You don’t have to do all the user-research work yourself. If somebody else already ran a study (and published it), grab it!

Have you ever completed a project only to find out that something very similar has already been done in your organization a couple of years ago? That situation is common, especially with rising employee-churn rates, and fueled the popularity of research repositories (e.g., Microsoft Human Insights System) and the growth of the research-operations community. It should also inspire practitioners to do more secondary research.

Secondary research, also known as desk research or, in academic contexts, literature review, refers to the act of gathering prior research findings and other relevant information related to a new project. It is a foundational part of any emerging research project and provides the project with background and context. Secondary research allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants and not to reinvent the wheel every time we initiate a new program or plan a study.

This article provides a step-by-step guide on how to conduct secondary research in UX. The key takeaway is that this type of research is not solely an intellectual exercise, but a way to minimize research costs, win internal stakeholders and get scaffolding for your own projects.

Academic publications include a literature review at the beginning to showcase context or known gaps and to justify the motivation for the research questions. However, the task of incorporating previous results is becoming more and more challenging with a growing number of publications in all fields. Therefore, practitioners across disciplines (for instance in eHealth, business, education, and technology) develop method guidelines for secondary research.  

When to Conduct Secondary Research?

Secondary research should be a standard first step in any rigorous research practice, but it’s also often cost-effective in more casual settings. Whether you are just starting a new project, joining an existing one, or planning a primary research effort for your team, it is always good to start with a broad overview of the field and existent resources. That would allow you to synthesize findings and uncover areas where more research is needed. 

Secondary research shows which topics are particularly popular or important for your organization and what problems other researchers are trying to solve. This research method is widely discussed in library and information sciences but is often neglected in UX. Nonetheless, secondary research can be useful to uncover industry trends and to inspire further studies. For example, Jessica Pater and her colleagues looked at the foundational question of participant compensation in user studies. They could have opted for user interviews or a costly large-scale survey, yet through secondary research, they were able to review 2250 unique user studies across 1662 manuscripts published in 2018-2019. They found inconsistencies in participant compensation and suggested changes to the current practices and further research opportunities.

Types of Secondary Research

Secondary research can be divided into two main types: internal and external research.

Internal secondary research involves gathering all relevant research findings already available in your organization. These might include artifacts from the past primary research projects, maps (e.g., customer-journey mapservice blueprint), deliverables from external consultants, or results from different kinds of workshops (e.g., discovery, design thinking, etc.). Hopefully, these will be available in a research repository

External secondary research is focused on sources outside of your organization, such as academic journals, public libraries, open data repositories, internet searches, and white papers published by reputable organizations. For example, external resources for the field of human-computer interaction (HCI) can be found at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) digital libraryJournal of Usability Studies (JUS), or research websites like ours. University libraries and labs like UCSD Geisel LibraryCarnegie Mellon University LibrariesMIT D-LabStanford d.school, and specialized portals like Google Scholar offer another avenue for directed search. 

How to Conduct Secondary Research?

Our goal is to have the necessary depth, rigor, and usefulness for practitioners. Here are the 4 steps for conducting secondary research:

  1. Choose the topic of research & write a problem statement

Write a concise description of the problem to be solved. For example, if you are doing a website redesign, you might want to both learn the current standards and look at all the previous design iterations to avoid issues that your team already identified.

  1. Identify external and internal resources.

Peer-reviewed publications (such as those published in academic journals and conferences) are a fairly reliable source. They always include a section describing methods, data-collection techniques, and study limitations. If a study you plan to use does not include such information, that might be a red flag and a reason to further scrutinize that source. Public datasets also often present some challenges because of errors and inclusion criteria, especially if they were collected for another purpose. 

One should be cautious of the seemingly reputable “research” findings published across different websites in a form of blog posts, which could be opinion pieces, not backed up by primary research. If you encounter such a piece, ask yourself — is the conclusion of the writeup based on a real study? If the study was quantitative, was it properly analyzed (e.g., at the very least, are confidence intervals reported, and was statistical significance evaluated?). For all studies, was the method sound and nonbiased (e.g., did the study have internal and external validity)?

A more nuanced challenge involves evaluating findings based on a different audience, which might not be always generalizable to your situation, but may form hypotheses worthy of investigating. For example, if a design pattern is found okay to use by young adults, you may still want to know if this finding will also be valid for older generations.

  1. Collect and analyze data from external and internal resources.

Remember that secondary research involves both the existing data and existing research. Both of those categories become helpful resources when they are critically evaluated for any inherent biases, omissions, and limitations. If you already have some secondary data in your organization, such as customer service logs or search logs, you should include them in secondary research alongside any existent analysis of such logs and previous reports. It is helpful to revisit previous findings, compare how they have or have not been implemented to refresh institutional memory and support future research initiatives.

  1. Refine your problem statement and determine what still needs to be investigated.

Once you collected the relevant information, write a summary of findings, and discuss them with your team. You might need to refine your problem statement to determine what information you still need to answer your research questions. Next time your team is planning to adopt a trendy new design pattern, it may be a good idea to go back and search the web or an academic database for any evaluations of that pattern.

It is important to note that secondary research is not a substitute for primary research. It is always better to do both. Although secondary research is often cost-effective and quick, its quality depends to a large extent on the quality of your sources. Therefore, before using any secondary sources, you need to identify their validity and limitations. 

Summary

Secondary (or desk) research involves gathering existing data from inside and outside of your organization. A literature review should be done more frequently in UX because it is a viable option even for researchers with limited time and budget. The most challenging part is to persuade yourself and your team that the existing data is worth being summarized, compared, and collated to increase the overall effectiveness of your primary research. 

References

Jessica Pater, Amanda Coupe, Rachel Pfafman, Chanda Phelan, Tammy Toscos, and Maia Jacobs. 2021. Standardizing Reporting of Participant Compensation in HCI: A Systematic Literature Review and Recommendations for the Field. In Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 141, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1145/3411764.3445734

Hannah Snyder. 2019. Literature review as a research methodology: An overview and guidelines. Journal of business research 104, 333-339. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2019.07.039.