Five Design Research Pitfalls that Kill Good Ideas

Research Methodology

On the surface, design research and ethnographic interviewing can seem pretty easy. We all know how to hold a conversation, so interviewing a user should be a breeze, right? But it’s the structure and planning of the research that makes for great interview data, and even better ideas down the line. Here are some common missteps researchers make when executing design research:

1. Thinking quantity scales over quality.

Many of our clients face internal pressures to prove the value of a project through quantitative measures. This often leads them to allocate a lot of money to traditional, large-scale market research rather than in-depth ethnographic interviews. While market research may reach more customers, the quality of the insights from that research is very shallow. On the other hand, ethnographic interviews, while fewer and admittedly more expensive, are rich, in-context interviews that allow us to observe and understand the users’ activities and emotions on an empathetic level. The insights from these interviews are much better suited to build a new product or service around than any old statistic.

2. Recruiting only from your current customer base.

It seems logical, right? If you want to improve your product or service, you go talk to your customers. Surely they can tell you what to make next. But, unfortunately, there is one flaw in that logic—your customers are your customers because they already like your offering. If you want to grow and get new customers, you have to talk to those that aren’t buying your product or service, too!

3. Over-architecting your interview

Interactive interviews are great. Co-creation research is even better. But if you overload you research with too many activities or specific questions to answer, you’ve lost the opportunity to explore unexpected terrain. Each time you have your participant complete a scripted activity, you’re asking them to think only within the constraints you’ve imposed on them. Be sure to balance your interview with time for random conversation and reflection, you never know the road your participant will take you down.

4. Priming your research participants

It's so much easier when your research participants say exactly what you want to hear. But don’t do it! We all have hunches around what we think, and what users are doing and saying, but be careful not to impose your own biases on your participant. Start your interview with a little background on the topic you’re researching but don’t give too many of your hunches away. And avoid using leading questions at all costs.

5. Losing the learnings

I know, I know. A long day of interviewing is exhausting. But don’t forget to debrief after each and every ethnographic interview you conduct. It may seem like a pain but take five minutes to get your reactions down on paper while the conversation is still fresh (and it makes sense-making so much faster in the long run). A simple format you can use is to answer these questions: 1) What did you hear that was new? 2) What did you hear that confirmed what you already knew? and 3) What would I like to act on?

Do you have some tips for great design research? I’m always hungry for good advice on good research.


Jessica Dugan

Former Director

Insights + Tools

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