A newsletter on progress-space research and audience development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

(Reading time: 2m, 48s)

Design research helps employees become more effective representatives of the people the organization serves. Design research gives the organization’s audience a voice in decision-making processes, which helps ensure the organization succeeds in fulfilling its mission.

That’s it — We’re done here.

I can stop writing these letters now.

That beeping you hear is the sound of a U-Haul pulling up outside. Excuse me while I pack up these thousands of words I’ve written over the past few years and ride off into retirement.

Just kidding.

There are still lots of people who believe design research is a luxury. They don't know that the only thing more expensive than design research is, well, not doing research.

And I understand why — The idea of studying audience behavior and motivations can seem a little squishy. It can be hard to imagine why research should be a priority when you have any number of “real” problems to address today.

But sooner or later, when you really start investigating root causes, you’ll see that so many of those “more important” issues stem from a disconnect with the audience.

Let me give you an example.

One concern I often hear from decision-makers is that they have this feeling that visitors can’t find what they’re looking for online.

I might recommend they do four things:

  1. Do a tree test to see if the problem is real and, if it is, exactly what sort of tasks people are struggling with.
  2. Run an open card sort to see how non-experts think about the organization’s offerings.
  3. Complete a closed card sort to organize the content in an intuitive way.
  4. Do another tree test to make sure the work has been effective.

A larger, research-driven organization will be more receptive to that advice. But to someone at a smaller organization, the idea of doing all that research doesn’t match the picture they have in their mind of how the problem should be solved. They may assume that their website needs to be completely redesigned, and running all those tests doesn’t sound like design work at all.

So, they may skip the testing, perhaps even congratulating themselves on having saved the organization money by not spending on fancy stuff like design research, of all things.

But the redesign is just a new skin on the same old problems. The architecture reflects internal stakeholders’ mental models, not the audience’s, and there are no before-and-after snapshots of audience behavior, so there’s no way to measure results.

So, the seeds of doubt are still in the soil and, after a few years pass, people start asking the same questions again … And a new website redesign project is born.

Or here’s another example — If I recommend interviewing people to uncover new ways the organization can reach more people, a deputy director may ask, “Why would we spend time or money on interviews? Our director of development talks to members all the time.”

But those conversations only reinforce assumptions about the same people the organization has been serving for years.

Without design research, it’s all but impossible to systematically and continuously integrate the voice of the visitor into planning processes.

Without design research, there’s no cure for the uncertainty that fuels the most costly mistakes organizations make — over and *over* and *over* again.

The good news is, we all have a choice.

We can keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, which usually means creating new campaigns, designing new websites, writing new appeals — The production of more stuff.

Or we can take the time to measure how that stuff is being consumed by our audience and study the lives of the people we hope to serve so that the things we do produce have more value.

Once every organization in the world has agreed to these terms, I’ll be able to stop writing these letters.

I’ve got a few more I need to write, I think.

Thanks for reading,



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