User Research

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What is User Research?

User research is the methodic study of target users—including their needs and pain points—so designers have the sharpest possible insights to make the best designs. User researchers use various methods to expose problems and design opportunities and find crucial information to use in their design process.

Discover why user research is a crucial part of the design process.

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User Research – Get to know your Users, and What They want

To call user research a crucial part of an interaction design process might seem overly obvious. Indeed, it’s the only way to discover exactly what these users need, having first found out precisely who they are. To set out to generate these facts, you must gather data from your users through a structured approach. First, you must choose methods that 1) suit your research’s purpose and 2) will yield the clearest information. Afterwards—to get the insights you want—you’ll need to interpret your findings from all that data, which can be tricky. You can apply user research anytime during the design process. Typically, researchers begin with qualitative measures, to discover users’ needs and motivations. They might later test their results by using quantitative measures.

“Research is creating new knowledge.”

– Neil Armstrong, the First person to walk on the Moon

User research essentially splits into two subsets:

  1. Qualitative research – Ethnographic field studies and interviews are examples of methods that can help you build a deep understanding of why users behave the way they do (e.g., why they leave a website so quickly). For instance, you can interview a small number of users and get sharp insights into their shopping habits by asking them open-ended questions. Usability testing is another dimension of this type of research (e.g., examining users’ stress levels when they use a certain design). Qualitative research requires great care. As it involves collecting non-numerical data (e.g., opinions), your own opinions might influence findings.

  2. Quantitative research – With more-structured methods such as surveys, you gather measurable data about what users do and test assumptions you developed from qualitative research. An example is to use an online survey to ask users questions about their shopping habits (e.g., “Approximately how many items of clothing do you buy online per year?”). You can use this data to find patterns within a large user group. In fact, the larger the sample of representative test users is, the more likely you’ll have a statistically reliable way of assessing the target user population. Regardless of the method, with careful research you can gather objective and unbiased data. Nevertheless, quantitative data alone cannot expose deeper human insights.

We can also split user research into two approaches:

  1. Attitudinal – you listen to users’ words (e.g., in interviews).

  2. Behavioral – you watch their actions through observational studies.

Usually, you can get the sharpest view of a design problem when you apply a mixture of both quantitative and qualitative research as well as a mixture of attitudinal and behavioral approaches.

Two Approaches to User Research

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Leverage User Research Methods throughout Development

Industry-leading user experience consulting organization the Nielsen Norman Group names appropriate user research methods for you to use during your project’s four stages. Here are key methods:

  1. Discover – Determine what’s relevant for users.

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

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

  2. Explore – See how to address all users’ needs.

    • Card sorting – On cards, write words and phrases and then let participants organize these in the most meaningful way and label categories to ensure your design is logically structured.

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

  3. Test – Evaluate your designs.

    • Usability testing – Make sure your design is easy to use.

    • Accessibility evaluations – Test your design to ensure everyone can use it.

  4. Listen – Put issues in perspective, uncover any new problems and spot trends.

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

    • Surveys/Questionnaires – Track how users’ feel about your product/design via these.

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However you approach user research, always consider the pros and cons of each technique. Card sorting is cheap and easy, for example, but may prove time-consuming when you proceed to analysis. Moreover, it might not provide in-depth contextual meaning. The resources available to you are another constraint. These will decide when, how much and which type of user research you can actually do. Therefore, carefully choose only the most relevant method/s for your research. Also, get stakeholders from your organization involved early on. They can reveal precious insights and help keep your research on track regarding business goals. Overall, user research is a valuable way to validate the assumptions the design team makes concerning users in the field, cut the expense of the best deliverables and keep your product’s demand high and ahead of competitors’ in the marketplace.

User Research Methods - from natural observation to laboratory experimentation

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

User research methods have various pros and cons and involve activities ranging from observations of users in context to controlled experiments in lab settings.

Learn More about User Research

For a fuller grasp of user research, take our course here.

See the Nielsen Norman Group’s list of user research tips.

Find an extensive range of user research considerations, discussed in Smashing Magazine.

Here’s a convenient and example-rich catalogue of user research tools.

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

Questions related to User Research

Is User research a good career?

User Research is a fulfilling career for individuals driven to comprehend user behaviors and work collaboratively with teams. As a User Researcher, you're instrumental in steering teams towards crafting user-centric solutions. If you're intrigued by a career that combines both analytical and creative insights, consider delving into this field. For a comprehensive understanding, explore the User Researcher Learning Path on our platform.

How much does a User researcher earn?

User Researchers are seeing competitive pay in the industry. On average, they can earn from $92,000 to $146,000 annually. In some smaller firms, user research duties might be combined with a broader UX role. To understand how salaries can differ by region or delve into a broader perspective on UX-related pay, check out this detailed guide on UI UX Designer Salaries for 2023 or Glassdoor's breakdown of User Experience Researcher salaries.

User Research vs. UX Design: How do they differ?

While both are integral to the user experience, User Research and UX Design serve different purposes. User Research delves deep into understanding user preferences and needs, paving the way for informed design strategies. In contrast, UX Design is about sculpting a product based on that insight, ensuring it's both user-centric and aesthetically pleasing. 

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Sometimes, especially in compact teams, the roles might blur with a designer handling research. Want a comprehensive insight? Dive into User Experience: The Beginner's Guide to explore their interconnected dynamics.

Is there a difference between User Research and UX Research?

Yes, there is! Think of UX research as a subset of user research. While both focus on understanding users, user research casts a broader net, examining topics like pricing or delivery preferences. UX research, meanwhile, zeroes in on how users interact with a product and their experience doing so. In short, user research looks at broader interactions, while UX research specifically studies product use. To dive deeper, check out our course on User Research Methods and Best Practices.

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Which techniques are employed in user research?

User research utilizes varied techniques such as usability testing, A/B tests, surveys, card sorting, interviews, analytics analysis, and ethnographic studies. Every approach brings unique insights and is ideal for specific situations. It's essential to choose the proper technique based on your research goals and your audience. Discover these techniques further in 7 Great, Tried and Tested UX Research Techniques

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

For a comprehensive understanding of usability testing, a popular user research method, check out our course on User Research Methods and Best Practices.

Is a degree necessary to become a user researcher?

While a related degree can be beneficial, it's not strictly required to become a user researcher. Many successful user researchers have degrees in diverse fields like psychology, design, anthropology, statistics, or human-computer interaction. What's crucial is a mix of relevant education, hands-on experience, and continuous learning. Even if some employers might favor candidates with a bachelor's degree, it can be in something other than a UX-focused area. Only some degrees specifically target user research. To strengthen your knowledge, consider courses like Data-Driven Design: Quantitative Research for UX or User Research Methods and Best Practices.

What does the user research process involve?

While each user research project is unique, some standard steps guide most endeavors:

  1. Determine the research question.

  2. Choose the proper research technique.

  3. Find participants.

  4. Execute the research.

  5. Evaluate the gathered data.

  6. Share the results.

For a thorough understanding of these steps and more, check out User Research – Methods and Best Practices.

Which tools are essential for user research?

There's a wide array of user research tools to pick from, tailored to your research goals, organizational size, and project specifics. Some popular choices include:

  • For surveys: Typeform or Google Forms.

  • Card sorting: Tools like Optimal Workshop, Maze or Trello.

  • Analyzing user activity: HotJar or CrazyEgg for heatmaps.

  • Usability evaluations: Platforms like Userlytics or Lookback.

  • Analyzing qualitative data: Miro or Lucidchart for affinity diagramming.

  • Crunching numbers: Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel for quantitative insights.

  • Usability testing on prototypes: Tools like Adobe XD or Figma.

  • Presenting findings: Use Google Slides, PowerPoint, or Prezi.

  • These tools often boast extra features to amplify your research.

Dive deeper into their applications with User Research – Methods and Best Practices.

Why is user research vital?

User research is paramount in creating products that align with users' genuine needs and preferences. Instead of basing designs on assumptions, it provides factual insights into how users feel and interact with products. By engaging in user research, designers can spot usability challenges, collect feedback on design ideas, and validate their design decisions. For businesses, this not only refines product offerings but also strengthens brand loyalty and reputation. A standout user experience gives a company a competitive edge and lowers the chances of product setbacks. Dive deeper into the significance of user research in design with Data-Driven Design: Quantitative Research for UX and User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide.

Literature on User Research

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

Learn more about User Research

Take a deep dive into User 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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