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Design Research: What Separates Pretty Looks from Better Performance

Aug 20 '18

When designing a digital experience, designers are not just thinking about how visually eye-popping they can make a website look. It isn’t all about the fancy bells and whistles, and it should definitely never just be about that. For that reason, designers are wired to take a more structured approach to every project.

Spoiler Alert: We ask a LOT of questions.

There is a “pre-design” process if you will, that digital designers have made part of their day-to-day operations, and it’s not a term we’re unfamiliar with. It’s called: research.

Design research is often an overlooked part of the process from an outsider’s perspective. While we understand how exciting it is to see designs as real, tangible ideations as fast as humanly possible, it is more important to understand the need to carefully analyze, from every angle, what specific set of problems the design is looking to solve, and do our best to accommodate and make the necessary compromises to complete the task.

So I’m making a big stink about the pre-design process because I want to make sure everyone understands, to some degree, just how us designers think.

But what exactly does design research entail? There are a few fundamental steps outlined below, but I should note, this is not an exhaustive list :)

Formal Research

Conducting formal research is the first step for every designer. This is where you’ll first start to notice our keen ability to ask questions. Physical conversations with key stakeholders in the project help shape the foundation of the design decision-making. This is where we learn the pain-points that initiated the design requests, and how we can start correcting those concerns.

It is in this process that strategists & designers can begin to evaluate the priorities based on the scope of the project and how those priorities fit within the budget. Not every project is the same shape or the same size, and understanding the parameters before design begins will help eliminate crisis moments at the end of the design process.

Tangible Research

After formal research is conducted, we have a general idea of project needs and goals and can begin doing preliminary audience-specific and industry-focused research. This is typically completed in a few ways:

  • Surveys

  • Articles/Publications

  • Case Studies

We’ll look for other folks who have gone through a similar problem-solving process, and not only have tangible results but explain the process that went into obtaining results.

This research is essential to the process because it provides factual data that acts as the backbone of the decisions that will be made throughout the design process.


The analytical part of design research is typically referred to as a competitive analysis. Designers will first take a look at the goals established through formal and tangible research and compare that with how competitors are solving the same or similar problems with their digital presence.

From there, the goal is to pinpoint key items that competitors are doing that we could use to our advantage, and things that are generally not working in the eyes of design best practices. In an ideal world, designers will research 5 - 10 competitors to gather insights on a broader perspective than honing in on one or two key competitors. It is important to note that the competitors don’t have to be direct, eye-to-eye, competition. As long as the competitors are in the same market, or the same industry, it provides better data into how the industry is represented at a larger scale.

Also falling under the analysis branch is the evaluation of the current website being rebuilt and treating it as if it were a competitor site being evaluated. Noting key items that work and don’t work and beginning to form a list of recommendations to solve common issues. The website has already been talked about from the formal process, however, during the analysis phase, designers will look at the website from a more visual perspective and using the competitive data, make correlations and recommendations based on that collective data.

Mood Boards

After the analytical research has been done, it’s time to start forming that visual ideation we’ve all been longing for and shaping a path forward for the visual design. This is not the design itself, rather a compilation of aesthetics that work well to solve the problem at hand.

Looking at award-winning websites in the same or similar industries is the first place to start. Depending on the availability of award-winning, industry-specific websites available to reference, designers will typically branch out to review overall design trends that fall within the general scope of industry (example business to business or e-commerce) and find highlightable elements that align well with the current brand we are re-designing for. Once a good group of items has been collected, designers will put together a mood board to convey the general vision and tone of the new website’s look and feel.

Here's a mood board we put together recently for a client:

Mood board example

What Design Research Adds Up To

All of this research happens before physical designs are built in-medium. It is imperative to the design process to do this research for a number of reasons. The first reason is that the research will help establish target goals and achievements. The second is to have a better understanding of the complete competitive landscape to learn from their winnings and failures, but also to shape a design that will help stand out in a crowded market.

charlie sheen yelling "winning"


Lastly, the research that is conducted will ensure that the decisions being made are based on more than visual aesthetics, and that research is available to backup the decision making throughout the process. Since design is very much an industry that is open to interpretation, it is important that the decisions we make as designers have validity, and we have ample insights into that process.

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