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 (and should) participate in. As a result, the definition of UX research is also changing.
What is UX research and why is it important?
Traditionally, UX research is the practice of studying user interactions to help with the design of people-first products and experiences. However, as UX research becomes more commonplace in organizations big and small, its definitions and applications will likely continue to evolve.
Nonetheless, the meaning of UX can vary depending on who you’re talking to, and there's a huge range of potential UX research deliverables. For product teams, UX research might mean validating prototypes and concepts, and for marketing teams, it may mean testing brand designs and messaging before a launch. In other words, UX research is no longer a practice held in one corner of the business. The most successful organizations empower all teams to collect user and customer insights to make better business decisions.
Types of UX research and when to use them
Before we jump into individual research methods or the tactics used for conducting UX research, there are big-picture questions that need to be addressed first. Specifically, what types of UX research are out there?
Qualitative vs. quantitative research
When it comes to understanding your users, you may find yourself wondering if your UX research approach should be qualitative or quantitative. And these are important to differentiate because the two types uncover very different insights.
To get a full picture of your user experience, you need to understand both the what and the why. If you only have quantitative data, you may be missing out on key insights that could make a difference in your understanding of the user experience. And if you only do qualitative research, you won’t be able to tell whether your findings are representative of a larger population.
Qualitative research example: “How cluttered (1) or organized (5) do you consider the home page?” (1 = Cluttered, 5 = Organized)
Quantitative research example: “Do you have any comments, questions, or concerns about our mobile app?”
Attitudinal vs. behavioral research
Though sometimes misconstrued as being the same thing, attitudinal and behavioral research are not synonymous. However, as with quantitative and qualitative research, the two can be useful when assessed concurrently. Behavioral research will tell you what’s happening and is focused on what the user does.
Meanwhile, attitudinal research helps to provide the reason why it’s happening involves the assessment of users’ preconceived attitudes or feelings toward an experience. Always keep in mind that what users say and what users do are often different.
Attitudinal research example: “If you had this product in your home, would you enjoy it?”
Behavioral research example: “How would you expect that product to work in that situation?”
Generative vs evaluation research
The goals of generative and evaluation research (sometimes referred to as evaluative research) are very different. Generative research helps you define the problem you’d like to design a solution for. Evaluation research, on the other hand, helps you evaluate an existing design (in prototype, final, or some other form).
Generative research example: “Shop for a television in-store. Which aspect didn’t meet your expectations?”
Evaluation research example: “Record yourself unboxing this product. How was the experience?”
UX research methods
User experience needs to be a strategic initiative that drives a culture of user-centric design and thinking—informing everything from the product and marketing campaigns and messaging to brand design and social media. With that said, there are various user research techniques that help teams collect the insights needed for every role.
Below, these are some of the more common methods.
Remote usability testing
It might be obvious that remote usability testing is a great method for conducting UX research—if only by its name alone. This method of remote research uses an insight platform to record the screen (and voice, depending on the software you choose) of test participants as they interact with your product or experience in their natural environment—at home, in their office, or a specific location.
Through usability testing, designers, product managers, and researchers alike can uncover and understand how real people respond to products and experiences. From what they like and dislike, to where they get stuck and confused, to areas of improvement, the valuable insights gathered from these tests are eye-opening.
Example: “Would you continue using this website? Why or why not?”
Diary studies are a form of longitudinal research (research that takes place over a long period with the same participants). Typically, users self-report their activities at regular intervals to create a log of their activities, thoughts, and frustrations. It’s a useful approach for capturing organic feedback on activities that are repetitive, long, or unpredictable.
Example: “What was your experience like each day?”
Card sorting is a qualitative research method used to group, label, and describe information more effectively—based on feedback from customers or users. Card sorting requires you to create a set of cards—sometimes literally—to represent a concept or item. These cards will then be grouped or categorized by your users in ways that make the most sense to them. Most commonly, it’s used when designing (or redesigning) the navigation of a website or the organization of content within it, because it helps to evaluate information architecture.
Example: “Organize these cards into categories that make sense to you. Were there any you had trouble placing?”
It may seem obvious, but through a series of expert-phrased and positioned questions, surveys allow you to empathize with your users in order to gain quantitative insights that aren’t as visible to developers, managers, and marketers. Listening to your customer can help you find new problems to solve or devise new ideas, and collecting customer feedback through surveys is an active, receptive, and honest way to do it.
Live interviews are a great way to collect qualitative insights. By having dynamic discussions, interviewees are able to observe verbal as well as non-verbal cues and ask open-ended questions to uncover those details that surveys and usability testing cannot. Interviewing is an especially useful UX research method for understanding complex feelings and experiences because it allows you to ask follow-up questions and guide the contributor if they’re stuck or confused.
Example: “Watch this video. What words come to mind after watching?”
When should UX research be conducted?
Traditionally, UX research was most commonly used to 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 for discovery or as a regular part of the development process.
However, this mindset is a thing of the past. The value teams are getting from fast human insights is driving UX research best practices to become embedded in everyday processes for teams across the business. 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 flex their strategic skills and organizations get 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? However, from the user’s perspective, there could’ve been a laundry list of issues, from the website being not mobile-friendly enough, a limited range of payment methods, to requiring the consumer to create an account instead of offering guest checkout.
Discovering what problems need solving, in addition to solving the ones you already know need attention, is a big shift in UX research mentality.
A final word on UX research
Access to user experience research means that companies are better equipped than ever to create and improve great experiences for their customers. It also means that customers will have only increasing expectations and hopes for bigger and better experiences in the future.
No matter what you call UX, CX, usability, or user testing, 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.