Illustration of a magnifying glass and a piece of paper with some user research written on it

The Importance Of User Research And How To Do It!



User research, or UX research, is an important (if non-negotiable) part of User Experience Design.

Typically done at the start of a project, it encompasses different types of research methodology to gather both qualitative and quantitative data in relation to your product or service.

Qualitative data is descriptive data and looks more at how people think and feel. It helps to find your users opinions, problems, reasons and motivations.

Quantitative data on the other hand is generally 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 applied to an entirely new product or service, providing a baseline for UX, design and development.

From the data gathered you should be able to understand (in 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

The doodles below (by Naintara Land - a User Researcher for GDS UK) illustrate some of the reasons why we do user research.

There’s a misconception that it’s just ok to do a bit of research and testing at the end of your project. The truth is - 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.

Challenging Assumptions

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.

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 business 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.

Planning 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!

Different Research Methods And When To Use Them

There’s a variety of different qualitative and quantitative research methods out there. If you’ve been doing the Career Foundry UX Design course like I have then you may have already covered some of the list below in your course.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but covers some of the more popular methods of research.

Qualitative Methods:

  • 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.

Quantitative Methods:

  • 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 setup 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.

What You Should Do Now

  1. If you’d like a step-by-step intro to find out if UX design is right for you - sign up here for our free 7-day UX short course.
  2. If you are interested in becoming a UX Designer check out our UX design course (you'll learn the essential skills employers need).
  3. If you’d like to speak to an expert Career Advisor for free about how you can really get a new job in tech - connect with us here.

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Jenni De Luca

Contributer to the CareerFoundry Blog

Jenni De Luca is a Senior Digital Producer and UX Designer. Having worked in digital since 2008, she’s travelled the globe working in a number of world class agencies. She’s also been lucky enough to work with a number of large scale global clients.