20 UX research (+design) tips from 2020

12 min read David Renwick

What a year 2020 was. We saw massive disruption to the ways we live and work, and it’s fair to say that nearly every area of the globe was, and still is, being affected.

For researchers, designers and everyone else building products and services, the chaos and uncertainty of the past year haw shown just how important it is to place the user experience at the heart of every design decision.

Whether you work in a design lab in London or a social media agency in Chicago, now is the time to get to grips with the issues your users are dealing with and figure out how you can best position yourself to help solve them.

And to help, we’ve come up with a list of 20 UX research and design tips we learned from 2020.

1. Ask one question at a time

In your next research session, whether that’s a usability test or user interview, make sure you only ask one question at a time. When you ask multiple questions at once, there’s a good chance you won’t get the answers you need.

Here’s an example of what not to ask: “How do you find a company to order from and what factors do you consider when placing an order?” 

Keep things simple. Ask one question at a time.

Action: Before your next user test, write out a list of all of your questions and test them with a colleague.

2. Build a powerful remote UX research tech stack

With COVID-19 forcing a state-change in how people live and work, it’s become increasingly difficult to conduct the kinds of in-person user research many of us are used to. Instead, we’ve had to turn to online alternatives to get the data we need. But the number of online user research tools grows with each passing day, making it harder and harder to find effective, powerful tools.

An infographic image showing the various UX tools available and the overlap.
The User Interviews tool stack guide for 2020.

That’s why it’s important to build a remote UX tech stack that can support all aspects of your research workflow. Your tech stack might include a platform to get on-demand feedback from your users, another to gather quantitative data through a variety of methods, and a database tool to build a repository of all of these insights.

Action: Carry out some research. Create a spreadsheet to compare the various UX research tools that are available to you, and start some free trials!

3. Define your concepts before you ask a question

It’s important that your participants understand what you want them to do, especially if you want to measure task success.

For example, if you plan to ask your participants in a remote, unmoderated usability test to report on whether or not they successfully completed a task, it’s up to you to define success. Before you start asking them questions, explain what success looks like so they’re not left wondering.

Action: Before asking a question, define success criteria for your participants.

4. A/B test the small things on your website

Want to improve your website quickly and effectively? Identify a small improvement you could make and run an A/B test using the platform of your choice (we like Google Optimize). You might want to try testing two different ‘Signup’ button colors, for example, in order to see which color is more effective at getting users to sign up for your platform or service. Using A/B testing tools, you can set tests like this up in minutes and see results in a matter of hours.

Action: Sign up for an A/B testing tool and start hypothesizing some improvements to your website.

An image showing an A/B test on two laptops with different percentages.
An A/B test. Source: Optimizely

5. Don’t reinvent the wheel

Perhaps the best piece of design advice that we can offer is to not reinvent the wheel. In other words, it’s best to avoid fixing what isn’t actually broken.

There’s a good reason most websites and mobile apps follow common “laws” of navigation and color – because they work. People and organizations have spent thousands of hours and millions of dollars finding out what works and what doesn’t so you don’t have to. There’s little sense trying to think outside the box when designing a signup flow for your website when there are thousands of examples of how to design them effectively.

Action: When it comes to your next project, do your research before thinking that you need to start from scratch. You will likely find that the answer is already out there.

6. Upskill your organization

Ideally, user experience should sit at the heart of every business decision. Time and again, those organizations that place their users first succeed where others fail. This is why, as someone who understands why this is important, it’s your job to relay this thinking to the rest of your organization.

There are many ways you can bring others on your research journey. For example, involve them in your user interviews as notetakers, and talk them through the outputs of your research. If you’re unsure where to start, you may find that even a simple coffee is a good way to start up conversations with others.

We wrote this article on how to convince others of the value of user research which is worth reading.

Action: Consider the different ways you could involve others in your organization in your user testing.

7. Run a card sort using an online tool

Card sorting is tough to beat when you need to work out how your users think the information on your website should be ordered. But instead of running an in-person card sort next time, you should try an online card sort. Online card sorting tools make the entire process of running a card sort easy to manage – from setup through to participant recruitment and analysis.

You can also pair card sorting tools with other tools in order to gain even more useful insights.

Action: Run a card sort using OptimalSort in order to figure out how your users think the content on your website should be grouped.

8. Learn why people scroll

If you want to build webpages that truly work for the people using them, you have to understand why people scroll.

It’s quite simple: Users will typically scroll further down a page as long as you make it clear to them that there’s more useful and relevant content below the fold. This means you need to provide some direction in the design, whether that’s a scroll indicator or something in the web copy.

Action: Read this article from Nielsen Norman Group on scrolling and attention.

9. Use one color for CTAs

This next tip is a pretty simple one: Use one color for your call to actions (CTAs). Instead of using multiple colors for buttons with the same action, choose one and stick with it for consistency. If you’re wondering which colors are most effective, try running a few A/B tests and iterating from there.

Action: Stick with one color for any CTAs on your website.

10. Take better qualitative notes

Taking notes in a user interview can be tricky at the best of times. You’ve got to stay focused on the participant while logging your thoughts and then try and sort through the myriad insights at the end in order to generate some useful outputs.

The same issues apply with guest notetakers, except now you have to sort through someone else’s notes at the end of a session.

Enter a qualitative note taking tool – like Reframer. This tool captures all of your notes and observations in one place, and includes analysis tools to help you make sense of these thoughts after the session. You can even invite others in your organization to take notes for you!

Action: Before your next user interview or usability test, sign for a free trial of Reframer.

11. Consider using personas

Keeping the target audience of your product or service in mind is important, if tricky. This is why many designers, researchers and marketers turn to personas. Personas are archetypes of your target audience, and you’ll typically have a few to represent as wide a group of your audience as possible. Another useful activity is classifying your personas as either primary or secondary personas in order to determine which are most valuable to the organization.

And how do you create personas? It all starts with research. Use methods like usability tests, user interviews and contextual inquiries to build your personas from real data.

Action: Consider the value of researching and building personas.

12. Use the story method

The next time you’re about to write the questions for a user interview or usability test, get your users to tell you a story instead of asking direct questions. For example, if you’d like to learn about how users navigate through your checkout process, ask them more broadly about how they go about buying your product.

Asking a more open-ended question will give you useful contextual information about the problem you’re trying to solve.

Action: In your next usability test, ask your users to tell you a story instead of asking them a direct question. You may be surprised by the results!

13. Get out into your industry

Whether you’re a user researcher, interaction designer or UI design expert, it’s important to get out into your industry on a regular basis. There are several ways of doing so:

  • Attend a local meetup to learn something new and network with your industry peers.
  • Go to a conference. You can even attend most conferences in 2020 over the internet.
  • Speak at a conference.
  • Host a workshop to upskill others in an area that you’re proficient in.

You will likely find that your specialization (regardless of what it is) will have a strong, established presence in your city. It’s your job to find it.

Action: Any of the above.

14. Speed is everything

Site speed is one of the pillars of a good user experience. But it’s useful to break this down further.

Jakob Nielsen notes that there are 3 main time limits to keep in mind when designing for the web, which are determined by human perceptual abilities. These are useful metrics for benchmarking your own website or application.

  • 0.1 second: The limit for instantaneous response. This is also the ideal response time for a webpage.
  • 1.0 second: The limit for a user’s flow of thought to remain uninterrupted. The user will still notice a delay, but you won’t need to show any special feedback on the page.
  • 10 seconds: The limit for keeping a user’s attention focused on what’s happening on the page. Any longer, and a user will likely try and multitask by doing something else.

Jakob Nielsen also explains that while response times should be as fast as possible on a webpage, it is also possible for the computer to react too quickly, at which point the user cannot keep up. He notes that: “a scrolling list may move so fast that the user cannot stop it in time for the desired element to remain within the available window”. 

Action: Keep the 3 main time limits in mind when designing your website, mobile app or other digital experience.

15. Test for mobile

A substantial (although not surprising) two thirds of the world’s population now use smartphones. This figure has obvious repercussions for anyone in product or web development: Mobile must be a first and foremost consideration.

However, it’s easy to overlook the mobile experience of a website, app or product. This is why we’ve got one piece of advice: Test and build for mobile.

More and more of the world’s population use smartphones for everything imaginable, and the last thing you want is to leave this cadre of users out in the cold with a poor mobile experience.

Action: Don’t leave mobile users out in the cold when designing digital products and services.

A photo of people using mobile phones.
The number of mobile phones continues to climb, year after year.

16. Map out your customer journey

One of the key facets of human centered design is understanding the complete journey your users take with regards to your product. Consider everything: How they might be feeling during the sign-up process, what frustrations they’re looking to resolve in using the different aspects of your product and why they might eventually leave your product. When you take all of these elements into account, you have a far better chance of identifying the different ways in which you can improve their user experience and prevent churn.

Action: Read this explanation from Nielsen Norman Group on how to construct a customer journey map. 

17. Build your understanding of ResearchOps (and DesignOps)

ResearchOps is a practice that’s rapidly gaining popularity in the global research community. So what exactly is it?

It has 2 main goals:

  • Socialize research: Make it easier for others to access the insights generated by user research, and allow them to actively take part in research activities.
  • Operationalize research: Standardize templates, plans, processes and other tools to reduce the cost of research and the time required to get research projects off the ground.

In a nutshell, ResearchOps is all about making research easier and more accessible. There’s also a growing body of resources to support this new practice, including our very own guide. DesignOps is closely related, but obviously focused on design.

18. Conduct some guerilla UX research

Guerilla research, ethnographic research, field research – whatever you want to call it, getting out and interacting with your users in their natural habitat is the best way to learn more about them.

This type of research will look quite different depending on the problem you’re investigating or the product you’re testing, but the principles are the same. For example, whether you want to learn more about how paramedics use their life-saving equipment or how baristas use their coffee machines, you’re going to want to spend time with them and observing how they work.

Action: Plan to conduct some research in the field by scheduling a time to go and observe your users or target market.

19. Write a solid UX research plan

Approaching a research project can be a daunting prospect at the best of times. There’s no small amount of coordination and planning required, and depending on the scale of the project, you could also need to manage large numbers of participants and large budgets. This is where a UX research plan is invaluable.

A UX research plan is basically a single source of truth for your research project. It’s where you feed in your high-level research goals, who’s on your team, your stakeholders, budget, timeframe and more. Beyond the logistics, you can also use your plan as a benchmark. Come back to your research plan at the end of your project to see if you answered your initial research question.

Action: Read our comprehensive guide on putting together your own UX research plan.

20. Understand that 2020 is an odd year

This year has been anything but normal, and it’s OK to realise that not everything is going to go according to plan. Whatever your research ambitions, we’re here to help in any way that we can.

Happy testing!