User research, or UX research, is an absolutely vital part of the user experience design process.
Typically done at the start of a project, it encompasses different types of research methodology to gather valuable data and feedback. When conducting user research, you’ll engage with and observe your target users, getting to know their needs, behaviours, and pain-points in relation to the product or service you’re designing.
Ultimately, user research means the difference between designing based on guesswork and assumptions, and actually creating something that solves a real user problem. In other words: Do not skip the research phase!
If you’re new to user research, fear not. We’re going to explain exactly what UX research is and why it’s so important. We’ll also show you how to plan your user research and introduce you to some key user research methods.
We’ve divided this rather comprehensive guide into the following sections. Feel free to skip ahead using the menu below:
- What is user research?
- What is the purpose of user research?
- How to plan your user research.
- An introduction to different research methods—and when to use them.
Ready? Let’s jump in.
1. What is user research?
User experience research is the systematic investigation of your users in order to gather insights that will inform the design process. With the help of various user research techniques, you’ll set out to understand your users’ needs, attitudes, pain-points, and behaviors (processes like task analyses look at how users actually navigate the product experience—not just how they should or how they say they do).
Typically done at the start of a project—but also extremely valuable throughout—it encompasses different types of research methodology to gather both qualitative and quantitative data in relation to your product or service.
Before we continue, let’s consider the difference between qualitative and quantitative data.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative data: What’s the difference?
Qualitative UX research results in descriptive data which looks more at how people think and feel. It helps to find your users’ opinions, problems, reasons, and motivations. You can learn all about in depth in the video below by CareerFoundry graduate and professional UX designer Maureen Herben:
Quantitative UX research, on the other hand, generally produces numerical data that can be measured and analysed, looking more at the statistics. Quantitative data is used to quantify the opinions and behaviors of your users.
User research rarely relies on just one form of data collection, and often uses both qualitative and quantitative research methods together to form a bigger picture. The data can be applied to an existing product to gain insight to help improve the product experiences, or it can be applied to an entirely new product or service, providing a baseline for UX, design and development.
From the data gathered during your user research phase, you should be able to understand the following areas within the context of your product or service:
- Who your users are
- What their needs are
- What they want
- How they currently do things
- How they’d like to do them
These doodles (by Naintara Land, a User Researcher for GDS UK) illustrate some of the reasons why we do user research.
As you consider the why of user research, remember that it’s easier than you might realize to overlook entire groups of users. It’s important to ensure that you’re conducting inclusive UX research–and that starts in the earliest stages!
2. What is the purpose of user research?
The purpose of user research is to put your design project into context. It helps you understand the problem you’re trying to solve; it tells you who your users are, in what context they’ll be using your product or service, and ultimately, what they need from you, the designer! UX research ensures that you are designing with the user in mind, which is key if you want to create a successful product.
Throughout the design process, your UX research will aid you in many ways. It’ll help you identify problems and challenges, validate or invalidate your assumptions, find patterns and commonalities across your target user groups, and shed plenty of light on your users’ needs, goals, and mental models.
Why is this so important? Let’s find out.
Why is it so important to conduct user research?
Without UX research, you are essentially basing your designs on assumptions. If you don’t take the time to engage with real users, it’s virtually impossible to know what needs and pain-points your design should address.
Here’s why conducting user research is absolutely crucial:
User research helps you to design better products!
There’s a misconception that it’s ok to just do a bit of research and testing at the end of your project. The truth is that you need UX research first, followed by usability testing and iteration throughout.
This is because research makes design better. The end goal is to create products and services that people want to use. The mantra in UX design is that some user research is always better than none. It’s likely at some point in your UX career that you will come across the first challenge of any UX designer—convincing a client or your team to include user research in a project.
User research keeps user stories at the center of your design process.
All too often, the user research phase is seen as optional or merely “nice-to-have”—but in reality, it’s crucial from both a design and a business perspective. Which brings us to our next point…
User research saves time and money!
If you (or your client) decide to skip the research phase altogether, the chances are you’ll end up spending time and money developing a product that, when launched, has loads of usability issues and design flaws, or simply doesn’t meet a real user need. Through UX research, you’ll uncover such issues early on—saving time, money, and lots of frustration!
The research phase ensures you’re designing with real insights and facts—not guesswork! Imagine you release a product that has the potential to fill a gap in the market but, due to a lack of user research, is full of bugs and usability issues. At best, you’ll have a lot of unnecessary work to do getting the product up to scratch. At worst, the brand’s reputation will suffer.
UX research gives the product a competitive edge. Research shows you how your product will perform in a real-world context, highlighting any issues that need to be ironed out before you go ahead and develop it.
User research can be done on a budget
There are ways that you can conduct faster and less costly user research, utilising Guerrilla research outlined later on in this article (also handy if budget and time are an issue). Even the smallest amount of user research will save time and money in the long run.
The second challenge is how often businesses think they know their users without having done any research. You’ll be surprised at how often a client will tell you that user research is not necessary because they know their users!
In a 2005 survey completed by Bain, a large global management consulting firm, they found some startling results. 80% of businesses thought they knew best about what they were delivering. Only 8% of those businesses’ customers agreed.
The survey may be getting old, but the principle and misperception still persist.
In some cases, businesses genuinely do know their customers and there may be previous data on hand to utilise. However, more often than not, ‘knowing the users’ comes down to personal assumptions and opinions.
“It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the Web the same way we do, and—like everyone else—we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.” (Don’t Make Me Think ‘Revisited’, Steve Krug, 2014.) A must on every UX Designer’s bookshelf!
What we think a user wants is not the same as what a user thinks they want. Without research, we inadvertently make decisions for ourselves instead of for our target audience. To summarize, the purpose of user research is to help us design to fulfil the user’s actual needs, rather than our own assumptions of their needs.
In a nutshell, UX research informs and opens up the realm of design possibilities. It saves time and money, ensures a competitive edge, and helps you to be a more effective, efficient, user-centric designer.
3. How to plan your user research
When planning your user research, it’s good to have a mix of both qualitative and quantitative data to draw from so you don’t run into issues from the value-action gap, which can at times make qualitative data unreliable.
The value-action gap is a well known psychology principle outlining that people genuinely don’t do what they say they would do, and is commonly referred to as what people say vs. what people do.
More than 60% of participants said they were “likely” or “very likely” to buy a kitchen appliance in the next 3 months. 8 months later, only 12% had. How Customers Think, Gerald Zaltman, 2003
When planning your user research, you need to do more than just User Focus Groups—observation of your users really is the key. You need to watch what your users do.
Part of being a great user researcher is to be an expert at setting up the right questions and getting unbiased answers from your users.
To do this we need to think like the user.
Put yourself in your user’s shoes without your own preconceptions and assumptions on how it should work and what it should be. For this, we need empathy (and good listening skills) allowing you to observe and challenge assumptions of what you already think you know about your users.
Be open to some surprises!
4. When to use different user research methods
There’s a variety of different qualitative and quantitative research methods out there. If you’ve been doing the CareerFoundry UX Design course, you may have already covered some of the list below in your course.
It isn’t an exhaustive list, but covers some of the more popular methods of research. Our student team lead runs through many of them in the video below.
- Guerrilla testing: Fast and low cost testing methods such as on the street videos, field observations, reviews of paper sketches or online tools for remote usability testing.
- Interviews: One on one interviews that follow a preset selection of questions prompting the user to describe their interactions, thoughts and feelings in relation to a product or service, or even the environment of the product/service.
- Focus groups: Participatory groups that are led through a discussion and activities to gather data on a particular product or service. If you’ve ever watched Mad Men you’ll be familiar with the ‘Ponds’ cold cream Focus Group!
- Field Studies: Heading into the user’s environment and observing while taking notes (and photographs or videos if possible).
- In-lab testing: Observations of users completing particular tasks in a controlled environment. Users are often asked to describe out loud their actions, thoughts and feelings and are videoed for later analysis
- Card sorting: Used to help understand Information Architecture and naming conventions better. Can be really handy to sort large amounts of content into logical groupings for users.
- User surveys: Questionnaires with a structured format, targeting your specific user personas. These can be a great way to get a large amount of data. Surveymonkey is a popular online tool.
- First click testing: A test set up to analyse what a user would click on first in order to complete their intended task. This can be done with paper prototypes, interactive wireframes or an existing website.
- Eye tracking: Measures the gaze of the eye, allowing the observer to ‘see’ what the user sees. This can be an expensive test and heatmapping is a good cheaper alternative.
- Heatmapping: Visual mapping of data showing how users click and scroll through your prototype or website. The most well known online tool to integrate would be Crazyegg.
- Web analytics: Data that is gathered from a website or prototype it is integrated with, allowing you to see demographics of users, pageviews and funnels of how users move through your site and where they drop off. The most well known online tool to integrate would be Google Analytics.
- A/B testing: Comparing two version of a web page to see which one converts users more. This is a great way to test button placements, colours, banners and other elements in your UI.
Now you know what user research is and why it’s so important. If you’re looking for a way to get trained in this particular discipline, there’s good news—owing to demand and popularity, there’s a growing number of UX research bootcamps out there.
If you’d like to learn more about UX research, you may find the following articles useful: