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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Desk Research in Discovery

Desk research can help you find your bearings at the start of a project. Finding information about your users’ habits and priorities will give you a good basis to work from when user research begins. In some cases, you may be starting a project without a user researcher, or budget constraints which may mean you can’t access certain data sources.

What is desk research?

Desk research is a way of finding information out about your users without talking to them

Desk research can take the form of:

  • Website analytics and search data
  • Feedback from websites and helplines
  • Insights from social media, forums and events
  • Insights from earlier user research

Screenshot of a Google Search
Screenshot of a Google search

Caveats of desk research

There is no way of knowing for certain that the data you’re looking at is about your users. You will be making a lot of assumptions at this stage. But the data you find will function as a good starting point for further research. It will also help you create a focus for hypothesis and questions to ask during user research.


How desk research can help content designers

Content designers collaborate closely with user researchers to understand and design for user needs.

As a content designer, doing desk research has helped me to:

  • Understand the scope of the project
  • Understand the users and their needs
  • Understand the language users use
  • Find any gaps in any existing content
  • See how well any current content on is performing via analytics
  • Prepare the groundwork for when user researchers start
  • See how different content themes and categories relate to each other

An advantage of doing desk research on a new project, is that it helps to embed content design into the team. Approaching content in this way aids teams who are new to content design. And how it includes much more than writing.

Desk research provides the perfect opportunity to get a better understanding of the subject matter. One way to do this is through identifying and engaging subject matter experts and stakeholders. Furthermore, you can ask your team members questions and share statistics and trends, allowing you to show the potential scope of a project.


Including existing user research in desk research

Working collaboratively across professions in DfE means we have access to the fantastic work of other teams.

The About users of DfE services for schools insights library is full of research from previous projects. The #user_research Slack channel is a welcoming and friendly place to ask questions and get help from user researchers.


Desk research cheat sheet

Here are some ways to find out about potential users whether your service exists yet or not.

Download the desk research cheat sheet (.pdf) or save this page for the future.


Desk research without an existing service  

Existing UR

      • About users of DfE services for schools user insights library
      • #user_research Slack channel
      • User research manual – this contains everything you need to know about user research at DfE, including links to existing research and resources

Events that users attend

      • Eventbrite
      • Conferences
      • Events run by policy teams

Search data

Forums and social

      • Niche forums on subject topics
      • LinkedIn
      • Mumsnet

Existing guidance and services

      • guidance from similar services.
      • Speak to teams working on similar projects.
      • guidance and services for gap analysis.

Helpline calls

      • Digicomms can supply data on calls to the DfE helpline. You can access data through IRIS.

Desk research for an existing service 

Content data insights

      • Content data insights from Digicomms offers top level site analytics data and includes users’ on-page feedback.

Google analytics

      • The Customer Analysis Research and Briefing Team can supply GA reports.
      • Onsite searches if the page you are looking up has a search box.
      • Offsite searches for search terms users enter to get to the page you are looking at.


If you have any other ideas for desk research, share them below!

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