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Two pillars of user experience legwork -- research and discovery*. But what's the difference between them, really?

In practice, I've heard the terms used nearly interchangeably, and sometimes it feels like "discovery" is invoked as just a fancy way of saying research. One answer that a quick Google search uncovered: in research we seek something specific, whereas discovery is open-ended in what we're trying to find. True?

And of course, in a dictionary sense, there's a clear difference between to research and to discover. When it comes to UX, though, do we mean something particular or different as it relates to our work, our methods, our process?


*Not to be confused with discovery as it relates to affordance.

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Research is done with a question or goal in mind and needs resources and / or work force. During research (or even without one), Discovery can happen, which is like stumbling on something that existed and waited to be found.


James M. Schlatter accidentally discovered Aspartame, while he was synthesizing some drug, because he had licked his finger to lift up a piece of paper. His finger was, hovewer, contaminated with aspartame. (...) Since then, numerous research was conducted to answer questions like Aspartame's safety for human consumption and so on...

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I really like the example laid out here. – VoronoiPotato Feb 10 '14 at 20:41

There is not one common definition: some say that research is a step in the discovery process; others seem to use research and discovery interchangeably; someone even described them as one skillset; or like the comment by @benny-skogberg understand discovery as an initial idea before doing research.

All are valid in their own sake; the one that makes sense to me is that discovery follows research, in the sense that good research of what is out there and analysis of results can lead the researchers to discover new aspects of a domain. I find that the idea that good research facilitates discovery works.

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