Design Research: What Is It and Why Do It?

Design research is foundational to creating products, services, and systems that respond to human needs. In the public and international development sectors, understanding and meeting human needs are critical for improved livelihoods and better governance.

Yet despite its utility, design research is largely overlooked by many institutions important to an effective society. This oversight is unsurprising—the definition, purpose, and role of design research is not well understood. But in collecting the critical data they need to run their programs, these institutions do engage in ‘design research’. The information they gather, however, is often purely functional—‘just good enough’. But a lack of deliberation and formalization in process limits the value of research, and thus the utility of collected data.

I’ve been privileged to learn the art and science of design research from some of the best in the game. Time and again, I’ve seen what can happen both when design research is overlooked and when it is thoughtfully applied. So, to advance the conversation, I wanted to lay out some basic principles, approaches, and tools of design research so public institutions can better understand how it serves their work.

What is Design Research?

reboot design research visual notes

By ‘design research’, I mean research specifically undertaken to support the strategic design and development of products, services, and programs. Sometimes confused with market research, the practices differ in a few key ways.

Market research identifies and acts upon optimal market and consumer leverage points to achieve success. Its definition of success is not absolute, though metrics are often financial. Design research, on the other hand, is founded in the belief that we already know the optimal market and consumer leverage points: human needs. Unearthing and satisfying those needs is thus the surest measure of success. Through this process, we earn people’s respect and loyalty.

Both market and design research are necessary in developing effective solutions. I’ve drafted the following table to help clarify their complementary yet differing approaches and their roles as part of a larger strategy:


In design research, the methods and data collected differ from those emphasized in market or academic research. Ethnographic approaches to participant interaction clarifies complex human needs, behaviours, and perspectives. Field immersions unearth contextual and environmental factors that shape user experience. Rigorous, old-fashioned desk research and expert consultation support the fieldwork.But let’s be clear: good design research doesn’t end with good data. The contextual study (sometimes called ‘field study’, though I personally dislike the usage of ‘field’ in these contexts) is just the beginning. Once we have the data — often thousands upon thousands of photos, and dozens or even hundreds of interviews– the real work begins. The next steps include:

Design Research in Action: Improving Emergency Relief Distribution in Pakistan

After a natural disaster, rural communities are often twice disadvantaged. Not only are physical infrastructure of rural areas more vulnerable to damage, but there is often a lack of financial infrastructure for delivering emergency relief funds directly to those that need them most. Creative solutions are needed to better connect disaster victims to sources of relief funding.

After the 2010 Indus River floods in Pakistan, UBL, a large financial institution, distributed over 2.3 million prepaid debit cards to Pakistani households that had lost their homes. While this was an innovative first step, UBL realized that there was substantial room for improvement. Among a population unaccustomed to banking, the intervention faced critical execution challenges. For example, flood victims that did not how to use ATM machines, which dispensed relief funds from the prepaid card, were forced to pay up to 20 percent of their allocated aid to opportunistic officials.

In 2011, Reboot was brought in to evaluate and improve UBL’s emergency relief distribution and mobile banking systems, to ensure that aid quickly reached those most in need. Nearly the entire Pakistani population—89 percent—lacks access to any financial service. Any project addressing the “unbanked”, then, must acknowledge and embrace the immense diversity of this population.

In order to understand Pakistan’s unbanked, our team conducted field research in towns and cities across Southern Punjab, speaking to nearly 300 individuals in the contexts where they live and work. Our team analyzed these interviews to gain a complete understanding of the population’s habits and attitudes toward financial services, and developed a series of user archetypes that highlighted common themes and behaviour patterns that a branchless banking service must cater to.

A branchless banking system utilizes local, third-party retailers, known as agents, as the primary sales and customer service representatives. We interviewed, ‘ghost-shopped’ with, and shadowed agents across the region to uncover habits and pain points to target for improvement. Finally, our team embedded with employees and executives at UBL, in order to understand their visions, capacities, and constraints in developing a better branchless banking network.

Among other results, we discovered that UBL’s network of human agents, the primary delivery channel for its mobile banking services and the only channel accessible by the poor, was not optimized. These independent retailers acting as the bank’s cash-in and cash-out points were often the sole human touchpoint between customers and the bank, yet they were not seen as a marketing tool by the bank. As the first point of contact for poor and often illiterate customers, they were in a strong position to explain the security that banking services could bring to their lives. UBL applied our insights to create a new team of specialists for providing agents with increased coaching and support.

By illustrating how branchless banking services can be designed for low-income users, we helped turn a commendable but unsustainable corporate social responsibility initiative into a long-term business growth area that was better able to meet the needs of the marginalized. The result? Banking became more relevant and accessible to Pakistan’s poor, and millions of people transformed from helpless victims reliant on aid to economically empowered customers with a stake in their futures.

Design Research for Public Service

Design research is a vote against hunch-based reasoning. It prevents the need for endless testing, and provides a basis for evidence-based decision-making. Today’s leading private sector organizations are wielding it with great success. They are developing products and services that improve the lives of their customers and, as a result, building loyalty for their products and brands. Procter & Gamble, for one, has employed design research for years as part of a larger commitment to integrating design methods in their organizational strategy. This has yielded many market successes. Intel is another example of using design research to develop products that meet needs users have yet to even articulate to themselves.

We must bring the same value to the public sector. Driven by different considerations than private corporations, the fruits of design research have, to some extent, remained unclaimed among institutions that serve the common good. Our hope is that more formalized methods for gathering, using, and processing information — both new and existing — will help public institutions better serve their constituencies and communities.

(Images: Peter Durand of AlphaChimp Studios, created during the PopTech Social Innovation Fellowship Program 2010.)

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