Design Research

Design research is an ongoing, iterative process where the problem is deeply understood through a series of research activities and also through the testing of solutions.
When tackling a complex problem, organizations tend to focus on the institutional lens of the problem, often relying heavily on data and desk research. However, understanding the user perspective – the people at the very centre of the problem – is critical to understanding and addressing the problem.

The User Perspective

Taking a user perspective in your research allows you to:
  • See what the problem really is (it’s a reality check to see if your assumptions are correct)
  • Develop solutions that make a difference – the solutions you develop are directly based on their needs – and it pushes you towards action (i.e. it’s not theoretical)
  • Understand the problem in an integrated way – that is, understanding how someone interacts with a system can incorporate the many institutions involved in their journey (eg. consider the difference between the journey of someone becoming either a taxi or Uber driver)
Design research is an ongoing, iterative process where the problem is deeply understood through a series of research activities and also through the testing of solutions. One of the key values that many innovation labs bring is helping large institutions look at problems from the user perspective.

What is a user perspective?

Think about the last time you used public transit. What was the experience like? Did you encounter any problems? Was the bus/subway/streetcar late, early, overcrowded or empty? How long did it take you to walk to the public transit stop? How did the payment system work? Why did you decide to take public transit? Your experience travelling via public transit, such as frustrations or delights, constitute the ‘user perspective’ of using public transit. Identifying this set of experience across individuals can help us design solutions that make a difference for those who use a particular product or service. The user perspective complements and enhances the analysis of data and best practices from other jurisdictions to help solve the problem holistically.

Design Research

  • Advocates for 'users’ needs: The added value of the research phase is that it lays the foundation for everything that follows. It’s based on the needs of the people you’re creating with.
  • Provides context: The consequences of your actions and your interventions can be significant. The research phase is important to make sure that you are setting up for the best possible outcome – if you understand the context of the challenge you’re dealing with, you’re much more likely to be able to design a successful solution-building process within it.
  • Reduces risk: Through a research process you can rule out directions that show the potential for failure, and increase the chances for creating a more successful solution/ process/ intervention.
  • Helps to create a road map for working: It helps you pave a path forward to begin solving for a problem.
Empathy is a key part of conducting design research, because it is fundamentally about trying to understand a user and their set of behaviours. The goal of design research is always to find out how to create value for a user (or user group), not the organization. And not to simply understand the problem, but to identify areas of potential action.
There are many ways to conduct design research. Depending on the type of challenge, the available resources and the issues you want to uncover, you might choose different approaches. Types of approaches can be found in the sub-tabs of this Design Research page.