Intro to UX research

Learn about the fundamentals of UX, including why research is so important and the how and why of different research methods.

14 min read

UX research

What is UX research

UX research, or user research as it’s commonly referred to, is an important part of the design process. Primarily, UX research involves using different research methods to gather information about your end users.

There’s no ideal time to carry out UX research – you’ll often find yourself doing some at different stages of different projects. For example, you might conduct interviews at the start of a project to help you understand a particular problem, carry out a tree test to identify bottlenecks or problems in your navigation and do some usability testing to directly observe your users as they perform different tasks on your website or in your app.

It’s best-practice to build up a habit of continuously gathering information from end users. After all, there are always new pieces of functionality to test and new insights to discover.

Why do UX research?

In the early 2000s, Samsung was struggling to sell flat screen TVs. There was nothing wrong with the technology – in fact, Samsung had actually included a number of innovations. To figure out why their TVs weren’t gaining traction in the marketplace, the company partnered with a research firm to better understand people’s relationship with their TV.

The data showed that in most homes, TVs were turned off far more than they were on, and the design approach Samsung was using just wasn’t working. The company overhauled the look of its TVs and suddenly started to find success. In a short period of time, the company became a major player in the TV market. You can read more about this here.

UX research is essential to creating products that meet users’ needs. Focused research can help you to identify pain points and work out what users really want, eventually building products they will use. What’s more, research can help you to reduce your own uncertainty by giving you the data you need to make informed decisions.

Tips for successful UX research

There’s really no shortage of information available when it comes to best-practices for UX research (see: the countless articles, books and ebooks on the subject), but there are core competencies we think you should keep top-of-mind.

  • Establish clear research questions: Nothing can derail a research project faster than poor research questions. These are the core of any research, and as such should be the center of your attention. Before writing a question down, do some preliminary research on the topic and your audience, and decide what it is that you want to learn. It’s also important to consult your stakeholders and identify what they’d like to see from your research.
  • Bring others into your testing: Involve stakeholders, designers and members of other teams in your research, whether in the testing sessions themselves or by setting research goals with them. This can help to show the value of what you’re doing and get buy-in for future research.
  • Share your findings: Where’s the value in research if the findings are never socialized? Make a habit of constantly feeding research insights back to relevant teams – and the wider company if you feel it’s appropriate.

Qualitative and quantitative research

UX research is a broad term, but it can be broken down into 2 research approaches: qualitative and quantitative.

  • Qualitative research is about exploration. It focuses on discovering things we cannot measure with numbers and typically involves getting to know users directly through interviews or observation.
  • Quantitative research is about measurement. It focuses on gathering data and then turning this data into usable statistics.

Every research method is designed for answering different types of qualitative or quantitative questions. For example, a survey could answer both qualitative and quantitative questions and a user test might be a good opportunity to collect quantitative data.

Here’s a handy little breakdown to explain the difference: If you want to find out why something happens, you need a qualitative method. If you want to find out how often something happens, you need a quantitative method. Here are 2 example questions:

  • Why do our Pro Plan customers upgrade from the Free Plan?
  • How many of our Lite Plan customers use the advanced features of our product?

As for when to use these 2 types of research, there aren’t really any set rules. For example, you might use quantitative methods in the early exploratory phase, if your question is specific to current usage or trends you see in your product. On the other hand, you could also run user interviews at the same time to learn about your problem directly from your users.

Generally, it’s best to use a combination of both types of research to ensure you’re understanding current trends, but also learning about the problem in enough detail.

Mixed methods research

Mixed methods research refers to a growing approach focused on using a variety of research methods to gather qualitative and quantitative data. For example, someone conducting mixed methods research would carry out both user interviews and surveys, with the aim of gaining a more complete understanding of the topic they’re studying.

Mixed methods research could also involve working with others (like data scientists) to complement qualitative research with quantitative metrics.

A mixed methods question might be: “How do people currently use the ‘save to wishlist’ feature?”. The aim here would be to unearth behavioral data from a product and combine it with what actually motivates people to do it in the first place.

Conducting mixed methods research means you’re not constraining yourself to the limitations of either qualitative or quantitative research. In effect, you gain the benefit of both exploration and measurement.

Types of user research methods

The field of UX research contains a number of research methods. What data you’ll gain from them varies greatly. There are methods focused on gathering more quantitative data like card sorting and email surveys and methods that will give you more qualitative data like interviews and participatory design.

Methods

Usability testing

Usability testing is the practice of testing a product – like a website – with representative users. In most cases, a usability test will involve observing users as they try to complete a series of tasks.

For example, one usability test could focus on asking the users of a car manufacturer’s website to find a particular model of car, with the aim of observing how they navigate the website.

It’s best to carry out usability testing throughout a project, using the findings and insights to make informed product decisions and iterate and improve over time.

There are also tools available to support usability testing, whether these are moderated in-person sessions or sessions over the phone. You can also use tools that support unmoderated usability testing, like usertesting.com.

Usability testing with Reframer

Reframer is our qualitative research tool designed specifically to support usability testing. Using Reframer, you can capture observations from your testing sessions, tag them appropriately and then analyze the results.

If you’re new to usability testing, our Usability Testing 101 guide is the best place to start.

User interviews

A user interview is a qualitative research technique designed to get a deeper understanding of a particular topic. Unlike a usability test, where you’re more likely to be focused on how people use your product, a user interview is a guided conversation aimed at better understanding your users. This means you’ll be capturing details like their background, pain points, goals and motivations.

User interviews are best carried out during the ideation phase of a product’s development, as a way of exploring the problem space and ensuring your focus remains firmly on user needs.

In a typical user interview, a moderator and a notetaker will sit in a room with a user and discuss a number of pre-prepared questions. Sessions can last anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes.

User interviews with Reframer

By using Reframer during your user interviews, you can log every observation and apply appropriate tags. When it comes time to sift through observations and analyze your findings, Reframer makes it easy to find the data you’re looking for.

Contextual inquiries

Contextual inquiries are a qualitative research technique aimed at learning more about your users in their own environment. Typically, you’ll start by asking a set of prepared questions, before moving onto an observation activity in which the user performs various tasks and you ask questions as they do so.

Because contextual inquiries are performed in the user’s environment (and not, for example, a cafe or meeting room in your office), the data you gather is usually richer and more grounded in the daily activities your users perform. It’s best to run contextual inquiries at the start of the project to gather as much realistic data as possible about users and the work they do.

There are 4 guiding principles to keep in mind:

  • Context: The sessions should take place in the user’s environment (e.g., their office or home)
  • Focus: Have a clear purpose. Keep the session focused on the topics that you need in order to gather useful data.
  • Partnership: These are a collaborative exercise. You need to form a partnership with your user in order to work out what they’re doing and why. A good contextual inquiry will feel more like a discussion than a rigid line of questioning.
  • Interpretation: As stated above, these are collaborative sessions. It’s up to you to explain your interpretations and findings to the user. The user is then free to expand on these or make corrections.

Card sorting

Card sorting is a well-established research technique for discovering how people understand and categorize information. You can use card sorting results to group and label your website information in a way that makes the most sense to your audience.

Card sorting is useful when you want to:

  • design a new website or section of a website, or improve an existing website
  • find out how your customers expect to see your information grouped on your website
  • discover and compare how people understand different concepts or ideas
  • get people to rank or arrange items based on set criteria.

Card sorting with OptimalSort

OptimalSort is our card sorting tool. Compared to traditional card sorting methods, OptimalSort cuts back the required preparation and analysis time.

If you’re new to card sorting, our Card Sorting 101 guide has everything you need to know to get your first card sort up and running with OptimalSort. You’ll learn about the differences between open, closed and hybrid card sorts, how you can choose the right technique for your particular project and how to effectively manage participants.

Tree testing

Tree testing is a usability technique for evaluating the findability of topics in a website. It’s also known as ‘reverse card sorting’ or ‘card-based classification’. Tree testing is done on a simplified text version of your site structure,without the influence of navigation aids and visual design.

Tree testing tells you how easily people can find information on your website, and exactly where people get lost. Your website visitors rely on your information architecture (IA) – how you label and organize your content – to get things done.

Tree testing can answer questions like:

  • Do my labels make sense to people?
  • Is my content grouped logically to people?
  • Can people find the information they want easily and quickly? If not, what’s stopping them?

Tree testing with Treejack

Treejack is our tree testing tool and is designed to make it easy to test your information architecture.

If you’ve never conducted a tree test before, our Tree Testing 101 guide will fill you in on all the basics to get you started. This guide tells you when to use tree testing, how to set your objectives, how to build your tree, and how to run a study in our tree testing tool Treejack. You can also learn more about Treejack on our features page.

First-click testing

First-click testing, like the name implies, shows you where people click first when trying to complete a task on a website. In most cases, first-click testing is performed on a very simple wireframe of a website, but it can also be carried out on a live website.

The first click is key. Research shows that when people get their first click right on a website, they are 2 to 3 times as likely to find what they’re looking for than if they went in the wrong direction with that first click.

First-click testing is useful for:

  • improving task-oriented success rates
  • getting quick feedback on designs before you implement or update them
  • testing wireframes and website designs.

First-click testing with Chalkmark

Chalkmark is our first-click testing tool. With Chalkmark, you can easily conduct first-click tests on screenshots and visual designs.

If you’re new to first-click testing, our first-click testing 101 guide is the best place to start. This guide shows you an example, explains how to start your own first-click test and how to interpret the results.

A/B testing

A/B testing is a way to compare 2 versions of a design in order to work out which is more effective. It’s typically used to test 2 versions of the same webpage, for example using a different headline, image or call to action to see which one converts more effectively.

This method offers a way to validate smaller design choices where you might not have the data to make an informed decision, like the color of a button or the layout of a particular image. While you can often use your own experience to make decisions like these, it’s always better to validate through testing. You can also A/B test live products when you’d like to make a change and measure the improvement of your current version.

There are a number of tools available to help you run A/B tests on live websites – like VWO.

Focus groups

A focus group is a research technique traditionally practiced as part of market research. While controversial in the UX community, focus groups can help you garner a range of opinions and ideas – quite different to a user interview.

In a typical focus group session, a moderator will bring anywhere from 6 to 10 people together in one room to provide feedback on a product. Over the course of the discussion, the moderator will work through a prepared list of questions designed to surface the most useful and insightful answers from participants. Ideally, the forum-like nature of a focus group will allow you to canvas the opinion of a larger spread of your users in a short period of time.

As with any research method, there are downsides to focus groups. For one, participants can be influenced by others in the session. You may also find that bolder participants will skew the results. Careful facilitation is the key to ensuring you get the most of your focus groups.

Surveys

Surveys are a popular user research method for gathering information from a wide range of people. In most cases, a survey will feature a set of questions designed to assess someone’s thoughts on a particular topic – for example, a product or website. They’re useful for getting feedback or understanding attitudes, and you can use the learnings from your survey of a subset of users to draw conclusions about a larger population of users.

There are 2 types of survey questions: open and closed.

  • Closed questions are designed to capture quantitative information. Instead of asking users to write out answers, these questions often use radio buttons and checkboxes. This means you can visualize the data in a number of different ways. For example, “How many times per day do you use this website?”.
  • Open questions are designed to capture qualitative information – motivations, context etc. Typically, these questions require users to write out an answer in a text field. As a result, you’ll need to spend more time analyzing the answers you’ll get from open questions. For example, “Describe the process you go through before buying a new pair of shoes”.

Surveys with Optimal Workshop

Questions is our online survey tool designed to complement the other tools in the Optimal Workshop suite. With Questions, you can easily create surveys in over 70 languages and collect data using a number of question types.

You can also insert pre- and post-task questions into any other tool study in the Optimal Workshop suite. Post-task questions can be particularly useful, helping you better understand the actions your study participants took in response to your tasks.


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