Design research can seem like it’s miles away from designing. Really though, it’s about innovation and finding how and what to design so our work is relevant. Let’s talk about it in this brief video:

With all that innovation comes a lot of steps. Let’s look at the design research process in-depth. Here’s the full process. While all of these steps are not needed for every project, many of them apply for even basic projects.

ActivityActivity Type
The Research QuestionDefine an answerable question whose answer is not “yes” or “no”
Secondary ResearchIdentify what you know and what you need to know about the topic

Identify who this topic affects
Bound the PopulationDefine who you will study and who you will not
Methods SelectionSelect the most appropriate methods to get the data you seek
Research EthicsDraft an informed consent form

Secure IRB approval to ensure your methods are not damaging
ObservationsDevise a plan for where and when to conduct observations

Conduct observations and record field notes
SurveysWrite survey questions

Conduct survey(s)
InterviewsWrite interview questions

Secure interviews

Conduct interviews
Focus GroupsWrite focus group questions

Conduct focus groups
Data Coding and AnalysisCode data

Analyze data
ThemesDefine themes that come out of the data

Make conclusions (your a-ha moments!)
DesignDetermine how design could impact the topic (what kind of design, how it should look)
ReportReport the process so others can know how you arrived at your conclusions

Designing the Research

Research is designed. Each step is selected, planned, tested, and implemented to help you answer your research question. Methodically designing your research project will ensure your project can be operated smoothly.

By the time you plan your research process, you should have defined a clearly bounded population. If not, it’s time to make sure who is being researched is explicitly stated.

You have likely also selected a research approach by this point:

  • Quantitative Approach
  • Qualitative Approach
  • Mixed-Methods Approach

The next step in the process is designing the research materials that will be operated to answer the research question.


First, select methods that are appropriate for the data you are wanting to collect.


  • etic observations
  • emic observations
  • participant observations


  • open-ended interviews
  • semi-structured interviews
  • structured interviews


  • online surveys
  • paper surveys
  • in-person surveys


  • personal documents
  • public documents

Audio-Visual Materials

  • social media
  • film
  • sounds
  • photographs

Engaged Methods

  • participant activity diaries or journals
  • participants wearing cameras or other sensors
  • participants using clickers to record incidents

Research Operation and Instruments

For each method, questions and plans must be developed for how and when the project will actually be operated. This content is required for the IRB application. These materials may include:


How and why the population sample will be selected (review the Sampling page for a refresher)

Intellectual Property

If the project is in partnership with a company or other entity where intellectual property rights and laws could be an issue, establish those agreements now.

Survey and Interview Questions

  • Each question you will ask, exactly as it will be asked (this is referred to as an Interview Schedule or Guide)

Observation Plans

  • Places you plan to go
  • Types of observations you will make
  • How involved these observations will be in participants’ lives
  • When observations will be completed (frequency, duration, and window of time)

Review this basic observation plan to see an example. 

Media Review Plans

  • Types of documents and audio-visual materials you will access
  • When these will be reviewed and how deeply
  • How involved these observations will be in participants’ lives

Recruiting Participants

In some way, your research will involve recruiting participants. Develop a plan and materials for how you will get the word out about your research. Develop consistent language you will use to promote the research to recruit participants. All of these promotional recruiting materials must be included in the IRB application. 

Promotional Recruiting Materials

  • Flyers
  • Facebook posts
  • e-mails
  • Social Media
  • Radio
  • Bathroom signs


Your research may include giving incentives like gift cards or cash (not typical)


If materials will be placed on private property or in a potentially sensitive location, ensure you have permission now. Ensure you have permission to operate research on private property if this is in your plan.

Participant Consent, Information, and Security

Create all documents for informing participants and safeguarding their security. These documents will be used to inform participants about their responsibilities and rights when they are part of the research.

Information Sheet

A sheet that informs participants about the study, their role in it, and anticipated ramifications of their participation.

Boilerplate Starter: Informed Consent – Participant Information Sheet

Participant Consent Form

A form completed by participants that affirms their participation in the research and acceptance of any risks.

Each time you have someone sign one of these forms, take a copy for yourself and leave a copy with the participant for their reference.

Secure Information Plan

Create a plan for how you will safeguard participant information once it has been collected.

Dennis Cheatham

Associate Professor, Communication Design

Miami University

Select Your Experience