Digital Tools for Design Research

16 new ways to improve human-centered design

Published
September 19, 2014
Reading Time
4 minutes

Design research is about understanding real people in the context of their everyday lives and then using what we learn to inspire our work. This loose definition may conjure up a narrow set of methods, but at IDEO, we’re broad in our approach: Design research here is not any one thing, and it’s informed by the passion and skills of our teams as much as any organizational process.

Glancing across the office, I see a colleague who is an incredible photographer and uses her craft to deepen our insights. In the other direction is a design researcher who creates amazing experience prototypes that help us learn about people and provide feedback on new concepts. In my case, I’ve adapted my background in applying sociological and anthropological methods in order to  understand how people use digital media.

Our approaches are diverse, but we all really want to understand, on an empathic and intellectual level, how design can function in people’s lives. Using digital tools for design research is exciting for us because they open up new ways for us to engage with people, even when the experiences we’re studying seem fairly “analog” or “physical.”

The Tools

Digital methods and tools enhance our research process across five research activities. (To be clear: some of the following products we’ve tried; others we just find compelling in what they promise. All are worth sharing.)


Use cases from typeform.com

1. Exploring the terrain and seeking quick inspiration

Typeform is a fantastic way to build visually rich, human-centered surveys. Although we love Qualtrics and Sawtooth for some of our deeper hybrid research, the highly visual and engaging nature of Typeform makes it ideal for inspiration.

Betterific and Voice are two services that help brands get inspired by the people who might be their future best customers. Not all of the ideas and thoughts that these services surface necessarily showcase the so-called “wisdom of crowds, but they are always provocative.


Advisor page from pivotplanet.com

2. Recruiting research participants

Clarity and PivotPlanet are two sites that connect people seeking expertise and advice to those willing to provide it. Neither were intended to be invaded by researchers, but we’ve found that when we use a little common sense and humility, people are quite willing to help out.

Ethnio is a fantastic way to recruit people who are actual users of a site or app right in the moment of use. Using a screening survey, you can qualify participants, schedule interviews, or direct users to online surveys.


The narrative clip from getnarrative.com

The narrative clip from getnarrative.com

3. Obtaining deep insights into people’s lives and everyday contexts, at home, at work, and on the go

24tru and Revelation Global are feature-rich qualitative research platforms. Each provides an app for remote diary studies that let participants upload videos, photos, or text. They have web interfaces that allow researchers to engage directly with participants or participants to engage with each other. Both have tools to help you analyze all the material you gather.

Crowdtap has many of these same features. But like Betterific, it has cultivated an engaged crowd of participants who can quickly respond to questions and also serve as a panel for recruiting.

dscout is a really simple tool for mobile diary studies. Although not as feature-rich as Revelation, 24tru, or Crowdtap, dscout is cheaper and easier to get started with.

Narrative Clip is a small wearable camera (they claim it’s the smallest!) that easily clips onto clothing. It’s ideal for participants willing to log a day in the life.


Landing page example from unbounce.com

Landing page example from unbounce.com

4. Eliciting feedback on concepts, insights, or value propositions through remote usability testing and live prototyping

Usabilla Surveys and Usabilla Live are perfect for getting easy-to-analyze visual feedback on particular parts of a website, either in prototype stage or live online.

Optimizely provides a great platform for A/B and multivariate testing, and Unbounce makes it easy to test a simple landing page with calls to action.

POP (Prototyping on Paper) is one of the easiest ways for design-minded researchers to get feedback on early mobile concepts. (And, for slightly more technical users, we can’t help but love our own Avocado.)


Scanning prototype from mural.ly

5. Analyzing and synthesizing research findings

Due to the highly collaborative nature of our design process, we rely heavily on foam core and post-it notes to organize, understand, and frame what we’ve learned, and Mural.ly is the closest thing to a digital equivalent (it’s also one of our former Startups in Residence). Although Mural.ly has been designed primarily for virtual brainstorming and collecting inspiration, it has some nice features for synthesizing data, such as frameworks and layouts.

Some of the products mentioned earlier—Revelation and 24tru—provide interesting ways of analyzing the qualitative data gathered through their own tools. We’d love for all tools to have more powerful features for analysis.


Opportunities for digital methods

Digital research works alongside more traditional research methods. We don’t often choose one method over another, but prefer to experiment and integrate methods to help paint a more robust picture of people’s lives. We’ve identified three major areas of opportunity for digital methods to enhance design research:

Broadening scale and diversity: We are able to connect with more people, over greater geographic distance. Although “more” doesn’t necessarily equate to “better,” digital methods can help us be more diverse in our research across any number of dimensions (not simply demographic ones). We can engage with people we would never talk to otherwise by trying different ways of reaching out to them.

Increasing flexibility: Not everybody lives and works on our hours. Digital tools allow participants to engage in research on their own terms. That could mean that we conduct interviews by instant message or simply spend time in a community or forum frequented by the people we want to learn from. They also open up the possibility of quicker feedback loops, to glean insight as part of an ongoing conversation.

Developing depth: The more ways you can understand a person, the better a picture of them you get. Digital methods help us work with research participants to paint a more dynamic picture of their lives by adding different levels of complexity. Some tools help us better sustain our connections with participants throughout the entire course of a project, or even between projects. Research is not a few-week phase at the beginning of a project. Digital helps us engage people as participants in a project, not “research subjects.” The result is more insight that is more tightly interwoven with the design.

Final thoughts

You may have noticed that not all of the tools I’ve mentioned were actually designed to be used for research, but that doesn’t stop us from pushing their potential. Still, none of them make up for the hard work of figuring out good research design: what you want to learn, with whom you want to engage, what kinds of questions you are trying to answer, how you’ll analyze the data, and how you’ll use that data to inspire design. The power of design research comes from the process, not the tool.

Which of these—or others!—have you tried? Any success or failures you’d like to share?

Send me a tweet (or comment below) to add to the list or find out more about any of the tools I’ve mentioned and download a PDF of them here.

(featured image by Kara Johnson / IDEO)