6 Dimensions of UX Research

| December 29, 2015
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The time is right.

Maybe you’re about to launch a new product, or you’re in the early stages of a website redesign.

Either way, you know your project would benefit from having real people give you feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

It’s time to do some UX research! But wait. If you want to get results you can trust—the kind of results that you can comfortably base your decisions on—then you need to do the right kind of research, the right way.

But there are dozens of UX research methodologies out there. With so many choices, how do you figure out which one is right for you? There are 6 dimensions of UX research that you need to keep in mind when selecting the methodology that will help you move the needle.

1. Research objectives

The first step towards gathering helpful user feedback is setting a clear and focused objective. If you don’t know exactly what sort of information you need to obtain by running your study it will be difficult to stay on track throughout the project.

If you don’t clearly define your objective, it will be difficult to stay on track and get the information you need

Your research objectives will typically fall into one of the following buckets, depending on what stage of the product development lifecycle you’re in:

Explore what people need

The goal of your research could be to explore people’s behaviors and needs, as well as general product or design ideas. This activity is typically done before creating any designs, prototypes, or wireframes.

Evaluate whether (or not) you’re on the right track

Another goal is to evaluate an existing idea or design. This type of research is typically done during the design phase where everything from paper sketches to fully designed prototypes can be tested and evaluated. The goal of this type of research is to identify and fix issues before investing in development.

Measure how your design is performing

The third goal type is to measure how your design is performing. You typically measure the success of a live design and answer questions like “How are we performing?” or “How can we move the needle on our key metrics?”

2. Types of data

Another dimension of UX research is the type of data you collect: qualitative vs. quantitative.

Nielsen Norman Group explains that “studies that are qualitative in nature generate data about behaviors or attitudes based on observing them directly, whereas in quantitative studies, the data about the behavior or attitudes in question are gathered indirectly, through a measurement or an instrument such as a survey or an analytics tool.”


Source: Christian Rohrer

Quantitative research is about bigger numbers and large sample sizes. It often answers questions like: What are people doing? How many people are doing it? How often do they do this behavior?

Qualitative research is more about directly observing people’s behavior. Smaller sample sizes are often used to answer questions like “Why are people doing X?” and “Why aren’t they doing Y?”

At UserTesting we’ve found that combining qualitative feedback with quantitative data is the best approach for gathering rich user insights. This combo helps you balance the ‘what’ with the ‘why’ and helps you humanize the data.

3. Testing environments

In addition to your research objective and the type of data you collect, environment is another important dimension of UX research. And there are essentially two testing environments. But keep in mind: there’s no “right” place to conduct UX research. It depends on your research objectives, your budget or time constraints, and the researcher’s expertise.

In the lab testing

In the lab testing is conducted in your traditional usability testing or focus group facility, where you bring people into a controlled environment to use a design or be part of a focus group.

In lab: research is conducted in a controlled environment

In lab: research is conducted in a controlled environment

The benefits of testing in the lab is that you often can have a fair number of observers, and you can meet the participant at a neutral location. However this type of testing takes a considerable amount of time to plan, and the cost of renting or using a lab is typically pretty expensive.

Web-based testing

Another testing environment is online. This is when participants are involved in a research study from their own location and participate via the web (this is typically the type of research we do at UserTesting).

The plus-side is that it’s fast, low-cost and you can often get environmental or contextual data such as how the participant’s computer is set up and what’s going on in the background—even if you don’t ask for it. The downside is that you don’t see a person’s facial expressions, body language, or other behaviors when they complete the study. And this non-verbal information can often be very insightful.

4. Methods of communication

Another dimension of UX research is the method of communication you’ll use to accomplish your research objective. Communication between study participants and researchers can happen either in real-time (synchronous communication) or it can be delayed (asynchronous communication).

During a remote moderated usability test, you are live, “on the line” with your test participants, guiding them through tasks, answering their questions, and replying to their feedback in real time. This is an example of synchronous communication, or real-time communication.

However, during a diary study participants track their behavior on their own time, over a period of days, weeks, or months. And then researchers review the data at a later date. This is an example of asynchronous communication, or delayed communication between the participant and the researcher.

5. Facilitation styles

There are two facilitations styles to consider: moderated or unmoderated testing. And they’re both closely related to the methods of communication we discussed above.

Unmoderated testing

A study can be unmoderated, which is when users are given written tasks to complete and they complete the study at their own pace and without conversing with a researcher.

Unmoderated tests give users written tasks to complete at their own pace, in their own environment, on their own time

An unmoderated test can be taken at the participant’s leisure, without requiring the hassle of coordinating schedules. Unmoderated tests can also be run concurrently, allowing for a much greater volume. Because of this, the turn-around time for unmoderated tests is often significantly faster than that of moderated tests.

Moderated testing

And a study can also be moderated, which is when a facilitator is present—in-person or online—to moderate the study. And if you have the time available for a moderated study, the payoff can be significant.

In moderated tests, a facilitator is present—in-person or online—to moderate the study

While an unmoderated study has a set test plan, a moderated study is as flexible as the moderator. Moderating allows you to probe as you see fit, delving as deep into the user experience as you desire. The human judgement involved in moderated testing creates unparalleled depth of feedback.

6. Length of your study

The last dimension of UX research is the length, or the duration, of the study. Your research can either evaluate a single experience, such as a single website visit. Or you can run a longitudinal study, which is where you track a user’s experience over a period of hours, days, weeks, or even longer.

Over time, longitudinal studies can result in something called a journey map. This is where you see the user move through various stages of the user experience—across various channels—related to their ultimate goals.

Example of a customer journey map (click to enlarge)

Example of a customer journey map (click to enlarge)

The final word

And those are the 6 dimensions of UX research in a nutshell! Now that you know what to keep in mind, the next step is to choose which research methodology is right for your unique project and where you are in the product development lifecycle.

If you want to learn all of the various types of UX methodologies, when to use them, and how to organize and share your results with stakeholders, then I recommend you read our UX Research Methodology Guidebook. It’ll give you guidance on how to approach a study, when to run it, and how to interpret the results.