<< Back to the Disco Journal

UX Research in Design Thinking

DECEMBER 10, 2021

What is UX Research?

UX research, also known as design research, is the process of listening and empathizing with people to get a clear picture of how they think, feel, and behave when experiencing your product. This level of nuance and understanding of your intended audience ensures that what you develop is designed from the perspective of those spending the time and money to engage with your product. 

Integrating UX research into the design process regularly is the key to its success. It should be done incrementally and iteratively, to ensure that the needs and motivations of your end-user are tightly coupled with the technical development of your product. Research methods can be both qualitative and quantitative; mixed methods is a well-rounded approach to surfacing insights and opportunities, and improving user experience. 

Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.

— Tim Brown, CEO of design firm IDEO

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a process of creative problem solving where the central objective is to understand your target audience, define a problem, and identify opportunities for innovation that are deeply rooted in the needs and motivations of the people you’re designing the product for. Design Thinking has five stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. 

  • Empathize: Gain a level of understanding about the people who might be engaging with your product. Connecting with these individuals allows behavioural patterns, challenges, and areas of opportunity to arise. 
  • Define: Through synthesis and analysis of research that was gathered in the Empathize stage, a ‘problem’ is defined. Based on that ‘problem’, collaborative strategies are implemented to kick-start Ideation.
  • Ideate: Ideation is often done in a workshop setting, where insights are brought to the table and as a group, alternative ideas and solutions are brought to the forefront to help solve for the problem that surfaced originally. 
  • Prototype: The prototyping process gives participants the opportunity to bring their ideas to life through scaled down, low fidelity versions of their re-imagined product.
  • Test: Ideas can sink or swim during the Test phase. Ideas only have merit if they can be connected to the perspectives surfaced in Empathize, so it’s integral to the process that ideas are tested with these individuals often. 

This may sound like a linear process, but it’s not. Design thinking does usually start with Empathize, but the way each stage feeds into the other can be quite organic; repeating stages is very common. For example, in the Test stage, you might be testing a prototype, however if this testing reveals new insights that force you to re-consider the problem that was defined in Stage 2 (Define), you might need to revisit it. Design Thinking is meant to be iterative; your design team should constantly re-consider assumptions, re-define problems, and reconnect with your target audience to ensure that they are on the right track.

Design Thinking

Figure 1. The Design Thinking process. Lines on this diagram represent user feedback and research that can be re-integrated back into other areas of the process to strengthen your product.

What is the relationship between UX Research and Design Thinking?

UX research is the driving force behind the Design Thinking process. Without gaining a deep understanding of how people are experiencing your product, you will be unable to move through the stages of Design Thinking. The problem you define will be based on your own assumptions, and the generation of ideas and solutions that arise in the Ideate stage will be based on your personal bias, not the experience of those you should be designing for. The foundation of the iterative Design Thinking process is the ability to listen, empathize, and understand. Building relationships with your target audience throughout the design process will ensure that the solutions that are designed and delivered will meet the needs of those who will use your product in the real world. 

Speaking with the people who are experiencing your product when you’ve been working on its development tirelessly can be a very vulnerable process. However, building a product in a silo can have a detrimental impact on user engagement and retention. Although it can be difficult, iteratively incorporating user research, feedback, and testing into the development of your product will mean that you are designing something that people will actually interact and engage with. Your target audience will see value in your product because you have carefully crafted their experience based on what their needs and motivations are for using the product. 

Integrating UX Research & Design Thinking into Agile Software Development 

The software development of a product can occur once you have gone through all of the stages of Design Thinking and have an evidence-based prototype that you would like to begin developing into a tangible digital product. Agile software development is the tech lingo for iteratively producing code to develop and implement a digital product. Just like in Design Thinking, feedback is continuously gathered in order to create an interface or experience that is optimized for those who are interacting with your product. 

Agile Software Development Process

Figure 2. The Agile software development process. Lines on this diagram represent user feedback and research that can be re-integrated back into other areas of the process to strengthen the overall implementation of your product.

Agile software development can be carefully implemented on a team where an interdisciplinary group of specialized resources -- Software Developers, Data Architects, UI Designers, UX Researchers -- are working together to build a digital product. Within this team, Researchers and Designers are the conduit that connects the perspective of those using your product to the software developers. The UX Researcher on an Agile software development team is there to advocate for the users and continuously push new insights to the development team based on research and testing of the product itself. These skill sets should not work in silos. Agile welcomes collaboration and the ability to adapt based on the ever-evolving needs of the individuals who are interacting with your product. 

The best kind of design isn't necessarily an object, a space or a structure: it's a process -- dynamic and adaptable.

— Don Norman, Co-founder of NNg

What is Disco’s approach in achieving the integration of UX Research into our process? 

Disco Innovation Studio’s approach in achieving the integration of UX into our Agile software development and Design Thinking processes is always rooted in the desire to have a product that is human-centred. Here is our step-by-step process inspired by Design Thinking:

  • Understand needs: Talk to people, with the goal of understanding their attitudes and behaviours
  • Generate ideas: Through research, uncover evidence-based ideas for improving people’s experiences
  • Develop concepts: As opportunities emerge, we collaboratively zero in on an idea to execute and design a testable prototype
  • Test prototype: Once a prototype has been created, we do usability testing and adjust our design based on findings. 
  • Deliver solution: We will refine concepts based on findings to deliver an output that you can launch with confidence

Once a solution has been refined based on UX research in the Testing phase of Design Thinking, Disco Innovation Studio partners with a software development team to evolve the evidence-based prototype into a functional digital product using Agile software development. UX research continues to be carefully integrated into the agile software development process, just as it was the driving force behind developing concepts in the phases of Design Thinking. UX Research can occur at the beginning of a development cycle (i.e. Sprint Zero) as well as continuously during the product development lifecycle (i.e. Agile sprints).

Figure 3. The Disco Innovation Studio process. Lines on this diagram represent user feedback and research that can be re-integrated back into other areas of the process to strengthen your prototype as you prepare to initiate agile software development (which also includes research and testing!).

Figure 3. The Disco Innovation Studio process. Lines on this diagram represent user feedback and research that can be re-integrated back into other areas of the process to strengthen your prototype as you prepare to initiate agile software development (which also includes research and testing!).

So, why should you care about integrating UX research into your design practice? The intended audience of your product will feel frustrated and discouraged from interacting with your product if you skip over gathering evidence and insights through UX research. This can result in a decrease in user satisfaction, uptake, and retention. By carefully integrating UX research into your Design Thinking and Agile Software Development processes, you will be able to design evidence-based solutions and iteratively build your product in a way that takes people from point A to point B in a simple, yet intuitive way.

A picture of Roxanne

About the Author

Roxanne believes that simple and smooth user experiences grow out of intentional user research and iterations of design.

Human-centred design has informed Roxanne’s work in both the private and public sector. As a Toronto transplant currently living in Victoria, British Columbia, Roxanne designs experiences that are informed by a deep understanding of the motivations and behaviours of the end user. Using design thinking, she has facilitated organizational change of systems, products and processes through her design work in many spheres: tech start-ups, e-commerce, and environmental ministries at the provincial level.