A document is defined as written text. A document can be files, statistical data, and records of official or unofficial nature providing an account of an event, images and other written material that can be accessed in a social, public or digital context. For example, institutional memoranda and reports, census publications, government pronouncements and proceedings, diaries and other written, visual and pictorial sources in different forms and so on are socially, publically or digitally accessible either openly or on request.
Document Research is not a standalone method; it is usually used in conjunction with other design methods. Document Research is employed when the researcher has questions to which they seek answers. It is not as helpful in an open inquiry to determine patterns as the number of documents that would need to be investigated can be huge, turning the researcher’s task into a never-ending exercise. Therefore, this research method is often used only as a supplement to the other research methods.
Document Research method refers to the analysis of documents that contains information about the scenario or event under consideration. It is used to investigate, categorize and analyze physical sources, most commonly written documents, in the social, public or digital world. This research method is just as good as and sometimes, even more, cost-effective than the surveys, in-depth interviews or other observation-based methods such as ethnography.
Along with surveys and ethnography, Document Research is one of the three major types of social research methods and arguably has been the most widely used of the three, to study needs, behavior, and expectations of user groups. The analysis of the documents in Document Research is either quantitative or qualitative analysis (or both). The key issues surrounding types of documents and our ability to use them as reliable sources of evidence on the user groups must be considered by all who use documents in their research.
Advantages of Document Research
Document Research method uses documents that are public or can be accessed on request if private.
02 Time & Cost effective
As the phenomenon being investigated is clearly defined before the method is exercised, the research is focused and closed. This saves a lot of time for the researcher and also costs that would have been incurred if an expert was consulted for the study.
03 Unbiased Collection Process
As the collection process doesn’t involve direct interaction of the researcher with the user groups or author of the documents, the chances of introducing bias stay low. Again, if the document is of the statistical record type, then the data being collected is based on facts that can be verified and cross-checked for errors.
04 Researcher Presence
The researcher is not required to be present at the time of data collection.
Disadvantages of Document Research
01 Limited by available data
As the data or documents that are available on the phenomenon being investigated are the primary resources for the study, the findings will be based on only the data that is documented on the subject.
02 Errors in written material
If there are errors in the documents being referred, these errors will render erroneous findings as well.
03 Out of context
If the documents studied are out of context, they will not contribute meaning to the study or will not lead to an insightful finding.
04 Preparation before analysis
The preparation required before document analysis is a task in itself. The efforts are usually directed toward recruiting the researchers, identifying sources, shortlisting the material to be researched and analyzed, among others.
Think Design recommendation
More often than not, any design project starts with some kind of Document Research or the other. It is predominantly a secondary research method; however, the researcher/ designer is using the documented material for his own understanding of the context. Do not use document research as a stand-alone method and do not proceed with your design assuming that the documents you studied have provided you with all the answers. This method compliments other methods and is usually a good starting point.