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What is UX research?

Marieke McCloskey  |  August 09, 2018

How we think of and practice UX (user experience) research has evolved rapidly in recent years. What was once a specialized discipline is now viewed as something everyone in an organization can participate in. As a result, the definition of UX research is also changing. Whether you’re a UX veteran or newly introduced to the concept, user experience research is growing up and branching out.

What is UX research, and why is it important?

Traditional user experience research is the practice of studying user interactions to help with the design of products and experiences. These insights can be gathered through a variety of research methods, including:

As user experience research becomes more commonplace in organizations big and small, its definitions and applications have naturally evolved. UX can mean something a little different, depending on who you’re talking to. For product folks, UX can mean validating what you’re building, and for marketing teams, it can mean testing branding concepts and messaging with customers before a campaign.

Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find researchers who view UX as a larger strategic initiative, driving a culture of customer-centered design and thinking that informs everything from the product itself, to customer support, to how the company represents itself on social media.

If it seems like UX touches just about anything and everything a company does, you’re right.

Who conducts UX research?

In the past, user experience research was often conducted by individuals that specialized in UX. Other groups in the organization would share what they’d like to study, and the UX team would design, conduct, and report the findings of that research. The respective teams would then use that information to make any necessary changes, iterate, and test again.

UX researchers

As customer-centered culture became more mainstream, user experience research became a strategic advantage, and thus, a necessary part of everyday business operations. As a result, UX researchers increasingly found themselves with more projects than they could handle.

Out of necessity, user experience research started to become more streamlined, making it faster and easier to conduct regular research. Standardized study plans, participant demographics, best practices—not to mention the availability of online platforms like UserTesting, Skype, Google Hangouts, and Zoom—helped increase the quality, volume, and frequency of UX research.

Everyone else

Once it became clear that UX research could be streamlined and standardized to some extent, that empowered teams throughout organizations to conduct their own research as early and often as they’d like. The research team still plays an important role, but because UX research has become more accessible, they’re able to focus on more broad, high-level, and strategic efforts, while specific teams are able to be as curious as they have the capacity for.

When should UX research be conducted?

Early on in UX’s history, research tended to be conducted to help solve a problem that was already known. For example, if a company noticed that visitors were dropping off their site at an unusually high rate on a particular page, researchers would look into how to solve that specific problem. As a result, research wasn’t necessarily something that was done early on or as a regular part in the development process.

Oh, how times have changed. The value teams are getting from fast human insights is driving UX research best practices to become embedded in everyday process for teams from product, design, marketing, and even corporate strategy and messaging.

What was once just a problem-solving mindset has evolved to combine the perspective of finding what problems to solve, as well. This is where researchers can flex their strategic skills and companies are getting creative with user experience research to provide valuable insights. As any consumer will tell you, there are countless experiences that leave us underwhelmed, if not disappointed, that might not be so obvious to spot.

For example, if you visit an e-commerce site, find a product and purchase it, there isn’t a lot of information that would trigger anyone to wonder if the purchasing experience needed any attention. After all, a purchase was made, right? Discovering what problems need solving, in addition to solving the ones you know need attention, is a big shift in UX research mentality.

Quantitative, qualitative, or both?

In the early days of UX, there were clear-cut lines between who handled quantitative and qualitative research efforts. Some teams answered questions through survey numbers, or site analytics, while others relied on voice of the customer, focus groups, and customer experience studies and interviews for insight.

But as the age of the customer dawned, those lines started to blur, and it started to make a lot more sense for quantitative and qualitative strategies to join forces and take a more holistic view of research.

Relying on big data alone increases the chances that we’ll miss something, while giving us the illusion that we know everything. – Tricia Wang

Tricia is on to something here. In a TED talk, she notes that many of us have a built-in bias toward quantitative data. She points out that many of us unconsciously believe that anything that’s measurable is more valuable than something that’s harder to measure.

That’s part of the reason we created our Product Insights team at UserTesting. The team is designed to marry the powers of our researchers with those of data scientists. While we’ve always been champions of the power of human insights, we also knew that there were hidden insights to be uncovered in our data that only a skilled data scientist could recognize. The combined talents of both disciplines are already yielding valuable returns, and we’re in the process of making enhancements to our product as a direct result of this combined approach to data and insights.

A rose by any other name…

UX, CX, usability, user testing. No matter what you call it, putting your customers at the center of your company’s mission and culture has become a competitive advantage that not only attracts new customers but keeps them coming back.

This expanded view and access to user experience research mean that not only are companies better equipped than ever to create and improve great experiences for their customers, it also means that customers will be expecting better and better experiences, as well.

Want to learn more?

If you’d like to learn how UserTesting can help you understand your customers through on-demand human insights, contact us here.

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About the author:

Marieke is the founder and leader of UserTesing’s Product Insights Team, overseeing the company’s Data Science and UX Research efforts. She's spent over 10 years helping companies grow through human-centered design. Formerly a consultant at Nielsen Norman Group, she’s trained thousands of professionals on the value of gaining a deep customer understanding.