The Ultimate Guide to UX Research
User experience research is a crucial component of the human-centered design process and an essential part of creating solutions that meet user expectations and deliver value to customers. This comprehensive guide to UX research dives into the fundamentals of research and its various methods and includes tips and best practices from leading industry experts.
In this chapter, we look at what UX research is to understand why it’s the backbone of building good products. In the process, we zoom in on the benefits of research and share how research drives informed design decisions.
“UX research represents the insights gathered from users and customers that are leveraged to help make product decisions at any stage of the development process.”
In Just Enough Research, Erika Hall, co-founder of Mule Design Studio, explains that conducting user research is simply systematic inquiry and can be broken down into three areas: thinking of a question, gathering evidence, and considering what it means.
As such, UX research involves continuous questioning and evidence gathering—a process whereby findings and insights from the study of people are used to create intuitive, human-centered experiences.
“The most impactful research is when it’s multidisciplinary in its approach. Researchers should lead research, but designer teams and product managers need to support and be part of the research process.”
Sinéad Davis Cochrane, UX Manager at Workday and former Product Researcher at Intercom, says that UX research is more than just a “step” in the development process—research happens throughout the entire product lifecycle. She explains: “UX research represents the insights gathered from users and customers that are leveraged to help make product decisions at any stage of the development process.”
Research should happen at each stage of the design process, from early interviews and field studies to prototype testing and after-launch monitoring.
Now that we know what research is, let’s look at the benefits of UX research. In this section, we explore three benefits of incorporating UX research throughout the product and development process.
One of the key benefits of incorporating UX research throughout the design and product development process is that it helps you understand user behaviors and make better, more informed decisions.
“UX research helps reduce and mitigate the risk of building the wrong thing or building the right thing in the wrong way.”
Sian Townsend, former Director of Research at Intercom, talks about how early research at Intercom revealed that when a live chat includes images from the people at the company, users are more likely to pay attention to the pop-up message. The research done early on helped the team refine the design, leading up to the launch of a new product Acquire.
UX research includes qualitative and quantitative methods, both of which are valuable tools in the researcher’s arsenal. Here’s Bertrand from iMSA on types of data and metrics are important:
“We analyze a lot of metrics to make design decisions. There are multiple factors in the decision process, and (qualitative) user feedback is just one stone of the road. Those different factors are tied to specific data like traffic analytics, chatbot feedback, user surveys, user testing, etc. to help us make decisions. The convergence of all the data, our users’ needs, and legislation govern the choices we make.”
To Bertrand, the benefit of UX research is building a great product at a lower cost. But more than that, UX research also enables you to design accessible, unbiased experiences, which is the next benefit we explore.
Confirmation bias happens “when you have an interpretation, and you adopt it, and then, top-down, you force everything to fit that interpretation,” says psychologist Daniel Kahneman.
“There are a lot of biases you can implement in your new product, but you have to be humble, optimistic, and open-minded.”
There are more than 100 cognitive biases identified by psychologists, many of which influence our decisions and the products we build. An effective way to remove bias from the design process is to ask effective questions.
For Sinéad, UX Manager at Workday, the questions you should consider early in the process are:
Sinéad also emphasizes the importance of making your assumptions visible and transparent and not being afraid to challenge them.
Another way to remove bias from the design process is to be more empathetic towards users and their circumstances. Understanding human behavior and learning from your users is a key UX principle great UX designers embrace.
“When you start a project, you need to learn everything from scratch. I start from zero every time. I'm always surprised by the collected data.”
When you speak to people early and consistently to understand their mental models, you can remove biases from the process and improve your product.
Similar to the Lean startup’s Validated Learning concept, UX research allows you to test and validate ideas early, without waiting for launch day to gather feedback.
"Usability testing, moderated and unmoderated user interviews and carefully designed online surveys are methods that we’re using when a question needs answering."
For Bertrand, who we’ve heard from above, an idea without a test is just an idea. So, before starting the design process, his team conducts user research using methods like:
We explore these common user research methods in detail in a later chapter.
But when it comes to testing and validating design ideas, usability testing with users early in the process allows you to test anything from a low-fidelity mock-up to high-fidelity prototypes.
We always validate concepts before the production starts with focus groups, prototypes, and user testing. We work in a SAFe environment so that we can adjust the wireframes quickly based on the lean UX and sprint methodology.”
Building the right solution is an iterative cycle of listening, learning, and making changes and improvements by understanding user needs and collecting customer feedback.
In the next chapters, you’ll learn more about the different UX research methods, such as generative and evaluative research methods and the various UX research techniques like card sorting, tree testing, and five-second testing. But before we dive into that, let’s learn how to create a UX research plan.