some light conversation about their previous experiences, but a few weeks later they got word they were being moved to San Antonio.

Their situation was ripe with complication around his still being in Korea and her having to do basically everything else, including selling their house in Virginia, finding and buying (or renting) a new house in Texas, and coordinating all the packing and moving. Without wanting to appear too opportunistic, I didn’t want to pass up the perfect chance; to “ride along” and experience the situation with people who could talk openly about it. In addition to sitting down for interviews at different points in the process, they also provided some private journal entries and public Facebook posts that added further context to their experience.

You may not always have such a relevant opportunity land in your lap, but the point is it doesn’t take a lot to build on previous research with primary sources. Seeing the moving truck out in front of our friends’ house made all the other accounts I had read about feeling more real.

Remix: Draw your own conclusions

After immersing yourself in the collected material and augmenting it with your research activities, it’s now time to pull everything apart and remix it back together to form your own insights and conclusions. In Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love, Jon Kolko describes this process of “exploding research into a nonlinear form” in wonderful detail. By breaking down each utterance from the research into an atomic element and externalizing all of it on a physical wall (or a digital wall if needed), you can begin to make connections, identify patterns, and surface anomalies that you don’t get from reading summaries or trying to keep it all in your head.

At this point in the process, it is less important where each utterance originated. Because you have already exposed yourself to the material and gathered some of your own, it all gets mixed up and jumbled around in your head where you can begin to extract your own insights. Although you may reach some similar conclusions as the previous researchers, bringing your own perspective and additional research to the project is bound to uncover some new assertions and new opportunities to explore.

Taking Ownership

When you come into a design research project somewhere in the middle, your goal is to get the best use out of the previous work while bringing your own perspective to the material so you can use it confidently moving forward. By immersing yourself in the previous research, augmenting it with some of your own, and remixing it all together to extract new insights, you can make this transition smoothly and move on to the work of designing great experiences.