Desk Research

What is desk research?

Desk research is another name for secondary research. Broadly speaking, there are two types of research activity: primary research (where you go out and discover stuff yourself); and secondary research (where you review what other people have done). Desk research is not about collecting data. Instead, your role as a user researcher carrying out desk research is to review previous research findings to gain a broad understanding of the field.

Why do desk research?

Before carrying out a field visit, developing a prototype, running a usability test, or embarking on any project that you want to be user centred, it makes sense to see what people have done in the past that relates to the product’s domain. Although it’s unlikely that anyone has carried out the exact research activity you’re planning, someone has almost certainly tried to answer related questions. Reviewing this research is the quickest and cheapest way to understand the domain.

Carrying out desk research is a critical first step, for at least three reasons:

  • If you don’t know what has gone before, you won’t know when you’ve discovered something new.
  • You’ll sound credible when you get face-to-face with users and stakeholders. If you’ve not done this “due diligence”, you’ll ask dumb or irrelevant questions and may find your participants cut your sessions short.
  • Failing to do preparatory research is disrespectful of your participants’ time. You may get less than an hour with a user of your system. Do you really want to waste half that time understanding the domain issues that you could have covered elsewhere?

How do you approach desk research?

At this point, I’ve had many user researchers tell me that they’re working on a bleeding edge design project so there isn’t any desk research to do. There’s a common misconception that no research exists.

In my experience, there is almost always something you can build upon. Here’s an approach I take to go about finding it. It helps me stay focussed but also makes sure that I remember to check all the possible nooks and crannies where relevant research findings may be hiding.

A Venn diagram showing users, goals and environments. Where these three overlap is the sweet spot for user research.

The Venn diagram describes the context of use: your users, their goals and the environments where the action occurs. The best kind of research is where all three of these dimensions overlap: field visits that focus on your users trying to achieve their goals in context. This kind of research is so specific and relevant to your project that it may be hard to find, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t turn anything up in this area.

This set of Venn diagrams shows that research into the overlap between users and goals, environments and goals and users and envrionments can also yield useful insights.

But there is potentially useful research in the other areas of overlap on our Venn diagram. This falls into three broad areas:

  • Research about your users and their goals, but that was not carried out in context. This kind of research will take the form of surveys, customer interviews and focus groups.
  • Research that addresses the goals your system will support and the environment it will be used in, but doesn’t tell us much about users. Examples include call centre or web analytics.
  • Research that uncovers information about your users in their environment, but that may not address the goals that your system will support. This will take the form of field research by teams who are designing a product for the same kinds of user but to meet different needs.

The most likely place you’ll find this kind of research is within your own organisation. But you need to be prepared to dig. This is because research findings, especially on agile projects, are often treated as throw-away by-products that apply to a specific project. The findings aren’t shared outside the design team but typically make a fleeting appearance on a research wall or end up buried in someone’s email inbox. Even when research findings are written down, and even when the report is archived somewhere, people typically don’t know how to go about finding it. Organisations are generally poor at creating a shared repository of knowledge and rarely teach staff how to use the intranet or where past reports might be located. The result of these obstacles is that companies waste time and money either doing research that already exists or asking the wrong research questions.

So within your organisation, you should:

  • Talk to your stakeholders. Get to know the product owner and understand their goals, vision and concerns.
  • Examine call centre analytics or web analytics (if there is an existing service).
  • Talk to front line, customer facing people who currently interact with users.

In almost every project, you'll find some research that exists into users, goals and environments. This may not be directly relevant to your specific research questions but it will help you become knowledgeable about the domain.

Once you’ve covered the areas of overlap, your next step is to look for more generic information about your users, the environment in which they’ll use the system, and the kinds of goals your system will support.

  • What research has been done with your users, even if it’s not directly relevant to their goals when using your system?
  • What research has been done on the kind of goals your system will support, even if the research has been done with a different user group?
  • What research exists on the kinds of environment where you expect your system to be used (environment means hardware, software and the physical and social environments in which your system will be used).

In this step, you’ll find it useful to:

  • Review existing research done by Government organisations. In the UK, the Office for National Statistics has a wealth of information about citizens that may be useful to understand your users, such as demographics about Internet users, consumer trends and facts about online retail sales in the UK
  • Review research carried out by relevant charities. For example, if you’re developing a new kind of tool to help diabetics measure their sugar levels, you should bookmark the research done by Diabetes UK. Web sites like Charity Choice allow you to browse through and locate hundreds of different charitable organisations so you’re bound to find at least one that’s relevant.
  • Search Google Scholar to find relevant research carried out by universities. Although you may struggle to appreciate the nuances of certain academic arguments, you could always use this route to find the researcher’s contact details and give them a call.
  • If your system will be used in a work context, study interviews at careers web sites. For example, The Guardian’s careers section has interviews with people working as tattoo artists, forensic scientists, and as a royal footman so the chances are that you’ll be able to get some context for whatever job title your system is aimed at. You should also check the Guardian's "What I'm Really Thinking" series.

Judging the quality of the research you find

Judging the quality of research is a whole article in itself. Fortunately, Philip Hodgson’s guidelines for reviewing consumer research reports has it covered.

There’s just one thing I’d add to Philip’s guidelines. Beware of dismissing research just because it was done a few years ago. People new to research often make the mistake of viewing research reports like so many yogurts in a fridge where the sell-by dates have expired. Just because it was done a couple of years ago, don’t think it’s no longer relevant. The best research tends to focus on human behaviour, and that tends to change very slowly.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.


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