Moon Stories

Why Design Research Is Important in Building a Startup


We recently spoke with two Moon Creative Lab Design Researchers about the purpose and methodologies of design research.

Takuya Yamagishi has previous experience working in advertising strategy planning, brand concept development, and user research at an advertising agency. To learn more about the human-centered approach, he studied design research and service design at the Goldsmiths University of London and Hyper Island Design School.
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Yui Aiyama studied design research at Stanford University At Moon Creative Lab, she is responsible for design research on ventures as well as developing a design research learning program.

Key Learnings

  1. What is design research? 
  2. What is the purpose of design research?
  3. How does design research differ from market research? 
  4. Design research methodology 
  5. The role of the design researcher 

1.What is design research?

The term ‘design research’ is very broad but the easiest way to explain it would be “the research you do to design.” We often use this method to get clues when we are unsure of what kind of product we need to create.

For example, if a Japanese company wants to sell refrigerators in Japan it might be easy to imagine the users and their needs. It should be easy to add features to existing products. However, if you want to sell the products overseas you need to better understand the cultural background of the country you’re trying to sell to such as the usage and value people see in refrigerators before designing a new product.

The difference between domestic and overseas is just one example of differences in designing products. Without prior design research to design a product we wouldn’t have known how to meet specific user needs in an unknown area.

2.What is the purpose of design research?

One of the main goals of design research is to uncover users' hidden needs. Design research is a method for exploring users' needs in great detail and clarifying their unexpressed needs.

By embracing one of Moon's values, ‘be human-centered’ this means we design products from the user's perspective. Through the design research process described below, we help our ventures to understand the challenges users face and develop an idea of what the users really need rather than designing for what we think they might need. 

3.How does design research differ from market research?

Market research often uses quantitative and objective research data to analyze and verify hypotheses that are already established. This is different from design research because we focus on qualitative data and personal experiences. Approaching real users gives us a chance to create designs we may never have seen before. 

An example of a market research approach could be you want to give someone a gift so you search online; ‘10 best gifts for women in their 30s’. You identify a gift from the list that is within your budget and you give them something from that list. 

In design research, we would carefully observe the kind of person they are by looking into finer details such as what kind of books they usually read or what their daily routine might be. We would then make a hypothesis of what gift they would appreciate in order to pick the best present.

4.Design research methodology


The incubation process at Moon involves these four major steps: 

  1. Concept definition 
  2. Develop MVP (Minimal Viable Product) 
  3. Product launch 
  4. Due diligence 

Each step will take approximately 3-4 months to research and validate the hypothesis. After 12 months, at due diligence, the progress will be assessed carefully by reviewing things such as investment value and existing risks. Due diligence is an important step to get the venture ready to become an independent company and eventually graduate Moon.

At Moon, we put emphasis on the initial concept definition and vision session that takes place during this stage.

What is a vision session for concept definition?

Concept definition is the process of deciding what kind of product to develop for a specific problem. The first step in the concept definition is a vision session.

The vision session is the process of verbalizing the purpose of the product. It is conducted in the early stages of the project to develop a common understanding between project leaders and team members.

In this process we identify potential users, visualize the issues they’re facing, map out the stakeholders around them and identify questions from each process.

  1. Map out pain points (identify issues) 
  2. User exploration (list the potential users) 
  3. Map out stakeholders (clarify the relationships) 
  4. Map out questions (identify questions) 
  5. Bias check (identify the preconceptions) 
  6. Name-storming (pick a product name) 

After conducting various types of brainstorming sessions we conduct bias checks and try to clarify our users and the product image. Name-storming is done as a preliminary step before moving on to research and testing.

Name-storming is the process of giving a name to a product. This is also a good time to register a trademark since there will be more opportunities to use a product name to communicate with users, create websites and other places where a product name is important.

Through these processes we move on to collecting user feedback, feasibility studies, minimum viable product (MVP) validation, and then to product launch.

User research in concept definition and product development stage

In the early user research stage, we conduct bias checks by identifying users, issues, and questions from various perspectives in order to look for the most important question that reveals the core of the project. 

The research will be repeated several times if necessary, and the answers to the questions will be set as defined concepts. Then, research will be conducted again to validate the concept and the MVP that is developed based on the concept, to verify that the concept and the MVP are in line with user needs. 

Three common user research methods 

  1. In-depth interview (one-on-one interview) 
  2. Observation (observe users’ behavior) 
  3. Home visit 

In in-depth interviews, we ask users one-on-one questions as we observe their responses and reactions. For observation and a home visit, we observe specific behaviors and routines of users.

For example, in the observation research, we ask our users to actually use the coffee machine and observe the operating procedures in order to develop a coffee-related product. Even after a product is launched, we continue to observe our users.

In the home visit research, we visit users’ homes and see their private space, and sometimes we can reveal issues and needs that even users are not aware of.

In design research, we clarify the concept in a vision session, select the best user research methods, verify the concept by using prototypes, and assess the scalability of the product based on the results.

5. What is the role of the design researcher?

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Moon Creative Lab’s design researchers Yui Aiyama (left) and Takuya Yamagishi (right)

A design researcher is an expert who conducts research to find out and create what users really want. This role is often performed by a management member or someone around them, but it does make sense to have a dedicated person to get things out from the user's perspective.

Moon Creative Lab's design researchers describe their role this way.


Takuya: It is not rare for startup companies not to have a design researcher. One of the most common reasons for startups not doing well is "there was no need for the product.” Design researchers always put the user at the center of their thinking process, conduct purposeful research, and objectively analyze the results to support successful product development that fits the user's needs and challenges. If a project seems to be going in a direction that does not meet the needs or challenges of the users, we may suggest pivoting.

Yui: Pivoting means changing strategies and methods without changing the purpose of the service. In order to pivot effectively, it is important to (1) have a clear purpose and (2) not to be obsessed with one method. We as researchers help idea owners and teams verbalize their vision to clarify their objectives. At Moon, we hold a vision session with the project team when we launch a new business to define the service’s direction and to make sure all the members share a common understanding.



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