UX Research 101: A Comprehensive Guide for UX Researchers
UX research is a discipline that helps product teams create products that are user centric and brings value to users. This guide summarizes several important UX research methods and a comprehensive overview of how teams can leverage user research to create better products that users love.
UX research focuses on collecting systematic insights about users, including their needs, satisfaction and unique behaviors while utilizing the product. Needless to say, the insights collected through UX research are tremendously helpful for user-centric teams to continuously evolve the product for their users. With a well crafted UX research function, product teams can gain a better understanding on what their users currently need and continue to prioritize their product roadmap so that they can focus on the things that will deliver the most value for their end-users.
In the modern digital age, product teams can win against competitors by moving quickly and continuing to improve the product based on their core users’ needs. UX Research is an essential tool that allows teams not only run qualitative research to test their assumptions prior to launching a new product, but also after releasing the product so that the team can continue to hone the product for its users. Teams that are able to implement continuous and atomic UX research in all phases including pre-launch and post-release are the ones that achieve the most impact from their UX research initiatives.
There is no “ideal time” to carry out UX research. In every stage of product design and development, there are creative and accretive ways to use different UX research methodologies to gain a better understanding of users and enhance the decision making process for product development.
The difference between user research vs. UX research
Many people confuse UX research to be the same as user research. UX research is a subset and one of the areas within the broader scope of user research, focusing on research specific to how target audiences interact with your product & service.
User research, is a broader discipline that focuses on understanding users more broadly, even outside of the context of your product. At their cores, both UX research and user research focus on building an foundational understanding of users so that the team can create better products for them.
Why UX Research?
UX Research is critical in identifying usability issues and any other obstacles that prevent users from maximizing value of of your product. In an ideal scenario, your product users would find your product very intuitive to navigate, your net promoter score (NPS) would be off the charts, and you’d see growing usage of your product and activation rates (this would be a dream for every product and UX team!) However, in 99.9% of cases this is a dream that does not happen within a day as there are usually obstacles that prevent your users from maximizing value from your product. A well crafted user experience research initiative can help reveal the usability challenges that users face in the product, so that the product team can continue to improve the product and obtain actionable feedback from users throughout the product development cycle.
With a holistic understanding of the current pain points and current needs, product managers, UX designers and UX researchers can continue to focus on their users building features that users really want.
Here are some of the benefits that you can achieve through high quality UX Research:
Testing product concepts early
In many cases, product decisions are made based on authority and “gut feeling”. Many believe that rapid shipping is the most important KPI so they focus on building and delivering. This is partly true but there are so many times when teams find out after shipping that they were wrong the entire time and there is a lot of cost and time involved in rolling back the feature & change that was introduced to the product.
With the advent of high fidelity prototyping capabilities in design tools such as Figma, product teams can now create realistic mocks and product concepts with lighting speed. This progressive change provides the capability for teams to collect user feedback very early on in the product development cycle. For any idea or potential product feature, User experience research can provide a solid foundation to test the team’s initial hypothesis and expand on the initial idea to continue on the next stages of refinement and development. Some of the initial user experience research processes that can be used in early stages include:
- Internal product design sprints & feedback sessions
- Focus groups
- Moderated user interviews
- Unmoderated Usability testing
UX research allows for teams to align on the right problems that need to be solved for and agree on what is the best course of action that should be implemented into development. By collecting feedback and direct input from product users, teams can ensure to eliminate bias and focus on the things that really matter.
Reduce the impact of bias in the product development process
UX Research can help eliminate the inherent cognitive bias that exists when product teams start to build new products. Every person has their own set of cognitive biases which inadvertently influence our decisions and view of the world. In the case of UX design, many (even experienced designers) can hold assumptions around the users and their needs and behaviors that may be rooted in bias that haven’t been grounded upon observable behavior or usability insights from users.
UX research can be a solution to this problem; serving as a way to identify the cognitive biases and take actions to eliminate them when making product decisions.
Drive important product decisions based on data
Instead of of doing things based on “gut feeling” or “hunch”, user experience research provides a foundation and real data points that can drive high quality product decisions. Every product team nowadays has too many feature requests and backlogged items in their roadmap, but user research can crystalize what the product roadmap should be to continue to bring the highest value to users.
Build products that bring the most value to users
One of the key benefits of UX research is allowing teams to really focus on their users needs when decided what to build and how to build it. If you don’t engage and speak with your users, you end up focusing on things that you think are important for your users. However, because of cognitive bias, its always best to test your assumptions and make sure that you can back your ideas with concrete data and feedback from your users. “The hardest thing for product teams is choosing what the build” says Peter Barnett, the Director of Product at Northspyre. “Having a way to continuously engage and collect impactful feedback from users across the product development cycle is a very powerful way to make sure that our product continues to become stronger and adds value to our customers.”
Align other parts of the organization to gain a deeper understanding of customers
UX research allows for other functions within the organization to also understand users and apply it to work. As an example, marketers and product marketers can use UX research to understand user personas, build specific marketing strategies to appeal to each type of user persona and continue to refine the onboarding strategy and user education. Sales teams can also utilize UX research to understand their target personas and test different outbound strategies based on their unique characteristics.
“If you want a great site, you’ve got to test. After you’ve worked on a site for even a few weeks, you can’t see it freshly anymore. You know too much. The only way to find out if it really works is to test it.”
UX Research Methodologies
There are countless resources about different types and methodologies of UX Research. In this guide, we will discuss the main types of UX research and dive in to the pros and cons of each of them. As a quick summary, here are the types of data you can gather through UX research:
- Qualitative vs. Quantitative
- Generative vs. Evaluative
- Attitudinal vs. Behavioral
In addition, these are the different ways you can conduct UX research
- Remote vs. In-Person
- Moderated vs. Unmoderated
Depending on the circumstance, including the industry, type of product and the size of the team, many of these methods can be used in combination or as a standalone. Teams that have a good understanding of each of these methods and have built experiences in applying these into their daily workflows will continue to achieve remarkable success in building user centric products.
In moderated research, a moderator or facilitator actively interacts with participants during the research sessions. The moderator's role is to guide the discussion, ask questions, provide instructions, and facilitate the research process. This is common in qualitative research methods, such as focus groups, interviews, and usability testing. The presence of a moderator is intended to ensure that the research objectives are met, and the data collected is of high quality.
UX Research Methods for moderated research
- User interviews
- Focus groups
- Moderated usability testing
Unmoderated research, on the other hand, does not involve a moderator or facilitator actively participating in the research sessions. Instead, participants are given tasks, surveys, or instructions to complete independently, often through online platforms or self-guided activities. Unmoderated research is typically used for quantitative research or when researchers want to minimize the potential impact of observer bias, where participants may alter their behavior when they know they are being observed.
UX Research methods for unmoderated research
- Unmoderated usability testing to see how easily users navigate your product
- Live website testing to witness users interacting with your product in real time
- Surveys to have users answer specific questions and rate design elements
The key distinction between moderated and unmoderated research is the level of direct interaction between the moderator/researcher and the participants. In moderated research, the moderator plays an active role in guiding and facilitating the research, while in unmoderated research, participants typically complete tasks or surveys without direct intervention.
Remote research has become increasingly popular in recent years due to its flexibility and the benefits it offers in terms of cost, reach, and inclusivity. Remote research often leads to faster results and cost savings compared to traditional in-person research. Researchers can reach a larger audience without the need for physical facilities, travel expenses, or extensive coordination. This efficiency can be particularly valuable when conducting usability testing, user interviews, or surveys.
Remote research can be conducted in both moderated and unmoderated formats, depending on the research objectives and the type of data being collected. Moderated remote research involves real-time interactions between a moderator and participants, similar to traditional in-person sessions. Unmoderated remote research, as mentioned earlier, allows participants to complete tasks or provide feedback independently.
UX research methods for remote research
- Usability testing to evaluate how accessible your product is
- Concept testing to assess what ideas users are drawn to
- Card sorting to understand how users categorize and group topics
- Wireframe or prototype testing to invite users to test a rough version of the design
In-person research can be more expensive due to various factors, including travel, accommodation, equipment setup, and the need for physical facilities. As a result, many organizations and researchers have turned to remote research methods to save costs and increase efficiency.
While remote research has numerous advantages, it's essential to assess the specific needs of your research project and determine whether in-person methods are necessary or if they can be adapted to a remote or hybrid approach. In many cases, a combination of both in-person and remote research methods may provide the most comprehensive insights, depending on the research objectives and constraints.
UX research methods for in-person research
- User interviews
- Guerrilla research to speak to random users and gather feedback
- Field studies to gauge how your product fits into a real world environment
Generative research aims to attain a deep understanding of your target audience's motivations, obstacles, and actions. Generative research identifies a problem statement, defines the problem that needs solving, and gathers sufficient user based data to move into the next phase of product design and development
The generative research process should take place prior to the commencement of the design phase. It serves the purpose of uncovering what should be constructed, understanding the challenges users encounter, and determining how your product or service can effectively address these issues.
UX research methods for generative research
- Field studies to understand users when they are in their own environment
- User interviews to converse with users and collect real time feedback
- Diary research to keep a log of users’ behaviors, activities, and beliefs over time
- Card sorting to have users define and rank their own categories
Behavioral research consists of observing how users will interact and react to your product when they are using your product to achieve a goal or solve a problem. This is different versus attitudinal research which consists more of actual expressed opinions and thoughts as opposed to quantitative data based on the user’s actual behaviors.
UX research methods for behavioral research
- Observation in labs or real environments to witness behavior in real time
- Closed card sorting to see how users would categorize information
- Diary research to see how users interact with your product in real life
Attitudinal research complements behavioral research, focusing on individuals' expressed opinions and emotions. In attitudinal research, users are invited to articulate their personal experiences and viewpoints, which can pertain to your product, a concept, or specific design aspects. By combining attitudinal and behavioral research, teams can gain a more comprehensive understanding of your users' genuine requirements.
- Focus groups to understand how users use and react to your product
- User interviews to engage with users directly and ask questions
- Surveys to gather insights on user preferences and opinions
Evaluative research helps with the assessment of a product or concept to gather data aimed at enhancing the solution. Typically, this type of research is usually started at an early stage and is employed continuously during the product design process and after the product's release. Evaluative research is valuable for appraising an idea, examining navigation, or verifying whether your prototype aligns with the requirements of your users.
UX research methods for evaluative research
- Card sorting to assess if your website’s information architecture (IA) makes sense
- Usability testing to see if your platform is easy and intuitive to use
- A/B testing two versions of a design to see which one works best
Quantitative and qualitative research methods are two distinct research approaches that can be utilized either together or independently. Quantitative research is rooted in data and statistics, yielding numerical data as outcomes.
This method enables the identification of patterns, the formulation of predictions, and the generalization of findings concerning a particular target audience or subject.
Examples of quantitative results obtainable through UX research encompass:
- Net Promoter Score (NPS)
- System Usability Score (SUS)
- User funnels & success metrics on tasks
- Time spent on tasks
- Click tracking
- Preference percentages derived from A/B tests
UX research methods for quantitative research
- A/B testing to see which option your users likes best
- Tree testing to get data on which paths users follow on your website
- Usability testing to get a score on system usability
- Heatmaps to spot where users spend most of their session time
Qualitative research is about understanding the why behind the data. It comes from comments, opinions, and observations—this type of research answers why and how users think or act in a certain way. Qualitative data helps you understand the underlying emotions, motivations, thoughts and attitudes of target users.
UX research methods for qualitative research
- Interviews to discover your users’ motivations and frustrations
- Open question surveys to learn users’ pain points in their own words
- Focus groups to observe users’ interacting with your product
- Think aloud usability tests to hear commentary behind each user decision
When to conduct UX Research
User research can be conducted in various stages Here is a bit more detail on some of the most important moments to conduct research:
Prior to building the product
Before building the product, user experience research can provide detailed insights about your users. During this phase, teams can use generative research to understand the following:
- The problems that users are facing that the product could potentially solve
- The target persona and their specific attributes
- What they need from your product
- Their view and perception of competitors
- What are some of the hurdles that users see when trying to adopt your product
Even when the product has been launched, you can collect these insights using generative research whenever you want to introduce a new feature or you want to expand into a new customer base. User interviews, focus groups, surveys and other mixed methods can be useful at this stage.
Validating your team's product decisions
After releasing the product, many product teams encounter situations where there are too many feature requests and product roadmap items and it's a challenge to prioritize which ones should be prioritized over others. Utilizing continuous user research to collect insights regularly enables you to continuously involve users when making key product decisions.
To gather qualitative insights, you can use surveys, user interviews and focus groups. If you are in the process of testing a new design, use prototype tests to collect quantitative data points such as heatmaps, user funnel data, click data and usability scores. You can use open & closed cart sorting to generate ideas and understand how users organize information and tree sorting to assess information architecture. In addition, you can use in-product surveys for NPS scores, CSAT and feature satisfaction to get real-time feedback from users across the product development cycle. In summary, depending on the situation, you should use any of these tools to conduct impact user experience research and continue to build powerful products for your customers.
Evaluating your product’s accessibility
Accessibility is one of the hottest topics in modern UX design. Your product will inevitably be used by various types of personas. Whenever you conduct UX research you should make sure that your participants are good representations of your actual user base, so that the test results can provide a good proxy into how your user base will behave and interact with your product. To test your product’s usability, you can use usability testing and prototype testing so that you can ensure that every type of persona and user group can interact with your product well and not encounter any major usability issues while using your product.
Here are some factors that you can assess to ensure the accessibility of your product.
- Font size, color and readability
- Alt-texts, status pages
- Images and languages
"Accessible design is good design"
Steve Balmer - Former CEO of Microsoft
After launching the product to you users
After you release your product, you should continue to use UX research to make sure that you are collecting impactful feedback from your customers and make informed decisions to meet their needs. Product iteration doesn’t stop; continuous UX research can prevent teams from diverting from the users core needs by ensuring that teams can always base their decisions on the latest user research insights that are collected.
Test your live product with users to ensure that they are using it in the right way and obtaining the most value out of it. Testing live product experiences permits your users to interact with your product so that you can identify, log and solve any critical issues quickly before other users face the same product. Use click data, user paths as well as qualitative feedback through audio and video to ensure that there are no critical usability issues or bugs that must be fixed. Use in-product surveys to collect feedback in specific moments of the user journey to ensure you are gathering user sentiment data such as net promoter score (NPS), system usability score (SUS) and customer satisfaction score (CSAT) and contextual user feedback across the user journey.
Conclusion: When and how to conduct impactful UX Research
UX Research is a powerful weapon that allows modern product teams to understand their users better. Any team that is successful at staying user centric, and moving quickly to meet their needs will succeed over the long run. This is easier said than done; well-crafted UX research capabilities can eliminate cognitive bias and help teams maximize the chances of success by purely focusing on what users need and want from the product.
UX Research should be conducted continuously across the product development cycle. Regardless of what stage you are in, conducting different types of user research including qualitative, qualitative, behavioral, attitudinal and evaluative research can unlock hidden insights and provide guidance to the team in terms of what improvements are needed or what new features need to be built. Many of these UX research methodologies can be used together with each other. Some of the most common and insightful research methods you can use include:
- Usability tests
- Card sorting tests
- Tree test
- In-product surveys
- Sentiment surveys
- A/B tests
- Five-second tests
- Prototype testing
Next up, we will cover some of the most important strategies you can use to conduct a successful UX research project within your company.