What is desk research and in what situations can it be useful? Read our article to find out in what situations desk research can be helpful, and how to conduct it correctly to get valuable data for the project.
Desk research – table of contents:
- What is desk research?
- Primary vs secondary research
- How to conduct desk research
- Advantages and disadvantages of secondary research
What is desk research?
Desk research in UX research is also referred to as secondary research or as a literature review. This research method involves summarizing and compiling research findings and data already available. It includes collecting and analyzing information that already exists and is relatively easy to obtain, such as data already held by a company, published government reports, periodic market research, and information in newspapers, magazines, or the Internet.
We usually apply desk research to expand knowledge on a topic (about a product, competitors, its users, its characteristics, or behaviors) at an early stage of discovery. It can also help in answering relevant research questions.
Primary vs secondary research
Secondary research is the opposite method of primary research. Primary research involves generating self-reported data, while secondary research uses primary research as a source of data for analysis. Unlike primary research, which we conduct to answer the research questions posed, secondary research has been conducted by other researchers in the past (the exception may be when you apply the research that you have conducted before – such as a few years ago, on another project).
While most of the previous studies you probably carried out for purposes unrelated to your current project or product, a meticulous and thoughtful review of the literature can help you acquire relevant data and increase your knowledge in the area you are researching – which will translate into a better result and final product.
How to conduct desk research
- Identify the topic and research questions
- Specify the type and scope of the review
- Find internal and external sources
As with any other research method in the UX process, desk research requires having a specific and purposeful plan. Before you begin desk research, identify the topic you’ll focus on (e.g., user habits of e-commerce sites) and identify the research questions you want to answer (e.g., how much time do users spend on a particular subpage? What is their buying process like?).
Ensure that the topic and research question is broad enough to allow for a thorough review of available resources, yet narrow enough that you are not overwhelmed by the size and scope of the literature.
No matter what type of secondary research and what sources you choose, remember to clearly define the scope of the research before you begin – sketch out the maximum or the minimum number of sources your review should include. Plan the time required to collect and analyze these sources.
Defining the scope in advance will help you organize your work and avoid wasting time and energy. If you are wondering what is the ideal amount of time you should spend on secondary research – it depends. It can range from a few hours to several weeks. The exact length will depend, of course, on the scope of the project, the topic, the target audience as well as the objectives.
Once you’ve determined your research topic and the scope of your study, it’s time to search for available sources. Naturally, they will vary depending on your subject matter. Still, it’s always worthwhile to browse through:
- Internal sources such as customer feedback and user interviews, research repositories, company databases
- External sources include books, social media, customer reviews on external sites, the Google Scholar search engine, etc.
- Topical sources, such as blogs and forums
Designers often have a spreadsheet to keep track of selected sources to note and mark important sections as well as highlight the terms they want to return to at a later stage of analysis.
Once you have collected valuable materials on the topic you are exploring, you can begin to examine the relationships between sources and identify key insights and conclusions. Look for trends and patterns of methods in current sources. Analyze conflicts and disagreements between sources, look for gaps in materials, and fill them by comparing data from other sources.
Once you have collected and searched your sources, you can proceed to write a secondary research report. The process is similar to that of writing reports on any other type of research. A typical desk research report includes an introduction, a list of sources used, a summary of insights, a discussion of weaknesses, and recommendations for the next steps in the project. Start by introducing the topic and providing context: why the study was conducted, what you wanted to find out, what the study includes and what was left out.
Summarizing the sources, present the information common to them (they can be arranged chronologically, thematically, methodologically, or theoretically – it depends on you and the topic under study). Don’t forget to identify gaps and limitations (what was missing from the available sources? what new questions arose?). Also, outline newly emerging questions or areas for possible future research. Finally, reflect and write down how the information you found influences your next steps and design decisions.
Advantages and disadvantages of secondary research
The key advantages of conducting secondary research in the UX process include:
- Minimizing research costs (data acquisition is usually public and free)
- Time savings compared to conducting your primary research
- A quick overview of the topic under study and an in-depth look at its most important aspects
- Learning from the mistakes of other researchers and avoiding them in your research processes in the future
- Showing the context of the study
- Crossing out gaps in existing knowledge
- Justifying the need for more involved research
- Improvement of the overall reliability of future research results
A literature review will help researchers avoid the so-called “reinventing the wheel” when conducting research with limited time and resources. If we have access to and the ability to draw knowledge from other sources it is worth taking advantage of this and building on what is already known. This is an especially common method when we are researching general trends or working on a product or solution already on the market and known to users, and when we have a broadly defined audience.
Desk research, however, may not yield the expected results when our product is something new, innovative, not yet known on the market, or when it targets a very narrow niche. Then finding valuable data that is publicly available can be quite a challenge. One of the few drawbacks of secondary research is that it can prove to be time-consuming and monotonous – often digging through the available amount of materials can consume a lot of a researcher’s time, and we never have a guarantee that it will provide us with the information we are looking for and data that is valuable from a design point of view.
As you can see, desk research is yet another integral part of the UX research process. At a relatively small cost, it enables the acquisition of valuable data that can influence the next steps in the project and the final solution. Every day there is new, relevant, and sometimes even groundbreaking) data and information published that can help you in the process. Before you delve into complex journal research, card sorting, or A/B testing, start by reviewing and analyzing secondary research.
You may get surprised by how much valuable information you can find by sitting at your desk and reviewing the results of other researchers’ work. Remember, this can work both ways – so make your research results available and share them (unless a non-disclosure agreement binds you). Perhaps someone will benefit from your publications too.
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