Designing for the Web

Chapter 8


Research is a profession in its own right.

Research is a profession in its own right, but it's also an aspect of design that is vital to the success of any design solution.

My wife is an Audience Researcher for the BBC, so it's a profession I'm close to and have a fairly good grasp of its importance. In addition to the type of research my wife does, there is another type of research that should be done by a designer on an almost daily basis: visual research. Combining professional research, with a designer's visual research, can create solid foundations on which to build ideas.

Asking Questions

Successful design solutions are successful business solutions. The first priority in any design task is to understand the business behind the product or website for which you are providing a service. As a designer, you need to understand the company that hired you and the business they are in. You can get this information from several sources: reading strategic documents and whitepapers; the company's Annual Report, (that is a good one!), or, what I've found most valuable in the past, interviewing key stakeholders. First of all, you need to find out who those people are. If it's a one–man–band you've been hired by, then it's just them. If it's a bluechip organisation, you need to understand the pecking order. For example, you've been hired by a large energy provider to provide consultancy on the redesign of their website. Their web team is comprised of members from multiple departments – each responsible for different business output: Marketing, Press and Communications, Corporate, HR etc. This could be a large team, and it probably wouldn't be cost–effective, or necessary, to interview all of them. You will need to establish key members of this team, but remember, the client can help you out with this one.

Interviewing the right people

It might be a little too formal to call these discussions interviews. In my experience, they are more like chats–it's a time to build trust and rapport with a new client. A more informal approach puts you and the client at ease and you're more likely to gain some valuable insight if everyone is having a pleasant time!

Questions to ask during stakeholder interviews.

  • Describe your products or services
  • What are your three most important business goals?
  • Who is your target market?
  • What makes you better than your competition?
  • How do you market your product or service?
  • What are the trends that may affect your industry in years to come?
  • Is there any impending, or current, legislation that will affect your business?
  • If you could communicate a single thing about your company, what would it be?

Market Research

Market research is the collecting, analysing, and reporting of data or information that affect customers, products or services. It's a huge, specialised field. However, anyone can do market research – you don't need to be a recognised member of the Chartered Society of Marketing. With something as simple as a web–browser and Google, you can conduct your own research. The difficulty with just searching for stuff on Google, or asking your grandmother to do some usability testing for you, is the information gathered might not be accurate or representative. If it's not accurate, or trustworthy, you're already off to a shaky start in gathering information for your ideas. There is a bewildering array of techniques and methodologies that enable the professionals to provide us with accurate research. As a designer, I've had to read market research agency results and briefing documents as part of a research phase. They can provide vital insight, but, for a long time I found the terminology confusing. I didn't have a clue what they were talking about and I was too embarrassed to ask. Anyway, after years of cobbling my way through documents, I'd like to give you a head start and list some of the terms and definitions.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is a type of research conducted to establish the audience's beliefs, feelings, motivations and triggers. Results are often rich in insights.

Quantitative Research

Quantitative research is a type of research that provides valid data. It's all about the numbers. Insights can be difficult at times, as quantitative research requires analysis to identify trends.

Primary Research

Primary research is new, not old, information.

Secondary Research

Secondary research is research performed on old data. E.g. New analysis on data gathered last year.


You hear a lot about ‘Market Segmentation’. It means the market of the product, or service, is segmented into groups. Those groups, or segments, represent a part of the customer group or audience. They are usually grouped by demographics such as sex, age, ethnicity, income, occupation etc.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are moderated group discussions whose participants are selected to accurately represent the audience or customer.

Task–Based Usability Testing

Users of a website are asked to complete a task whilst being observed. The people tested are selected to accurately represent the audience or customer.

Visual Research

Visual research is the gathering of visual information, stuff that a designer will find useful in solving the problem. Visual research is generally the domain of the designer, or the project team, rarely the client.


Since being in art college nearly twenty years ago now, I've always kept sketchbooks. They're places where I keep my doodles and ideas – where I'm free of judgement. A place where it's okay to make a mistake. A sketchbook is a vital tool for a designer – I really can't stress that enough. A designer's sketchbook is not so different from an artist's. If you opened an artist's sketchbook, it's probably full of sketches, paintings, doodles and studies. If you open a designer's sketchbook, there will be doodles and drawings, but the studies will be written. There will be notes – sometimes pages and pages of the written word punctuated by small diagrams. Designers tend to think visually. Sometimes, these sketchbooks are works of art in their own right. They're treasured tools of a designer's trade and generally follow them everywhere. But there lies a danger. Designers need to take heed – sketchbooks are just tools – not diaries. They should form part of the research of a project just as a market research document should. They shouldn't be precious. If you're new to design, or maybe you fell into web design from another discipline, then try keeping a sketchbook for a couple of months. Instead of using sticky notes, or till receipts for recording those moments of inspiration, jot it down in your sketchbook. If you see some nice type on a flyer whilst you're out and about, stick it in there. You'll be surprised at how quickly it fills up with interesting and relevant visual information.

Virtual Sketchbooks

If you work all day on the web like me, then it's not very environmentally friendly, or cost–effective, to take a screengrab of something, print it out and then stick it in your sketchbook. This is where applications such as iPhoto, or Flickr are invaluable. If, whilst browsing around, you see something that you fancy, then grab it and pop it into Flickr, or iPhoto. Start building a virtual sketchbook. Many people have already started to do this on Flickr and it's proving to be a great resource for doing visual research. Take the typography pool for example. It's jammed full of really great photographs of typography from all over the globe, and it's updated daily. Where else could you get this information? It's a fantastic resource.


Moodboards are created specifically for a project. The aim is to present a visual language on one sheet of paper. For example, let's say you were designing a website for a builders – merchants. To establish the overall feel of the visuals for the site, you might go and print out a lot of competitor's websites and couple that with some material from related trades. The material could include images, photography, colour, typography, layout, illustration or patterns. Anything visual to build up a language. These scraps of paper, (or digitally if you prefer), would then be stuck on a piece of paper to give an overall impression of the proposed visual language for the new website.

Gaining Insight

So, you've got all this stuff, now what do you do with it? Remember, for a designer, the aim of the research is to provide insight. Insights that will act as springboards when you come to generating ideas. Start to focus in on the research by applying some lightweight analysis. A good tool to use to focus in on the problem, is one which marketeers use called the SWOT analysis. Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths are the strengths of the current product or service. Weaknesses are where it falls down. Opportunities are how you can make it better, and Threats are those things that could undermine its success. It's a simple tool that can be extremely effective in providing simple, top–level research that is, above all, easy to understand by the whole team. Once you've established some insights, and these might be as simple as two or three word sentences, you need to record them and stick them on a wall or something. Insights can only act as springboards for ideas when they are presented in isolation from the rest of the other research material. Now we can start to have some fun.

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