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Explore Strategy Design Research Methods

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • List the 7 key methods for external primary research.
  • Explain which methodologies to use for different challenges.
  • Describe the best practices of ethical design research.

Know the Right Methods

Within quantitative and qualitative research, there are several methods that strategy designers employ to answer their questions. Here’s a quick overview of each one.

  • Interviews: A researcher meets with participants individually to ask them questions and discuss attitudes, behaviors, preferences, expectations, or experiences. Interviewees may be experts in their field, sharing information that’s applicable to the design challenge, or users or potential users of the product or service being designed. One or two other team members may accompany the researcher in order to take notes or record the session. Interviews are the most broadly used qualitative research technique.
  • Observations or shadowing: A researcher is given permission to watch a participant during an experience in its typical context. The participant is asked to “think aloud” or voice their thoughts and feelings throughout the experience. Observations are useful for collecting information on a customer journey, or to learn about friction or difficulties with an existing product or process.
  • Group conversations with stimulus: A researcher facilitates a discussion with a group, typically 3 to 12 people, using activities, prototypes, or prompts to guide the conversation. Group conversations allow participants to exchange opinions, ideas, and perspectives with each other and the researcher. Group conversations in strategy design are used to increase understanding of social, emotional, and functional user needs, or to generate ideas. That’s what sets them apart from focus groups, which are designed to validate concepts.
  • Diary/journal studies: Participants are given an assignment to track their actions, thoughts, habits, or attitudes over a short time. They’re given a standard format with which to collect information, typically photos, audio recordings, a journal, or a combination of those things. Diary studies are useful when learning about how products fit into users’ lives, or when focusing on behavioral outcomes.
  • Codesign/participatory design sessions: Using sketches, paper interfaces, or sacrificial concepts—ideas sketched quickly for the purpose of provoking a research conversation about why they’re bad—participants are asked to fix what’s wrong, or design their own ideal version of a concept. This can be useful in deducing priorities and sparking conversations about social, emotional, and functional needs.
  • Surveys: We’ve all completed them because surveys are the most widely used and flexible format for quantitative research. The category includes everything from ping polling—texting participants for quick responses to simple questions—to desirability testing with pixel-perfect mockups, price-point market research, and large-scale demographic, attitudinal, or behavioral studies. Surveys are the data collection instrument, and analysis is needed on that data to provide useful insights.
  • Analogous research: A form of exploration that takes a team outside of its industry to find inspiration in the ways others have tackled similar challenges. This can be inspiration research in which the project team identifies an isolated element of a design opportunity–such as an emotional state, behavior, or social dynamic–and looks for examples of that element done well in other contexts. For instance, experiencing an escape room in order to gather inspiration around leadership through ambiguity.

There are dozens more research methods that project teams use to gain knowledge, empathy, and inspiration. In this module, we don’t list usability testing, customer feedback, A/B testing, card sorting, journey mapping, data mining, or a host of others because we're focusing on research methods most likely to inform strategy. 

Use the Right Tool for the Job

The reason there are so many methods for primary research is that different methods are suited to answering different questions. In order to get the most out of your research time, here are our recommended matches between high-level research goals and research methodologies.

For Discovery/Understanding For Inspiration/Idea Generation For Exploration/Refining an Idea
  • Interviews
  • Observations or shadowing
  • Diary/journal studies
  • Surveys
  • Group conversations with stimulus
  • Diary/journal studies
  • Codesign/participatory design sessions
  • Analogous research
  • Group conversations with stimulus
  • Codesign/participatory design sessions

Do the Right Thing

Research is a critical part of strategy design and it’s important to ensure that you’re conducting research in a responsible, respectable way. Here are our best practices for design research ethics.

Be Honest

It can be tempting to do research under a fictitious business name or to fudge the details of what you’re working on to protect sensitive corporate information or prevent influencing participants’ responses. A better tactic is to say, “I can’t tell you that.” Honesty is the basis to building trust, so make it a personal rule.

Ask Permission to Record

Have participants sign a release form giving you legal permission to record them via video, audio, or photography. Be as specific as you can about what you’ll do with the footage you take, and stay strict about your usage once you get permission. 

Stay Lean

Limit the number of people attending research sessions, especially interviews and small group sessions. You don’t want to overwhelm participants, and it’s easier to build trust with two or three people than an entire project team.

Limit Access to Identifiable Data

When you hear a great quote in research, you may wish everyone at your organization could see it. Or when you’re working on a project, you may create a folder to store all the raw research footage in. Make sure to protect the privacy of research participants by limiting the number of people with access to what you collect, and archive folders once you’re done creating your insights summary.  

Observe Regulations

There may be privacy or consumer protection regulations where you’re working, and they may apply to all sectors or just specific industries. Do your homework to learn how to stay on the right side of the law. When in doubt, defer to the most restrictive rules, especially if you’re considering expanding into other markets. Be especially protective of participants’ privacy when you’re talking with them about sensitive topics like health and money.

Respect Participants’ Expertise 

Traditionally, designers have held power as the arbiters of good and bad ideas. As a strategy designer, it’s important to check your ego, and recognize that research participants often have a better sense of good and bad solutions by virtue of their proximity to the challenge. Simply said, they often live and breathe the problems that strategy designers study. In many cases you can do more to solve those problems by enabling the people who feel them most acutely than by using design expertise. Look for opportunities to enable others to design solutions, and as the strategy designer, focus on finding connections to desired business outcomes.

Pay Participants Fairly 

Make sure to compensate your participants for their time and perspective or expertise. Participants may want to ensure that this income doesn’t violate existing agreements such as for financial aid or employment exclusivity. If your research requires them to do emotional labor in addition to sharing their opinions, make sure to value that work, as it often has a more personal and lasting impact on participants. Your budget might be a constraint for the scale of your research plan.

Listen Without Leading or Advising

Being a good listener as a friend often includes encouraging or agreeing with the speaker. Social norms run deep, so as a researcher it’s important to stay neutral and curious, asking open ended questions rather than leading ones. Ask, ”How do you feel about this feature?” rather than, “Do you like this feature?” And resist the urge to solve participants’ issues or answer their questions midsession. 

Take Only What You Need

Be focused in your research, even when you’re in discovery. Prepare for sessions by identifying the questions you seek answers to and creating a discussion guide. You can stray from your discussion guide a bit in response to what topics come up in conversation. But a participant’s agreement to talk with researchers about one topic does not grant them permission to ask about unrelated topics.

Ensure Representation 

When recruiting research participants, consider how you’ll collect a wide range of perspectives that includes gender, cultural, racial, neurological, and ability diversity. Just as when you’re assembling your project team with diversity in mind, your research recruit should include an intentional effort to bring in voices from underrepresented groups. These perspectives help avoid blind spots, broaden the market for your product or service, and lead to concepts that are well-conceived. Ideally you bring diversity to your design work in an ongoing way rather than just in brief interactions.

Seek Support If You Have Ethical Questions

Ethical questions can be both complicated and fraught. Don’t navigate them alone. Lean on established best practices such as those in Salesforce's Build with Intention Toolkit and the Ethical OS Toolkit. See Resources. In cases where best practices don’t exist or aren’t quite right, partner with your company’s legal department to determine the best path forward.

Cloud Kicks Update

Cloud Kicks, a growing custom sneaker retailer, is beginning to plan for its design research. It had a team brainstorm focused on all the things it needs to know to answer the challenge: “How might we turn customers into fans amidst supply chain disruption?” Then the team created the following research plan. 

  • To understand how the supply chain has impacted our customers, set up a group conversation with stimuli with a diverse group of sneaker customers and 1:1 interviews with our most enthusiastic influencers, who call themselves Sneakerheads.
  • To discover how other industries are navigating disruptions in delivery, do analogous research with car, lumber, and fashion companies. Specifically, see how fast-fashion brands are maintaining customer loyalty during slowdowns.
  • To surface what to be aware of internally with regard to customer satisfaction and the ability to predict delays, set up interviews with team members on the customer service and manufacturing teams.
  • To align as a team with trends in the shoe industry, schedule time for a competitor analysis.


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