Six Things I’ve Learned About Design Research

A design researcher at Xero shares their experience working with a product team, from the initial idea to the moment customers use the product and beyond.

A designer and design researcher discuss a project they’re working on.

Cathy Campbell, Design Researcher | 5 min read

After starting my career working at an agency, in 2019 I found myself working in-house as a design researcher at Xero. I was attracted to the idea of working with a product team to see a project through, from the initial research idea to the moment a customer uses the end product and beyond. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

1. It’s important to ask why

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that you need to collaborate with other teams to understand what you’re researching and why. Otherwise, you can get to the end of the process and have all these incredible insights but end up with more questions than clarity.

I find it really helpful to sit down with the team and say okay, what do we need to try and understand here? Are we trying to improve a small piece of functionality or understand a bigger problem space? Working out if you’re doing generative research (to define a problem that needs a solution) or evaluative research (to learn more about an existing design) upfront is really important.

I’ve also learned to think about the greater why. Why are we working on this problem? What is the customer need that we’re solving? How is it going to help them in their everyday life? It helps that the research team works on a range of Xero products, so I have the opportunity to see Xero the way our customers do – as one company rather than a number of different products.

2. We need to champion the customer voice

At Xero, there are a range of ways we go about understanding our customers. The predominant way the research team works is through qualitative interviews. This helps us understand our customers’ attitudes and behaviours, fears and desires, likes and dislikes. Data is important, but there’s nothing like hearing it in their own voice to make you understand their pain points.

Of course, there’s no point talking to customers if it’s not useful. Conversations should always lead to an outcome or actionable insight. In a way, we’re a bridge between the customers and the product, making sure engineers and designers are building things in response to a real customer need. It’s our job to keep the customer voice in that process from start to finish.

3. Diversity is critical to good research

One of the reasons I moved to Xero was the fact that I’d get to do design research on a global scale (mostly without leaving the Auckland office, thanks to video calls). It’s given me a real appreciation for the importance of diversity because you can’t build products for people around the world unless both your team and research participants are diverse.

Diversity is about building teams of people with varying genders, cultures, backgrounds, experiences and abilities. But it’s also about having diversity of thought, so teams can approach problems and develop strategies in different ways.

I try to learn as much as I can from the people around me, whether they’re in design, engineering or marketing. There’s no way we could develop the products we do without the people around us – it’s so valuable to be part of a team who have skills in other areas and can share their voice. That diversity makes us stronger.

4. Everyone needs to have a voice

We take the lead on product research but also get involved in ideating and developing with the product teams. I’ve learned that everyone needs to have a voice in the process because while I may know what our customers are saying, that’s only one aspect of the product conversation. We’re always having that desirability, viability, feasibility (DVF) discussion to make sure everyone is contributing to the decision-making process.

5. It’s okay to be uncertain

We all have biases, yet they’re the enemy of good research. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that we need to be able to sit comfortably with ambiguity, for example, being open to getting results that may not be what we expect or hope for. We need to recognise our assumptions and mitigate their impact on our work.

It’s a difficult part of the job but an essential one to continuously improve. I think empathy is key. If we can put ourselves in our participants’ shoes, shift our mindset to their perspective and listen well, that’s when we get great quality research. It can make you feel vulnerable, taking leaps without knowing where you’ll land. But it’s always worth it.

Empathy is also about understanding the entirety of the product and the experience that a particular person will have at a macro and micro level. Sometimes we focus so much on one particular screen or interaction that we forget it’s part of a broader ecosystem. But we need to remember they’re not just clicking one button, they’re trying to solve a bigger problem.

6. We don’t always know the answer

As researchers, I think understanding our limitations is important when it comes to collaboration. We need to be humble about our contribution to the project and willing to listen to what others have to say. If we go in thinking we know what the best option is, then our ears will be closed off to other possibilities.

I remember a scenario when I was trying to solve a problem alone but quickly getting to the point in the process where I had to stop and say, ‘I don’t actually have the skills and knowledge to move on. I can’t answer this question. There are other people who are better placed to inform us on where we should go next. I need their input to work out what that next step will be.’

Understanding that I can bring the team to a certain point but I also need to bridge the gap in my knowledge and trust the team to move forward with the skills they have was massive for me. Having that conversation was powerful because it meant we could move forward in the right direction. I would never have been able to do it without the team.

The great thing about doing research in a global tech company is that the problems we’re working on are always evolving, so I’m always learning something new. It’s been a steep learning curve, but I’m definitely enjoying the journey.