User Needs

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What are User Needs?

User needs refer to users’ desires, goals, preferences and expectations when they interact with a product or service. These can encompass a wide range of factors such as functionality, usability, aesthetics, accessibility and emotional satisfaction. Designers research and understand needs to create user-centric designs that prioritize usability, satisfaction and more.

User Experience Strategist and Educator William Hudson explains where user needs fit into the design space.

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Why User Needs are the Backbone of UX Design

To design with user needs in mind comes with its own set of challenges. User experience (UX) designers face obstacles as they try to identify, prioritize and address user needs effectively from these users’ problems and more. Some of the key challenges to their design work include:

1. Diverse User Backgrounds and Contexts

Users come from diverse backgrounds and have different cultural, social and personal contexts. This real-life diversity introduces complexity to how designers might understand the needs of the people in their target audience. Designers must consider these various factors carefully. It’s vital to tailor solutions to accommodate the unique needs and preferences of different user groups. Designers also have to consider accessibility—as a legal requirement in many jurisdictions—to cater to the needs of users of all abilities.

Author and Human-Computer Interaction Expert, Professor Alan Dix explains why designers need to consider users’ culture, for instance:

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2. Misalignment between User Needs and Design Inputs

Sometimes, there can be a misalignment between what users actually need and what designers perceive as their needs. Designers may unintentionally impose their assumptions or biases onto the design, or rely on anecdotal evidence about users. That can result in a product or service that does not fully meet the users’ needs and fail in the marketplace. So, it’s crucial for designers to conduct thorough user research and engage in continuous feedback loops. From that, they can ensure that the design aligns with the actual user needs upon release of the product and beyond. It’s also essential to ensure that other team members, product managers and any other stakeholders who have an impact on the outcome are aware of the sheer need to get this alignment just right.

3. Lack of User Research

The need to match market research and field studies to mirror customer experiences accurately is an essential in all industries. Similarly, insufficient user research is a common challenge in UX design. Without a deep understanding of user needs, designers might create products that don’t effectively address user pain points, help in their problem-solving or provide value. User research helps designers gain insights into user behaviors, preferences, points of view and motivations. Quantitative and qualitative user research methods—including card sorting and semi-structured interviews, among many—enable designers to ask relevant research questions and make informed design decisions.

See why proper user research is so vital an ingredient in UX design:

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4. Failure to Iterate and Adapt

User needs evolve over time. Design solutions must adapt accordingly. If designers fail to iterate and update designs based on changing user needs, it can lead to outdated and irrelevant products. Continuous evaluation and improvement are essential to ensure that the design remains aligned with user needs and expectations.

5. Role Ambiguity

Another of the main challenges is the ambiguity surrounding the role and responsibilities of UX designers. Many people confuse UX design with graphic design or consider it a subset of user interface (UI) design. This lack of clarity can lead to misunderstandings and limitations in the scope of the UX designer's role. It is crucial for designers to educate stakeholders and be an advocate for their and the brand’s users. That is how they can establish a clear understanding of the value and impact of UX design as they seek to address user needs properly.

Why Good User Research is a Vital Way to Understand User Needs

It’s impossible to overstate the point that user research plays a critical role for designers to understand user needs and ensure that their design solutions effectively address these requirements. Research splits between attitudinal and behavior approaches when designers and UX researchers are gathering information to guide their efforts and those of product developers and others in the design team.

Illustration showing faces of individuals and two approaches to user research.

The two approaches to user research.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

When designers conduct user research well, they gain valuable insights into their user’s world. These insights span user behaviors, motivations, pain points and preferences. This information guides the design process and enables designers to create user-centered solutions. More precisely, user research helps designers to:

1. Validate Assumptions

User research helps validate or challenge assumptions about user needs. When designers directly engage with users, they can gather real-world insights that shape the design direction. They can also avoid basing decisions on unfounded assumptions.

2. Uncover Hidden Needs

Sometimes, users may not explicitly express their needs or may be unaware of them. Through qualitative user research and quantitative user research methods such as interviews, surveys and observation, designers can uncover these hidden needs and incorporate them into the design process.

3. Prioritize Features and Functionality

User research provides designers with data-driven insights to prioritize features and functionality based on user needs and preferences. When designers have these top of mind, it helps ensure that they and others in the design team can allocate limited resources to the most critical aspects of the design. For example, it takes a dedicated eye and specialized mindset to design for mobile users.

CEO of Experience Dynamics, Frank Spillers explains the human-centered mobile design approach:

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4. Test and Validate Design Solutions

User research methods such as usability testing let designers observe how users interact with prototypes or existing designs. This feedback loop helps identify potential usability issues and keep in line with requirements for accessible designs. It also helps to validate design decisions and make iterative improvements based on user needs.

Diagram showing the Design Thinking process.

Design Thinking is a process that revolves around a solid understanding of the needs of the users whom designers seek to help.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Methods and Best Practices to Discover User Needs

In terms of design processes, user needs are the “sparks” with which designers seek to ignite their problem-solving “engine.” For example, in design thinking, designers empathize with users to be able to define their needs accurately. In any case, to uncover user needs effectively, research is key. UX designers employ various research methods and best practices. Here are some commonly used approaches:

1. Surveys and Questionnaires

Surveys and questionnaires are valuable tools that designers use to gather quantitative data about user needs and preferences. Designers can distribute surveys to a large number of users to collect insights on a broader scale. It’s important to pay careful consideration to survey design. Designers should ensure that questions are clear, concise and relevant to the research objectives.

Illustration showing six best practices about UX surveys.

Surveys require careful thought to tailor them correctly to the users who can supply vital information about their needs.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

2. Interviews and Focus Groups

In-depth interviews and focus groups provide qualitative insights into user needs. When designers engage in direct conversations with users, they can delve deeper into their experiences, motivations and pain points. These methods allow for open-ended discussions that uncover rich, contextual information about user needs.

3. User Observation and Shadowing

When designers and UX researchers observe users in their natural environments or shadow them as they interact with a product or service, it provides valuable insights into these users’ behaviors, frustrations and needs. This method allows designers and others in the design team to understand the context in which users operate and identify pain points or areas for improvement.

4. Analytics and Data Analysis

When designers leverage analytics tools and analyze user data, it can offer valuable insights into user behaviors and needs. If designers examine user interactions, patterns and engagement metrics, they can identify areas where users may encounter difficulties or unmet needs.

5. Persona Development

Personas are fictional representations of target users that encapsulate their characteristics, needs and goals. They are extremely valuable tools. They’re also an essential part of the design thinking process. When designers create personas based soundly on user research, they can develop a deep understanding of their target audience and design solutions that truly meet their specific needs.

Author and Expert in Human-Computer Interaction, Alan Dix explains the importance of personas and how to get them right for design projects:

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6. User Journey Mapping

User journey mapping visualizes the user’s experience throughout their interaction with a product or service. This method helps designers identify pain points, opportunities and moments of delight along the user journey. When designers understand the users’ needs at each touchpoint, they can optimize the experience and address any gaps or challenges for these users.

CEO of Experience Dynamics, Frank Spillers explains the significance of journey mapping, in this case as it applies to service design.

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Tools to Assist Designers to Understand User Needs

Several tools and frameworks can assist UX designers to understand user needs and incorporate them into the design process. Here are some commonly used tools:

1. Empathy Maps

Empathy maps help designers develop a deeper understanding of users as they map these users’ thoughts, feelings, needs and behaviors. When designers visualize these aspects, they can empathize with users and design solutions that address their needs effectively.

A diagram showing the different facets of empathy mapping.

Empathy maps can reveal critical insights to guide the design process.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

2. User Personas

User personas deserve a second mention in particular. They provide a human-centered perspective that informs design decisions and ensures the design aligns with the target audience's goals and preferences.

An image showing a persona, with picture and details.

User personas contain a wealth of information and insights that designers can leverage to more effectively meet users’ needs.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

3. User Stories

User stories are concise narratives that describe a specific user's needs, goals and expected outcomes. They help designers maintain a user-centered focus throughout the design process and ensure that the end product effectively addresses user needs.

UX Designer and Author of Build Better Products and UX for Lean Startups, Laura Klein explains user stories and their significance:

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4. User Testing

User testing involves observing users as they interact with a prototype or existing design. When designers gather feedback and insights directly from users, they can identify usability issues, validate design decisions and align the product with user needs, including fine-tuned aspects of visual design. 

Examples of How to Address User Needs

Numerous case studies illustrate how companies have successfully identified and addressed user needs in their products and services. Notable examples include the following:

1. Apple's iPhone

Apple revolutionized the smartphone industry by understanding and addressing user needs effectively. They identified the need for a device that combines multiple functionalities—such as phone calls, internet browsing and music playback—in a user-friendly and intuitive manner. When Apple designed the iPhone with a sleek interface, touch screen technology and an ecosystem of apps, they met the diverse needs of users and created a groundbreaking product.

Image showing four different types of iPhone.

Apple recognized the need to meet their users’ needs in this intuitive handheld package, available as popularly desired.

© Apple, Fair Use

2. Slack

Slack identified the need for a streamlined and collaborative communication tool for teams. When Slack designed a platform that integrates messaging, file sharing and project management features, they addressed the pain points associated with fragmented communication channels and improved team collaboration. Their user-centric approach has made Slack a widely adopted tool for businesses worldwide.

3. Uber

Uber identified the need for a convenient and reliable transportation service. Uber focused on user needs such as ease of use, quick access to drivers and transparent pricing. From there, they revolutionized the transportation industry.

4. Airbnb

Airbnb recognized the user need for affordable and unique accommodations while traveling. When Airbnb created a platform that connects travelers with hosts offering unique and personalized lodging options, they disrupted the traditional hotel industry. They addressed user needs for authenticity, affordability and immersive travel experiences. These efforts resulted in a highly successful platform.

Screenshot from the Airbnb website showing Baku properties.

Airbnb’s solid grasp of their users’ needs has translated to a highly intuitive site and app that bridges the divide between problem and solution effectively, seamlessly and desirably.

© Airbnb, Fair Use

Tips to Uncover and Design for User Needs

To uncover and design for user needs effectively, UX designers can follow these practical tips:

1. Conduct Comprehensive User Research

Invest time and resources to conduct thorough user research and so gain a deep understanding of user needs, motivations and pain points. Use a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods to gather rich insights.

One of the best “keys” to shed light on the problem space is a problem statement. Otherwise called a Point of View (POV), it is a concise description of the design problem, and encapsulates the user’s needs.

Illustration showing a Point of View Madlib framework.

Designers identify how to address the user’s needs when they set out what it is that users require in a scenario. Like so:

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Image showing a completed Point of View Madlib.

In the above example, the designer has set out the user as a type of person with a sharply defined need. This translates to the insight from which the designer can start to work on a potential solution.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

2. Involve Users Throughout the Design Process

Include users in the design process through user testing, co-creation sessions and feedback loops. When designers engage users, they can ensure that they consider these needs at every stage and reduce the risk of misalignment. Designers should put themselves in the shoes of the users and strive to understand their goals, motivations and challenges. This empathy will guide the design decisions and help create user-centered solutions.

See why empathy for users is the most fundamental ingredient in a design process.

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3. Prioritize User-Centered Design

Place user needs at the center of the design process throughout all efforts. Continuously refer back to user research and personas to inform design decisions and ensure that the design aligns with user expectations.

4. Iterate and Refine

Embrace an iterative design process that allows for continuous improvement based on user feedback. Regularly test and refine the design to ensure that it remains aligned with user needs as they evolve.

5. Collaborate with Cross-functional Teams

Collaborate with stakeholders from different disciplines, such as development, marketing and customer support. When designers involve diverse perspectives, they can gain a holistic understanding of user needs and create comprehensive solutions. This is where an Agile process can come in especially handy, for instance.

UX Designer and Author of Build Better Products and UX for Lean Startups, Laura Klein explains how valuable cross-functional teams are in design:

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6. Stay Updated on UX Trends

Stay informed about current UX trends and emerging technologies. If designers keep up with industry developments, they can be well positioned to anticipate future user needs and design solutions that are ahead of the curve.

Overall, it’s a fundamental part of design that designers understand and address user needs. Only when designers do this—and well—can they hope to create successful and impactful user experiences. To state that proper user research and other measures are vital activities that designers must undertake to meet user expectations may sound like an obvious truth. However, it is vital to approach matters properly, including the need to prioritize user-centered design and continuously iterate on the design based on user feedback. In this way, designers can create products and services that provide value, delight users, and drive business success.

Remember, user needs are at the core of UX design. Therefore, it’s vital to design with empathy and a deep understanding of users of all types. It’s also extremely important to factor in accessibility considerations mindfully and not as an afterthought. These considerations are key to getting in step with user needs, user flows and then creating meaningful and impactful experiences for all users.

Learn More about User Needs

Take our User Research – Methods and Best Practices course.

Find further insights and tips in our piece Flow Design Processes – Focusing on the Users’ Needs.

Read User Need Statements: The ‘Define’ Stage in Design Thinking by Sarah Gibbons for more in-depth details.

Check out this piece, Best 18 Examples of User Needs by UIHUT, for fascinating examples, insights and more.

Read Top Methods of Identifying User Needs by UXPin for more information.

Questions related to User Needs

Can you give examples of common user needs in digital products?

In digital products, user needs often revolve around efficiency, ease of use, personalization, accessibility and security. Here are some common examples:

1. Efficiency and productivity: Users want to accomplish tasks quickly and easily. For instance, in a project management app, the ability to create and delegate tasks with a few clicks meets this need.

2. Ease of use: Simplicity is key. A user-friendly interface, with intuitive navigation and clear instructions, allows users to use a product without confusion. Think of a banking app that simplifies the process of transferring money.

3. Personalization: Users appreciate when digital products cater to their preferences and history. Streaming services like Netflix recommend shows and movies based on past viewing habits, providing a personalized experience.

4. Accessibility: Digital products must be usable for everyone, including those with disabilities. Features like text-to-speech for visually impaired users or voice recognition for those unable to use traditional input devices are crucial.

5. Security and privacy: In an era where data breaches are common, users need to feel their information is safe. Secure login methods and transparent privacy policies are examples of how digital products can meet this need.

6. Entertainment and engagement: Users often seek entertainment. Games, social media platforms and video streaming services must provide engaging content to keep users coming back.

7. Learning and development: Educational apps need to offer valuable content in an engaging way, helping users learn new skills or knowledge efficiently.

8. Social connection: Especially in social media apps, users want to connect with others easily, share content, and communicate in real-time.

Watch our topic video on accessibility to appreciate the need to design with accessibility in mind.

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What's the difference between user needs, wants and expectations?

User needs refer to the essential requirements users must have met to achieve their goals effectively within a digital product. Wants, on the other hand, are the features or experiences users would like to have but are not essential for the core functionality. Expectations are the preconceived standards or levels of performance users believe the product will deliver. Past experiences or market standards often influence these. It’s crucial for designers to understand the distinction between these concepts so they can prioritize features and create products that not only meet fundamental requirements but also exceed users' expectations and include desirable elements when possible. Of course, accessibility requirements form a fundamental level of expectations for a design to have.

Take our course Emotional Design—How to Make Products People Will Love for essential and in-depth insights into how to design products that users will truly enjoy.

What tools or methods work best to uncover user needs?

To best uncover user needs, designers should use a combination of tools and methods. Conduct interviews and surveys to gather direct insights from users about their preferences and experiences. Perform observational studies, such as usability testing, to watch users interact with a product and identify unarticulated needs. Use analytics and data analysis to spot patterns in how people use the product; these offer clues about their needs. This mix provides a full picture of user needs.

Watch as User Experience Strategist and Educator William Hudson explains the significance of user research and various methods involved.

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How do you resolve conflicts between user needs?

To resolve conflicts between user needs, designers need to prioritize based on the product's goals, the impact on the user experience and feasibility. Designers can use techniques such as stakeholder interviews to understand different perspectives, user research to validate the importance of conflicting needs, and design workshops to explore solutions collaboratively. Ultimately, the decision often requires a designer to balance user satisfaction and responsibilities such as accessibility requirements, with business objectives and technical constraints.

 Watch our Master Class How To Get People Who Don’t Get Design with Morgane Peng, Design Director at Société Générale for insights into how to bridge the divide between stakeholders and designers.

Can user needs evolve, and how should designers adapt?

User needs indeed evolve as technology advances, markets shift and personal preferences change. To adapt, designers must engage in ongoing research to understand these changes. They should also seek regular feedback from users to capture their evolving needs and preferences. Observing how users interact with products provides insights into areas for improvement. As they iterate on product design based on this feedback and observation, designers can ensure that their products remain relevant and continue to meet the changing needs of their users.

 Take our Master Class Top Ten Things Designers Need to Know About People  with Susan Weinschenk, Chief Behavioral Scientist and CEO, The Team W Inc. for insights into users as people.

How do ethical considerations influence the identification and prioritization of user needs?

Ethical considerations are crucial keys to identify and prioritize user needs because they ensure that designers respect user privacy, consent and data security. These considerations prevent harm and ensure fairness, especially in vulnerable populations. Designers must prioritize needs that align with ethical standards and societal values, often requiring a balance between user benefit and potential risks. Ethical design fosters trust and long-term engagement as it prioritizes user well-being and societal impact over short-term gains.

Product Design Lead at Netflix, Nival Sheikh explains the dimension of ethics as it applies to artificial intelligence (AI).

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What challenges might teams encounter when meeting user needs in complex systems?

When teams work to meet user needs in complex systems, they often face multiple challenges. These challenges include the ability to understand the diverse needs of various user groups, integrate these needs into a cohesive system design and manage the technical complexity that comes with advanced features and functionalities. Additionally, to ensure accessibility for all users, maintain data security and privacy, and deal with constraints such as budget and timelines can complicate the design process. Effective communication within the team and with stakeholders, along with agile and iterative design approaches, are key strategies for designers to overcome these obstacles and successfully meet user needs in complex systems. 

 Watch The Impact of AI on Design with AI Product Designer, Ioana Teleanu to understand more about complex systems and design:

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How can designers promote user needs in organizations that prioritize business goals over user experience?

Designers can promote user needs in organizations that prioritize business goals when they show how user-centered design directly contributes to the achievement of those business objectives. They can present case studies and evidence showing that an improved user experience leads to higher satisfaction, increased loyalty, and ultimately, greater revenue and market share. Designers can also use prototypes and user feedback to make a compelling case for the value of user-centered design approaches. Designers can—and should—also ensure stakeholders are aware of accessibility requirements. When designers align user needs with business goals, they can create a win-win situation where both users and the organization benefit.

 Watch our Master Class How To Get People Who Don’t Get Design with Morgane Peng, Design Director at Société Générale for insights into how to bridge the divide between stakeholders and designers.

What are common pitfalls when designers try to validate user needs in design?

When designers seek to validate user needs in design, several common pitfalls can hinder the process and lead to less effective solutions. First, designers might assume they fully understand the user without conducting thorough research. This can lead to solutions based on incorrect assumptions. Another pitfall is to not involve a diverse group of users in the research phase, which can result in overlooking the needs of certain user segments. Additionally, if designers confuse what users say they want with what they actually need, designers might prioritize features that don't address fundamental problems. Designers might also ignore the context in which a product is used, and miss crucial factors that affect user experience. Lastly, if designers fail to iterate based on user feedback, it can prevent the refinement of solutions to better meet user needs. To avoid these pitfalls, designers should engage deeply with user research, include diverse user perspectives, distinguish between wants and needs, consider the context of use and continuously iterate based on feedback.

 Watch Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at University College London, Ann Blandford explain how to approach the interview situation.

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What are highly cited scientific articles on the subject of user needs?

1.  Bordegoni, M., Carulli, M., & Spadoni, E. (2023). User Experience and User Experience Design. In Prototyping User eXperience in eXtended Reality (Chapter). SpringerBriefs in Applied Sciences and Technology.

This chapter offers a comprehensive overview of UX Design, emphasizing its multidisciplinary nature and focus on crafting valuable user experiences. It covers fundamental concepts, methodologies, and the importance of a User Centered Design (UCD) philosophy, which prioritizes user needs in the design process. The authors outline the UCD's main phases, advocate for user participation, and discuss qualitative and quantitative methods employed at each stage. The chapter also debunks the myth that UX Design is solely for digital products, highlighting its application in broader contexts.

 

2. Manciaracina, A. (2022). How to design learning using technology and users’ needs? In SpringerBriefs in Applied Sciences and Technology.

This chapter by Andrea Manciaracina delves into designing learning environments that integrate pedagogy, space, and technology. It discusses research outputs and project activities, creating scenarios for learning environments, and proposes a tool for applying these scenarios in real-world teaching. The tool, validated through co-design activities with teachers from Politecnico di Milano, aims to help users select appropriate technologies for teaching. The chapter concludes with a rule manual for the tool, combining methodological insights from research and practical findings from tool experimentation.

What are popular good books on the subject of user needs?

1.  Norman, D. A. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things [Paperback – Illustrated]. Basic Books.

The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman has been influential for its insightful exploration of the relationship between design and user experience. The book highlights how product design impacts user interactions, emphasizing the importance of user-centered design principles rooted in cognitive psychology. Norman argues that good design should make functions visible, utilize natural relationships between function and control, and incorporate intelligent constraints to guide users effortlessly. By addressing common design flaws such as hidden controls and lack of feedback, the book provides a framework for creating products that satisfy users rather than frustrate them. Norman's work serves as a foundational guide for designers seeking to enhance usability and create meaningful user experiences across various products and interfaces.

 

2. Van de Bruggen, H. (2023). Learnability Isn't Enough: How to Design Apps That Are Easy to Use in the Long Run, Not Just the First Run [Kindle Edition].

Learnability Isn't Enough: How to Design Apps That Are Easy to Use in the Long Run, Not Just the First Run by Hans van de Bruggen delves into the crucial distinction between learnability and usability in digital product design. The book emphasizes the importance of addressing usability issues that may only become apparent after users have spent time interacting with the product. By introducing a new method for preemptively identifying and resolving such issues, the book equips designers with tools to enhance user experience over time. This approach helps in identifying subtle yet significant design flaws, ensuring user satisfaction and facilitating continuous improvement of interfaces. Van de Bruggen's work offers valuable insights and practical strategies for creating user-centered designs that prioritize long-term ease of use and user satisfaction. The book's focus on proactive design improvements sets it apart as a valuable resource for designers aiming to enhance the usability of their digital products.

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Literature on User Needs

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

Learn more about User Needs

Take a deep dive into User Needs 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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