How to build a UX tool stack

10 min read David Renwick

You’re ready to run your next research project. You’ve collaborated with the product team on the problem space, there’s buy-in and budget – now what?

Well, it’s time to look at an essential part of the research workflow: the research tool stack. I know, I can already hear the grumblings. “Why do we even need a tool stack?” and “Why do I even have to think about this? Why can’t I just keep using [insert popular user research tool here]?”. Well, here’s why.

We’ve done a LOT of research in our time here. That’s only natural, we build user research tools for people like you. And, in that time, we’ve learned a lot about matching the right tools to the right methods, and what you need to consider when integrating all of these tools together. What’s more, we’ve got a fairly good idea of some of the other tools you should consider which can make your life as a researcher much, much easier.

Why you need a UX research tool stack

The right tools will help you succeed. It’s really as simple as that. When you’ve got a capable tool stack that you can use when you’re in the midst of a research project, you’ll be able to gather better data, faster, and ensure you’re not wasting time. This is true in any business area. Whether that’s marketing, technology or customer support, well thought-out and vetted tool stacks and change the way you work.

There’s also the ResearchOps consideration. If you’re not too familiar with this term, ResearchOps is basically a movement to operationalize and socialize user research in organizations around the world.

By that we mean:

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

Key to ResearchOps success is the UX tool stack. It falls into the standardization point mentioned above. A curated list of tools will make it easier to launch new research projects and onboard new people – whether they’ve got “research” as a part of their job title isn’t relevant. Which tools are used where will obviously differ from company to company, but as a researcher, you should ensure that you have a set list of the tools that you use on a regular basis and a good understanding of why you use them.

Know your research question, then identify your methods

Before you start looking at software reviews to find UX tools, you need a solid understanding of your research question and the methods that you’ll use to answer it.

Let’s recap on research questions. As we’ve discussed in articles-past, research questions are basically your research objectives – the ‘why’ of your research. These need to come from discussions with your stakeholders (product teams, for example) and take into account any previous research or learnings. 

A popular example research question that I like to use is “How do our users currently use the ‘Order history’ feature on our website?”.  It’s hits all of those good research question points. It’s actionable (in the sense that you can identify a clear way to answer it) and specific (you’ll know when you’ve found the answers to it). A final note on research questions: They’re not the questions that you’ll ask your participants during your research sessions. Instead, they should inform the questions you’ll ask.

So, now that we’ve got a clearer picture of what research questions are, we can turn to the research methods. The methods you select will depend on your research questions. For example, some questions are best answered using qualitative methods, whereas others will benefit from quantitative methods. Some questions may even be answered through a combination of the 2 approaches.

Let’s use our earlier research question as an example of how to identify the right research method. As it’s focused on how people use a specific part of our website, we’d probably want to conduct some usability testing to watch them as they use the feature. Then, we might ask them questions or conduct dedicated user interviews to ask more in-depth questions. We could also run a tree test to see how people move through our website (with a focus on how they interact with the order history feature).

Tools to support the research workflow

**Warning: Promotion of Optimal Workshop tools**

The user research/UX space is an interesting one when it comes to the tools that are available to the people needing to do research. As a growing field, the number of options continues to grow alongside it. If you want a list of every tool that’s out there, Nikki Anderson published a great article on UX Collective, which you can read here. In this article, however, we’re going to talk about the tools that we provide. Yes, we’re doing a little bit of self-promotion, but our user research tools are used by some of the biggest companies in the world – and for good reason. Allow me to explain.

Our platform contains 5 distinct tools, each of which is designed to execute a specific research method. This means that the platform as a whole can be useful across a large part of a research project. Let’s take a look at each of the different tools and the methods they’re designed around.

  • OptimalSort (Card sorting): This is an easy way to design an information architecture (IA), workflow, menu structure or website navigation paths. Mainly, it helps you understand how people organise information (basically what makes sense to them). OptimalSort is our card sorting tool, and is lighting fast, powerful and packed with a range of analysis features.
  • Treejack (Tree testing): This method helps you test your IA without visual distractions. You can use the method to prove your site structure will work before you get into actual work of interface design. What’s more, it helps you find out where users get lost on your website quickly. Like OptimalSort, Treejack is fast, powerful and includes several options for analyzing your data.
  • Chalkmark (Design validation/First-click testing): Got a wireframe or even a finalized design and not sure whether it’s converting customers or doing its job? You may want to try first-click testing. After all, when people get their first click right on a website, they are two to three times as likely to find what they’re looking for than if they went in the wrong direction with that first click. Chalkmark helps you discover design issues quickly and easily, and it’s also easy to use.
  • Reframer (Usability testing/User interviews): Qualitative research methods – such user interviews and usability testing – have always been messy. After each session you’re often left with reams of notes in no particular order and with no way of making sense of the data. Reframer is our qualitative note taking tool, and it makes it easy to both take notes during sessions, tag observations and then use those tags to draw out useful themes and analysis.
  • Questions (Surveys): This method is fairly self-explanatory. Surveys basically allow you to gather insights and feedback from your users. Questions (our survey tool) lets you create surveys quickly in over 70 languages and collect data using a variety of question types.

Naturally, it’s easier to understand what we’re talking about by seeing these tools in action for yourself. If you haven’t already, join the likes of Uber, IBM and NASA and try all 5 out for yourself.

Don’t forget the participants

Now that we’ve got an understanding of some of the research methods (and the tools that we’ll use to execute them), we can turn our attention to another critical area – participant recruitment.

You don’t necessarily need a panel of participants ready to go at all times, but it’s a good idea to at least have an idea of where you can source people quickly. After all, as most researchers will tell you, research projects can often spring up out of the blue and you may need to hurriedly pull together a few participants to take part in a study.

If you’re interested in learning about the best way to go about sourcing quality participants for your next research project, we’ve got you covered with this article here.

In a nutshell, you need to:

  • Define your user group (The people who are representative of either your users or potential users).
  • Work out how many participants you need (This number will depend on the method or methods you’re using.
  • Identify where you’re going to find participants (You can ask within your organization, over social media, use a recruitment service or even place a live intercept on your website).

Tools to make your life easier

Aside from the research-focused tools, there’s an entirely different category of tools that you can use to help you with your research. I like to categorize these as the tools that make your life easier. They’re not essential, but they will help you to reduce some of the admin load and headaches that can come with managing these processes manually.

  • Screen recorders: These tools are very useful during usability tests (whether remote or in-person), as they allow you to record exactly what your participant is doing as part of your test. By pairing this with a camera recording of your participant, you can go back after the test is over and watch the footage to learn where they get stuck and where their pain points are. TechRadar has a good breakdown of the different screen recording options.
  • Sound recorders: On the flipside, sound recorders reduce the note taking burden by giving you an audio recording of your testing session. As with a screen recording, this is a useful item to have if you need to go back to clarify something from your test. Rev put together 2 lists of the best sound recording apps for Android and iOS (iPhone).
  • Transcription: Once you’ve captured your audio recording, you can use a transcription service to take the audio and transcribe it into a document. Rev is one such service and a good option. If your material is sensitive and you’d rather do the transcription yourself, transcribe.wreally helps you easily turn your audio into a text document.
  • Calendar scheduling tools: Calendly and other similar tools make the process of scheduling user interviews and usability tests a breeze. You can set up spaces where you’re free to host the sessions, and then your participants can select times within those spaces that suit them. This cuts back on the often finicky email chains to set up testing sessions.

Document, document, document

As we touched on at the beginning of this article, the UX tool stack is an important aspect of ResearchOps. Documentation is equally key – but specifically documentation surrounding how the research tools are used within the organization, and for what purpose.

Good documentation for your UX tools should really just follow the same guidelines for other types of documentation. O’Reilly Media has a good article on best practices for good documentation. We’ve edited the list to make it clearer:

  • Inviting and clear
  • Comprehensive, yet skimmable
  • Examples of how to use the software
  • Repetition, when useful
  • Up-to-date
  • Easy to contribute to
  • Easy to find

Conclusion

As in any profession, the tools that you have in your toolkit are (more often than not) essential in enabling you to do your job effectively. This is certainly true in user research, where having a set of easy to use, powerful tools can help you answer your research questions and extract useful insights.Your toolkit will certainly and adapt and change over time, especially as you discover new tools to add to your arsenal, but we find (unsurprisingly) that we still depend on our capable set to execute some of the core research methods. Sign up for free today and take them for a spin. We don’t think you’ll regret it.