Unlock the Power of UX Research Process to Design With Confidence

Dana Yatsenko

If you ask Google, you’ll figure that the user experience research process is some kind of a systematic study to gather insights that will drive and inform your UI/UX design decisions. 

The important word here is “systematic”. The methodical process of designing a research project is what saves your precious time and brain, and helps to get maximum value from research.

Sounds good but flat, let’s try to visualize our research process. 

how does ux research process look like

Seems like any process can be shown as a line. Every time we at Eleken write an article like the one you’re reading, or a case study about a new product Eleken’s team has designed, we’re trying to stretch out the research our designers have done into a chain of steps. 

And every time designers argue that they are rather buzzing around their research subject than moving from point A to point B. Thus, the UX discovery studies feel more like a loop, where you discover, define, design, and rerun it all one more time. But a closed loop as a route gives us a migraine. It shows no progress.

Let’s better make our research process model look like a spiral with many loops. We start with wide discovery research when we know nothing about the product, the audience, and the market to learn a few rough ideas on the topic, then spiral back, making connections between the ideas. Then keep lurking around, again and again, gradually adding new insights, validating or discarding our assumptions, and making more connections, checking if each idea is consistent (or inconsistent) with the users’ expectations.

With every new loop, we’re getting closer to our goal — the perfect fit between the product and the audience’s needs. 

ux research process model

Now, when we understand the approximate path, let’s see what elements it consists of.

What are the 4 stages of UX research process?

The research process consists of single studies we conduct to learn something new. Every study is a set of steps, whether it is a usability test, benchmark study, or user interview,. A convenient way to identify those steps provides a DECIDE framework, that stands for the six steps in conducting user research for effective UX:

  • Determine the goals, 
  • Explore the questions,
  • Choose the methods, 
  • Identify the practical issues, 
  • Decide how to deal with ethical issues, and
  • Evaluate the results. 

If you need some tips for running a specific study, check out this UX research plan template, it digs much deeper into this topic.

When you face a challenge to design or redesign an app, you need to string a series of such specific studies into a system that will help to gain all the knowledge you need to get the job done. The first step here is to clarify what knowledge you are looking for. At different stages of product development, you need different insights. 

Say, you might want to get a sense of your users’ problem to solve it via your app. Or you need to test the product prototype to see whether you’re moving in the right direction in terms of usability. Finally, you can ask for feedback when everything is ready to see if any improvements need to be made.

We can split our research into four phases according to our intent — to discover, to explore, to test, and to listen to the reaction. Let’s look at each of the phases in detail, and see how they fit into the overall product design project timeline.

User research discovery phase

The discovery phase is a way to deal with the uncertainty that is inevitable at the onset of any project. To beat the uncertainty, you’re googling and doing qualitative interviews to collect and analyze information about the app, its audience, and intended market. 

Discovery helps to clarify the goal and the direction of further movements. If your assumptions make you do a wrong thing or a right thing but in the wrong way, this stage is your chance to figure things out.

It appears from the above that discovery research works especially well when done prior to design itself before efforts are wasted. But you can return to discovery research anytime you need to.

discovery phase of ux research process

Exploring research phase

During this phase of exploration, you dig deeper into the topic to solve applied problems of design that appear in front of you in the working process. 

You compare your features against competitors and detect their user experience shortcomings that you need to rectify within your own app. You split your audience into personas and build user flows to define risky areas for losing customers along the way. You analyze users’ tasks to find ways to save their time and effort with your design decisions. 

This research phase overlaps with your active phase in the design process. Whenever you need to validate your design assumption, you use one of the exploring methods.

exploring phare of ux research process

Testing research phase

The research to ensure that your design is easy to use is mostly done as usability testing.

Nielsen Norman Group teaches us that if you can do only one activity in an effort to improve an existing system, you should choose moderated usability testing, where the person interacts with the interface while continuously verbalizing their thoughts as they move through the tasks. 

Thinking aloud usability tests sound easy and cheap. You recruit representative users, give them tasks to perform, let them do the talking, and sit nearby absorbing the insights. That's how it worked in the Pre-pandemic era. If you want to run such research remotely, let me recommend Lookback, one of the remote moderated usability testing tools we at Eleken use. Check out our list of UX research tools that can save the day. 

Testing research happens repeatedly during the design process and beyond so that you have time to make changes to your design if the test shows that such changes will benefit the product.

testing phase of ux research process

Listening phase

You can’t anticipate everything by testing your interfaces on small samplings. Your final and your most reliable test team is your actual users. So after your product is released, you should listen carefully to the feedback and monitor user problems, successes, and frustrations. 

This observation may trigger a new circle of design and development changes called to improve the user experience even more.

Listening phase of ux research process

When to use which UX research method

There’s a broad list of UX research methods that can answer the questions you ask yourself within each of the four phases of your research. If you want to get to know them better, we have a whole detailed article about UX research methods. However, understanding methods is only half the battle. 

When to use which UX research method

Projects with such budgets and timelines that allow using the full set of methods exist only in our dreams. Life is about making choices. Sure you can use one or two familiar methods all the time, but would they give a perfect mix of data every time given that no two apps are identical?

To help you choose the right method, Nielsen Norman Group suggests using their three-dimensional framework that is so good I’m jealous it wasn’t me who came up with this. 

a landscape of user research methods
Image credit: nngroup.com

Here we have 20 methods mapped across the frame with the following axes:

  • Attitudinal ↔ Behavioral 
  • Qualitative ↔ Quantitative
  • Context of Use

The attitudinal vs. behavioral distinction helps us identify the gap between what people say and what people do. Usually, on discovery and exploring phases you need self-reported data, gathered from interviews and card sorting. Behavioral data is especially useful when you’re testing your interfaces.

Now,  let’s explore the difference between qualitative and quantitative methods. Qualitative studies observe the event or behavior directly, as is the case with focus groups. They are perfectly suited for answering questions about why or how to fix a problem. Quantitative studies gather the data indirectly, through an analytical tool, for instance. Thus, they are useful when your questions start with how many and how much.

Finally, the context of use means that depending on the phase where you are in your designing process, you can run tests without any product, with a scripted version of the product, or with the actual product when it’s (almost) ready.

questions answered by user research methods
Image credit: nngroup.com

Let’s say we’ve started doing a website redesign and need to figure out how many weak spots are there to fix. We’ll use Google Analytics or Hotjar to figure out what frustrates our users. Next, we have a few hypotheses on how to fix the issues. We make paper prototypes and find five volunteers for usability lab studies.

Knowing what you want to ask, and what context of use you can afford at the stage where you are, the problem of choosing the right method is not a problem anymore.

Now it’s your turn.

Keep going

Want to dig further into the user experience topic? Here is an article about human-centered design — our North Star that we aspire to when conducting UX researches.  

For more research-focused reading, check out this article about design audit, it is full of usability checkup tricks and you can see how we run researches at Eleken UI/UX design agency.

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