UX Research

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What is UX Research?

UX (user experience) research is the systematic study of target users and their requirements, to add realistic contexts and insights to design processes. UX researchers adopt various methods to uncover problems and design opportunities. Doing so, they reveal valuable information which can be fed into the design process.

See why UX research is a critical part of the UX design process.

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UX Research is about Finding Insights to Guide Successful Designs

When you do UX research, you’ll be better able to give users the best solutions—because you can discover exactly what they need. You can apply UX research at any stage of the design process. UX researchers often begin with qualitative measures, to determine users’ motivations and needs. Later, they might use quantitative measures to test their results. To do UX research well, you must take a structured approach when you gather data from your users. It’s vital to use methods that 1) are right for the purpose of your research and 2) will give you the clearest information. Then, you can interpret your findings so you can build valuable insights into your design.

“I get very uncomfortable when someone makes a design decision without customer contact.”

– Dan Ritzenthaler, Senior Product Designer at HubSpot

We can divide UX research into two subsets:

  1. Qualitative research – Using methods such as interviews and ethnographic field studies, you work to get an in-depth understanding of why users do what they do (e.g., why they missed a call to action, why they feel how they do about a website). For example, you can do user interviews with a small number of users and ask open-ended questions to get personal insights into their exercise habits. Another aspect of qualitative research is usability testing, to monitor (e.g.) users’ stress responses. You should do qualitative research carefully. As it involves collecting non-numerical data (e.g., opinions, motivations), there’s a risk that your personal opinions will influence findings.

  2. Quantitative research – Using more-structured methods (e.g., surveys, analytics), you gather measurable data about what users do and test assumptions you drew from qualitative research. For example, you can give users an online survey to answer questions about their exercise habits (e.g., “How many hours do you work out per week?”). With this data, you can discover patterns among a large user group. If you have a large enough sample of representative test users, you’ll have a more statistically reliable way of assessing the population of target users. Whatever the method, with careful research design you can gather objective data that’s unbiased by your presence, personality or assumptions. However, quantitative data alone can’t reveal deeper human insights.

We can additionally divide UX research into two approaches:

  1. Attitudinal – you listen to what users say—e.g., in interviews.

  2. Behavioral – you see what users do through observational studies.

When you use a mix of both quantitative and qualitative research as well as a mix of attitudinal and behavioral approaches, you can usually get the clearest view of a design problem.

Two Approaches to User Research

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Use UX Research Methods throughout Development

The Nielsen Norman Group—an industry-leading UX consulting organization—identifies appropriate UX research methods which you can use during a project’s four stages. Key methods are:

  1. Discover – Determine what is relevant for users.

    • Contextual inquiries – Interview suitable users in their own environment to see how they perform the task/s in question.

    • Diary studies – Have users record their daily interactions with a design or log their performance of activities.

  1. Explore – Examine how to address all users’ needs.

    • Card sorting – Write words and phrases on cards; then let participants organize them in the most meaningful way and label categories to ensure that your design is structured in a logical way.

    • Customer journey maps – Create user journeys to expose potential pitfalls and crucial moments.

  2. Test – Evaluate your designs.

    • Usability testing – Ensure your design is easy to use.

    • Accessibility evaluations – Test your design to ensure it’s accessible to everyone.

  1. Listen – Put issues in perspective, find any new problems and notice trends.

    • Surveys/Questionnaires – Use these to track how users’ feel about your product.

    • Analytics – Collect analytics/metrics to chart (e.g.) website traffic and build reports.

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Whichever UX research method you choose, you need to consider the pros and cons of the different techniques. For instance, card sorting is cheap and easy, but you may find it time-consuming when it comes to analysis. Also, it might not give you in-depth contextual meaning. Another constraint is your available resources, which will dictate when, how much and which type of UX research you can do. So, decide carefully on the most relevant method/s for your research. Moreover, involve stakeholders from your organization early on. They can reveal valuable UX insights and help keep your research in line with business goals. Remember, a design team values UX research as a way to validate its assumptions about users in the field, slash the cost of the best deliverables and keep products in high demand—ahead of competitors’.

User Research Methods - from natural observation to laboratory experimentation

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

User research methods have different pros and cons,and vary from observations of users in context to controlled experiments in lab settings.

Learn More about UX Research

For a thorough grasp of UX research, take our course here:
User Research – Methods and Best Practices

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Read an extensive range of UX research considerations, discussed in Smashing Magazine:
A Comprehensive Guide To UX Research

See the Nielsen Norman Group’s list of UX research tips:
UX Research Cheat Sheet

Here’s a handy, example-rich catalog of UX research tools:
43 UX research tools for optimizing your product

Questions related to UX Research

Is UX research a good career?

UX research is a good career for those who enjoy working with a team and have strong communication skills. As a researcher, you play a crucial role in helping your team understand users and deliver valuable and delightful experiences. You will find a UX research career appealing if you enjoy scientific and creative pursuits. 

Start exploring this career option; see the User Researcher Learning Path.

How much does a UX researcher earn?

Studies suggest that companies are also willing to pay well for research roles. The average salary for a UX researcher ranges from $92,000 to $146,000 per year.

In smaller companies, user research may be one of the responsibilities of a generalist UX designer. How much can your salary vary based on your region? Find out in UI & UX Designer Salaries: How Much Can I Earn.

UX research vs UX design: What’s the difference?

Research is one part of the overall UX design process. UX research helps inform the design strategy and decisions made at every step of the design process. In smaller teams, a generalist designer may end up conducting research.

  • A UX researcher aims to understand users and their needs. A UX designer seeks to create a product that meets those needs.

  • A UX researcher gathers information. A UX designer uses that information to create a user-friendly and visually appealing product.

Learn more about the relationship between UX research and UX design in the course:

User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide

Is there a difference between UX research and user research?

If we consider a very broad definition of UX, then all user research is UX research.

However, in practice, there is a subtle difference between user research and UX research. While both involve understanding people, user research can involve users in any kind of research question, and some questions may not be that directly connected to user experience.

For example, you might do user research relating to a customer’s experience in relation to pricing, delivery or the experience across multiple channels.

What are UX research methods?

Common UX research methods are usability testing, A/B testing, surveys, card sorting, user interviews, usage analytics and ethnographic research. Each method has its pros and cons and is useful in different scenarios. Hence, you must select the appropriate research method for the research question and target audience. Learn more about these methods in 7 Great, Tried and Tested UX Research Techniques.

Get started with user research. Download the User Research template bundle.

Get your master bundle of 17 “User Research” templates
User Research

For a deep dive into usability testing—the most common research method, take the course Conducting Usability Testing.

Do you need a degree to become a UX researcher?

Having a degree in a related field can give you an advantage. However, you don’t need a specific degree to become a UX researcher. A combination of relevant education, practical experience, and continuous learning can help you pursue a career in UX research. Many UX researchers come from diverse educational backgrounds, including psychology, statistics, human-computer interaction, information systems, design and anthropology.

Some employers may prefer candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree. However, it does not have to be in a UX-related field. There are relatively fewer degrees that focus solely on user research.

Data-Driven Design: Quantitative Research for UX

User Research – Methods and Best Practices

What is the UX research process?

Every research project will vary. However, there are some common steps in conducting research, no matter which method or tool you decide to use: 

  • Define the research question

  • Select the appropriate research method

  • Recruit participants

  • Conduct the research

  • Analyze the data

  • Present the findings

User Research – Methods and Best Practices

What are the UX research tools?

You can choose from various UX research tools. Your choice depends on your research question, how you're researching, the size of your organization, and your project. For instance:

  • Survey tools such as Typeform and Google Forms.

  • Card sorting tools such as Maze and UXtweak.

  • Heatmap tools such as HotJar and CrazyEgg

  • Usability testing (through first-click testing and tree-testing) tools such as Optimal Workshop and Loop 11

  • Diagramming applications such as Miro and Whimsical to analyze qualitative data through affinity diagramming.

  • Spreadsheet tools such as Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel for quantitative data analysis

  • Interface design and prototyping tools like Figma, Adobe XD, Sketch and Marvel to conduct usability testing.

  • Presentation tools such as Keynote, Google Slides and Microsoft PowerPoint.

Many of these tools offer additional features you can leverage for multiple purposes. To understand how you can make the most of these tools, we recommend these courses:

There are relatively fewer degrees that focus solely on user research.

Data-Driven Design: Quantitative Research for UX

User Research – Methods and Best Practices

How can you build a UX research case study?

While there are no universal research case study formats, here’s one suggested outline: 

  • An overview of the project: Include the problem statement, goals and objectives.

  • The research methods and methodology: For example, surveys, interviews, or usability testing).

  • Research findings

  • The design process: How the research findings led to design decisions.

  • Impact of design decisions on users and the business: Include metrics such as conversion and error rates to demonstrate the impact.

  • Optionally, include notes on what you learned and how you can improve the process in the future.

Learn how to showcase your portfolio to wow your future employer/client in the How to Create a UX Portfolio course.

Will AI replace UX research?

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While AI can help automate tasks and help UX researchers, it will not completely replace them. AI lacks the creativity and empathy that human designers bring to the table.

Human researchers are better at understanding the nuances of human behavior and emotions. They can also think outside the box and develop creative solutions that AI cannot. So, AI can help researchers be more efficient and effective through data analysis, smart suggestions and automation. But it cannot replace them.

Watch AI-Powered UX Design: How to Elevate Your UX Career to learn how you can work with AI.

How to conduct UX research in agile teams?

Agile teams often struggle to incorporate user research in their workflows due to the time pressure of short sprints. However, that doesn’t mean agile teams can’t conduct research. Instead of seeing research as one big project, teams can break it into bite-sized chunks. Researchers regularly conduct research and share their findings in every sprint.

Researchers can involve engineers and other stakeholders in decision-making to give everyone the context they need to make better decisions. When engineers participate in the decision-making process, they can ensure that the design will be technically feasible. There will also be lower chances of errors when the team actually builds the feature. Here’s more on how to make research a team effort.

For more on bite-sized research, see this Master Class: Continuous Product Discovery: The What and Why

For more practical tips and methods to work in an agile environment, take our Agile Methods for UX Design course.

Why is UX research important?

User research is very important in designing products people will want and use. It helps us avoid designing based on what we think instead of what users actually want.

UX research helps designers understand their users’ needs, behaviors, attitudes and how they interact with a product or service. Research helps identify usability problems, gather feedback on design concepts, and validate design decisions. This ultimately benefits businesses by improving the product, brand reputation and loyalty. A good user experience provides a competitive edge and reduces the risk of product failure.

Learn more about the importance of user research in the design process in these courses:

Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide

User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide

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Literature on UX Research

Here’s the entire UX literature on UX Research by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about UX Research

Take a deep dive into UX Research with our course User Research – Methods and Best Practices .

How do you plan to design a product or service that your users will love, if you don't know what they want in the first place? As a user experience designer, you shouldn't leave it to chance to design something outstanding; you should make the effort to understand your users and build on that knowledge from the outset. User research is the way to do this, and it can therefore be thought of as the largest part of user experience design.

In fact, user research is often the first step of a UX design process—after all, you cannot begin to design a product or service without first understanding what your users want! As you gain the skills required, and learn about the best practices in user research, you’ll get first-hand knowledge of your users and be able to design the optimal product—one that’s truly relevant for your users and, subsequently, outperforms your competitors’.

This course will give you insights into the most essential qualitative research methods around and will teach you how to put them into practice in your design work. You’ll also have the opportunity to embark on three practical projects where you can apply what you’ve learned to carry out user research in the real world. You’ll learn details about how to plan user research projects and fit them into your own work processes in a way that maximizes the impact your research can have on your designs. On top of that, you’ll gain practice with different methods that will help you analyze the results of your research and communicate your findings to your clients and stakeholders—workshops, user journeys and personas, just to name a few!

By the end of the course, you’ll have not only a Course Certificate but also three case studies to add to your portfolio. And remember, a portfolio with engaging case studies is invaluable if you are looking to break into a career in UX design or user research!

We believe you should learn from the best, so we’ve gathered a team of experts to help teach this course alongside our own course instructors. That means you’ll meet a new instructor in each of the lessons on research methods who is an expert in their field—we hope you enjoy what they have in store for you!

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