Design Research 101 | Harnessing Design for Media Development

Design Research 101

Design research is the process of using ethnographic investigative methods to add human context to the design process. For this project, we are referring to user research; that is, research undertaken to understand current and potential users of Internews programming. This includes constituents all along the program value chain, from policy makers, to implementers, to end-beneficiaries and everyone in between.

Design research emphasizes immersive observation and semi-structured, one-on-one interviews to understand the behaviours and rituals of people interacting with each other, with institutions, and with their larger environment. It stresses engaging with respondents in their natural setting, and observing them in their day-to-day lives. This approach creates an understanding of the intrinsic constraints and motivations that drive human choice and capability.


A few key aspects of design research include:

1.   Focus on storytelling to draw out user experiences.

Design research encourages respondents to respond to questions with specific examples drawn from personal, past experiences. Concrete examples provide a more accurate and holistic understanding of respondent experiences, motivations, and feelings. In addition to encouraging narrative examples, design research emphasizes open-ended questions rather than dichotomous questions (that trigger a yes or no response), or that force participants to assign a value (numeric or otherwise) to their responses.


2.   Evolving research themes & questions throughout the process.

Over the course of an investigation, researchers’ understanding of the key topics and questions will deepen. At the end of each day of field research –– and at scheduled points throughout –– researchers (and other stakeholders, as appropriate) conduct synthesis sessions. Using various exercises, they draw out meaning, patterns, and insights from collected data; evolve the research questions; and revise the research plan for the following day. Each day’s research plan builds upon what has been learned previously, focusing on new questions and themes surfaced through the investigation, or on filling in gaps and holes identified by researchers.


3. Use of surveying to provide context around user experiences.

Light surveying –– focused on user demographics and other factors that impact the development of a solution (eg. access to or usage of a particular technology) –– is used to understand variables that shape user experience, and to enable analysis of patterns that may exist within collected data. Surveying is avoided, however, around more complex research questions (eg. attitudes or needs around certain information sources) as these are best pursued through more in-depth interview and observation techniques.


The knowledge gained from design research can lead to more realistic and meaningful interventions, informed not just by community needs and context, but by an awareness of the cultural and personal factors which impact and shape them.

This approach is particularly well-suited for gaining a more nuanced and holistic understanding of existing challenges:using a unique blend of ethnography, journalism, and systems thinking, design research helps map the causes, relationships, and human and contextual dimensions of different development scenarios. It provides insights on behavior that cannot be explained through other approaches. Design research is also well-suited for exploring new opportunities: because it discards assumptions and is discovery-based, the methods can help practitioners see thorny challenges in a new light. Finally, design research helps evaluate the human outcomes of interventions. The strong ethnographic focus (both within communities andwithin institutions) helps reveal the human impacts (and shortcomings) of particular solutions on their beneficiaries and implementers.


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