How to move from tactical to discovery research (and why you should)

4 min read David Renwick

Anyone who’s ever been involved in user research knows that the process takes many different forms. Organization size, research maturity, stakeholder buy-in, budget and many other factors all play a part in how various teams and individuals approach the process of learning how users think and, consequently, how to build products and services for them.

One of the most important steps you can take is to move from tactical (evaluative) research to discovery (generative) research.

Tactical versus discovery research

If you need a brief refresher on what these two terms mean, here’s a handy breakdown:

  • Tactical or evaluative research: Assessing an existing solution to work out whether it meets people’s needs. This could be running a tree test on a website that’s already widely used.
  • Discovery or generative research: Developing a deeper understanding of a problem or a group of users to identify opportunities and areas of innovation. This could be running a series of user interviews to speak to users directly.

I want to be clear here: We’re not saying that you should never carry out tactical, evaluative research, just that it’s vital to carve out time for discovery.

An issue of time

Time waits for no one. When speaking to user researchers, a common theme is that they’re underresourced and time-poor. Typically, the smaller numbers of researchers in comparison to other roles means that their skills are in high demand, all the time. 

What does this mean for the types of work that researchers are often tasked with? In many organizations, researchers are constantly in lock-step with design and development teams, carrying out necessary tactical research alongside prototype development, or testing finalized versions of products and services.

This doesn’t leave much time (if any) for generative research.

Discovery research: A deep dive

Making time for discovery in the UX design process is not about testing hypotheses, prototypes or solutions. This type of research is firmly focused on framing the problem, developing an understanding of the problem space and gathering data.

Discovery, by its very nature, should be broad and have no particular leanings with regards to solutions or technology. The focus here is about learning how people live and act, what their environments are like, and getting a detailed understanding of their behaviors, thoughts and opinions.

If you’re running a discovery project on a product that’s already been developed, then it’s not discovery. It’s essentially validation that what’s already been built is the right solution.

Discovery research should help you build up a solid understanding of your users, the problems to be solved, opportunities available and success metrics that the team and stakeholders can rally behind.

How to get started with discovery research

You can use a number of different methods to carry out discovery research. Let’s take a look at a few of the most common ones.

  • User interviews: Ideal for learning about people’s behaviors, problems, habits and perspectives, this method is a great way to collect qualitative data as part of the discovery process. 
  • Diary studies: In a similar vein to user interviews, diary studies allow you to collect qualitative data from a group of people. Diary studies differ in that the insights are self-reported, thus giving you a different perspective.
  • Field studies: Instead of bringing users into your organization for an interview or usability study, head out into the field to observe how they work and behave in their environment. 
  • Stakeholder interviews: Looking internally, stakeholder interviews are a great way to get a unique perspective on the problem you’re investigating. Stakeholders typically know a lot about internal processes, user behaviors and what solutions have already been tried.
  • Assumption-mapping workshops: This type of workshop is all about prioritizing your assumptions based on certainty – and risk. The idea is that by identifying the riskiest assumptions you’ll have a better idea of where to devote your energy.

Nielsen Norman Group has an in-depth article on discovery that covers some of the other common activities. 

The outputs of a discovery project

After you’ve run a discovery project, you and your team will have a much more comprehensive understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve – and where you should start to focus your efforts.