In school, most of us learned the difference between primary and secondary research:
- Primary research is research that you conducted
- Secondary research is research that others conducted for a different project, product, or purpose
When I started my first role in user research, I somehow forgot the two types of research. I went straight for primary research, always relying on interviews, usability tests, surveys, diary studies, contextual inquiry, and other user research methods.
Somewhere between leaving academia and joining a fast-paced tech company, primary research was my default. However, I quickly remembered the power of secondary research. Primary research, such as interviews and usability tests, can be time-consuming, and when timelines are short, secondary research can be a life-saver.
A few years into my career, I saw the importance of secondary research in the user research process and now conduct it before every study.
What is secondary research in UX?
Secondary research is also commonly known as desk research. As mentioned above, it is research that other people conducted for a different project, product, or purpose. However, the data the prior researchers collected is relevant to what you are trying to learn.
The main purpose of desk research is to collect data and insights that deepen your understanding of the problem space. This data can be qualitative or quantitative and include everything from marketing trends to consumer reports to academic research. You will be able to narrow down the scope of a problem space or refine your research questions. Desk research gives you the ability to be confident that you are asking the right questions during your primary research.
There are four main methods I use when conducting desk research:
Previous internal research
If someone comes to me with a research request, the first thing I ask is, "Have we done something similar in the past?" Many times, we have conducted research that is highly relevant to the request.
In these cases, I tell the team to read through the research, highlight any gaps in knowledge we have, and refine their research questions, if necessary. Sometimes the previous research is enough to get the team designing, and they circle back with a usability test request.
Generative research is relatively evergreen and you can reference it for quite a few years before it needs updating. On the other hand, you should redo usability tests or evaluative research after one or two years.
Other products in the market can offer a wealth of information. Start by researching competitors and creating a competitor audit, giving you an idea of what others are doing. You can learn so much from looking at other products on the market: the user experience, interactions, ideas, pricing, ratings. Dive deep into what is already on the market and see what these companies are doing well and where they could improve.
Internal stakeholder interviews
Internal stakeholders can be a gold mine of information. When my team comes to me with a topic I have little context on, I will find the person with the most knowledge on that topic and conduct a stakeholder interview.
If no one in the company is an expert on the requested topic, I will dig through any internal documentation I can find, including A/B tests, kick-offs, presentations. I scour Google Drive to find anything on the subject.
My final resource includes looking externally. I typically do this if I can't find anything internally, but I also use this to fill in knowledge gaps if we have any. Depending on the topic, I go through this list of links:
- Google Scholar: A great source of academic papers or reports by universities.
- ResearchGate: A handy resource for scientific or academic papers.
- ACM Digital Library: Has many scholarly peer-reviewed journals, particularly on information technology disciplines.
- Springer: Filled with scientific documents and books on many different topics.
- Wiley Online Library: Scientific and academic journals, articles, and books on a wide range of subjects.
- Forrester: Has insights on tending and essential marketing topics.
- Baymard: Filled with UX articles, UX Benchmarks, and research that helps make more informed design decisions.
- Voicebot: Trends and reports specifically on AI and Voice.
- Charity Choice: Free reports of charities in the UK.
- The Guardian's "What I'm Really Thinking" Series: Dives into the social science of what people in certain situations think or feel.
Why is desk research necessary?
Primary research can take a lot of time, whereas desk research can be quick and cheap to conduct. Imagine if you have a research question, such as, "Why do teachers struggle with using technology in the classroom?"
That is a broad question. You have three main markets you want to understand, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. To conduct proper generative research, you need about twelve people from each market, so a total of thirty-six interviews, minimum. Honestly, you would probably have to segment the markets further into, for example, suburban versus urban classrooms.
This type of research would take a lot of effort. However, let's imagine that we start with desk research instead. We learn about the significant pain points of teachers who try to incorporate technology into the classroom and find that suburban teachers struggle the most, especially with the budget.
So, instead of taking the time to narrow down the problem space through primary research, we did so through desk research. Now we have a more refined research question and target, reducing the scope and effort of the study.
Note: Secondary research is not a replacement
Of course, desk research isn't a replacement for primary research. While the secondary research we find is relevant, the characteristics of the project may be different from what we currently need to understand. The only time I had used desk research as a replacement is when someone had conducted previous research that nearly matches a team's request in an appropriate timeframe.
The best approach is to use desk research to refine your problem space or research questions and then follow up with tailored primary research.
How to do desk research
Similar to any research, desk research also has a process. Here is the step-by-step method I use to conduct desk research:
- Define the research question/topic. As always, start with a research question or, at least, a subject. You should also define what type of information you are looking for. Are you exploring a new topic and understand the 'why's (exploratory research), or are you validating/disproving hypotheses (confirmatory research)? This step will set you up for success in your desk research.
- Create a list of potential sources. Think through all the different resources you can use, such as the list I mentioned above. Make a list of who you could talk to and where you think there might be good information available.
- Begin searching. Using the list of potential sources, start digging around into them. For example, if you decided that Google Scholar would be a good place to find information, start searching on Google Scholar. Create a list of all the resources you gather. I highly recommend you put a time limit on this search (about two hours), or you can get stuck in a rabbit hole.
- Evaluate the reliability of sources. Once you have found some secondary research, it is crucial to evaluate the reliability of them. For instance, a tabloid, or an opinion piece, is less reliable than a scientific article. I typically use Philip Hodgson's Guidelines to judge the quality of the article or report.
- Choose 3-5 sources. Once you have an overview of reliable sources, it is time to choose the top three to five. The reason behind selecting a smaller number is to limit the amount of work you have to do when you summarize. Three to five substantial resources should be plenty to help your team.
- Explore further. Dig deeper into the sources you choose and find your insights. Using your original research question(s), what can you answer with these secondary sources? What knowledge gaps can you fill?
- Create a summary. Once you feel like you have answered as much as you can, create an overview highlighting the top insights/information you found during your search. You can present this to the team with any recommendations you have on the next steps for primary research.
Overall, desk research is a great starting point of a research process and helps you avoid reinventing the wheel. By the end of desk research, you can utilize information and research to put your teams (and yourself) in the best position to begin your primary research.
Nikki Anderson is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 8 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Explore her research courses here or read more of her work on Medium.