UX Research Simplified: Explaining The Key Methods

Unravel the complexities of UX research with straightforward methods, empowering teams to create user-centric products with confidence.

UX Research Methods - Clay

UX Research

UX Research Definition

Product design is an essential part of any production process. UX research enables data to be compiled, analyzed, and understood to inform the decisions made during the design phase. UX research consists of but is not limited to, observation, inquisition, and in-depth research of the nature of how users will interact with the product or service in question. As feedback is provided, it serves to refine designs to be more intuitive to better serve the needs of the product or service’s users.

Importance of UX Research

Performing UX research is imperative during product design and development because it informs the performing party about various aspects of how users interact with their product. This serves to drive the nature of user interaction with the product, any refinements that would bolster usefulness, as well as how to make the product more interesting and engaging to improve the level at which users enjoy interacting with it.

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UX Activities Infographics

By conducting UX research, product designers get crucial insights into what users need, prefer, like, dislike, and other motivating factors that make the product more palatable to their satisfaction. By allowing data to drive development, businesses can figure out what aspects of their product need to be improved, as well as how to allocate resources to prioritize those improvements with the most significant impact.

The true winner in any market is the adoption of new ideas while sticking to contemporary trends. User research allows for a more robust competitive edge in product design by identifying those trends through investigation of products offered by competitors. Additional insight is also gained from user interviews, surveys, and various other testing methods, as it permits direct feedback about the target audience’s interaction with the product.

The feedback is invaluable in that the business understands what a customer is looking for from the product. Even more pivotal is the fact that it points out shortcomings or things that the users would like improved, which can then be applied to a future iteration of the design through careful study of data points with analytic tools like Hotjar and Google Analytics. Systemic monitoring of user interaction with the product yields valuable insights into any adjustments that would benefit the product’s design, as well as how any such changes impact user engagement.

By and large, UX research points out areas where the product can be improved as well as where opportunities for enhancement exist. Through UX research, companies understand what is working and not working, working well, or could work better about their products. Leveraging this knowledge then allows them to improve in those areas of design, satisfy users more, and increase their revenue from the successful implementation of pertinent changes.

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UX research flow

UX Research’s Role In Helping Businesses

Improvements to products yielded by UX research bring several key benefits to the table for a business, including the attention of prospective customers (through sign-ups), conversions (increased sales), and a boost in customer satisfaction. The latter leads to positive feedback, yielding better reviews and higher NPS (net promoter scores). Satisfied customers will become repeat customers, as their loyalty will secure future earnings. On the expense end, better user interaction with products leads to less need for customer service interactions, which reduces costs on that end.

In other words, UX research leads not just to an overall boost in user experience, but its integration into the design and development process also pays off financially by saving businesses money and time, all while getting to know and understand their audience better, including in-depth insight into user goals, mental models, and pain points.

UX Research Method Types

Understanding how and why issues are solved drives effective qualitative UX research methods, while quantitative measures can produce actual metrics (how many, how much, etc.) that help businesses allocate resources appropriately and resolve potentially significant issues with the design and the methodology behind it.

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UX research methods

Qualitative UX Research Methods

Understanding opinions, motivations, and experiences, or in other terms, why users behave in particular ways when interacting with products, is at the heart of qualitative UX research methodology. When a company has a better understanding of user behaviors, it can work out more finely-tuned solutions for those things the users are not fully satisfied with. Such methods include conducting user interviews, studying diaries and ethnography as well as utilizing focus groups.

Interviews

Explorations of user attitudes, experiences, preferences, and behaviors are best relayed from the users themselves, making user interviews a significantly effective method of qualitative research. By conducting structured, targeted conversations with users wishing to participate, researchers can understand users on a pragmatic and psychological level. Such interviews can be done either remotely via phone or video, as well as via in-person sessions.

The data that is derived from user interviews can then help inform and guide the business’s future decisions in terms of design and development. After sufficient interview sessions in Q&A format, a UX researcher will better understand how users interact with the business’s service or product. In these interviews, users may also bring up formerly unconsidered aspects of a product that are problematic, invaluable information for design improvements that many quantitative methods are unlikely to yield.

UX researchers conducting effective user interviews ensure that the interviews consist of carefully crafted questions that are not leading or suggestive. Instead, the questions are open-ended, and as answers are offered by the user in the interview, researchers should attentively consider the answers and ask follow-up questions. These questions should include what type of solutions users are currently using to attend to the problems they face with the product. That way, the design can be refined to help the target audience have their needs met and have potential leads on solutions that will allow it.

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Two women taking notes and smiling

For optimal results and compelling interviews, interviewers gain the most out of this qualitative method by being equipped with superb listening skills, which allow them to read the interviewee’s cues and ask timely, pertinent questions. Conducted in such a manner, research stands to gain great insight that will assist in driving future design and development decisions to suit user satisfaction better.

Studying Diaries

One of the most important things in any field of research that involves users is to understand, on a broader scale, their attitudes, experiences, and behaviors toward situations in their daily lives. A potent tool that UX researchers can leverage for this purpose is ESM, or experience sampling method (sometimes known as diary studies). Those participating in an ESM study are tasked with keeping a journal of thoughts and/or feelings they have throughout their day. The results yield insights into daily activities, habits, considerations, etc., that more traditional research methods may not expose.

Whereas a user in an interview can relay a lot of information about how they interact with a product at one point in time, keeping a diary allows research to measure the experiences of long-term product interaction. Many issues surface over repeated exposures or uses that may not be at all evident from a single interaction. The data is then used as a comparative variable against other types of qualitative studies, including focus groups and user interviews.

A significant advantage of such studies is that they are immersive, so researchers can get a deeper sense of user-to-product interaction. Lab-based experiments, as well as many other types of research methods, will simply not be able to yield information about these long-term behaviors. Additionally, diary studies help to contextualize users’ motivations and drivers of users.

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Notebook

ESM is not only valuable in qualitative terms, such as the gathering of descriptions or comments during a user’s interaction with a product but can also provide quantitative information, like how often a user interacts with the product and when they do so. This allows for a broader scope of long-term user behaviors, as well as particular repeat tendencies during the usage of a product. Another benefit of a long-term evaluation is the ability of researchers to note how a user’s behavior changes in interacting with the product over time. This also yields valuable insights about what types of long-term changes might be needed to improve the design process.

Rather than rely on lab-based experimentation, which could yield artificialized results, or rely just on a handful of interview questions, diary studies allow a real-world observation of user behaviors, which are critical for UX researchers to know.

Ethnography

Studies in ethnography are one of the user experience research methods that include the observation and comprehension of beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes, with a particular focus on people’s interaction with technology, products, and services in seeking solutions to common problems. While this is no simple feat, it is paramount to UX research.

The key to ethnographic studies is to obtain insights into the real-life experiences of people, contextualized by the environments they occur in, as it relate to the product that the study is concerned with. The collected data is then used to optimize the decisions made during the design process. The real key to ethnography is to study motivations, namely, what needs are not being met that the users are trying to satisfy with a particular product. The collected information is then utilized in isolating existing problems, a key piece of knowledge on how to address them.

Before an ethnographic study starts, it must be parameterized with finely defined objectives to ensure optimal results, including the compilation of specific research questions relating to the user’s experience, as well as the demographic and geographical setting of the study. Other steps in the preparation also include appropriating a sampling plan, setting up a recruitment process, conducting interviews, facilitating visits, and effectively analyzing qualitative measures.

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City street

Contemporary ethnographic studies also leverage digital tools like mobile apps and wearables alongside traditional interviews and surveys to gain critical insights into the behaviors of users. Technology makes it easier to collect a far greater sample of accurate and detailed data during the studies, which is far more reliable than counting on the user to self-report the findings retroactively. Combining modern methods with traditional ones allows access to important insights for UX researchers, leading to product innovation and higher user satisfaction levels.

Focus Groups

Perhaps the most commonly recognized user research method is the use of focus groups, an approach that consists of gathering a group of users in a space (physical or virtual) and engaging them to freely discuss a particular topic or a set of issues. These focus groups tend to be of a particular grouping, such as people with similar needs, industry roles, or backgrounds. As the focus group discusses the matter at hand, a facilitator observes and promotes further discussion by asking questions pertaining to the topic at hand and then encouraging additional discussion.

Businesses heavily leverage focus group research when they are seeking to figure out user perceptions, preferences, motivations, and behaviors as they relate to the business’s service or product. In observing interactions between people, a researcher can better understand all of those motivators. The observable factors include facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal cues, which would not be readily observable through surveys or interviews.

For the successful utility of focus groups, the researcher facilitating the focus group must keep the participants’ discussions focused on the topic and ensure that all of the participants have had an opportunity to voice their opinions. The ideal environment for such an exchange is structured but relaxed, allowing participants to not feel influenced or pressured into sharing their thoughts on the focused topic. It is also immensely helpful to have the focus group be facilitated by an experienced moderator.

The data collected from the focus group will then need to be analyzed. However, this should not occur until after the session has been completed, as it could disrupt the potential for certain participants’ insights to be factored into the analysis. The facilitator will need to take careful notes during the focus group session so they can later be analyzed to draw meaningful results.

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Paper cut out figures

Focus groups are a popular method of UX research because they allow for the collection of many qualitative insights that other methods do not offer. When participants are in an open environment where their thoughts and opinions are welcome, they are more apt to share valuable information to help UX researchers understand their product or service’s users better.

Quantitative UX Research Methods

While qualitative data offers a lot of intangibles, quantitative UX research methods are necessary to put hard numbers on various research points, allowing for a more thorough analysis of user preferences and behavior trends. Quantitative research entails the collection of data sourced from usage logs, surveys, questionnaires, usability tests, and various other means over a lengthy period. This data is then sorted and analyzed to yield ways to optimize product design.

Questionnaires and Surveys

In terms of quantitative data collection, surveys, and questionnaires are among some of the most popular methods because they offer a structured manner of compiling data for comparison and analysis. Questionnaires and surveys are a relatively simple way of getting input from a variety of respondents about various topics at considerably minimal expense.

The questions asked through surveys and questionnaires should be comprised of easy-to-understand questions with easily derived points of data. The questions should yield a positive experience for responders and be able to provide valuable results about patterns and trends quickly from the data collected.

An important aspect of surveys and questionnaires is pretesting, or the process of asking the questions that will be in the final survey earlier in the process. This process of preplanning assures that the questions asked fully reflect the user's experiences and feelings. It is also crucial to ensure that any potentially unfamiliar terms are clearly explained to the respondents.

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UX research discussion

To minimize omissions or errors in the participant reporting, it is also important to make sure that formatting and question length are considered. For instance, if a survey takes over 20 minutes, many participants grow weary of continuing and become more disengaged from it, which in turn hinders the integrity and authenticity of results. In terms of formatting, paper-based surveys may turn out to be too expensive, while web-based ones are more economically sound.

Usability Testing

Since the improvement and optimization of the user experience are at the heart of UX research, methods that will most readily achieve this goal are preferable. To that end, one of the most common methods used in UX research is usability testing, which aids in determining areas of improvement through product interactions by users in real-life usability sessions. During the sessions, usability researchers observe participant interaction with the product. They take detailed notes and ask follow-up questions relating to what issues the users believed to have encountered with the product. The feedback provided is then used during potential changes, enhancements, or improvements made to the products.

Among the important aspects that can be uncovered by usability testing are the discovery of unintuitive functions, unclear labels, confusing instructions, navigation issues, problematic performance, as well as a multitude of others. Usability testing is therefore crucial because observing customers in their natural environment interact with a product can identify many usability uses early in the development process, allowing any design and adjustment changes to take place before the product is distributed more broadly.

But usability testing is not just about observing the behavior of users. Upon or after the users’ interaction with the product, questions related to the usage of the product should be used to gain additional insights into what elements users found confusing or challenging to use and why. This can reveal how a variety of users, such as older versus younger or those with different forms of education, could encounter different intuitive issues with the product. Once design teams understand the issues encountered by these different groups, they can apply solutions specifically tailored to those members of a target audience. This assures that the product receives more user engagement and increased satisfaction.

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a person drawing a wireframe

Surveys and interviews can provide good information, but much of what they supply could be limited, while a study of users with hands-on experience is even more valuable. Beyond that, the usability testing data can be tracked and measured in heatmaps, which illuminate various important metrics such as how long a user took to complete a task with the product and how successful they were.

Therefore, the true value of usability research is that it permits an expedient identification of a product’s shortcomings or problems early in the development process, which gives designers time to make the necessary adjustments, resulting in a final product that is optimized from its pre-user testing models.

A/B Testing Method

A/B testing is built around the idea of comparative research. In other words, with this approach, users are provided with two versions of a particular product, use them both, and compare which had a more successful usability outcome. This allows developers to see which design elements have to be improved upon and which are more effective.

By comparing two versions, A/B testing informs developers with insights into how effective some design choices are against others. If users are, for instance, comparing web page layouts, the checkout process, or various sign-up forms, user interactions with multiple versions can show which were easier for user needs and more readily met their expectations.

The tests conducted here must have a clearly defined objective, as it will be the only way to clearly measure implemented changes. This is also important because to collect meaningful data based on user behaviors during product interaction, valid measurements and usage parameters should be in place. When results are interpreted, both quantitative and qualitative feedback from users should be considered based on the product or aspect of a product undergoing the test.

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a/b testing example

The insight offered from comparing how users interact with two versions of a product is invaluable because it allows developers to sift out the features that work best for the final product’s development. Driven by a better understanding of user experience, future iteration of the product can be improved, leading to a more satisfactory final result.

Behavior Data Analysis

The most effective aspect of UX research is its ability to dive into the user experience and collect important insights about it through the data collected. It allows researchers to better understand users’ needs, behaviors, motivations, and preferences with products and services. Once the user-product interaction data is analyzed, patterns and trends emerge, allowing researchers to understand which features are easier to understand, which navigation can be refined, how much time a user spends on a particular aspect of utilizing the product, and other actionable insights that drive a more optimized design and development process for the product.

However, data collection alone is of little use unless it can be visualized in a meaningful way and queried for particularly interesting aspects. For digital products, this can be done through analytics tools like Google Analytics or via A/B testing. After the data is collected and visually rendered, it needs to be used to detect trends of behavior patterns. Let’s consider the example of a website with a page or feature with low engagement. Through UX research, it might be noted that this page will be reached when users navigate to it after a particular action, but the navigational paths to reach it are not easily available or are seldom used.

A deeper dive into the usage trends collected through an extended usage period can illuminate how a product or service is used in the daily lives of those interacting with it. UX researchers are able to collect valuable insights into user behaviors, which will then increase their knowledge about which parts of the process need improvements. Traditional methods of observation do not yield the types of results that researchers need to dive deeply enough into the product, but they are certainly not without merit. The ultimate goal of UX research is to detect problematic features or aspects and then optimize them, increasing the satisfaction of user experiences.

UX Research Best Practices

Here are some best practices for conducting effective UX research:

  1. 1.

    Define clear research objectives: before starting any research, clearly define your goals and what you hope to learn. This will guide your research methods and ensure that you gather relevant insights.
  2. 2.

    Use a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods: combine methods such as user interviews, surveys, usability testing, and analytics to gather both in-depth insights and broad trends.
  3. 3.

    Recruit representative participants: ensure that your research participants are representative of your target audience in terms of demographics, behaviors, and needs. This will help you gather accurate and relevant insights.
  4. 4.

    Conduct research in context: whenever possible, observe and interview users in their natural environment to understand how they interact with your product or service in real-world situations.
  5. 5.

    Ask open-ended questions: when interviewing users, ask open-ended questions that encourage them to share their thoughts and experiences in their own words. Avoid leading questions that may bias their responses.
  6. 6.

    Analyze data systematically: use a structured approach to analyze research data, such as affinity mapping or thematic analysis, to identify patterns and insights across multiple participants.
  7. 7.

    Collaborate with cross-functional teams: involve stakeholders from different departments, such as design, product management, and engineering, in the research process to ensure that insights are shared and acted upon.
  8. 8.

    Iterate and test: use research insights to inform design decisions and create prototypes or mockups. Then, test these solutions with users to validate assumptions and refine the design.
  9. 9.

    Communicate findings effectively: share research findings with stakeholders in a clear and compelling way, using visuals and storytelling techniques to highlight key insights and recommendations.
  10. 10.

    Continuously monitor and adapt: UX research is an ongoing process. Continuously gather user feedback and monitor product usage to identify areas for improvement and adapt your research approach as needed.

By following these best practices, companies can conduct effective UX research that leads to the creation of user-centered products and services that drive business success.

UX Research Potential Challenges

The right participants might be hard to reach. Every product has a certain target audience base, but collecting participants who reflect it accurately can prove challenging. Without the right participants, the feedback received on preferences and behaviors is unlikely to be as impactful.

Miscommunication. When team members or participants miscommunicate, errors are introduced into the research, resulting in nominally helpful or faulty results, along with errors in methodology.

Research is time-consuming. Due to the varying aspects involved in the research process, UX research can take a long period. This can be tough in terms of the long-term securing of all adequate tools and resources to keep it moving forward.

Resources are limited. Many companies wish they could devote a lot more resources to full-fledged UX research methods, but most are constrained by resource limitations that include necessary equipment for trials, staff availability and experience, financial expenses, and the time that they have to perform it.

Final Thoughts

To ensure the optimal development of a successful product, companies need to conduct UX research during the design process. The more thorough the UX research ahead of development, the less likely that mistakes that incur additional expenses are to hinder the success of the business and the product after its release. By leveraging the right research methodology and utilizing the right tools, businesses can compile vital information about user preferences and behaviors during product interaction. This drives a more optimal design of the product and its features.

Of course, UX research is not without its challenges, so being aware of the potential expenses, length, and shortcomings of various methods is imperative ahead of the research project. Once a business can lay out a solid plan and begin to strategically execute it, the benefits of an optimal UX research strategy cannot be overstated.

About Clay

Clay is a UI/UX design & branding agency in San Francisco. We team up with startups and leading brands to create transformative digital experience. Clients: Facebook, Slack, Google, Amazon, Credit Karma, Zenefits, etc.

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About Clay

Clay is a UI/UX design & branding agency in San Francisco. We team up with startups and leading brands to create transformative digital experience. Clients: Facebook, Slack, Google, Amazon, Credit Karma, Zenefits, etc.

Learn more

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