UX research, or sometimes also called “design research”, plays a very important role in knowing about the target market. It also serves a lot of purposes throughout the design process such as identifying, approving and disapproving assumptions, looking for commonalities across target audiences, recognizing users’ needs, goals, and etc.
In this article, UX Research: A Beginner’s Comprehensive Guide, we will discuss the basics of UX research (UXR) by looking at its importance, the different UX design research methods involved, and the tools available for testing. We will also cover the role of a UXR specialist, how to start your career as a UXR specialist, and we will also include a list of courses available for UX researchers.
What is UX Research?
UX research involves several methods of investigating the user in order to get some insights of what they require and need to make the whole “user experience” easy and successful for the user. These insights will be used and tested in designing the whole user experience.
The procedure involves a series of methodologies, tools, and techniques to determine the right conclusion, to verify facts, and most of all, to uncover user problems. All of these data are important in order to create a good design for the user- whether it’s a design for a website, a product, or an application.
There are several ways to gather information from users. You can employ qualitative and/or quantitative methods, which includes interview, contextual inquiries, personas, card sorting, and other usability testing methods among many other ways.
Quantitative research involves measurements or numbers. It looks for answers to questions like “how many people clicked the buy button” or “what percentage of users are able to find the call to action on the homepage?”
On the other hand, qualitative research requires understanding of why people do things they do. It looks for answers to inquiries like “why didn’t they click the buy button” or “why they did not see the call to action on the homepage?”
Generally, conducting UX design testing demands for a systematic approach to gather and interpret data. One has to determine the right structure, methods, and tools appropriate for gathering of information. We will discuss further about the whole method involved in user research at the latter part of this article.
One of the reasons why user experience research came to light is its usefulness and importance in the designing process. It helps the UX team properly create a design for products or services based on validated user feedback, user needs, and experiences. Though an extensive procedure, usability research can greatly reduce the cost of delivering a successful product.
Why is UX Research Important?
To create relevant and useful design
Always remember this: An irrelevant design will never be successful. The logic behind this is simple. For the product to become successful, it needs to be useful and relevant to your users. The only way to achieve this is to empathize with your users and user experience research is a great way to do that.
Common methods of gaining user feedback are conducting interviews and observing people while using your product or application. Let us take for example, the Korean global brand Samsung who spent time going through households to survey and observe how they live and use their home TVs. Surprisingly for them, it has gained them important information that most TV brands have not thought of— that users prefer a sleek, minimalist look that can go well with their furniture. So rather than showing off all the TV’s features, Samsung designed their TVs based on this observation.
To create easy-to-use design
Just what Steve Jobs said, “if the user is having a problem, then it’s our problem.” To be commercially successful, a product should have a high level of usability. This can be achieved by conducting usability testing. Gone are the days when only experts could use the technology available since it is a requirement to get knowledge and even diploma to operate these tools. But now, people expect something that is easy to learn and use, even for a normal person. Utilizing the technology these days are made to achieve something for the end user, which also implies less burden for them on how to use the product. Thus, good user experience should be achieved in creating an easy-to-use product.
Hindawi published a review study on mobile user interface design patterns. They discussed how mobile designing has changed over time, noting that early stages of the investigation on mobile was more about engineering approach, which includes prototyping, new techniques proposals, and also new interaction styles.
However, since 2010, this has shifted more to usability evaluation of design patterns and usability studies. The study reveals something we need to always remember today: when developing a product, it is important that you also take time to survey the market because as an expert on the product you are developing as it is hard to assume that you know which things are understandable and not to the user unless you participate in conducting your own usability testing.
To better understand the return of investment (ROI) of UX design
A lot of people in the user research industry have failed to see the importance of this. Reality is, in the UX niche, it is still a challenge to fight for the available resources that enable UX researchers and UX designers to properly do their work. This is because user research and design are not really tangible compared to other sections in product development like software development for example. If you have a budget in product design and you need to cut in software development, you can immediately see the consequences that came in the budget cut. This is a different story for UX design as you can only see the consequences once the product reaches your market.
Thus, it is important to conduct studies showing the ROI on UX efforts. If you can see more sales, more customers, and more user feedback on good customer experience after making some changes in the design, then you can also see why you should invest in UX.
We can take Amazon as an example of investing well in customer experience and how this has made them one of the largest retailers online. The company has invested on customer experience ever since and has continually measure their usability. Their focus is investing long term on customer experience rather than on profit. Because of their continuous UX efforts on customer experience, Amazon remains to be the largest internet retailer since 2015.
What is the Process of UX Research?
There are so many ways to conduct UX design research. However, if you are a beginner, it is best to start with the simplest model. In this case, we take Erin Sanders’ process on UX research. Sanders is a senior interaction designer at Frog, who created a design method called the “research learning spiral”, which have 5 distinct steps:
What we like about Sanders’ UX research method is it’s replicable and can fit into any part of the designing process. The whole “spiral process” is based on learning and need-finding, which helps designers answer questions and at the same time overcome obstacles when it comes to understanding which direction to take when designing a product.
The first three steps are about formulating and answering questions, so that you know what you need to learn during your fact-finding investigation:
1. Objectives: The questions you are trying to answer
You can take the “5Ws and an H” structure when it comes to framing your questions. These are:
- Who? Are questions that refer to your target audience
- What? Are questions that refer to what people are doing and also what they are using in your website, product, or application
- When? Are questions that determine the time when people use the product or technology. This can also include the daily routines that also need to be included
- Where? Are questions that determine the context of use- physical locations that tell where people use the product or technology. This may also include location on the Internet where users may want to access
- Why? Are questions that help explain the behavior or the underlying emotional and rational drivers to what they are doing and why they are doing it
- How? Are questions that go into detail on what actions or steps are taken by users in order to perform a task or reach a goal
Sit down with your design team and discuss the possible queries that may help identify the gaps in knowledge that you and your team need to fill in to create a successful product design.
2. Hypothesis: What we believe we already know
You can’t just execute your ideas without testing it first. This is where the importance of hypotheses come in. Having a list of hypotheses helps us become aware and also minimize biases from the client or the UX team. Being aware of one’s hypotheses also helps us select the right methods to use for our objectives.
Most of all, hypotheses can prove or disprove one’s merit and also helps communicate better the discoveries learned during the entire procedure (e.g. “We believed that [insert hypothesis], but we discovered that [insert finding from research].”)
3. Methods: How we plan to fill the gaps in our knowledge
Once you are one with your key goals and what kind of data to collect to get the answers from your list of queries, you can then lay out the methods that will be used to achieve your objectives.
There are so many methods to consider and all these will be discussed in the next section below.
Once you are done with your objectives and hypotheses, you can now start with the gathering of data needed to get the right knowledge for your design research. The steps to be taken here are the last two steps in Sander’s process:
4. Conduct: Gather data through the selected methods
In this step, it is important that you participate and facilitate the probing and investigation sessions, properly capturing and analyzing the notes, photos, videos, and other materials that you need to collect. Also, do not base on your notes alone. It is also important that you think out of the box and tweak something as you go.
Just ask yourself this: Am I discovering what I need to learn or am I just gathering information that I already know? The whole point of gathering data is to discover and learn new things to achieve your objectives. If this is not met, then you need to sit down and change things to be able to get the new knowledge that you are looking for.
5. Synthesis: Answer research inquiries and prove/disprove hypotheses
This stage requires you to find the meaning behind your gathered data. In order to answer the queries that you have in your objectives, you need to know the “what” and the “why” behind the data you have just collected. This can be a challenging step, so taking time in analyzing the data can help you construct with the proper synthesis.
This stage also requires you to properly gather concise, actionable findings, and then revise the wireframes in order to get the needed changes, based from the data gathered.
Proper and clear synthesis will help your team become more confident in the solutions to take.
What are Useful UX Research Methods?
Now that you have completed your key research goals, have gathered the data needed to answer your inquiries, and all other considerations, you can then proceed to the right methods that will help you complete your goals. You can check out the list of common UX research methods below:
- Usability tests- set of methods asking users to go through common tasks within a system or prototype and then share the whole participation after. The user may need to answer several follow-up questions from the researcher
- UX interviews- entails a conversation between the researcher and the participant. Generally, the researcher digs deep into the topic to get better answers and insights from the participant
- Focus groups- is similar to UX interviews but this consists of multiple participants and one researcher
- Surveys- consists of a series of queries that usually helps gather any type of attitudinal behavior
- Diary study- is a longitudinal method, asking participants to document their activities, interactions, and attitudes over a period of time
- Card sorts- card sorting is a process that helps see how people group and categorize information like for example, a researcher can provide categories and let the users sort and group the elements on their own
- Tree tests- just the opposite of card sorts, where the participants are provided with a proposed structure and ask them to find individual elements within the structure
- A/B testing- is a process of providing different solutions to the audiences to measure their actions to see which is better in meeting the goals
More to add to the above methods, you can check out Nielsen Norman Group UX research cheat sheet, listing the different methods and activities that a UX expert can do to produce data and insights.
You can refer to the chart below to see all the available UX methods that you can apply in various usability designing projects:
UX Research Tools
When it comes to UXR tools, there is fairly a good amount of information out there. And since UX research has become so essential in business, it can be a challenge in choosing the right tool for your investigation.
Thus, our team at Userpeek has come up with a comprehensive list of UXR tools that we also categorized into different areas of UX study. However, some of these tools may also overlap in different areas. We want the list to be more “friendly” for you so you can easily check which UXR tools are right for your needs.
- XMind (for mind mapping)
- Mini Heuristic
- Empathy Map
- Empathy Template
- Persona Template (from UX Lady)
- Customer Journey
- Experience Map Template
- Customer Journey
- Experience Maps
- Storyboard Template
Synthesis & Sharing
Note taking & Transcription
Analysis (of Behavior)
- Bugsee (mobile)
- SmartLook (mobile)
- Lookback.io (mobile)
Remote usability testing/interviewing
What is the Role of a UX Researcher?
Based on the above discussion on UX product design, we somehow can already tell what a UX researcher is and what it does. Since the purpose of user research is to collect and analyze human insights to be able to properly design a product for humans, the UX expert’s role is to provide concrete and tested answers to the queries concerning product design.
A UX expert facilities the whole design stages with a goal to reveal what the consumers need from the product. Its fundamental role is to assist the entire UX design team in understanding the consumers, ensuring that the product design is fun, intuitive, easily accessible, and user-friendly among many other factors. Some of the responsibilities of a UX expert includes:
- Collaboration with other team members that are involved in the product design. The user researcher works closely with the product developers, product managers, designers, and other departments in the product design in order to properly direct its teammates in practicing the best consumer probing approach.
- Responsible for conducting the fact-finding process. As a researcher, its responsibility is to oversee the planning and conducting of consumer study, making sure that these are properly done in all stages of the product designing process—from conceptualization, prototyping, and all the way to usability testing of the product.
- Responsible for educating the UX team (and other departments) of what needs to be done. It acts as a specialist in the research field, with the responsibility to educate its teammates by properly documenting and applying actionable product research findings and delivering these to all departments.
- Has a strong sense of the product strengths and weaknesses. A UX expert is expected to know the product’s competitive edge to make a sale. For this reason, the researcher becomes an advocate of the product’s value and can clearly point out the things that need improvement.
- Responsible for applying which research design approach to take. The UX researcher should also know how to conduct quantitative and qualitative research approaches to be applied across product design departments.
- Other duties required by the company. Generally, the role of a UX expert varies from different companies. You can check out the websites below to have an idea on how different companies advertise and describe the UX expert role:
How To Become a UX Researcher?
If you are interested in becoming a UX researcher, it is important to have a strong background in the fields of marketing, cognitive science, psychology, economics, and behavioral science.
You must also have an analytical mind to read data and also acquire soft skills on reading people. On top of this, a UX researcher should also know how to work with different types of people as the job also entails working closely with different departments in the design process.
Userpeek team listed down the following qualifications required of a UX expert:
- Academic degree: Should have a degree in any or similar fields in Business, Marketing, Economics, Computer Science, Psychology, and Behavioral Science. If you do not have a degree in any of the (or similar) fields above, an equivalent work experience may also be acceptable.
- Work experience for at least 2 years: Should have at least 2-year job in statistical, qualitative, and quantitative analysis, product usability, experimental design, and similar jobs. The candidate should also have knowledge in using certain UX research tools.
- Good communication skills: a usability expert deals with complex research concepts that the candidate should acquire the talent to explain this clearly to everyone involved in the designing process. The candidate should have good communication skills in both verbal and written form.
- A good problem solver: Since its job is to formulate good, actionable solutions, the candidate should be an effective problem solver and also be able to come up with creative solutions for each problem.
- Knowledgeable in using the needed software: This includes tools like Sketch, InDesign, Illustrator, Keynote and Photoshop, which are all important in delivering clear and engaging presentations for everyone involved in the product development and design.
UX Research Design Courses Available
If you want to start a job in the UX design and research, now is the time to build your career. There is a wealth of information available out there for UX researchers and most of these are really high-quality materials that you can use for your career foundation.
With that said, you can get started with our handpicked UX courses and materials below:
UXR online courses
- Nielsen Norman Group list of UX research courses
- UX research courses in Coursera
- Udemy courses on UX research
- The UX Careers Handbook by Cory Lebson
- The User Experience Team of One
- Research and Design Survival Guide by Leah Buley
- Observing the User Experience
- Practitioner's Guide to User
- Research by Elizabeth Goodman
- Tomer Sharon: What is User Research?
- Putting Users in UX: Research Methods for Strategy
- Building a User Research Practice in the Home Office (Katy Arnold at Home Office)
The UX field is multidisciplinary with no one path or specified guideline in becoming a researcher in UX. Because of this reason, a lot are intimidated in becoming a UX professional. This comprehensive guide for user research can be your solid foundation in starting your UX career.
However, you should also know this guide, along with reading or taking a course in UX are not enough to learn UX. Still the best way to acquire and become better at user design experience specialist is to hone your knowledge and skills by experience. Becoming a usability researcher is a continuous learning and effort. Most of all, this is a career that requires a leap of faith. We promise it will be fun! 😊