User Experience, or UX, encompasses all the interactions a user has with a company and its product, app, or website over time. UX is central to every interaction with the brand – from the product itself to marketing and messaging and social media – directly impacting customer attraction, conversion, retention, lifetime value, and referrals.
Research has demonstrated that sites with a superior user experience can have visit-to-lead conversion rates over 400% higher and that 84% of customers say user experience is as important as products and services being offered.
The focus of UX is on interactions and how they add to, or reduce friction in, the user experience. At every stage of UX design, the focus is on what the user may want, need, and feel. Informing the UX design is UX research, the systematic study of users to inform the design.
This guide will provide an overview of user experience research, why it’s important, how to start UX research, and various UX research methods and UX research tools that can help along the way.
What is UX Research?
User design research, sometimes referred to as design research, helps inform the work of UX design. UX research is not just user research; UX research helps:
- Identify the user, including demographics (user personas)
- Articulate the problem by understanding user needs, wants, and feelings
- Identify target market size
- Identify the competition
- Prove or disprove assumptions and ideas before and during design
While UX researchers have borrowed techniques from academic research, scientific research (particularly psychology), many forms of UX research are unique to the field. The main goal of UX research is to articulate the needs of the user during the design process, forming the basis of user-centric design (human-centered design).
UX Design vs UX Research
UX design is a process of research, product development and strategy to ultimately deliver a product or service that meets or exceeds expectations. At every stage of the design process, the focus is on the interaction between the user and the product, such as the website, app, or physical product. UX research is the starting point for UX design, to objectively test assumptions about the user, but it is also a part of every stage of the design process.
To understand how UX design and UX research work together, let’s break down the UX design process:
First, the UX design process attempts to understand why the user would use a product, then what actions the users take with the product (its functionality), and finally how to create that functionality with the best possible experience. The UX design process leverages UX research in every stage of development.
UX research and UX design each involve specialized skills in business / user analysis, information architecture, wireframing, prototyping, design, and soft skills. Given the wide range of specialized skills required, it is more common to separate the two roles:
- UX Researcher – focused on understanding the user (their needs, demographics, etc) and the market to inform product development. The UX researcher conducts market research, surveys, product feedback, usability testing, and UI testing.
- UX Designer – focused on translating the understanding from UX research into products to meet user needs. The UX designer will have skills in wireframing & prototyping, information architecture, user journey mapping & user stories, and contributing to the UI (visual design).
UX Research Approaches
There are a myriad of user experience research methods, generally organized along two dimensions: quantitative vs qualitative and attitudinal vs behavioral.
Quantitative vs Qualitative Research Research
User experience research is both quantitative and qualitative, gathering and synthesizing data as well as conducting interviews, surveys, user testing, and reviewing existing data. The two types of research provide very different insights about the user experience.
- Quantitative research can be measured with numbers, providing insight on what is happening and how frequently (how much) it is happening. Reporting is provided in large data sets that can be presented as bias-free statistics, graphs, or charts. Examples of quantitative research methods include: surveys, forms, or A/B tests.
- Qualitative research is descriptive in nature: it can be observed, but not measured numerically. Qualitative research provides insights on why something happens. Examples of qualitative research include interviews, observation sessions, and usability tests.
Attitudinal vs Behavioral Research
The next dimension of research contrasts the difference between attitudinal vs behavioral research to help understand user beliefs and actions – since there can often be a big difference between what people say and what they do.
- Attitudinal research helps define user attitudes, opinions, observations, or feelings toward an experience. Examples include surveys, focus groups, and preference tests.
- Behavioral research examines how people act, observing body language, pauses, and expressions. Examples include eye tracking tests, ethnographic studies, usability studies, and A/B tests.
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Why is UX Research Important?
Why is user experience research important? To reduce uncertainty at every stage of decision making. Through understanding of the user, their wants and needs, we can inform the UX design process – to create the optimal product for users, ultimately reaping the business benefits.
- Product Benefits
UX research is essential to inform the design strategy and decisions made at every step of the design process. The data gleaned in UX research helps prioritize ideas and features, articulate user stories, and inform decisions on how the product will work and look. This up-front investment in research and continuous testing ultimately streamlines the development process and results in a product that does exactly what it needs to do – nothing more, nothing less.
- User Benefits
Taking the time to understand users results in products, apps, services, or improvements that are useful, desirable, accessible, credible, findable, usable, and valuable – the six tenets of the user experience honeycomb. The more areas of the honeycomb the product can deliver on, the greater the chance the user will be happy – whether it’s a new product or service or an incremental change along the way.
- Business Benefits
UX research is one of the most important parts of creating an app or website, directly impacting customer attraction, conversion, retention, lifetime value, loyalty, and referrals. If you do not know who your users are, or what they want, it’s very likely you’re going to result in a product that misses the mark in some way – a way, thanks to the lack of research, that will be hard to understand. UX research, on the other hand, can inform what to build and the ROI achieved by building it. Informed decisions can also save on costs by reducing development time and eliminating costly redesigns.
Five Steps to Conducting UX Research
No matter which research method you follow, there are five basic steps to UX research that you follow.
Determine what you need to know about your users and their needs to inform your decision making.
What do you think you already know about your users? Each hypothesis is a testable assumption about user behaviors and potential solutions to meet user needs.
Based on your deadline, project type, and the size of your research team, what research methods should be used?
Using the selected research method(s), begin collecting data about your users, their preferences and their needs.
Analyze the data you collected to fill in your knowledge gaps, proving or disproving each hypothesis, and create a plan to improve your product based on user feedback.
When Should UX Research be Conducted?
UX research is valuable at every stage of the UX design process, as demonstrated in the graph above. However, the greatest amount of user research is done early in the project to help discover the user and their needs, with later stages of UX research focused on testing and refining the proposed solution to the problem.
It is common to consider four main product UX design stages where UX research can be effective:
- Discover – UX research helps discover who the user is, what problem is being solved, where current solutions are falling short, possible areas of differentiation. This stage is about understanding, not solutions.
- Explore – UX research in this stage attempts to gain a deeper understanding of the problem and the potential solution
- Test – UX research in this stage is concurrent with the product development, validating the design and iteratively testing features and improvements to find the optimal user experience
- Listen – UX research at this stage is focused on feedback about the product or brand in general, but this can also loop back into Discovery where active listening has helped identify new problems that need solving
UX research is valuable at every stage of UX design, with the project and resources dictating how much research is involved at every stage. However, keep in mind that any UX research is better than no research at all, so don’t get hung up on missing a step along the way. To summarize
- Do research now
- Do research as often as possible across all stages
- Do the most research early
Top UX Research Methods
There are many different methods of UX research depending on the stage of UX design the project is in. To follow our previous model, let’s examine each stage of the Discover – Explore – Test – Listen model in terms of the kinds of research conducted at each stage.
Discover who the user is, what problem is being solved, where current solutions are falling short, possible areas of differentiation
User diary studies
User interviews / shadowing
Workshopping, including requirements & constraints gathering
Gain a deeper understanding of the problem and the potential solution
Pain point workshopping
Wireframe & prototype feedback & testing (clickable or paper prototypes)
User story mapping
Validate the design and iteratively test features and improvements
Qualitative usability testing (in-person or remote)
Receive feedback about the product or brand in general, looping back to Discover if new insights emerge
Social media monitoring
Frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) review
The choice in method depends on the focus of the project, time constraints, system maturity, top areas of concern, and the product or improvement being considered. A word of warning here is to not let UX Research skill limitations result in a too-narrow scope that could miss important insights.
Best Practices to Conduct User Experience Research
User experience research is designed to be user-centric to provide the team a real and accurate understanding of the user they’re designing for. They need to put themselves in that user’s shoes and work out what problem or problems they’ll be solving for that user. To get the most out of UX research, follow the following best practices:
- Create Empathy Truly get to know the users, their mindsets, and their needs. At this stage, try to reduce bias about what you think you know and focus only on the user without any specific goal or outcome in mind.
- Be Open Avoid coming to the table with preconceived assumptions about the user, the problem, the solution you want to build, or what the majority of users are doing or thinking. Instead, consider that opportunities could be present in the minority of users that could offer important insights for new products or features (for example, if 25% of users are unhappy with the common check-out experience, how can it be improved upon?). Be open to being proven wrong during the research stage.
- Research Everything While any research is better than no research, the most value comes from researching at every stage of UX design to make sure you’re developing the right product – and the product is developed right.
- Small Tests can be Valid too Not every research method requires quantitative data. Consider that many qualitative methods provide enough feedback on features and improvements with just a handful of users.
- Actionable Insight is the Goal No matter how much UX research has been done, and how much data is accumulated, that data must be translated from understanding users into meaningful and actionable information for the UX design process. Your UX researcher should know how to bridge the communication gap between the two, translating user needs into the technical language that the developers and the product team can also understand.
Top UX Research Tools
UX research tools help jumpstart any UX research program, from early stage user research to late stage prototype testing and listening activities. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular options:
1. User Testing Tools
User testing is a method of research that tests an individual’s experience with a product, app, or website.
UserTesting is an online platform for targeted user testing, including video recordings of users completing tasks (useful for both discovery, exploring and testing!) and getting feedback on wireframes and prototypes, both with multiple choice and open-ended survey options.
Userbrain is a user testing tool that records people interacting with the product or prototypes, as above, with the option to use UserBrain users or to invite users. With a pay-as-you-go option, Userbrain is great for the smaller brand or the organization new to user experience research.
2. Organization and Project Management
UX research requires careful planning and organizational skills to create, organize, and analyze research results. There are many UX research tools ideally suited to help plan and organize UX data.
Airtable is a platform that mixes the simplicity of a spreadsheet with the power of a database. Keep track of user research in one place, including plans, schedules, and results, with the ability to quickly transform findings into reports. Leverage templates for surveys, studies, user story mapping, and stakeholder analysis.
Woopra provides user segmentation (including by behavior), customer journey mapping, real-time user analytics, and engagement triggers. Woopra is particularly adept at translating website touchpoints into actionable insights without jumping through hoops. Woopra is ideal for existing websites or apps, to help spot opportunities or refine the user experience.
Usabilla, a SurveyMonkey company, is designed to collect real-time feedback across digital channels to spot opportunities for growth, measure the impact of changes, and conduct market research with external focus groups.
3. Analytics and Heat Mapping
User experience analytics is the quantitative measurement and analysis of user activity on a website or app such as what a user clicked on and how much time was spent on a page. Heat mapping is a subset of analytics that provides a visualization of data such as clicks, scrolling behavior, attention (based on time spent on a scrolled section based on screen size and resolution), or mouse movement (hovering).
Hotjar provides web analytics based upon heat mapping. Data is captured with live recordings and supplemented with surveys.
Google Analytics provides web analytics services as part of the Google Marketing Platform, providing data including user demographics and behavior, session duration, pages per session, bounce rate, conversion tracking, origin of traffic and site performance metrics.
Mixpanel is an alternative option to Google Analytics, among dozens (if not hundreds) of other options on the market. Mixpanel’s focus is on behavioral analytics that are a bit deeper (and thus quite useful), including purchases, video watch time, sign-ups. With this, Mixpanel can offer insights on things such as account health and lifetime value of business assets. Mixpanel, further, can be used for A/B tests and for personalized marketing.
4. A/B Testing
A/B testing involves qualitative methods to ask users their opinion on two different options, which could be presented as wireframes, prototypes, or real-time data gathering. For example, many marketing techniques involve testing different ads at random to determine which is most effective. In prototyping, A/B testing can ask users for pros and cons of each option and which would be a preference. UX designers can further refine either the A or B prototype, or create a new prototype, before additional testing.
Optimizely is an AI-powered digital experience platform that supports testing new approaches with visual editors, multivariate testing and A/B testing to support personalized testing at scale.
VWO is an A/B testing platform that builds in behavior analysis, program management, and engagement capabilities.
5. User Surveys and Studies
Surveys present a series of questions to users to provide feedback about how users feel (attitudinal data) – this data can be used quantitatively, in large enough numbers, or qualitatively. Surveys can be done in-person, but typically are done online. Particular attention should be made to survey design to make the questions as clear as possible so that results are clear.
Survey Monkey is a web-based tool to create, send, and analyze surveys of all sizes to users you already know (mailing lists) or through online channels (promoted on social media). Leverage pre-built templates and reports specific to the user journey, making it easy to jumpstart UX research for businesses of all sizes.
User Interviews helps recruit paid users to participate in research from an existing database of professionals and consumers. Users are vetted to help ensure quality feedback and can be recruited based on a variety of target data.
6. Design Evaluation and Iteration
Design evaluation is the systematic review of a design to identify usability problems or opportunities to reduce friction. Design iteration is the process of testing, refining, and re-testing designs over time.
Feng-GUI provides feedback on visuals with eye-tracking as a measure of attention and attraction.
Optimal Workshop supports a variety of research methods including card sorting and tree testing to evaluate information architecture, first-click testing, and online surveys. The platform also offers management capabilities, organizing all sources of user research into a single source of truth.
7. Wireframe and Prototype Testing
Wireframes are low-quality, often hand drawn, designs of products, websites or apps that offer the basic layout and guidelines. Prototypes take wireframes one step further, adding a greater level of detail and often basic interaction.
MockFlow is a simple tool for developing wireframes, including a library of pre-built components and the option to track revisions for faster iterations and collaboration. MockFlow also brings the same simplicity to site mapping and user journey mapping.
Proto.io features drag-and-drop wireframe and prototype development for UI components that both look and mimic the behavior of native elements for web and mobile. Can be integrated with popular user testing platforms including UserTesting (see above).
8. User On-boarding and In-app messaging
Although “onboarding” is typically referenced as the process of getting new users familiar with a product, in UX “user onboarding” is the process of demonstrating value to users – a more comprehensive term that reflects all segments of the user experience.
Appcues makes it possible to create new flows (events or experiences) on top of your product and to target users and track (test) behavior of each flow.
WalkMe is another no-code platform (like Appcues) to drive adoption and improve the customer experience by pinpointing where users struggle and providing personalized content to streamline the user experience.
UX research is responsible for uncovering user needs and behaviors and helping transform data into insights for the UX design process at every stage of development. It takes years of experience in research methodology and product design to create and execute a research plan to deliver clear, actionable recommendations for the product development team.
An industry-leading provider like Net Solutions brings experience to the table, with innovative and proprietary research methods that reflect the latest trends in consumer behavior and UX design. Contact us today to see how we can help you get your product started on the right foot with UX research.
User Experience Strategy
Net Solutions brings a proprietary mix of investigative and co-creative UX research methods to form the design process