Three Reasons to Add Desk Research to Your Next Project
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Apr 5, 2023 | Updated Aug 23, 2023

Three Reasons to Add Desk Research to Your Next Project

Secondary research, like desk research, is a powerful tool for practitioners to add to their research toolkits. Here’s why you should consider adding it to your next project.
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As UX researchers, we primarily face three challenges: empathizing with research participants, maximizing limited time and resources, and communicating research insights through compelling stories. Desk research can make overcoming these challenges significantly easier by saving time, money, and personnel while leading to better insights and design solutions.

In this article, you’ll discover the importance of desk research, how it can improve your research projects, and how to get started. Keep reading to learn more!

What is desk research?

Desk research is a secondary research methodology that gathers relevant information from existing peer-reviewed (and credible) sources like academic journals, websites, government reports, news articles, and market research reports.

It’s likely that another researcher has already investigated some of your research questions and published their findings, so conducting initial desk research can help you better understand your research space.

Although a lot of primary research methods, like user interviews, focus groups, and usability tests, are often done from an actual desk, the difference between desk research and primary research is that desk research doesn’t involve talking to users directly, and you gather results from data that already exists.

When should you conduct desk research?

Desk research can add value to your project at any stage; however, it has the greatest potential to add value at the beginning and end of the project. Initially, you can use desk research to get familiar with a domain, create your research design, form hypotheses, and inform session guides and surveys.

Then, at the end of a project, use desk research to contextualize research findings within industry trends; make predictions about the success of design recommendations; and suggest related, interesting avenues for further research.

Three reasons to add desk research to your next project

1. It helps you empathize with users before (or without) talking to them.

Empathy, empathy, empathy. If there’s a bigger buzzword in UX research, I’m not sure what it would be! Empathizing with your users is critical to understanding them. We use various methods to build empathy in UX research, and desk research is one of them.

When it comes to empathizing with your research participants, desk research can help you:

  • Ask stakeholders insightful questions that make them think more deeply about the research problem
  • Make your research more reliable and effective by referring to past research successes and failures in the field
  • Formulate strong hypotheses and use them to guide the way you plan and analyze your research
  • Identify domain-relevant research gaps and opportunities, delivering more impactful business insights

For example, if you’re researching how coding tools can help developers, desk research can provide you with valuable insights on the latest industry trends, shifts in coding languages, the increasing use of AI, and common issues faced by developers. You can also better understand the overall work environment for developers, like current workflows and practices.

To develop a contextual understanding of your research space, aim to answer these questions with your desk research:

  • What are the current industry trends?
  • What are some of the common pain points of users in this space?
  • What are the users’ workflows?

This information is crucial for choosing the proper research methods, planning effective interviews, and interpreting data meaningfully. It can also help you place yourself in the shoes of your users as you begin the next phase of your research.

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2. It helps you deliver actionable insights within budget and scope.

As UX researchers, we’re no strangers to logistical constraints. Collecting data is often the most time-consuming and expensive research activity. Carrying out desk research is a great way to maintain a high research rigor standard and mitigate the added work pressure. When delivering actionable insights on time and within your budget, use desk research to:

Identify emergent themes by reading previous work

For example, while researching human-AI collaboration, you might find that multiple sources cite that trust and explainability are detrimental to the success of human-AI collaboration. This background information is a great starting point.

Moreover, as you read different sources, you might identify insufficiently addressed questions and ambiguous findings associated with human-AI collaboration. These areas are ripe with opportunities. Frame these specific research gaps as pain points and opportunities for better design.

Add user quotes to your report

Sometimes in research, we can’t access integral storytelling tools like firsthand video clips and user stories for our reports. With desk research, you can find user quotes from other researchers in their results. These secondhand quotes can support your insights and include user voices to create more impact without talking to a single user yourself!

Predict the success of your design recommendations

In primary research projects, research recommendations are usually derived from the data you collect and driven by explicitly voiced user needs and pain points. Desk research allows you to add more rigor by researching the past success and weaknesses of your suggested recommendations.

For example, if users identified discomfort in their forehead as a pain point while wearing VR headsets, you recommend a padded headband to ease the pressure. If you were researching headset comfort using desk research, you would probably identify similar insights based on other studies.

You can use desk research to investigate your recommendation about the padded headband by seeing if other VR headsets implemented the same and what modifications can address their weaknesses.

3. Desk research allows us to read and listen to multiple stories before crafting our own.

Researchers use various narratives in their reports. Reading multiple sources gives you visibility of diverse perspectives. You can use this understanding to construct your narrative while staying grounded in existing research.

For example, while researching how a learning management system can contribute to student success, you can use desk research to explore stories from the perspectives of students, teachers, parents, and administrators to get a holistic understanding of the problem space and craft an inclusive narrative that builds upon diverse viewpoints. A narrative like this might engage different audiences more deeply and allow you to collaborate effectively with extended team members.

How to incorporate quick and efficient desk research into your next project

Every project needs desk research, just like it needs a research design, session guide, and analysis plan. As outlined above, desk research can increase your knowledge about unfamiliar topics and meaningfully inform your research.

However, “desk research” can sometimes take significant time and rigor when included in the formal study design. Over multiple years of reading millions of words, thousands of articles, and hundreds of journals, I’ve identified ways to set a study up for success by strategically simplifying desk research processes without compromising on their quality.

This year, at Blink’s annual UX conference, ConveyUX, I’ll be sharing my quick and efficient tips for incorporating desk research into every study by addressing how to:

  • Adapt desk research to various project scopes and timelines
  • Conduct meaningful desk research in a short amount of time
  • Look for the most authentic and information-rich sources
  • Convert learnings from desk research into actionable insights for your study design, session guides, and analysis plans
  • Use desk research effectively to contextualize your research findings

If you're interested in registering for the ConveyUX and my session "Quick and Efficient Ways to Incorporate Desk Research in Every Study," email [email protected] and mention this article for $200 off your ticket!