What is UX research: an introduction and overview

November 09, 2020
what is ux research - an introduction

UX research can be a driving force in design. But what methods are there? How do we approach it? Find out in this post!

There’s lots of talk about UX research. Designers all around the world count on UX researchers in order to see the path that leads to a successful product. But when does the research start? When does it end? What are the methods at our disposal?

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Let’s take some time to look into a big name in the UX industry that can often be misunderstood. In this post, we’ll go over exactly what UX research is, what methods there are and what it all means for the final design. Lastly, we’ll also take a look at what it takes to be a UX researcher, as well as some online courses that designers can take to become more fluent in this aspect of UX design.

What is UX research?

UX research is, in broad strokes, any means that designers have of studying their users and their requirements. While this may sound a bit general and broad, it’s worth noting that searching for knowledge is a crucial aspect of UX design. It’s the only way design teams can know the problems that users experience – UX research is, in a way, the path to any real solution.

There are many different methods and aspects to research within the UX field, but they all have the same aim. We seek to add context, to find problems and to understand the user’s needs. The ultimate goal is to find design opportunities and refine the requirements for the project – until we have a solution that adds real value to the user.

The concept of UX research applies to the initial phase in which we need to dig deep into the situation before we can start drawing up a solution. This includes things like interviewing users, reading up on the client’s business and sector and so on. With that said, UX research also extends all the way to user testing. Truly smart design teams understand that the research doesn’t end until the project itself is complete – and may even continue after that.

An overview of what UX research is

So, how can we apply the idea of UX research to an entire project, from start to finish? The answer is both easy and difficult. It’s easy, because it implies the same mindset and strategy throughout the entire process. We need to conduct the research with the scientific method, letting real facts and figures guide our decisions.

But why is this also difficult? Because everyone on the team will have presumptions about the project, their own respective opinions and wishes. It can be incredibly difficult to stay neutral for the entire thing – eventually, you’ll run into something the team feels strongly about. Those are the difficult moments when it comes to UX research.

What types of UX research are there?

UX research can be a bit difficult to describe to newbies, because it can take many forms. They all have the same goal, it’s true – but different types of research can add different types of value. Let’s go over some common ways to classify UX research, and what sets them apart from each other.

Qualitative vs quantitative UX research

These terms are very familiar to designers that take part in the testing of their own designs. This refers to research that goes one of two ways: go big and look for trends or go small and look for the details.

Qualitative research is mostly about getting close and personal with potential users who fit into a certain profile. This includes activities like interviews and observation sessions with individuals. This type of research doesn’t look for huge mountains of data – this is about having the right kind of data. You want to know how these individuals feel, what they observe and their thoughts.

UX research: the roles of quantitative and qualitative research

Quantitative research tries to look at the design from a completely different point of view. This is no longer about getting to know what a user feels, nor is it any longer about their reasoning. Quantitative research is about seeing the big trends in behavior, using big amounts of data.

For a more detailed explanation, check out our post on qualitative and quantitative testing.

Behavioral vs attitudinal research

This key difference between these two types of research is quite simple. Behavioral research implies observing the user’s behavior, looking at their body language, their pauses and expressions. In contrast, attitudinal research is all about hearing the user’s opinions and observations.

Methods of UX research

UX research has many faces, and can be carried out in many different ways. These ways are what we know as research methods. Each method has its strengths and its own value with respect to the project, with design teams often engaging in many different UX research methods in each project.

Field study and competitor analysis

These two are methods of UX research that can add a huge amount of value in the very beginning of the project. Both look to give us a firm notion of the market we are looking to enter, compiling information about, not just the sector, but the big players in it.

A field study tends to be one of the very first steps in UX research. This is all about taking the time to go to the client’s company to observe the stakeholders in their natural environments. Generally, a field study will include interviews and even focus groups, as well as close observation of how business is conducted. It’s a crucial step in any project, because it lays the foundation of how designers think about the project, the client and the ultimate solution to it all.

field research and competitor analysis in the field of ux research

In contrast, a competitor analysis doesn’t look at the client and their place of business. Very common among marketing professionals, the competitor analysis looks at who we’re going up against. This will include things like narrowing down the main competitors and looking at their respective strengths and weaknesses. This can be very helpful in spotting opportunities and gaps in the current market – which, perhaps, our new solution could grasp.

In fact, many design teams and UX researchers out there include usability testing of competitors’ products in their competitor analysis. Seeing real users interact with your direct competitor can show what users dislike about it, and ultimately help us to avoid making the same mistakes.

User testing

User testing is by far the most popular method of UX research. Every product goes through it, with design teams painfully aware of its importance. The fact is that user testing is the only way to refine the design according to what users want, making it the single biggest and most important means of UX research.

The line that separates UX research from user testing can often seem blurry, with testing methods also being UX research methods. Ultimately, your testing will create a defined idea of the user behavior – both in quantitative and qualitative forms. The great thing about user testing is that it’s so widespread, with so many tools available, that it’s available to all projects no matter the size of the budget.

user testing as a ux research method
Check out a full list of practical usability testing tools to refine your designs!

Prototyping and wireframing

Precisely because of how important user testing is to any design, it’s always recommendable to have a professional prototyping tool at your disposal. Transforming ideas into a tangible prototype that you can test quickly is crucial, often marketing the difference between an efficient project and one that is full of blind spots.

There’s true merit in quick prototyping of requirements, for a tangible design is something the team can test. After the initial period of UX research, it’s all about seeing the requirements in action. This is about bringing the design into reality, so we can proceed to validate the requirements. The higher the level of detail in the prototype, the more realistic the validation test results tend to be. That’s why design teams dedicate a lot of time to creating high-fidelity prototypes that look and behave like the real product.

Interviews and focus groups

Seeing and talking to users can be really powerful. It can add context and detail to our notion of who the user is and what they want. This is the opportunity to get into users’ feelings, thoughts, opinions and observations. UX research is about empathy, understanding what others experience.

Interviews and moderated focus groups are a wonderful opportunity to ask the relevant questions, to observe them meeting the product. You want to take the time to plan the questions carefully, to make sure that the interview doesn’t stretch on for too long but produces meaningful data. This is the time to get a solid notion of their ideas, their wants and needs as well as their problems. It’s qualitative data, at its finest.

interviews and focus groups as ux research methods

It’s worth noting that interviews are also very important at the very beginning of the project, in the gathering of requirements. It’s crucial that the design team understands the client’s wants, needs and business. This isn’t just about knowing what the client does, but going further.

For example, imagine a client wants a product that their employees can use for daily tasks X, Y and Z. In situations like these, it’s crucial that we interview not just the client but also the employees. What are the daily tasks like? What are the stress points? How do they relate to other aspects of the business?

User personas, stories and use cases

These are classics in the UX design industry. A user persona is a wonderful way to condense the information you’ve gathered about users, and transform it into something easier to process. A user persona represents a typical user of the product, usually sharing information on the user’s goals and details about their (imaginary) lives.

example of user persona as ux research method

The reason the user persona is important isn’t just because it translates the findings of the initial UX research into something simpler, easier to grasp. One of the key benefits from user personas is that they make it easier for designers to see things from the user’s perspective. The same can be said about user stories – it’s all about using every tool in your arsenal to add as much context as possible.

Don’t miss out: Check out our post for some very practical user persona templates.

Use cases, however, have a similar but unique benefit. The use cases put things into perspective, but not in the same way as user personas. The context isn’t just about who the user is and what they want – it goes into detail about the actual interaction between user and product. These usually include a specific task along with all the steps the user would take to complete said task.

In this sense, use cases help our UX research to refine the experience and avoid blindspots in the general testing.

A/B and multivariate tests

These kinds of tests are all about creating slightly different versions of the design and testing them against each other. A/B testing is about creating two different versions of the same design and directing users to both of them. Ultimately, we’ll check the metrics of each version and the one with the best performance is declared the winner.

Check out our list of helpful and practical A/B testing tools for an overview of the best tools out there.

a/b and multivariate testing as research methods

Multivariate testing works in the same theoretical way, but goes beyond just two versions being tested. This is when we test several versions of the same design, which can help us find the right path when we meet a crossroad. Ultimately, many design teams approach multivariate testing with caution, because it tends to require a large volume of traffic in order to have significant results.

UX research case studies: real life examples

UX research at Userzoom

Userzoom is a massively popular testing tool. Design teams all over the world count on it for their own usability tests – which sets the bar pretty high. We got together with Sarah Tannehill, Product manager, and Anna Barba, UX designer at Userzoom to discuss how they approach UX research.

Check out UX research at Userzoom for everything from the stages in their research, all the way to how they translate their findings into reality. For Userzoom, the data is key to understanding which way new updates need to go – making the internal metrics of their product all but holy. It goes to show that having the right way of doing things can help to maintain an objective perspective.

UX research at Fjord

Fjord is a design consultancy agency that has grown to be an institution in the UX industry. We loved listening to Essi Salonen, Senior UX Designer at Fjord, tell us all about their design project for Child Welfare Services. The main goal was to create a solution that allowed parents to get into contract with their caseworkers – making for an emotionally-charged project.

ux research at fjord as a real life case study

UX research at Dropbox

Dropbox is a name that needs no introduction. The product that Dropbox offers has been around for a while, and has only improved over time. Today, Dropbox has many different products aside from their classic file-sharing platform. Much like Fjord, we accompany Dropbox in their brand new project: Paper.

ux research at dropbox - a real life case study

The great thing about this post is that we get to see which UX research methods the folks at Dropbox choose. From their initial diary study to a heavy focus on user scenarios to refine their knowledge about the user’s way of thinking. Check out the post UX research at Dropbox for the full story!

UX research at Uber

Uber is another big name. The ride-sharing app has changed the entire transport industry and its design doesn’t disappoint. The platform has over 3 million active drivers and more than 70 million active users. With such a big size, it’s no wonder that Uber has vast amounts of data – and Uber uses it to stay in tune with the changes in the market.

Read the full post UX research at Uber for the full story. We loved this UX meetup, because it showcases rapid research that allows for flexibility. With bi-weekly studies and a unique team structure, Uber is able to respond to what users want and show that UX research is a marathon, not a sprint.

The role of UX researcher

UX researchers are in a unique position in the project. They need to have knowledge about UX design in general, while also diving deep into a more scientific way of handling the design. Let’s go over some of the key traits of the UX researchers that triumph in the sector, as well as some key points in the job.

General background and skills

UX researchers tend to include skills that vary from graphic design, computer sciences and even psychology backgrounds. In truth, the main education of any researcher candidate will only check the right box or not – it’s a fresh type of job, fast-evolving and ever-changing.

Companies today want someone with great curiosity about people, those who have the empathy to understand what users feel and experience. Design teams need researchers that understand how important it is that decisions are guided by the numbers, people who can look at data and translate it into concrete conclusions. This implies a person who is empathic, well-versed in statics and engaged in critical thinking.

skills required for ux researchers

The role of UX researcher also calls for excellent communication skills. This is crucial, because you’ll need the ability to pass on everything you’ve learned to the rest of the design team. It’s a key skill, because your value to the team is directly related to the amount of insights you bring to the table. Presenting your findings, discussing the data and the challenges of the research is crucial.

UX researcher courses out there

1. Fast-start Usability Testing and UX Research

The usability testing and UX research course can be found on Udemy. Taught by Matthew Nuzum, this online class seeks to condense 20 years of UX research experience into a class designers can take in their own time. It covers everything from the theory and basics of UX research and different methods, all the way into practical matters like writing unbiased questions.

usability testing and research at coursera
  • Price point: $100 (full price)

2. UX Research Specialty Course

This course is a part of a larger education from the Norman Nielsen Group. The UX certificate covers all the main aspects of UX design and students, but offers a more focused option for those who are looking to dive into the research. Altogether, NN Group offers about 13 courses that focus on UX research. Students only need to take 5 out of the 13 in order to obtain the UX research specialty.

ux research speciality courses by the NN group
  • Price point: $3573 per person

3. User Experience: Research & Prototyping

This online UX research course can be found in Coursera, one of the most well-established distance learning platforms out there. The research and prototyping course is all about learning to quantify what makes a good user experience, exploring different methods – with a focus on translating data into actionable insights. Students praise the course for its attention to detail, with classes available in many languages.

ux research and prototyping course for designers
  • Price point: starts at $39 for monthly subscriptions

4. UX research

Taught by HEC Montreal, this UX research course can be found in EdX. The course focuses on teaching students how to collect data that is relevant to the project in any design phase, using empathy and statistics to find the best solutions. One of the best things about this course is that, since it’s offered on EdX, anyone is free to pursue it for free. Those of us who want a more visible result for the course can add an official certificate for a fee.

ux research course at EdX
  • Price point: $225 for a certificate

5. UX research at scale

We love that this course takes a more specific look at UX research: doing things on a large scale. It’s not often that design teams have to handle vast amounts of data in a huge research study – but it’s possible. Big projects can choose to study a lot of users in order to create a product that doesn’t disappoint, and this course helps us prepare for that.

ux research at a large scale course

Ultimately, there are few ways to research with lots of participants. The UX research at scale course aims to prepare students for everything survey-related. From choosing the right participants, writing the right questions and analyzing the results – this course has it all.

  • Price point: starts at $39 for monthly subscriptions

The wrap up

UX research is absolutely crucial in any project. It has the power to help us understand the waters before we jump in, giving us the right context. With every step of the way, UX research is all but a philosophy which the design team lives by. It’s about understanding how people feel, seeing all the factors at play and finding the right path.

Hopefully, with this post you’ll be more familiar with the main research methods and be ready to fine-tune any project that comes your way! Never forget that in the UX game, the user makes the rules.

Rebeka Costa
In-house SEO manager, usability enthusiast and patron of all sleep-deprived designers