14 Essential UX Research Methods and How They Are Used

Masha Panchenko

Many people wonder, what do UX researchers do apart from talking to users about their experience? Can experience be measured?

UX research is a huge part of UI/UX design services. Here at Eleken we spend lots of time trying to find out what users need, feel, think, and why they click that red button first. Here is the list of our favorite UX research methods we use regularly to answer those questions.

Squidward: No Patrick. Copying features from other apps is not UX research (meme)

Diary study

Used: to learn users, their feelings and habits deeply

+++ may open new insights in the areas that were out of the attention of the researchers

- - - depends on how motivated and dedicated the users are 

This is the ultimate UX research method that lets you get inside the mind of the users. For a diary study, you have to ask users to write a diary for a period of time. The diary would contain all the reflections related to the subject of the study: thoughts, actions, emotions, desires, etc. It can last for a week or more, depending on the subject and the time available.

Diary study works great at the initial stages, when it is important to understand well users goals, jobs-to-be-done, and problems. Collected information makes a solid foundation for the user persona.

Ethnographic (field) research

Used: to see how users interact with the product

+++ studies real situations, not modeling

- - - not always accessible

Ethnographic Research (aka Contextual Inquiry) is a process of observing users in their natural environment, analyzing their ways of acting in certain situations. It is the same process that an ethnographer does, but with a very concrete focus on the product, activity, or problem that the UX researcher is interested in.

Observing people in real-life situations is not always feasible. For example, visiting a bank headquarters to study how employees use the CRM system is easier than observing how people use dating apps.

Mouse tracking & click tracking

Heatmaps of all click positions and recorded cursor positions
Image credit: Christopher Mims

Used: to test a prototype or find issues in the ready product

+++ can collect data about behavior patterns of a large number of users 

- - - risk of incorrect conclusion 

Compared to other user research techniques that involve a researcher following the user interactions in real-time or in screen recording, this method allows a UX researcher to process more data from a large number of users and see the major tendencies of user interactions. To choose the right software for that, check out our list of best UX research tools.

Here are some of the insights that heatmaps of mouse tracking reveal:

• What parts of the interface have the most clicks?

• What buttons have fewer than expected clicks?

And so on. Click heatmap doesn’t give direct answers, but it certainly highlights the areas that need some improvement.


Eyetracking map
Image credit: MeasuringU

Used: to test user interface

+++ highly precise

- - - requires special technical resources

Just like with click tracking and mouse tracking, there are hints that need the right interpretation. Why do users spend so much time looking at the headline? Is it because the font is so beautiful or because the text is hard to read? Or both?

If eyetracking sounds like a thing from an anti-utopia novel, don’t worry. It is a relatively new technology, but it does not require very sophisticated devices. Unlike some other techniques described here that require just a researcher, a user, and a notebook, this one can’t be done without special software. However, it is more affordable than you would expect. Eye trackers use cameras, projectors, and algorithms to catch the user’s gaze.

While click tracking shows actions that involve thinking and intention, eyetracking captures the reactions that might be hard to reflect on, and therefore would not appear in user interviews. Like when people tend to focus too much on the picture that is supposed to be just a background to the text.


In-depth interview (IDI)

Used: at any stage

+++ allows to get lots of insights and be flexible when asking questions

- - - takes a lot of time to cover many respondents

As you may guess, this method of UX research implies one-on-one talk between the researcher and the user. There are two types of interviews: directed (following a prepared list of questions) and non-directed (letting the interviewee talk about their experience, with as little interruption as possible). The latter technique gives an opportunity to find some insights about the user experience that the researcher was not aware of.

When you have the list of questions ready, estimate the duration of the talk and inform the interviewee in advance.

Intercept interview

Used: at any stage

+++ random but well-targeted selection of respondents

- - - hard to get detailed information since people may not be ready to dedicate much time to it

To run this type of interview, the researcher has to “catch” users or potential users in the place of their natural habitat, in a situation when they would be using the product. This type of interview has to be short, but it can be combined with field research to provide more information.

Let’s say we want to see how people interact with a supermarket loyalty app. To do this, we go directly to the supermarket, watch people using it, and ask questions.


Email survey

Email survey template. Got a minute?
Image credit: beefree.io

Used: at any stage

+++ Cheap and accessible

- - - Risk of non-response error (you miss the valuable input of people who are frustrated with the product or just don’t want to fill in email surveys)

This is one of the most natural ways to reach a large number of target customers. It is much easier to get people to answer a few questions than going for an hour-long interview. Needs no coordination in time and space, no geographical limits. 

Email survey works best with an existing database of users. When you are doing a UX research for a new product without a customer database, you have to be sure to send out your emails to contacts that belong to the target audience. You can include a couple of questions regarding demographics to know whether their profiles are relevant to the product. 

Email surveys don’t have to be paid, but to increase the amount of filling in surveys, you can give small presents to those who finished it.

On-site survey

On site-survey. Is there something you do not like about this page?
Image credit: survicate.com

Used: to understand what users think of an existing product

+++ captures the experience of real users at the right moment

- - - possible only when the product is already out there and functioning

This survey appears on the page right after the user has interacted with the product. This way, very direct questions can be asked like what was the user intent, whether they succeeded, and what were the issues. An on-site survey allows the research to cover any segment of users: those who are using a particular feature, or those who exit the website without purchase, and so on.

Surveys are some of the most common and easy to execute UX research techniques. With a survey, you can collect both quantitative and qualitative data with close-ended and open-ended questions. However, trying to insert too many questions is dangerous: the longer the survey, the fewer the responses.  Good practice is to warn users how long the survey will take before it starts.

Focus group

Used: to discover users needs and feelings

+++ Takes less time compared to individual interviews

- - - Hard to conduct online

A focus group is when a researcher has a conversation with a group of users at the same time. The average number of participants is 6-9 persons. Focus group is not just for saving time on personal interviews: the results can vary. People behave differently when they are around peers.

Working with a focus group requires special preparation: knowledge of psychology helps create the right atmosphere and get valuable insights.

Card sorting

Card sorting. A man arranging cards on the table
Image credit:  UX Indonesia on Unsplash

Used: when building informational architecture

+++ requires little preparation

- - - the results may be inconsistent and hard to analyze

Card sorting is a method that helps build the very fundamental architecture of the product. All the main units are written on separate cards and users are asked to sort them into categories. This tool prevents designers from blindly following habitual structures that they have used before. 


Tree testing. Tree structure
Image credit: Nielsen Norman group

Used: when you have to verify information architecture or test how it works with user tasks.

+++ works both online and offline

- - - only tests informational architecture without taking into account other factors

This method can be the next step after card sorting or can be used separately when the informational architecture is already created and needs to be verified.

To start, you present a complete hierarchy of all the categories. Then, the researcher asks the user to find a particular category. 

Try to avoid giving direct indications, like “Find UI/UX services”. Let’s imagine we are testing the navigation of this website. The task may sound something like “You are about to launch a SaaS startup and you are looking for designers to make an MVP. What page would you go to?”.

Competitors analysis and benchmarking

Used: at the initial stages of development and when analyzing the existing product

+++ good tool for finding product-market fit

- - - excludes real users

Finally, there is a UX research method that doesn’t require talking to strangers. Seems like an obvious step in developing a product, but you’d be surprised to find out how many product owners skip deep research and rely on what they know already about the market.

Why do you need in-depth competitors analysis? First of all, it saves you from reinventing the wheel. Sometimes when you commit too much to design thinking, you end up crafting a solution that is already present on the market. Secondly, analyzing competitors helps you find their weak points that you would address, and define a value proposition that will make your product stand out.

Usability testing

Used: to analyze how user-friendly the product or prototype is

+++ allows to see the interaction and talk to users to understand them better

- - - limited amount of users studied

Usability testing is how most people imagine UX research. A researcher following a group of users while they are performing tasks with the product. Usability testing also includes asking questions to understand the motives of the actions.

Based on the results, a researcher can define potential issues and solve them in the next iteration.

A/B testing

Used: to compare two versions of a solution

+++ shows clearly which version is chosen by the majority of users

- - - hard to execute in some cases

For the A/B test to work, a group of users has to be divided randomly in two. Two versions of a product are offered to each group, and the results compared to understand which one performs better. A/B testing can be executed on its own or in combination with another UX research method: for example, tree testing of two different hierarchies. 

It is important to make the A and B versions not too varied so that the results of the study wouldn’t be interpreted adversely.

Final thoughts

This list is not exhaustive, there are new methods and tools appearing constantly in the world of UX design. Each stage requires different techniques, and it takes time and experience to figure out which one works best for a particular case.

Why UX research is important (meme)

Still wondering if you need all of it for your project? Ask our professionals, they know all what, which, when, and whys of UX research. Drop us a line!

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