We Start By Listening
December 12th, 2018

We Start by Listening: Design Research Methods at P'unk Ave

What does research have to do with designing a website?

In web design, which can feel abstract, it’s often helpful to use the analogy of designing a physical space. Imagine a building constructed without considering why it’s being built and for whom. Is it a place to work for a government agency or for a design firm? Is it a home for a family of six or a couple of empty-nesters? These questions are fundamental to laying the groundwork for a successful project.

The process of answering these questions is just as important for digital projects. Our toolkit of design research methods here at P’unk Ave is focused on bringing clarity to our partners’ goals and exploring how to achieve them through web design. The research and discovery phase of our projects is what ultimately sets them up for success.

The research methods we use are custom to individual projects and typically fall into three broad categories: discovery, design thinking and exploration, and validation of design decisions.

we start by listening - discovery

Discovery

In the discovery phase, our goal is to bring clarity to two fundamental questions: why are we doing this and who are we serving?

The answer to the first question may seem obvious: in most cases, we’re doing it because a client needs a new website. But the motivations that underlie that objective are key to evaluating how to approach a project. We dig deep into any problems or pain points with the current website or brand. We review organizational goals and plans to understand where the client is and where they’d like to go.

The organizations we work with aren’t just monoliths, either. By engaging with a variety of internal and external stakeholders, we can understand the organization from many different perspectives, collecting a holistic and nuanced view of their work.

In addition to the organizational stakeholders, whenever possible we engage with users of the website, as well as observers who may not be the intended audience but whose opinions matter. For example, a direct service organization might need a website that helps its clients access services, and similar organizations in another city might look to them for best practices and guidance. The website design should consider them as an “observer” audience.

The methods we use at this stage in the design process are targeted engagements with stakeholders, users, and the website itself. We conduct interviews to get first-person accounts of goals, problems, and preferences from a variety of stakeholder types and priority audiences. Surveys and focus groups can help us efficiently scale up the research process to include larger audiences with diverse preferences.

We also perform a deep dive into any existing web presence that our client has, and how it compares to competitors or aspirants. Heuristic analysis, through which we evaluate an existing website with an eye towards best practices and usability, can reveal simple ways to improve users’ experiences on a website. We look at websites from comparable organizations and draw lessons from how they solve similar problems.

we start by listening - design thinking

Design Thinking & Exploration

The next set of tools we use is intended to involve the client in the creation process, using their perspectives to inform visual design decisions and addressing questions that were left unanswered in the discovery phase.

This stage often involves a workshop or work session, which can range in size from just two people up to a dozen or more. The particular exercises we introduce--which are custom to each project--aren’t intended as decision points, but rather as conversation starters. The discussion provides us with the rich context we need to more deeply understand our clients and how to represent them digitally.

Scales can help sort through tensions or lingering questions from our discovery phase, and also be a lot of fun. Should the experience of your website be more like a Sunday drive or like getting on I-95 (on a good day)? Should your brand be represented as highly-skilled at one thing (like Apple) or as a go-to generalist (like Target)? With many of the exercises, using tangible examples for abstract concepts helps to spur a productive discussion.

We use visual examples to try to get more information about the aesthetic that represents our clients. For example, gut checks take the group through many website examples in a short period of time and ask participants to rate how well the website would work for their project on a scale from one to five. After compiling responses, we review the top and bottom rated sites and unpack what resonated and what didn’t.

To dig deeper into questions about brand and identity, we use tools like word cards or mad libs to help participants communicate what is important to them about the experience of their organization. Exercises that encourage participants to articulate abstract ideas are key to developing a closer understanding.

we start by listening - design validation

Design Validation

There are many projects that afford us the opportunity to validate the decisions informed by our research. Usability testing and focus groups serve unique roles in collecting feedback from users.

Usability testing is focused on the functionality of a website or application. A researcher will write a test that asks a user to perform specific tasks, then observe how the user performs the tasks and ask questions to gather additional information. Usability tests are designed to capture quantitative data that can help identify issues with the comprehension, hierarchy, or retention of information or with the mechanics of the site or application. A/B testing uses two different versions of a product or application to identify the one that best helps users succeed at particular tasks. The results of usability testing are primarily quantifiable: what percentage of users were successful at which tasks?

There are other types of user engagements that help validate design decisions from an aesthetic perspective. Focus groups and user interviews can provide designers with qualitative information about the experience of using a product. They are distinct from usability testing, with its focus on functionality, but can also help to validate design decisions and contribute to the success of a product.

As we work with a wide range of clients on projects ranging from brand development to developing complex applications, we draw from this toolkit to plan a custom design research process that fits the project’s needs, audiences, and budget. Throughout every design process, our practitioners are constantly weighing and synthesizing diverse perspectives to shape technology that serves the needs of its owners and users.