What Is UX Research? An Antidote to Design Mistakes

Dana Yatsenko

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. 

What Is UX Research meme
This pic is older than the Internet, but still so true

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 

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 research

Descriptive research

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.

Empathy map we did for Gridle
Empathy map we did for Gridle

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.

Evaluative research

Evaluative research

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.

Causal research

Causal 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. 

Next, draw your attention to UX research tools, they can do a lot of heavy lifting for you — from recruiting interview participants and planning the questions to getting feedback, and sharing your findings.

But I encourage you to start with methods. We’ve got a dedicated article about the 14 most frequently used UX research methods. So follow the firefly!

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