A Comprehensive Guide to UX Research Methods

by Nick Babich

posted on 10-27-2017

You can’t build a product people will fall in love if you don’t know your audience. To maximize your chances of success, it’s extremely important to conduct insight research before making any product decisions. User research is a process of understanding user needs, wants, and behaviors using different observation and feedback collection methods. It’s a fundamental part of the UX designer’s job and a core part of the overall UX design process.

In fact, UX research is the starting point for any project–it comes first in the UX design process because, without a proper research, product design can only be based on a designer’s own experiences and assumptions, which isn’t objective. Creating a product without good user research is like building a house without a solid foundation.

The field of user experience has a wide range of research techniques available and quite often it’s not obvious which one you should choose for a given project. It’s not realistic to use the full set of techniques on a given project, and that’s why UX researchers often face the question “What kind of user research should I do?” This article is intended to help you decide what research technique to choose based on the goals you’re trying to achieve.

Before You Start Your Research, Understand Your Goal

Before choosing a certain approach for user research it’s important to answer the following fundamental question: What do I want to know about my users and why do I want to know it?

Once you know what you’re trying to learn and why you can start thinking about how to learn it. What you need to know about your user probably falls into one of the following categories:

For each group, I’ll specify the most relevant research method or technique. This is by no means an exhaustive list of user research techniques, and some of these techniques could be used to answer more than one type of question. I suggest thinking of the following list as a good starting point, not as a complete guide for user testing.

What People Do/What Problems They Face

Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry is a variety of field study where a researcher observes people in their natural environment and studies them as they go about their everyday tasks. This method helps researchers obtain information about the context of use: users are first asked a set of standard questions such as “What is the most frequent task you typically do” and then they are observed and questioned while they work in their own environments.

This technique is generally used at the beginning of the design process and is good for getting rich information about work practices, as well as the tools and features users use on a regular basis. The results of contextual inquiries can be used to define requirements, learn what is important to users, and respond to their needs with informed design solutions. Everyone who works on a design team should participate in a contextual inquiry from time to time.

Tips:

Diary Study

A diary study can be used to see how users interact with a product over an extended period of time (ranging from a few days to even a month or longer). During this period, study participants are asked to keep a diary and log specific information about activities. A diary study helps a researcher find answers to questions like: What are users’ primary tasks? What are their workflows for completing complex tasks? Diary studies can be used as a follow-up to a contextual inquiry: they provide organic behavioral insights and help develop a rich understanding of a participant’s context and environment.

In-situ logging is the most straightforward method to collect data from diaries. Participants are asked to report all important information about relevant activities as they complete them.

Tips:

What People Need

Surveys and Questionnaires

Surveys and questionnaires allow a researcher to get a larger volume of responses, which can open up the opportunity for more detailed analysis. This type of research can be relatively inexpensive to run. The downside of this method is that there’s no direct interaction with the respondents and thus, it’s impossible to dive more deeply into answers provided by them.

There are two types of surveys–quantitative and qualitative:

In most cases, it’s possible to mix the two kinds of surveys. For example, you can start with small qualitative surveys to gather rich feedback. This will help you to discover which questions you need to ask and the best way to ask them for a later quantitative survey.

Tip:

Interviews

Gathering information through direct dialog is a well-known user research technique that can give a researcher rich information about users. This technique can help the researcher assess user needs and feelings both before a product is designed and long after it’s released. Interviews are typically conducted by one interviewer speaking to one user at a time of 30 minutes to an hour. They can take place face-to-face, over the phone, or via video chat.

Interviews can be a good supplement to surveys and questionnaires; conducting an interview beforehand helps researchers refine questions for the survey while conducting an interview afterwards allows them to gather more detailed analysis.

Since interviewing requires a lot of soft skills like active listening, observing, and knowing when and how to probe for more details, it’s recommended to hire a skilled interviewer. If you can’t afford that, check the following tips.

Tips:

What People Want

Concept Testing

Concept testing is giving users a rough approximation of a product or service in order to understand if they would want or need such product or service. A concept should convey the key essence of a product. A researcher shares this approximation with users in order to determine whether it meets the needs of the target audience. Concept testing can be done one-on-one or with larger numbers of participants, either in person or online.

Designers often use the rapid prototyping technique to create a concept.

Tip: Don’t wait for a fully-formed product. It’s possible to test a mock-up or semi-functional prototype (even low-fidelity ones) as long as you can explain to users what’s required from them.

User Groups

User groups (also called focus groups) are structured interviews that quickly (and, usually, inexpensively) reveal the desires and attitudes of a target audience. A moderator leads a group of 3–6 participants through a discussion about a set of topics, giving verbal and written feedback through discussion and exercises.

This research method is helpful when a company needs to gather a lot of insight in a short period of time. It can help researchers find the answer to the following important questions:

Despite the obvious advantages of this method, user groups are often criticized by many researchers. The most critical problems are:

Therefore it would be incorrect to use this method in the hopes of receiving an accurate measurement of behavior.

Tips:

Can People Use A Certain Product?

Usability testing

Usability testing is evaluating a product or service by testing it with representative users. In usability testing, you recruit some test participants and give them a set of scenarios that lead to usage of specific aspects of a product (or prototype). The main goal of this user experience testing method is to identify usability problems, collect qualitative data, and determine participants’ overall satisfaction with the product. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, if you want to select just one type of user research for your project, it should be qualitative usability testing.

Usability testing is often done formally (where a researcher creates a screener, hires participants, has them come into his or her lab, records the session, etc.).

It can also be done informally (where a researcher goes to the nearest coffee shop, finds participants, asks them to play with a product for 10 minutes, and then gives them a small treat as a thank you).

Tips:

Card sorting

Card sorting is asking users to organize items into groups (major features or topics related to the product), and then getting them to assign categories to each of those groups. This method helps create or refine the information architecture of a system (how to label your menus, how to group your content, etc.) according to the users’ mental models.

Card sorting can be done as open or closed sorting:

Card sorting can be done both offline (in person, with index cards), or online (using tools such as Optimal Sort).

Tip: While you’ll need more users for a card sorting study than for a usability test, it’s better not to go overboard as you’ll tend to get diminishing returns beyond 15 or more users.

Conclusion

Good user research is key to designing a great user experience. Conducting user research allows you to dive deep beneath the surface of what you think your users want, to what they actually need. Now you have a few different techniques to choose from.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design

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