We at TheContentWrangler.com are staunch believers in the importance of research. We’ve watched projects flounder (and eventually fail) for reasons usually related to a lack of research. But, even we like to skip steps every once in a while. Sometimes, a project seems just like one we already completed, and in those situations, we don’t conduct as much design research as we might if we felt we were starting from scratch.

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This sentiment is echoed by Dan Saffer at Adaptive Path. In a recent essay entitled, Research Is a Method, Not a Methodology, Saffer writes, “Research can be a useful tool, but it can also be an ineffective waste of time. And what about projects that build upon other projects — which is to say, most projects? Is it necessary to conduct research simply to add a feature to an existing piece of software, or a new section to a website? Perhaps. Or, just as likely, perhaps not.”

Saffer says you should conduct research when:

  • You don’t know the subject area well. I’m not an expert in investment banking, so if I had to design a product for investment bankers, I’d need to learn about what they do and why they do it.
  • The project is based in a culture different to your own. Chinese culture isn’t the same thing as the culture of the United States. Or India. Or Western Europe. Cultural differences can cause differences in behavior and expectations for a product.
  • You don’t know who the users are. This should be self-explanatory, but amazingly enough, many companies don’t know who uses their products or why. If you find that your view of the users is different from the stakeholders’, you might want to establish a consensus around that — the type of clarity that only research can provide.
  • The product is one you’d never use yourself. Luckily, as an affluent white male in my 30s, I have a lot of products directed at me. But I’m not a doctor or nurse, and I’m not likely to use medical devices, so if I was working on a medical device project, I’d have to rely on research to teach me how the device would be used. Note, however, that this approach can make for some narrowly focused products, which only work well for a small group of people.
  • The product contains features and functionality that are for specific types of users, who are doing specific types of work, work you don’t necessarily do yourself. MS Office contains a bunch of features that I would never use, but if they were removed, key power users would scream bloody murder. Sometimes you have to conduct research to understand the nuances of a specific feature, as well as its importance to a specific group of users.
  • You need inspiration. Sometimes you get stuck and an afternoon away from your computer screen can spark ideas and provide unexpected directions to take a product.
  • You need empathy. Some types of people and groups are harder to identify with than others. Illinois Neo-Nazis for example — not that I’d ever do a project for them. But what about the elderly or infirm? It’s difficult to understand their situation unless you know about it.
  • You don’t have much expertise. Admitting this is humbling, but necessary. Research might not make you a good designer, but it might make you a better designer by exposing you to new things and preventing you from making simple mistakes that a more experienced designer would avoid as a matter of course.