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Plan Initial Project Research

Learning Objectives

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

  • Explain the best practices for internal research.
  • Identify the core questions of your initial project research effort.
  • Explain the best practices for desk research.

Start by Looking In

At the beginning of a project, it’s natural to have a lot of questions. The internal context for innovation helps shape your understanding of your design challenge and your plan for doing primary research. So start by collecting information from within your organization. 

Here are some questions to use as thought starters.

  1. How has your organization previously made change happen? What rules, tools, and norms were involved in making it successful, and what tends to hinder change?
  2. Who needs to participate to ensure the success of this project, and what do they each think success looks like? Consider decision-makers, influencers, sponsors, builders, marketers, institutional knowledge-holders, and people who will maintain what you design.
  3. Why is this project important, and why right now? Are there similar or related initiatives going on elsewhere in your organization?
  4. What are existing hypotheses or assumptions about the project outcomes or solutions to the challenge?
  5. What are some hopes and fears that people at the organization have about the project? What advice would they give your project team?

You may want to add specific questions about teams, roles, tools, or processes that are related to the project as well. Look for insights that change your definition of a “good” solution or option. 


Ecosystem mapping is a best practice tool for managing internal stakeholder relationships throughout a design project. Learn how to do it in our Design as a Social Practice module.

Once you have clarity on the internal context, it’s time to gather more background information by doing some desk research.

Get Up to Speed

Finding information on just about any topic while sitting at your desk is easier than it’s ever been. The trick now is to sort through all that information and extract the bits that are valuable in relation to your design challenge. 

Start by finding other organizations’ solutions to similar challenges. Assess your direct competitors’ products to understand their strengths and weaknesses. If you have multiple competitors, map out their offerings and messages to reveal overlaps and opportunities to differentiate. 

Different design team members doing different kinds of desk research.

But don’t stop there, find similar problems in other industries, countries, or settings, and study their approaches. You can infer the different assumptions other teams have made, just by looking at their messaging and products or services. What did they prioritize building? And what assumptions had to be true in order for it to be successful? Are those same assumptions applicable to your design challenge, and are your own assumptions similar to or different than theirs?

Looking at examples can help you hone your point of view on what is good and bad in your context. It can also help you uncover smart questions to ask in your primary research. 

Another type of desk research you can do is seeking out expertise. Who are the recently published authors on the industries and topics you’re working on? Are those topics covered by trend and market research you can access? Sourcing trend and market analysis externally can help you get up to speed fast on context, but be a savvy consumer of these reports. Make sure you trust your source for this type of expert advice, and use your judgment about their findings. You don’t have to agree with everything you read, even from a trusted source, and anything you doubt can turn into a question you take to your own customers. 

After doing internal research and desk research, you’re up to speed and ready to ask great questions in your own primary research.

Get Curious

With everything you’ve already learned, your first activity in planning primary research is to determine what you still need to know.

As a project team, brainstorm all the things you need to know to answer the design challenge. 

  • What do you need to know about your audience of users (and maybe buyers)?
  • What questions do you have about the industry or domain the challenge is in?
  • Is there a type of expertise embedded in the challenge that you need to learn more about?
  • What are you curious about—topics, people, relevant market trends, and so on?
  • Is there prior work you should be aware of, internally or externally, that’s similar or related?
  • What do you need to know about competitors and their offerings?
  • Are there technical constraints you need to know about?

Keep your questions at the level of strategy at this point, as you need to get answers to the big questions before it makes sense to ask the smaller ones. Record all your questions, then group them by topic. Review each topic, considering what methodologies are best suited to answering the questions inside it. 

Choose quantitative methods for questions that sound like, “How many…?”, “How much…?”, “What do most people…?”, or “What is the success rate of…?”

Choose qualitative methods for questions like, “Why…?”, “What would be ideal…?”, “How does it feel to…?”, or “What’s wrong with….?” And for qualitative methods, the follow-up question to ask yourselves is who is best suited to provide the answers you seek.


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