User Research :  5 creative methods to use when looking for relevant insights

9 mins read

​As a designer, you might be thinking that research falls outside your role. Or, perhaps, that it’s a ‘nice to have’ that you’ll try when you will start working on a project with a loose deadline, or with a bigger budget. It can also be that your clients/stakeholders don’t understand its benefits. We’re in the business of providing value through design. So, when our solutions come from false premises, our design might not be that valuable after all. I’m sure you have a good reason to skip traditional methods of research (user interviews, field studies, surveys, etc.). Still, there’s no excuse for not having any research at all, when you start working on a new project.

So what type of research can designers do so that their work would solve relevant problems? Let’s take a closer look at a few creative, fast and cheap research methods that will help improve your designs and bring more value to your work.

Expert interviews

Though the crux of the Inspiration phase is talking with the people you’re designing for, you can gain valuable perspective by talking to experts. Experts can often give you a systems-level view of your project area, tell you about recent innovations and offer the perspectives of organizations like banks, governments, or NGOs.

Ideo Design Kit

I get it, the few details that you know about your users aren’t enough to understand their needs and frustrations. The project might be fast paced or there’s no budget for user interviews and field studies. You can always find an expert who’s already done all this research for you, and talk to him instead.

Find out what kind of expert you need and start a recruiting process. It’s best if you choose two or more experts to interview, so you can make sure that you get more than just one opinion. Ask relevant questions but don’t hesitate to go off script every now and then, if the interview allows for it. You can learn the crucial information.

Brainstorming sessions

When there’s no expert around to help you with your research, it’s time to enable the expert in your team. I’m talking about brainstorming.

We’re used to brainstorming for solutions, but we can also brainstorm to discover insights. If the project isn’t too specific, there’s a great chance that most of your team members have valuable insights that you can use as research.

Since this will not be a session to develop ideas, there are fewer chances people will be exposed to negative criticism/feedback. Steer the session to discover problems, habits and leave the solutions for another time.

Competition testing

A good way to find out how to fix relevant problems for your users is by looking at the competition. It doesn’t matter what the nature of the product or service that you’re working on is. I’m pretty certain there’s a similar one on the market that you can analyze and discover important information.

So, when in a hurry, a great method to gather insights from the competition is to perform remote usability tests on their website. Not only will this give you a deeper understanding of what they’re doing good, but it will also uncover what they’re failing to address. The improvements you will make will result in a better experience for your users and might give your product/service a competitive advantage.

There’s a great deal of good and affordable services that provide the necessary tools for remote usability tests. UserTesting, WhatUsersDo, and Ethnio are just some of them that I find quite flexible and easy to use. Of course, you can set up a usability lab in your office, but that will cost more money and more time.

Desk research

This last method is the most common one. There’s plenty of information ready and available in the public domain, that you can use for research purposes. Designers use desk research every day. It’s accessible, fast, cheap and within the comfort zone.

The data you collect using desk research will usually serve as the basis for your ‘results’ section, which is where you analyze your findings. The ultimate aim is to lay the groundwork for answering your research question in the conclusion section.

 Kirsten Dingemanse

Write down the questions you want to find answers for, and outline a few relevant keywords. Always try to find insights from various relevant sources. You can also search for information that was originally collected for different purposes. Just make sure that it best suits your research question.

Empathic modeling

You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

 Harper Lee

To become empathic with the user is to try on your user’s glasses. As designers, we’re constantly reminded to be emphatic with our users. And while we tend to understand them using other methods of research, plenty of times this is not enough.

Empathic modeling is the process through which a designer is experiencing “with his own body the physical situations of others”. Experience the life of the people you’re designing for and, instead of only acknowledging their needs and frustrations, try to actually live like them. You will gain more insights from trying to make a call without being able to hear. Or to get from A to B using a wheelchair. Or to operate a laptop without using your hands.


Research is crucial. Whether you use classical methods, or you opt for non-conventional ones, there’s no debate that it will help you design better solutions. Here are some resources to help you dive deeper into the research process.

“Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research” by Elizabeth Goodman, Mike Kuniavsky and Andrea Moed.

“Just enough research” by Erika Hall

“How I Do User Research: A combination guide and “how I work”” by K. Kuksenok

“Field Research at Uber” by Uber Design

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