How UX has changed my approach to desk research

Clearleft
3 min readSep 21

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During a recent client project at Clearleft, I returned to my previous career specialisms: desk-based research and report writing.

In the past, my first move would have been to open a document and contemplate the blank page. Pull across the brief, list sources for investigation, and make running notes on progress.

What retraining in UX has given me is a more dynamic approach to desk research projects. The process doesn’t have to be so linear. Stepping away from the screen, and the blank page improves the quality of a report and ensures that it best suits the needs of a client.

Understanding user needs

Pre-UX, I would never have thought to start a desk research piece by running a stakeholder workshop around understanding user needs. I took the brief at its word, understanding what to do, but not always why I was doing it.

Speaking to stakeholders, and interrogating the brief, led to an understanding of not only why the client needed this research, but also what format would be most useful. For this latest project, the external research piece turned out to be part of a wider business case. There were areas of the brief that were much more critical than others for strategic decision-making.

The workshop was also an opportunity to co-create research questions, this served to improve buy-in and ultimately make the report more useful for all involved. Critically, I was also able to clarify what the stakeholders would define as an unsuccessful report. I used dot voting during the workshop, which allowed me to understand the spread of priorities among the stakeholders.

Finding trends in data

There is always a point in a desk research project where you’ve explored every avenue and feel like you are drowning in insights. It can seem impossible to organise these into a coherent story.

At this point, I realised that I could turn to affinity mapping. I summarised every individual finding, data set and article I’d discovered, and considered how sets of insights could be grouped together to answer the same research question.

This process not only helped me to improve the structure of the report but also highlighted the gaps in my research, where the arguments might be weaker.

Collaborating with stakeholders

In addition to the initial stakeholder workshop, I also found value in speaking 1–2–1 with stakeholders at the client partner. Primary research was not included in the brief, but even casual conversations with client contacts proved incredibly useful.

Anecdotal assumptions they shared provided avenues to explore. These could be either disputed or supported with data. Being able to present research into these assumptions was integral to backing up (or challenging) what the client currently held as truths.

In addition, client contacts were able to point me to competitors and comparators for benchmarking purposes, this meant that those I used throughout the report were relevant.

Playing back the research

Rather than hitting send on an email and calling it a day, we took the opportunity to visit the client in person and talk through a condensed version of the findings.

The report was designed to be actively used in a wider decision-making process so presenting in person was a useful way for the client to qualify and challenge the findings. Being able to explain why certain sources were chosen, and why others were not, was an opportunity that would not have been afforded over email.

Learning for the future

Overall this approach got a positive reception. There were multiple opportunities to understand what stakeholders and the wider business needed to achieve from this piece of desk research.

The workshop and subsequent conversations eliminated the risk of miscommunication on report focus. Choosing to present the report summary in person gave the client the chance to better understand the recommendations and conclusions of the report.

I learned a lot during the experience and would apply this approach to my next desk research project.

If you would like to learn more about how we can help you with your own research project, contact us.

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Clearleft

Clearleft is a strategic design studio helping you get the most from your products, services & teams.