What is UX Research?

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Lydia Chamberlain
April 15, 2020

UX Research (User Experience Research) is a fundamental aspect of UX Design. In the design world, it is collecting data through various means of testing to help inform a product or process so that it can be improved upon for the targeted user base.

Here is how Interaction Design Foundation define UX Research,

“UX (user experience) research is the systematic investigation of users and their requirements, in order to add context and insight into the process of designing the user experience.”Interaction Design Foundation

Why conduct UX Research?

The design world is still battling for its place in tech, so why exactly do we need to conduct UX Research?

UX research is arguably the foundation that a project can rest upon. In any UX Design process guide, you’ll find that research is often the FIRST STEP to listed for a successful project.

This is because UX Research is centered around discovering what the obstacles are, what are the motivations behind change, who is using the product, and how to get where you need to go – and every question in between.

Conducting research is the best way we can gather answers to those important questions, and really understand the task at hand. You could theoretically jump right to design, but it’s a huge risk.

So in quick summary, there are 3 main reasons why we should conduct UX research:

  1. Understand the scope and constraints of a project to reduce unnecessary backtracking and allow targeted innovation and iteration
  2. Test and validate your hypothesis’
  3. Reach the customer and business goals you initially sought out to accomplish

When to Conduct UX Research?

Right. Now.

No kidding! Wherever you land in the UX process, it’s important to mold your research to what you have available.

Kickoff Phase

So, say you’re starting out from absolutely nothing. A client has a grand idea and your team is tasked to carry out the vision.

At this stage (the conception stage) the goal of UX research is, in no particular order:

  1. Understand WHAT the client is asking for, in its entirety
  2. Understand WHAT the client is currently doing, and why they’re asking for this change.
  3. Understand ALL aspects of the client’s current workflow.
  4. Understand the market that already exists around their idea.
  5. Understand WHO is going to use the end-solution – talk to them!
  6. All things considered, make sure you really understand (and work towards) the business and customer goals that have been set.
  7. If they haven’t been set – set those expectations with all parties involved as early as possible. Things may change, but they are the foundation UNDER the design foundation.

And that’s the short version. But as you can see, the questions are set up to completely understand the broader vision around an idea and product, before getting into the nitty gritty details.

Product Enhancement Phase

Now, say you’re about to work on further enhancing an existing project. Where does UX Research come into play here?

You’ll want to look at the following things:

  1. If you’re not familiar with the product, get familiar. Review as much documentation as possible.
  2. Understand the business and customer goals of the new project at hand.
  3. User testing! If it has been done, review all data around the CURRENT STATE.
  4. If user testing has NOT been done, it’s extremely valuable to understand the current state. How users are using it, and where things are going wrong.
  5. Data analysis. Sift through the data you’ve captured in your user research, and begin to utilize them. There are plenty of methods to do this (Card Sorting
  6. Final direction. Based on all the previous steps, determine the direction you’ll need to take to reach those customer and business goals that were set forth in the beginning.

Types of Research Methodologies

There are a plethora of research methods available out in the wild web, so we’ll try and capture a few of those here for you. Again, the research method may depend on the context of your project, but many methods can be used no matter what stage you’re at.

There are two main types of data, as categorized within the scientific community:

Quantitative Data

Qualitative Data

UX researchers will want to gather both, as much as possible. But you’ll find in the world of UX Design, we will utilize Qualitative Data far more often than our scientific counterparts, largely in part because we are designing human-centric solutions. And as we all know, humans aren’t always the easiest to measure by numbers. However, quantitative data is just as informative, and is the counterpart to qualitative data. To get the biggest and brightest picture, it is imperative to use both.

The most important thing is getting as much data as possible, as early as possible. It won’t feel too great when you’ve finally tested a working, implemented design when it’s already been pushed to the wild – only to find that it wasn’t what your users were looking for to begin with.

Gathering Data

User Interviews

Probably the most basic form of data gathering is to talk directly to those that are impacted by the project at hand. Stakeholders and end-users are both viable sources of information.

There are plenty of ways you can conduct user interviews, and they can happen all along the process.

We’ve got a few articles you can check out:

Focus Groups

You can think of focus groups as large-scale interviews. The goal is to learn hear about the thoughts, experiences, and observations

Usability.gov’s article on Focus Groups

Diary Studies

If you’ve got a long term project, consider Diary Studies.

Diary Studies collect voluntary reports from users over time. The goal would be to capture the long-term effects of a feature or product, so that you can measure its usage or effectiveness. Some data simply cannot be captured in a day, so employ this method to your toolkit for longer or bigger projects.

Nielson Norman Group’s article on Diary Studies


The famous Survey! A tried and true method for your arsenal, surveys can allow users time to think about their responses to direct questions.

Surveys can be conducted in-person, by mail, or digitally – but most important is how the survey is crafted.

Try not to ask questions that are yes/no, nor questions that are pointing users to an answer. You want to capture the most unbiased information possible.

Usability.gov’s article on Surveys

Card Sorting

Card Sorting is great because it enables the help of stakeholders to collaborate on a product’s hierarchical structure.

Instead of you or your team brainstorming the informational architecture of your client’s site behind the scenes, you can mitigate this process by doing this exercise with them.

We’ve written out a whole article here on how to do card sorting.

Field Studies

A lot of methods require you to gather information in a controlled environment. Field Studies are when you immerse yourself into the environment of the end-user to see first-hand a couple of things:

  • How a product is used in its natural habitat
  • The entire lifecycle of a product in a user’s workflow
  • Where a user uses a product

… and everything else you can gather.

Nielson Norman Group on Field Studies

Competitive Analysis

A huge aspect of UX Research is understanding not only the project at hand, but the broader landscape.

Whether you’re starting from scratch or working on a new feature, keeping up-to-date on solutions that already exist out there is imperative.

You don’t need to constantly reinvent the wheel, but you may also want to see HOW others are doing what you’re doing, and in what ways can you make that process even better.

(Also, you can see what you need to avoid)

Usability Testing

You truly understand how your product is doing once it’s in the hand of users.

Usability testing is a controlled test where users are asked to walkthrough a certain feature, usually without the help of the testing controller.

The goal is to not only see how (or if) the user completes the task, but to observe their actions and thoughts along the way. Often users won’t realize they’re behaving in a certain way (such as mousing over areas you didn’t expect) so it’s crucial you keep an eye on their choices throughout the test.

We’ve got a complete beginner’s guide on usability testing if you want to know more!

A/B Testing

Say you have two designs with equal potential, but you’re unsure which one you should go for. A/B testing might be the solution.

The goal of A/B testing is to distribute your designs to two completely different user bases, and then measure (as you see fit) how these designs work with each group.

For example, companies may send out the same email with 2 different titles to see which title resulted in the most clicks/opens/unsubscribes.

This can be used for any kind of feature. Make sure you define what exactly you’d like to measure before starting the experiment, so that you collect the data you need.

For example, how quickly did users navigate a feature? Will users get stuck at a certain spot? Is this color more attention-grabbing than another?

Neil Patel’s introduction to A/B Testing

To Summarize…

… and that’s a pretty good roundup of UX Research methods! There are plenty more, and they become more niche depending on the task at hand.

To reiterate, UX Research is meant to be done early, thoroughly, and repeatedly. There’s no one size fits all method, and that’s the beauty of this process. It will take time and experience to figure out what methods suit your needs, but over time you’ll find a rhythm.

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