Tutorial 2: An Introduction To UX Research Methods
“Hi there! 💁I’m Korina, Head of the Student Team at CareerFoundry. My team is responsible for looking after all the students on our UX, UI, Web Development and Data Analytics Programs. In this tutorial, we’ll be taking a look at different quantitative and qualitative UX research methods. These will likely constitute a pillar of your work as a UX designer, should you choose to do our UX Design Program and pursue a career in UX.”
What are we going to do today?
Welcome back to your UX research short course! In the first tutorial, we learned exactly what user research is and why it’s so important. Today we’re going to explore user research methods. We’ll look at the different types of user research you might conduct, and we’ll introduce some of the most common user research techniques used by designers and researchers. Finally, we’ll look at how you can go about choosing the right UX research method for a given design project. By the end, you’ll have a good idea of all the different shapes and forms that user research can take!
We’ve divided this lesson as follows:
- What are the different types of user research?
- What are some of the most common UX research methods?
- How to choose the right user research method
- Practical exercise
Ready? Let’s begin.
1. What are the different types of user research?
As we know, UX research is all about gathering insights that can be used to inform the design process. Different research methods will uncover different insights, so UX designers and researchers must be familiar with a range of techniques. Whenever you conduct user research, it’s important to think about what you hope to learn from it. In other words, what kind of data do you want to gather? This will help you identify the most suitable research methods for your project.
The data gathered through user research can fall into four different categories—or rather, dimensions: Qualitative, quantitative, attitudinal, and behavioral. Let’s explore each of these in more detail now.
Qualitative vs. quantitative research
We touched upon qualitative and quantitative research in tutorial one, so we’ll keep this section brief!
You’ll remember that quantitative (or “quant”) research is anything that can be measured: How many users visited your website last month? What percentage went on to make a purchase? So, quantitative research methods help you to put a number on the usability of your product. They also allow you to compare different designs and determine if one version performs significantly better than another.
Qualitative research methods look at the reasons and motivations behind the numbers. They seek to delve deeper into the user’s behavior, investigating why they do (or don’t do) certain things, and how they feel about a particular product, experience, or situation.
You can think of quantitative data as fixed, while qualitative data is more descriptive and open-ended. A further distinction to make is between how quantitative and qualitative studies go about collecting data. Qualitative research methods tend to be based on direct observation—for example, you might observe a user interacting with the product to gauge how user-friendly it is. Quant research methods gather this data indirectly, through online surveys and questionnaires, for example.
Attitudinal vs. behavioral research
The easiest way to think about attitudinal and behavioral research is in terms of what people say and what people do. Often the two are quite different!
Attitudinal research gets the user to report certain information about themselves—in a face-to-face interview, for example. This helps you understand people’s stated beliefs; in other words, what do they claim to expect from a certain product or experience? How do they perceive certain things? What do they say their motivations are for using a particular product?
Behavioral research looks at how people actually behave in certain situations, and is therefore steeped in observational research methods. Direct observation is incredibly valuable as it gives you an authentic sense of how people interact with your designs in the real world. Research methods such as A/B testing and eye-tracking can show you exactly which actions the user takes when presented with a certain layout, for example.
- Quantitative research is measurable and rather fixed. Quant research methods tend to be indirect (think surveys and questionnaires).
- Qualitative research looks at the reasons, feelings, and motivations behind a user’s actions. It is more descriptive, and tends to be based on direct observation and/or interaction with the user.
- Attitudinal research is all about what people say—for example, during a user interview. Attitudinal research gathers self-reported data.
- Behavioral research looks at what people do in a given situation, and tends to rely on direct observation of the user.
It’s important to think of these research types as dimensions rather than hard-and-fast categories, as many UX research methods fall under more than one “type”. An awesome resource for visualizing this is the Nielsen Norman Group’s Landscape of User Research Methods.
Now we know about the different types of user research, let’s explore some specific UX research techniques.
2. What are some of the most common UX research methods?
The aim of today’s tutorial is to provide an overview of UX research techniques, so we won’t go into too much detail just yet. Don’t worry, though; tutorials five and six will focus solely on two key user research methods—user interviews and card sorting respectively—providing a step-by-step guide for each.
Until then, here are some of the most common user research methods used by UX designers and researchers. As you read through each technique, think about what user research type(s) they might come under—are they quantitative or qualitative, and attitudinal or behavioral?
1. User interviews
The user interview is a much-loved technique among UX designers as it offers a relatively quick and easy way of gathering valuable user insights. User interviews allow you to engage with users one-on-one, either face to face or via a video call, and to ask questions about a particular topic. User interviews focus on people’s perceptions of a product or process, and can be conducted at various stages throughout the design process. We’ll show you how to conduct effective user interviews in tutorial five.
2. Card sorting
Card sorting is used to evaluate or determine the information architecture of a product or system—in other words, how information is grouped, labeled, and organized. As the name suggests, card sorting is done using cards. The designer or researcher picks a set of topics based on, say, the content they want to include on a website or app they’re designing. They write a different topic on each card, shuffle the cards into a random order, and then ask the participant (or user) to sort them into piles. The aim of card sorting is to get users to group information in a way that makes sense to them—thus showing you how you might organize your website or app for maximum user-friendliness. We’ll look at card sorting in more detail in tutorial six.
3. Surveys and questionnaires
Surveys and questionnaires are ideal for collecting lots of data without investing too much time or money—although you will need to think carefully about the questions you ask, and spend a bit of time combing through your findings. Depending on the focus of your research, you can ask open-ended questions where the user writes their own response (e.g. “How do you feel about online dating?”) or closed questions which require the participant to choose from a set of possible answers. The main advantage of surveys and questionnaires is that they can be used to reach a large number of participants.
4. A/B testing
The A/B testing method is used to compare two different versions or design options. Designers will usually run A/B tests once a product is live in order to make ongoing improvements, or before embarking on a complete UX redesign. If you wanted to optimize the layout of a certain webpage in order to increase customer purchases, for example, you could test two different versions to see which performs better. During an A/B test, some of your website visitors will see version A, while others will see version B. At the end, you hopefully have a clear winner!
5. Diary studies
Diary studies look at user behaviors, activities, and experiences over a certain period of time. If you want to investigate certain user habits (e.g. “At what time of day are people most likely to use my app?”), attitudes (“How do people feel when using a certain product or service?”), and customer journeys (“How do users navigate from point A to point B?”) within a given context, a diary study is an effective way of gathering first-hand insights. During a diary study, participants are encouraged (and sometimes prompted) to keep a diary or log of their activities based on the designer’s specific area of interest. You can learn more about diary studies here.
Now you’re familiar with some of the most common UX research methods, let’s consider how you might go about identifying the most suitable method for a particular design project.
3. How to choose the right user research method
As a UX designer, you’ll need to conduct at least one round of user research for any design project. Ideally, you’ll incorporate user research throughout—however, the time and resources available for user research will depend on the company or client you’re working for, so you may not always be able to be as thorough as you’d like. The key is to choose the right techniques at the right time, based on the specific project requirements.
The discovery phase
Let’s imagine you are developing a concept for a brand new product—a product that doesn’t exist yet. Before you start coming up with ideas, you need to identify who your target users are and the user problem you want to solve. At this early stage in the design process, your user research should allow you to get to know your users in relation to the problem space, and to explore new directions and opportunities. You can think of this as the discovery phase! In the discovery phase, designers typically use a mixture of both qualitative and quantitative methods such as user interviews, surveys, diary studies, and field studies.
The execution phase
Once you’ve scoped out the problem space and established a direction for your design, you’ll move into the execution phase. In terms of UX research, the focus will now be on evaluating your designs (whether they’re just simple sketches or high-fidelity prototypes) and making sure that they address your users’ needs. At this stage, you’ll mostly opt for qualitative research methods which will help you to optimize your designs and improve usability—such as card sorting, usability studies, participatory design, and again, user interviews.
The testing phase
As you finalize your designs and start to move towards a working product, you’ll want to gauge how well it performs—either compared to a previous version of the product, or compared to a competitor. To do this, you’ll focus mainly on quantitative UX research methods that will enable you to evaluate the usability and overall effectiveness of your designs. In the testing phase, techniques such as usability benchmarking, A/B testing, and surveys are most useful.
We’ve divided the process into three rather clear-cut phases, but it’s important to remember that design is not linear! New questions and areas of investigation will arise throughout, and UX research can be conducted at any time you feel it’s necessary. As long as you set clear objectives and use the right research methods, you’ll be onto a winner.
And one last thing: Throughout a given design project, try to conduct both qualitative and quantitative research. A good mixture of both will help to paint a complete picture and avoid misleading conclusions.
4. Practical exercise
Our second tutorial is almost at an end, which means it’s time for a practical exercise!
So far, we’ve looked at why user research is so important, and introduced some of the most common UX research methods. We’ve also looked at how you might go about choosing the right user research technique for a specific design project. Are you ready to apply what you’ve learned?
For today’s task, consider the scenarios below and think about the following: What kind of user research might you conduct? Hint: Think in terms of quantitative vs. qualitative, and attitudinal vs. behavioral. At the same time, can you think of a specific research method that might be useful?
- You are designing an app from scratch and want to learn as much as possible about your target users.
- You’ve been working on a redesign of your website homepage and you want to test how user-friendly it is. You’d also like to compare it to the original design to see which version performs better.
- You’d like to gather as much data as possible about people’s experience with dating apps, but you need to conduct research on a very small budget.
Hopefully today’s lesson and the above exercise has got you thinking about what user research looks like in action. Don’t worry if it all seems a bit abstract right now; we’ll take a closer look at specific methods later on in the course.
It’s a wrap!
So there you have it: An introduction to some of the most popular research techniques used by UX designers. In the next tutorial, we’ll show you how to plan and prepare a user research session, so get ready for that! And don’t forget to take the interactive quiz below.
Want to learn more about UX research methods? Check out the following:
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