14 Essential UX Research Methods and How They Are Used
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Every delightful and every frustrating artifact that exists in the human world, exists thanks to a series of design decisions. The difference between the delightful and the frustrating design lies in the area of research. Wait, research?
“Research” sounds like money you don’t have and time you can’t spare sitting on your butt instead of moving forward and creating something. Once a project is born, it’s already over budget and behind the schedule. The startup gold rush makes us racing faster, harder, stronger through the roadmap. So it looks like we need to cross the research off the list.
But for a design to be successful, it must serve the needs and desires of actual humans. And unfortunately being a human is not enough to understand almost 8 billion other humans on the Earth.
Every time you make a product decision, you are placing a bet. You risk doing something wrong (or doing something right but in the wrong way). With guesswork, your chances for success are fifty-fifty. Either you guess it, or you don't.
Research is the ace up your sleeve you can play to avoid a costly mistake. The more you learn, the better your chances are. Rather than piling on the costs, user experience research can save you a ton of time and effort.
It seems obvious why user research matters until you have to prove this necessity to clever people with revolutionary business ideas. As a UI/UX design agency, we even have a doc called “How to explain to clients that some time should be allocated to research.”
This post exists to help you figure out what UX research is, how it fits into the user experience research process, and how to do user experience research if you’re already over budget and behind the schedule.
What is user experience research?
Have you ever seen the cartoon Hedgehog in the fog? It’s a Soviet 10-minute cartoon, unfamiliar for foreigners, that always leaves me in tears.
A hedgehog makes his regular evening journey to his friend, bear cub. Finding his way through the forest, he sees an unfamiliar fog bank. Getting off the path, the hedgehog curiously inspects the fog and gets completely turned around. A falling leaf terrifies him, bats scare him, and a weird owl tags along with him. Mysterious strangers and a pinch of luck help him find the right way.
It reminds me of starting a design project. Every time we develop something new, we stand at the frontier of knowledge, in front of the fog. To design, to write, to code the best solution ever existed for the problem we’ve just faced, we have to embrace danger, plunge ahead into the unknown, exposing ourselves to criticism and failure every single day.
You can be brave, and jump right into the fog with fingers crossed. Or you can remain on shore waiting till the smoke clears. What else you can do is to let a firefly light your way — just enough for a better view of your surroundings. UX research is your firefly.
Erika Hall, in Just Enough Research, defines UX research as a systematic inquiry. You want to know more about the foggy topic in front of you, so you go through a research iteration to increase your knowledge. The type of research depends on what and when you want to know.
Types of UX research and how they can benefit you
There are many, many ways to classify types of user research. The one I've chosen for you helps to understand what kind of research can be useful at different stages of your design process.
Generative UX research
You run the generative UX research to find the endpoint of our design project when staying in front of a fog bank. Such research leads to ideas and helps define the design problem. The generative toolkit includes googling, reviewing all the existent solutions in the niche, conducting interviews and field observations.
We, as a design agency, rarely have to deal with generative research. Take one of our clients, TextMagic. Originally, the app helped companies connect with clients via text messages. But the team figured out that their audience would appreciate some new features for marketing, customer support, and sales. This is when they turned to Eleken — when a round of generative research was in order.
Descriptive user experience study is our alpha and the omega, and the bright morning star. This is what we do when we already have a design problem, aka our endpoint. We’re looking for the optimal way to the point — the best way to solve the problem that was identified during the generative research phase.
To find the optimal way, we need to put ourselves into the users’ context — to ensure that we design for the audience, not for ourselves. Based on your goals, resources, and the timeline of the project, you can choose from a wide landscape of user research methods to gather the info you need. Look how we did descriptive research for Gridle, a client management app that came to us for a redesign.
We figured out that the Gridle team used Inspectlet, a session recording app, for their internal web analytics. So we got a chance to examine recordings of how visitors were using Gridle.
With zero research budget and in the shortest term possible, we understood which features users couldn't live without and which ones they didn't mind skipping. Just as if we were looking over their shoulders. Thus, we’ve learned what was good and what could be improved.
Next, we wanted to understand how we should improve the app to make it more valuable for users. Gridle had a strong customer base on Facebook, so it was easy to find volunteers for one-hour user interviews. As a result, we could understand and prioritize users’ needs, and transfer them to an empathy map.
Once we have a clear idea of the problem we're trying to solve, and the way we’re going to solve it, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start working on potential solutions. In the process, we need to check how we are doing to fix any issue before it causes further mistakes.
When you’re doing such ongoing testing, you’re doing evaluative research. It works best when you test your progress iteratively as you move through the design process. The most common method of evaluative research is usability testing, but any time you put your solution in front of your client or the audience, the feedback you get counts as a round of evaluative research.
As your app or website is live, you may notice that people behave unexpectedly. Maybe something went wrong, or surprisingly good. When you want to understand what happened, you resort to causal research.
For instance, we at Eleken have figured out that a part of our leads isn’t a great fit for our business model. We’re focusing on UI/UX design for SaaS apps. That’s what we know best, and that’s what we are brilliant at. Yes, we can help our loyal customers with marketing design, for instance, but if a notable part of leads comes to us for marketing design specifically, there’s something to be adjusted inside of our landing page. The task of casual research here is to find an element that needs to be adjusted.
When it’s just enough research
No UX research is one extreme. The opposite extreme is nonstop inconclusive testing of random things, like button colors or fonts in pursuit of a good user experience. Doing irrelevant research, you risk ending up disillusioned or losing organizational support for any experiments.
You can’t test everything, and you’ll never reach 100% confidence in your design until it’s live. That’s a little rush of adrenaline that makes our job so satisfying. When thinking of a research round, ask yourself, is this absolutely necessary to do?
How to do user research in UX? To make the best use of your time, try to measure the importance of UX research projects in terms of hedging risks. Imagine, what bad thing would happen if in half a year from now you’ll realize that:
- you were solving the wrong problem,
- you were working on the feature that doesn’t actually matter for users;
- you were wrong about your users’ habits and preferences.
If you’re not sitting in a cold sweat now, that is probably not your top-priority research.
How to start a UX research project
What is key in a user research? It’s your objectives that define what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what you expect from the UX research process.
As soon as you are ready with objectives, you start looking for appropriate research methods. It can be interviews or focus groups, A/B testing or usability research techniques, it all depends on the goals set and your resources.
Here is the list of our favorite UX research methods we use regularly to answer those questions.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!