Last Updated: August 11, 2021
In a world where customers are always right and their needs are ever so unpredictable, it is impossible to know exactly what features to introduce in a certain product or service. The lifecycle of any product gets even more complicated and demanding when there is tough competition in the market. This is why leading organizations give due attention to the design of products and services, focusing primarily on the overall experience of users. UI/UX designers possess quality research and analytical skills, ensuring the success of an organization.
Research is an integral part of User Experience (UX) so much so this trait is considered essential for any aspiring UX designer. One of the key aspects of the design process is to understand the needs of the users and to gather their feedback about a certain design. This is where the designers have to step into the field, interact with users, gather some valuable data, analyze the collected data, and use these insights to improve the design. This practice also makes the users an active part of the entire design process, thus helping with the design thinking approach. User-centered design, in other words, is nothing without proper research.
This article serves as a comprehensive guide to UX research. From an introduction of the concept to key methodologies and best practices, we’ve got you covered. Read along as we unravel the otherwise intimidating idea of UX research and learn how to make the most out of it.
- Understanding UX research
- Classifying UX research
- Popular methods in UX research
- Toolkit for UX research
- Steps for an effective UX research
- Skills and resources for a UX researcher
1. Understanding UX research
Every design project starts with UX research. When working on the design of a product or service, some sort of research is essential. This step comes way earlier than using sophisticated design software and creating interactive prototypes. The findings of the research, in almost all cases, guide the design process that follows. UX research is important not only to find out what the users want from a certain product or service but to also define clear goals and objectives of the design. A design with no research can never be effective, being unable to meet the needs of users.
There are numerous working definitions of UX research in the academic and practitioner circuits. Oftentimes, organizations mold these definitions with respect to their needs and objectives. However, certain elements are common in all such definitions. Having a look at some definitions can help in understanding the concept.
Sinéad Davis Cochrane, UX Manager at Workday, believes that UX research is the practice used to represent “insights gathered from users and customers” which can then be used to make valuable decisions in the design process.
Usability.gov defines UX research as a process where a designer develops “a deep understanding of users”.
What is UX research?
UX research, according to the Interaction Design Foundation, is defined as a carefully designed study where the requirements of target users are studied with the aim of enriching the design with valuable insights.
It is important to note that the users play an active role in all these definitions. User experience research, as the name indicates, is incomplete without giving due attention to the users and their needs. To grasp the concept of UX research, it is important to get familiar with the following three terms.
- User: A user is anyone who interacts with a product or service. The users of a certain product can be highly active or might just stumble upon a product by chance. In any case, however, it is important for the designers to make sure that the needs of the users are met when they interact with their design.
- User Experience: User Experience (UX) encompasses the entire journey of a user when he/she interacts with a product or service. The journey starts before the actual physical interaction and lasts way longer after the physical interaction has ended. It is important for a designer to make this entire experience useful and pleasurable.
- Research: A methodical approach where data is collected and analyzed in a careful manner, with the aim of extracting valuable insights that can help in devising an actionable plan.
UX research, therefore, is a process where the needs of the users are prioritized at all levels with the end goal of making their interaction with a product or service helpful and useful. Quality research is bound to add value to the overall design, thus helping the users and the organization at the same time.
The benefits of UX research
UX research, like all carefully conducted analytical practices, has numerous benefits in the field of design. Leading UX design agencies adopt modern research methods owing to the value they add to the lifecycle of any product or service. Apart from giving insights into the attitudes of the users, UX research can also help in answering questions about the design itself. Some of the most important benefits of comprehensive UX research are as follows.
- Methodical collection and analysis of data plays a vital role in making informed decisions about the design practices to be adopted
- The practice of research adds empathy and compassion to a designer’s work, thus adding more value to the design
- UX designers, with the help of research practices, are able to test a design in real-world situations
- Since the process of UX research is focused on the users and their needs, it helps in removing the bias of a designer
- UX research, when conducted in a careful manner, helps in testing and evaluating a design before it hits the market
The value of UX research for a design, and also for a designer, can never be overstated. A designer, on stepping into the field, gets closer to the users and is, therefore, able to visualize his/her design in the market, without taking any massive risks. This can save organizations from huge setbacks, embarrassment, and monetary losses at a later stage. For a designer, it is important not only to understand the concept of UX research but to also practice it on a regular basis. Without having certain research skills, a designer cannot succeed in the current industry.
2. Classifying UX research
UX research is conducted on a fairly broad spectrum. Based on the goals of a certain design and the types of methods adopted to collect, analyze, and present the data, UX research can be classified based on two aspects.
- Qualitative and quantitative research
- Attitudinal and behavioral research
It must, however, be noted that it is not possible to strictly label a method as qualitative or quantitative. Similarly, no research is completely attitudinal or behavioral. These categories only represent the spectrum on which a particular UX research lies.
Qualitative and quantitative research
Qualitative research is the one where experiences, attitudes, and behaviors of users are analyzed by gathering small amounts of data. The data collected in this type of UX research focuses more on observing the users in a real-world environment. Surveys and interviews, in qualitative research, are designed in a way that the users provide more descriptive answers. The responses are then analyzed by finding patterns and similar themes. Some of the most common methods used for qualitative research are focus groups, observational studies, and descriptive interviews.
Quantitative research, on the other hand, is more objective in nature, where numerical data and statistical analyses take precedence. The aim of quantitative research is to find definite answers to specific questions and then use the data to tell a story backed by numbers. For this type of research, surveys and interviews are designed in a way that the data can then be analyzed using statistical methods (such as mean, median, correlation, etc.). Some of the most common methods used for qualitative research include closed-end questionnaires, A/B testing, and analytical methods.
Quantitative research works well when the questions are more direct and the responses are easily measurable. On the other hand, qualitative research is a preferred choice where an in-depth study of users’ behaviors is conducted directly from the data that is not statistically measurable.
Attitudinal and behavioral research
Attitudinal research focuses on analyzing the response of users to a design. In this type of research, direct feedback of users is used to gather and analyze the data. For example, diary or journal studies is a method where the attitude of users is directly studied. Similarly, interviews and surveys help in recording and studying responses coming directly from the users. This is important because it gives a good insight into the feelings of the target audience.
Behavioral research, on the other hand, is one where the researcher has to do more work. When adopting behavioral methods, a UI/UX researcher observes the way users perform in a particular setting. Observational studies and user testing, for example, are the methods where the participants perform a series of tasks and their behaviors – reactions, thoughts, emotions – are closely observed by the researcher. Similarly, eye tracking and A/B testing give a good idea of the way users interact with a product or service.
For a designer, it is important to get an understanding of the types of UX research before working on any project. This knowledge makes it easier to pick the right method, one that aligns with the goals of the UX research, and to implement it in an effective way.
3. Popular methods in UX research
The first step in any research design is to select an appropriate methodology. This involves a clear understanding of the ways in which data is gathered and analyzed. It is important to choose a method with great care as the success or failure of any research heavily relies on the strength of the methodology. For a UI/UX designer, there is a bunch of methods to choose from, each suited for different types of research projects. From face-to-face interviews to virtual usability tests, UX research has a lot to offer. Some of the most common methods are introduced below.
Conducting one-to-one interviews is a very old, and quite effective, method in research. In this type of research, a UI/UX designer sits with the target audience – either in a face-to-face setting or in a virtual environment – and asks questions about their needs, primary concerns, expectations from a design, and in some cases the feedback on a product or service.
Interviews need to be conducted in a way that maximum information is extracted from the users. It is important to keep the questions clear and unambiguous so the interviewee is neither confused nor does he/she digress while answering the questions.
Surveys and questionnaires
Surveys and questionnaires are also widely used in UX research. A survey, in most cases, consists of closed-ended questions where the participants are asked to select their responses from already available choices.
The design of a survey or questionnaire is of prime importance. It is one of the key factors on which the success of the research lies. If the questions are confusing or presented in the wrong manner, the data gathered will not be reliable. It is also important to choose the participants with great care, making sure that the sample chosen for the research is both diverse and representative of the population. Additionally, the researcher must ensure that the participants understand the importance of the research and do not just take it as a formality.
Diary or journal studies
In some design projects, particularly when a new product is launched or a huge update is incorporated into a design, a UI/UX researcher might want to see the long-term impacts of the new design. The researcher, in this case, is interested in testing the product or service in a real-world context, where the users are not closely monitored but interact with the design in a natural manner.
In such cases, diary or journal studies can come in handy. The participants are given access to the product or service under consideration. They are then asked to use it on a daily basis and record their thoughts, feelings, and emotions regarding the design. This can help in understanding the overall experience of users, that too in a slightly longer time.
Another widely used technique, especially when the information architecture or knowledge network of a certain design is to be improved, is called Card Sorting. While being a part of this research method, the users are asked to categorize information based on their understanding and needs. The participants may or may not interact with physical cards. Additionally, a researcher can ask the users to sort the cards in some predefined categories or ask them to build their own criteria.
In either case, the final organization of the information gives a good idea of the way users think and interact with a certain design. This helps the UI/UX designers to make the design more intuitive, thus helpful for the target audience.
Focus groups are simply guided or moderated discussion groups where participants interact with each other in a loosely structured environment. The moderator’s role is important as he/she can make sure that the group stays focused on the design under consideration and that the discussion yields some useful insights.
A small group of participants is gathered in a physical or virtual setting where they discuss the benefits and shortcomings of a product or service. This qualitative method can help in understanding the attitude and behavior of the participants when interacting with a design, thus highlighting the areas for improvement.
Usability tests are one of the most trusted, but time-consuming, methods in UX research. Usability testing, as the name suggests, is focused more on the usefulness and usability of a product or service. The tests are conducted with individual participants, those fitting the audience personas.
A moderator provides the users with a series of tasks and then observes them as they fiddle around with the design, trying to achieve their goal. It is important to define the metrics of success and failure beforehand so that the bias is reduced and the analysis can be made meaningful. Additionally, the UX researcher must ensure that the tasks are presented as real-world scenarios, thus resulting in real-world insights.
A/B testing is a comparative study where a participant interacts with at least two different designs and then discusses his/her thoughts on the usefulness of both. This method can be extremely useful when prototypes of a product or service are being created. In most cases, a designer has some biases and attachments to a certain design. A/B testing can help get rid of these biases which might be harmful to the product or service in the real world.
This method, just like usability tests, is time-consuming and, therefore, involves a small sample. Being a qualitative research method, A/B testing is extremely helpful in providing insights into the needs, expectations, and attitudes of users toward a certain design.
Choosing the right method
As stated above, for research to be successful, it is important to choose the best-suited method. Choice of a UX research method depends on numerous factors, such as the type of product or service, the target audience, the limitations of the design, and many more.
A researcher, before choosing the method, must ask the following questions.
- Who is my target audience?
- What are the goals of my UX research?
- How do I plan on gathering and analyzing data?
- What are my time and budget constraints?
- How will I present the findings of my research?
The answers to these questions can help in picking the appropriate research method, giving due consideration to the goals and limitations of the project. The list is not exhaustive but it is enough to get a UI/UX designer started with a research design.
4. Toolkit for UX research
UX research cannot just be conducted with pen and paper. Certain software and tools are essential for gathering, storing, and analyzing data. As organizations have started giving more attention to UI/UX design, developers have put in extra effort to aid the designers and researchers. From survey design to screen recording, there are a number of specialized tools aiding the process of research for UI/UX designers. Some of the most frequently used tools are listed below, based on their usage in certain aspects of UX research.
Online and offline surveys can provide a lot of valuable information about the expectations and needs of users, along with the trends that are most common in the market. It is, however, important that the surveys and questionnaires are designed in a way that is easy to distribute and interact with.
There are a number of free and paid tools in the market that can help in creating quality surveys. Google Forms provides one of the simplest ways to create and distribute surveys. All you need is a Google account and you can create unlimited surveys with as many questions as you like. Similarly, Survey Monkey is an excellent tool for creating online surveys. However, it comes with certain limitations on the number and types of questions with the free version. SoGoSurvey is another quality tool, with the promise of adding immense value to the experience of the designer as well as the user.
Screen and audio recording
In UX research, screen and audio recording tools often come in handy. When conducting a focus group study, an interview, or a usability test, the researchers tend to keep a record of little details that they can come back to later. These details are important for data analysis and effective presentation of the results.
When it comes to screen recording tools, some machines have built-in screen recording tools. QuickTime Player for Mac, for instance, provides excellent screen recording, free of cost. There are other online and offline tools available to serve the purpose. For example, Screencast-O-Matic allows online screen recording without the need to download software.
Audio recording is another essential aspect of UX research. This can either be achieved by using built-in recorders in mobile devices or with the help of specialized tools such as Adobe Audition and Audacity.
Heatmaps and analytics
Heatmaps are also important in analyzing the interaction of users with on-screen information. One of the best tools for this purpose is Hotjar. Hotjar allows UX researchers to go back in time and view the real-time recordings of the ways in which a user interacts with the information on the screen. The tool provides valuable insights into the behavior patterns of users, from their clicking habits to the way they react to a certain block of information presented to them.
Another important area to look into, when conducting UX research, is that of analytics. Google Analytics is by far the most comprehensive tool to look at the analytical aspects of a certain website, app, or advertising campaign.
Heatmaps and analytics, together, can add great value to UX research, providing information in a more compact and understandable manner. With time, these tools have evolved, enabling the designers to make the most out of the resources at their disposal.
Remote user testing
User testing, when conducted in a remote environment, needs a little more attention. The most important thing needed for such a test is a stable internet connection. Online conferences can be arranged with the help of a number of tools. The usage of these tools has, indeed, seen an upward trend in recent years. It is, however, important to pick a tool that the participants are comfortable with, so they do not spend a lot of time understanding the tool when participating in the test.
Some of the best tools in the market include Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. All of these tools allow the participants to share their screen which makes it easier for the moderators to observe their performance. There are certain limitations associated with all the tools, so it is important to pick the one that fits the needs of a UX research and researcher.
Data analysis is an essential part of any research. There are tools designed specifically for statistical analysis. Some of these tools require a little programming, such as SAS, R, and MATLAB. There are others that make the task even easier. In tools such as SPSS, Microsoft Excel, and JASP, the analysis is more intuitive. With no programming involved, the tools are extremely easy to use. UX researchers can make great use of statistical analysis tools to extract quality information from the gathered data.
Although UI/UX designers cannot acquire expertise in all the aforementioned tools, it is important to have a basic understanding of the helpful software. The majority of these tools have a lot in common and are fairly easy to use. Some technical knowledge about their usage can add value to the research, making the entire process fruitful.
5. Steps for an effective UX research
UX research can become a cumbersome process if not properly managed and structured. Since the entire research phase can be time-consuming – taking months, at times – it is logical to spend some time on creating the roadmap. There is a series of steps that can help UI/UX designers while drafting a research plan. Some minor details, including the sequence of steps, can vary based on the goals of a product or service but the underlying philosophy remains the same.
Step 1: Define the problem statement
Quality research relies on the definition and specificity of the problem under consideration. Before attempting to solve any problem, it is essential to understand the nature and gravity of the problem itself. Most of the research projects begin with the definition of a problem statement. This is exactly how UX research should be approached.
In some cases, there can be more than one problem statement. In such circumstances, prioritizing the problems is necessary. This gives a clear direction to the research, making the research more focused and coherent.
Step 2: Know your objectives
Once the problem is identified, the next step is to enlist the major objectives of the research. Before gathering and analyzing the data, a researcher must be aware of the insights he/she wants to get from the entire practice. It is important to document the research objectives for reference and easy access.
It must be noted that knowing the objectives of research does not mean dictating the outcomes. A UX researcher must know what is to be measured but should never introduce biases in the process to get the desired results. The value of any research is inversely related to the amount of its researcher’s bias.
Step 3: Create user personas
The next step in the research process is to understand, categorize, and prioritize the audience. This is where creating a user persona comes in handy. A UX researcher, after conducting an audience analysis, develops user personas based on the goals and expectations of users. It is a good idea to create at least one user persona for each audience group.
Well-developed personas can not only make it easy to understand the audience but also help in selecting the right participants for the research. This is a very important step for all UI/UX projects as the research methods are usually time-consuming and it is not possible to conduct tests with a large number of participants.
Step 4: Choose the research method
After understanding the nature of the research and developing user personas, a UX researcher can then choose a suitable research method. The list of research methods discussed above can serve as a good starting point. However, some projects might require an approach where a mix of two (or more) methods can prove more effective.
Nevertheless, the research method must not be so complicated that the goals of the project get lost in the process nor should it be so basic that the data is not given due attention. The golden rule here is to make sure that the data gathered during the process is sufficient for the research and gets due attention in the analysis phase.
Step 5: Recruit the participants
The participants must be selected with great care. The individuals chosen for the research must check most, if not all, boxes of the user personas. Additionally, the sample selected should be diverse so as to add value to the research.
When conducting tests in an online environment, it is also important to select the participants who are comfortable with the technology used in the research process. This way, the focus will be more on getting insights from the research than on solving technical issues.
Step 6: Gather the data
After the selection of participants, a UX researcher can focus on gathering data. If possible, the researcher should have some assistance – for example, a moderator or co-researcher – while gathering the data. This not only makes the process easier but also ensures that nothing important goes unnoticed.
The tools used for gathering the data should be tested before interaction with the participants. This way, the researcher will be aware of the limitations and reliability of the tools and will be able to escape any unexpected issues at the time of the test.
Step 7: Analyze the data
Once all the tests are conducted, the entire data can then be processed and analyzed to extract valuable insights. The analysis, both in quantitative and qualitative studies, needs to be thorough with the aim of depicting the true picture.
Several tools, as discussed above, can be used to analyze the data in an effective manner. While conducting the analysis, a UX researcher must keep an eye on the overall objectives of the research. Once again, leaving the biases aside can add great value to the research.
Step 8: Present your findings
The final step in the UX research process is to present the findings in an understandable and impactful manner. It is important to have a clear understanding of the audience of the findings. In most cases, the findings of the research are presented to the managers or executives. To help them get a better picture, the findings should not be presented in a highly technical manner, with excessive use of jargon.
It is a good idea to keep things simple and informative. Another thing to keep in mind is that while presenting the findings, a UI/UX designer is expected to recommend some solutions or to draw a roadmap for the future. The findings should, therefore, not be a mere statement including facts. Instead, it should include opinions, suggestions, and thoughts on how to fix the issues and make improvements in the design.
UX research, if conducted thoroughly and carefully, can help a designer in coming up with the most effective solutions. Sometimes, however, things can go wrong. If the best practices listed below are followed during the research, things can get much simpler and easier.
- Understand the goals of the project before designing the research
- Try as hard as you can to be unbiased before, during, and after the research
- Understand the limitations of the research so you can save time and effort
- Make sure that all the technical issues have been resolved before inviting the participants for the tests
- Be patient with the participants and make sure that you do not put words in their mouths or dictate their actions in any way
- Be vigilant while gathering and analyzing the data so that important details are captured with care
6. Skills and resources for a UX researcher
With an increasing demand in the design industry and the overall attractive nature of the discipline, many individuals often want to learn some aspects of UX design. When it comes to UX, one cannot claim to be a good designer without having an adequate understanding of UX research, backed by a mandatory skillset.
Skills necessary for a UX researcher
UX research is mostly about developing an understanding of the needs and expectations of the target audience. This understanding is then helpful in improving the design of a product or service.
Following are some of the most important skills for a UX researcher.
- Problem-solving: All research projects begin with a problem. A UX researcher is a person who is only good at understanding unique problems but also has a knack for finding solutions. Such an attitude is highly appreciated in the design industry.
- Empathy: Empathy is one of the pillars of the entire UI/UX design process. A designer who is empathetic is able to understand the needs of the users and also keep his/her biases aside while working on a research project.
- Openness and curiosity: UX research is all about finding new truths and getting better insights. A designer, when conducting research, needs to be open to new ideas and curious about finding answers to difficult questions.
- Analytical thinking: An analytical approach to research problems and a critical view of the data is always helpful for a UI/UX designer. This not only helps in improving the understanding of a situation but also ensures that useful information takes precedence in the analysis.
- Communication: When interacting with the users and presenting the findings of a research project, communication skills always come in handy. Conducting any research can be rendered useless if the information gathered is not presented in an understandable manner.
- Time management: Research projects, usually, have certain constraints with regards to time. It is, therefore, important to keep an eye on the deadlines and to get things done in a scheduled manner.
Helpful resources for aspiring UX researchers
To get a formal understanding of the subject, aspiring UX researchers can always complete certifications and attend specially curated courses. Numerous such options are available, both in the form of verified certification programs and self-paced courses. Some of the best resources for aspiring UX researchers are as follows.
- User Research Methods by Nielsen Norman Group: NN Group offers a comprehensive course on UX research. The course deals with critical research methods and thoroughly covers the design of UX research.
- Remote User Testing by Udemy: In the present world, where remote user testing is becoming common and extremely helpful, understanding the nuances of this type of research is extremely important. Udemy offers a really good course on completely remote user testing.
- UX Research by Google via Coursera: Google offers a complete UX certification via Coursera. One of the courses in the syllabus focuses entirely on conducting UX research. Both beginners and expert designers can learn a lot of useful concepts and techniques from this course.
- UX Research by HEC Montreal via edX: A dedicated course on UX research is also available on edX. This self-paced, free course can be completed in six weeks, providing valuable knowledge on the subject of research in the design industry.
There are a number of other resources at the disposal of UI/UX designers that can be used to improve research skills. These skills are extremely useful in the industry and can add great value to the overall growth of a designer.
The value of UX research in the field of design cannot be overstated. Carefully conducted research holds the promise of adding immense value to both physical and digital designs. UX research, on the one hand, helps in testing the product or service before it actually appears in the market. On the other hand, it is a way of gathering feedback from users, which can then be used to overcome shortcomings in an existing design.
Developing research and analytical skills is essential for any UX designer. These skills are highly appreciated in the market. These skills can be helpful in the day-to-day duties of a designer as well. From market research and audience analysis to usability tests and focus groups, a significant part of the UI/UX designer’s job is to conduct research. It is, therefore, important to acquire some research skills so as to make the designs more useful and valuable.