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Tutorial 1: What Is User Research And Why Is It Necessary?

Tutorial 1: What Is User Research And Why Is It Necessary?

Hi there! 💁 I’m Anne, Head of the Mentor Team here at CareerFoundry. For this first UX research tutorial, I’m teaming up with our Head of Design, Jeff, to explain what UX research is, and why it’s so important! If you haven’t done so already, be sure to watch the video above to give you a gentle introduction to UX research. After that, we can dive into the details below.”

Welcome to your UX Research for Beginners Course

We’ve divided this course into seven tutorials, each complete with a video, an accompanying written lesson, a practical exercise, and an interactive quiz—and we recommend going through the tutorials in that order! We’ll also round off each lesson with some links to further reading, should you wish to explore the topic in more detail.

All of these tutorials together will provide a comprehensive introduction to UX research. By the end of this course, you’ll have a good understanding of what user research is, why it’s necessary, and where it fits into the UX design process. You’ll also get to grips with some of the most common research methods and tools used by UX designers. Towards the end of the course, we’ll even show you how to plan your own user research session and analyze your findings.

Ready? Let’s begin!

What are we going to do today?

If you’re familiar with user experience (UX) design, you’ll know that it’s all about designing with the user in mind. In order to create effective, engaging, and user-friendly products, UX designers first need to understand who their users are and what they expect from a particular product or service. This is where user research comes in. In fact, no matter what kind of designer you aspire to be, a basic understanding of user research is essential.

In today’s tutorial, we’ll look at what exactly UX research is and why it’s so important. We’ll also consider when might be the best time to conduct user research. By the end, you’ll understand how and why thorough user research forms the basis of any successful UX design project.

We’ve divided this lesson as follows:

  1. What is UX research and what is its purpose?
  2. Why is it necessary to conduct user research?
  3. When is the best time to conduct user research?
  4. Practical exercise 

So what exactly is UX research? Let’s find out.

1. What is UX research?

User research, or UX research, is the systematic investigation of your users in order to gather insights that will drive and inform the design process. As UX guru Mike Kuniavsky puts it, UX research is “the process of understanding the impact of design on an audience.”

It’s all about gathering data and feedback from real people in relation to a particular product or service. UX research can be done with existing customers, or with people who represent your target audience—it all depends on the design project at hand! If you were designing an over-50s dating app from scratch, you might focus your research on a representative group: say, single people over the age of 50 who own a smartphone. If you’re redesigning an existing website for an ecommerce store, on the other hand, you could conduct user research with real customers.

When conducting user research, UX designers will use a range of different methods depending on the nature of the project and their research objectives—i.e. What they hope to learn about their users. Some of the most common research techniques include user interviews, surveys and questionnaires, card sorting, and usability testing—but more on that in tutorial two! Fow now, let’s explore two key terms you’ll encounter when conducting user research: quantitative and qualitative.

Quantitative vs. qualitative research—what’s the difference?

When conducting UX research, it’s important to understand the difference between quantitative and qualitative research.

Quantitative (or quant) research is anything that can be measured—for example: what percentage of users answered “yes” to a certain survey question, or how many users made a purchase on your website. Quantitative research looks at the “what”.

Qualitative research focuses on the “why”. Unlike quant data, it can’t exactly be measured or counted; it’s more about the reasons, feelings, and motivations behind certain actions. For example: when interviewing a user, they might mention that they stopped using a certain app because they got fed up of receiving push notifications. This statement alone can’t be plotted on a graph, but it still counts as extremely valuable feedback! So, UX designers and researchers tend to conduct a mixture of both quantitative and qualitative research. Again, we’ll cover this in more detail when we look at research methods in tutorial two.

Essentially, UX research relies on:

  • Observation: Observing the user to see how they behave;
  • Understanding: Figuring out users’ mental models—that is, what the user believes about a certain system based on their past experience. You can learn all about mental models and how they’re used in UX design here.
  • Analysis: Identifying patterns and trends in the data which can be used to make logical design decisions. 

With that in mind, let’s consider the purpose of UX research.

What is the purpose of UX research?

UX design is all about solving real user problems. Before you can start designing anything, you first need to suss out what user problem you’re trying to solve. At the same time, you want to understand who will be using the product or service you’re designing, and in what context.

The purpose of UX research, therefore, is to put your design project into context. It helps you build up a clear picture of your audience and what they expect from your product. Not only that: UX research helps you validate or invalidate your own assumptions.

What does this mean exactly? Well, let’s imagine you’re designing a travel app. If you’re a keen traveller yourself, you’ve probably used a whole host of travel apps over the years and thus might consider yourself a bit of an expert in the field. Based on your own experience, you’re pretty confident you know what your users want from such an app. However, you can’t just go ahead and design a product based on these assumptions alone—that wouldn’t constitute a user-first approach! You first need to validate or invalidate your assumptions by talking to real (or representative) users. Only then are you truly designing with the user in mind.

In a nutshell, the purpose of user research is to:

  • Help you identify the user problem you need to solve;
  • Build up a clear picture of who your users are and what they expect from a given experience;
  • Validate or invalidate your assumptions.

Ultimately, UX research will keep you focused on the most important person: your user! Let’s take a look at why this is so crucial.

2. Why is it necessary to conduct user research?

When you’re a busy UX designer with limited time and resources, it might be tempting to skip the research phase altogether. You might find yourself asking “What harm could it really do?” The answer is: plenty! To demonstrate the importance of user research, let’s consider the evolution of the Heinz tomato ketchup bottle.

This household staple started out as an upright glass bottle; a rather solid, classy design, but perhaps not the most user-friendly. Ketchup fans had to turn it on its head and give it a good “whack!” in order to force out a random amount of sauce.

Now, Heinz had no plans to move away from the glass bottle design—as far as they were aware, it was doing the job just fine. However, this all changed when they sent researchers to investigate how people were consuming ketchup at home. They saw that young children were physically unable to dish up their own ketchup—a real dampener on the user experience!

After this chance discovery, Heinz realized they needed to design a new bottle that would be more accessible for their younger audience—and so the squirt bottle was born. Finally, adults and kids alike could serve their own ketchup. However, further research brought another usability issue to light: the squirt bottle was prone to a clogged-up nozzle, making it almost impossible to get enough ketchup out in one go. To combat this problem, people tended to store their ketchup bottles upside down. Once again, Heinz responded to the needs of the user and embarked on another package redesign. They came up with the upside-down bottle that we know and love today.

If Heinz hadn’t investigated and addressed the usability issues posed by that very first bottle, would this iconic condiment still be in our cupboards today? What if a new company had come along and created an equally delicious sauce in a much more user-friendly bottle? Heinz would almost certainly have lost its competitive edge!

Design without research is guesswork

Without UX research, you’re essentially basing your designs on assumptions and guesswork. If you don’t take the time to engage with real users, you can’t possibly know what needs and pain-points your design should address. The chances are, you’ll spend 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. UX research enables you to uncover such issues early on, saving you time, money, and lots of frustration! 

Research arms you with real insights and facts. From a design perspective, it 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. From a business perspective, it helps to secure and maintain a competitive edge.

The moral of the story is simple: You can’t design a successful product without user research.

3. When is the best time to conduct user research?

Most designers will conduct extensive UX research at the very start of a project, and then incorporate further research and testing as the design evolves. However, that’s not to say that only brand new products require user research; you can (and should!) conduct user research in an ongoing fashion. This way, you can continuously make improvements. Remember: UX design is an iterative process, so it’s never too late to benefit from user research!

The focus of your user research will change depending on what stage you’re at in the design process. Let’s consider when you might conduct user research and what your objectives might be at each stage.

  • UX research to kick off a new project: At the start of a project, you’ll focus on learning all about your target users. At this stage, you want to gather as many insights as possible, particularly in regards to your user’s needs and goals. Your chosen research methods will focus on observation and data collection, such as interviews and surveys. You’ll conduct this initial research before you define your problem statement.
  • UX research to test your ideas: Once you’ve come up with some ideas for the product you’re designing, you might conduct further research in order to test and improve these ideas. Once the actual design process is underway, the focus of your research will shift to usability and sentiment. You’ll use methods such as A/B testing and user interviews to test your assumptions and highlight any areas that need improving or redesigning altogether.
  • UX research post-development and product launch: As we saw with the story of the Heinz ketchup bottle, UX research doesn’t stop once the product has been developed and launched. Once you’ve got a product on the market, your user research will focus on uncovering any usability flaws you might have missed, and on identifying opportunities for updates and improvements (e.g. adding a new feature to an app). 

It’s best to think of UX research as an ongoing process, just like design itself. As long as you adjust your objectives and choose your methods accordingly, UX research is valuable at any stage of a design project.

4. Practical exercise

We’re nearing the end of our first tutorial, which can only mean one thing: It’s time for a practical exercise!

By the end of this course, you’ll be thinking like a UX researcher. For now, though, we want you to tap into your experience as a user. Can you think of a product or service you’ve encountered that clearly hadn’t undergone sufficient user research? This might be a physical product (like the not-so-user-friendly glass ketchup bottle!) or a digital product, like an app or a website. It could even be a service or an experience, such as a frustrating experience in your local supermarket.

One you’ve got a particular product or service in mind, think about how user research could be used to make improvements. What false assumptions did the company (or designer) make when developing this product? Which main target groups should they have consulted? Can you think of a competitor that offers a better version of this product or service?

As we’ve learned today, UX research is a key determining factor of a product’s success or failure. In identifying real-life examples of where a lack of user research has let the product down, you’ll start to get an idea of the kinds of things you need to pay attention to when conducting your own user research.

It’s a wrap!

That just about concludes our first UX research tutorial. Today we’ve learned what user research is, why it’s so important, and where it fits into the UX design process. Next time, we’ll introduce some common UX research methods and techniques.

Before you go, be sure to test your knowledge with our interactive quiz below.

Keen to learn more about UX research? Check out the following:

Take the quiz below to make sure you've learned all the important information—and that it really sticks! 


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