Design Research: Methods and Perspectives
Design can oftentimes be thought of as subjective. Everyone thinks they know what looks good but in reality they prefer what looks good to them. And while there are rules to design such as contrast, balance, and proportion, we for the most part have our own preferences as to what looks good.
For instance website galleries are only supposed to showcase the most exceptional web designs, yet the average vote for most designs doesn’t measure up to our preconceived expectations. So how can we approach design from an holistic perspective that takes into account user goals and accessibility, while creating something visually compelling at the same time?
In this article I will discuss the concept of Design Research and propose methods and perspectives that are currently being used by established designers in solving complex problems that require new ways of thinking and working.
At the beginning of each project you should dissect the brief to understand how you can best tailor your design to the designated audience while meeting the client’s goals. This research ensures your design has purpose and rises above simple aesthetics. In breaking down the brief, consider the following:
Highlight Key Points: These key points can then be listed as bullet points in starting the development of project deliverables.
Restate the Problems the Client Wants Solved: In your proposal be sure to list the problem your client wants solved, whether it be organizational, visual, etc.
Identify Benchmark Solution: If there are measurable targets list them and if they aren't known work with the client to define them.
Understand the Product's End Users and Stakeholders: Focus on what motivates their customers and identify where they are located for concept testing if and when the time comes.
Do Preliminary Research: Understand the client’s business, product category, competitors, and other relevant data through research.
Ask Questions: Brainstorm questions to ask the client so you fully understand what is expected.
Provide a Questionnaire
If the client sent you a brief and you’re still not sure of the overarching goals they want to accomplish, consider sending them a project questionnaire. It’ll ensure you’re on the same page and help foster a positive relationship with your client. You should gather this information before you start writing the proposal and delegate time writing them to best-qualified prospects. Here is a sample of good, strategic questions to ask on a questionnaire.
- Why do you want to have a new website, or have your current site redesigned?
- What will happen if you don’t have a new website, or have your current site redesigned?
- Please describe your organization in a few sentences.
- What is there about you and your background that sets you apart for a special (niche) group of potential customers?
You can find more questions to ask your client on How to Extract the Facts with a Web Design Client Questionnaire.
Designers Who Request Questionnaires To Be Filled out By Clients
The designer Jacob Cass provides a questionnaire for potential clients to fill out prior to starting the project. Such questions allow the designer to assess the project details in-depth to expedite the design process.
Graham Smith is another designer who provides a logo design questionnaire to potential clients to help formulate a brief prior to the project. The questionnaire, while lengthy, allows the designer to form a solid base from which to build the logo.
Also take the time to read about the company on their website to help you understand their mission and goals. You’ll uncover who their target audience is and, subsequently, be able to develop a better design solution.
Image credit: zeldman
Understand the End User
Perhaps the most important aspect of the design process is understanding and acknowledging the target audience. After all, this is what determines the success or failure of a website. Designing the user experience for a specific audience - whether it be seniors, children, or color-blind users, should be taken into consideration in creating a product that builds trust and loyalty, which can translate into more sales.
Image credit: vroomvroommm
Develop User Personas: In user-centered design, personas are fictional characters created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic, attitude and/or behavior set that might use a site, brand or product in a similar way. The behavior of different individuals can give you insight into problems they may be facing and your website can help resolve that. This is important these days as customers expect products, services, and information that are timely and catered to their specific needs and desires.
Understand the end user by uncovering their hobbies and interests, education, spending power, and even media usage as these factors will contribute to how you communicate to them. This helps prioritize information by understanding behavior trends when honing in on a specific audience.
FuzzyMath created this user persona to understand the user and create a story from the results. Through real research they are able to empathize with them and understand their needs – adding real meaning to the project.
Create Surveys: Interact on a deeper level with your target audience by conducting surveys they can participate in. Survey Monkey provides a free, basic survey to get you started in understanding your user’s wants and needs. This is a good way to gather large amounts of demographic data and to identify trends in skill levels and tasks performed.
It’s time to bring the information you’ve collected in the research phase to fruition by developing content in the form of wire frames and mood boards.
Image credit: capacitat
Wireframes: A wireframe is a visual guide that represents the skeletal framework of a website. The main focus lies in functionality, behavior, and priority of content. There are a variety of ways to incorporate your user persona data into the concept of your wireframe. Some common ways include:
- Identify the features, functionality and content to develop for an intranet or website release, ensuring that value is delivered to users from day one of the release
- Determine whether one user interface will meet the goals of all users, or whether there needs to be two or more user interfaces developed
- Guide the content development so that the content supports the goals of the users and answers their common questions
This author page wireframe was created by Bokhandel and includes color and images.
Another wireframe created by Activeside Internet Strategies and Consulting uses color sparingly. The basic wireframe gives you a representation of the actual site.
Moodboards: Moodboards can be used as a point of reference for the overall style of the project. Through putting together pictures, fonts, colors, and inspiration the moodboard can help communicate the design’s intent on an emotional and contextual level to the client. The research you gathered can be incorporated into the moodboarding process through:
Image credit: vinced
- Developing a visual language based on the demographics of the end user.
- Acting as a reference point and guideline to keep you on track in the design process.
Hunt and Gather
This moodboard created by Hunt & Gather sets the tone and style for the website. The elegant and sophisticated solution is easy to navigate – critical for a large website where prototype creation would have been a time-waster.
There are obviously situations where you don’t need to sacrifice design for usability. The judgement call is usually determined by knowing your target audience and the purpose of the project. In this article I've laid the groundwork for you to begin to disseminate how to approach each project from the end user’s perspective in creating visual communications that communicate effectively and efficiently through graphic design.
How do you approach each project? Do you approach projects by a different method than those listed in this article? Let us know your design methods by sharing them with us!