I like how Matthew Kalil describes primary and secondary research in his book The Three Wells of Screenwriting. In the book he applies the lens of screenwriting to creativity. I find it relevant for design as well, lately I’ve begun to see design as a performance played out in organisations to create change. In the book he describes three wells that creatives can draw inspiration from: The External Sources Well, The Imagination Well, and The Memory Well. As a designer I find this a useful framework.
Secondary research is based on information gathered by others.
Primary research is new research. It could be interviews we have personally conducted or photographs we have taken. It is preferable to secondary research because it is new and personal.
The context here is that when we create something new, doing primary research is preferable. The direct experience provides material to our Memory Well that we can draw from when we need inspiration.
One of the best things about this on-the-ground research is that we are constantly activating all our senses. Later, when we write, we will consciously, or even unconsciously, tap into these senses. One can’t buy that kind of research, and we certainly can’t find it online or in a book.
The usual case for doing primary research is that we empathize with end users and the understanding that we get helps us to design products that solve real pain points. Another way of looking at it, is that doing primary research changes us, and in the process it changes what we end up designing.