Research Methods: Desk Research

Michael Brown

Stack of documents on a desk

Photo by Matt Artz  on Unsplash

An often overlooked but vitally important tool in the researcher’s kit is humble desk research, that is, finding and reading documents that already exist. Unless you're already very familiar with a topic this is almost always the first research you’ll do as part of a project, so it’s important that you plan it carefully to put yourself on the right track.

It’s very rare that desk research will answer all your questions, but it should help you identify assumptions and form the research question you need to answer.

No matter what area you're looking into, it's vital to give your research some structure and direction. Otherwise, you may find yourself drifting through hundreds of documents, unsure what's relevant and what isn't. The first step is to decide what it is you're trying to find out. Set yourself some initial questions. These can be as basic as 'how many people use X product in the UK?' or more complex and high level, such as 'what motivates people to buy X product?'

These questions will guide your search and not only make it much more likely that you will find relevant material, but also make it clear when you've exhausted a topic fully and need to expand your research parameters. 

  • Make a plan for how you will capture insights and how you will analyse your findings. This plan should include how you will keep track of the documents you read and how you will pull out and store relevant insights.
  • Check your sources and make sure any analysis, reports and documentation highlight the reliability of the sources used.
  • Check your language and try using a range of different search terms for what you are exploring.
  • If you find something relevant, exploit it as much as possible by exploring what other sources it is linked to or references.

In terms of where to look, these are the five most common places I use:

Blogs/Opinion Pieces: good to get an initial understanding of an area but likely to be extremely biased.

News Sites: can be well sourced but rarely more than very high level insights.

Wikis: Good range of topics and usually easy to understand but unless well references hard to judge the reliability of information.

Academic databases/Google Scholar: Generally reliable but often very technical and can be hard to understand if you're not used to reading academic articles.

Existing internal documentation: focused but usually limited in scope. Quality and reliability depend on who documented it.

Once you’ve made an extensive search for information you can either informally synthesize what you’ve found or use traditional research methods for more formal analysis. Personally I prefer a light weight analysis as it stops you spending too much time focused on early stage research, which could lead to you placing too much value on secondary sources which are never exactly the information you will need to inform design.

Whichever approach you take, desk research is your chance to take advantage of the work others have done and use the knowledge they have created. It can allow you to learn from mistakes that other companies have made and identify potential gaps in the market. Simple though it is, it can be a very powerful tool to ensure you're starting your research in the right place, allowing you to make the most of whatever time and budget you have for primary research with users. 


  • Quick and cheap to perform
  • Takes advantage of existing knowledge and avoids re-doing research
  • Helps plan and frame future research


  • Hard to know exactly how reliable or accurate findings are
  • Can be time consuming if you don’t plan it well
  • All information is second hand, so has already been interpreted and analysed by someone else

Learn more:

An introductory guide to desk research for designers