How to Conduct User Experience Research Like a Professional

Raven Veal, Contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

Whether you’re looking to develop a broad UX design skillset, or you’re exploring UX research as a design specialization, here’s your complete introduction to conducting user research like a pro. 

Hello, I’m Raven, a mentor for aspiring UX designers enrolled in the CareerFoundry UX Design Course. I also work as a UX Research Assistant at IBM and studied behavioral science at the University of Texas. I have 10 years of experience studying and analyzing human behavior—user research is definitely my thing.

During the past few years, I’ve worked with major companies, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations to develop and improve impactful products and applications. I’ve moderated focus groups, designed and administered surveys, carried out usability testing, and conducted user interviews. I also know a thing or two about creating a good persona!

In this guide, we’re going to cover the basics of UX research. We’ll start with exactly what it is, and then move on to discuss the various steps and associated terminology of UX research, as well as its role and value within the broader design process. We’ll then review the most common UX research methods, diving into how they’re conducted and a few best practices.

If you’re particularly interested in one of these topics, simply select it from the list below to jump straight to it. I’ve also added videos throughout the guide for those of you who prefer to learn with both eyes and ears—and I recommend you save this set of free UX research tutorials for later, too. Sound good? Let’s get started!

Introduction To User Experience (UX) Research

  1. What is UX research?
  2. What’s the difference between good and bad UX research?
  3. What are the five steps of UX research?
  4. What’s the role of research in the UX design process?
  5. Whats the value of UX research?

Introduction To User Experience Research Methods

  1. User Groups
  2. Usability Testing
  3. User Interviews
  4. Online Surveys
  5. User Personas
  6. What Next? User Research Analysis

Introduction To User Experience (UX) Research

1. What is UX research?

You read my bio in the introduction. Using only this information, could you explain why I recently switched from one time management app to another? Probably not. In order to answer this question, you need more context. UX research provides that context. So, what is UX research and what is its purpose?

“User research is how you will know your product or service will work in the real world, with real people. It’s where you will uncover or validate the user needs which should form the basis of what you are designing.”

Chris Mears, UXr

According to Design Modo, UX research is; “The process of understanding user behaviors, needs, and attitudes using different observation and feedback collection methods.” One of the other benefits of user experience research is that it helps us understand how people live their lives so that we can respond to their needs with informed design solutions. Good UX research involves using the right method at the right time during the development of a product.

Maria Arvidsson, Head of Product and UX at Usabilla, describes UX research as:

“The means through which you try to understand your users’ needs, behaviors and motivations and validate your assumptions and solutions.”

2. What’s the difference between good and bad UX research?

The biggest sign of an amateur UX designer is excluding end users from the design process. At the very start of my career I held the attitude that I could test any app, website, or product on myself, replacing the act of speaking with users. Never a good idea. It took time for me to learn a more professional approach, which is to start the design process by listening to the end user. Overall, UX research helps us avoid our biases since we are required to design solutions for people who are not like us.

“Insights that are received directly from user experience research are like muscle memory; the more you do research, the more insights you build up. But just like muscle memory, YOU have to be a part of the hard work in order to enjoy the lasting benefits of it that are specific to you. While it may be tempting to outsource research to a specialized team (and sometimes you can’t avoid it), you should try your utmost best to engage in at least a little bit of the research so that the insights grow under your skin instead of being handed to you from someone else who has sweated it.” 

—UX designer Ali Rushdan Tariq from ARTariq

A quick plug before we continue: If you’re looking to become a professional in this subdomain of UX, be sure to take a look at our guide to becoming a UX researcher

3. What are the five steps of UX research?

Created by Erin Sanders, the Research Learning Spiral provides five main steps for conducting UX research. The first two steps are about forming questions and hypotheses, and the last three steps are about gathering knowledge through selected UX research methods.

  1. Objectives: What are the knowledge gaps we need to fill?
  2. Hypotheses: What do we think we understand about our users?
  3. Methods: Based on time and manpower, what methods should we select?
  4. Conduct: Gather data through the selected methods.
  5. Synthesize: Fill in the knowledge gaps, prove or disprove our hypotheses, and discover opportunities for our design efforts.

4. What’s the role of research in the UX design process?

UX research is the starting point for a project. Research helps us learn about the users and their behavior, goals, motivations, and needs. It also shows us how they currently navigate a system, where they have problems and, most importantly, how they feel when interacting with our product.

UX research comes first in the UX design process because without it, our work can only be based on our own experiences and assumptions, which is not objective. As Neil Turner, founder of UX for the Masses told us, a good foundation is key to successful design:

“Good user research is key to designing a great user experience. Designing without good user research is like building a house without solid foundations—your design will soon start to crumble and eventually fall apart.”

5. What’s the value of UX research?

In the current digital product landscape, the real value of UX research is its ability to reduce uncertainty in terms of what users want and need, which yields benefits for the product, the business, and, of course, the users themselves.

1. Product Benefits

UX research provides data about the end user of the product, how and when the user will use the product, and the main problems the product will solve. UX research is also helpful when UX designers and the rest of the team (and stakeholders) have to decide between multiple design solutions.

2. Business Benefits

UX research brings a lot of a value to businesses. By knowing the end users and incorporating design requirements upfront, businesses can speed up the product development process, eliminate redesign costs, and increase user satisfaction.

3. User Benefits

One of the greatest values of user experience research is that it’s unbiased user feedback. Simply put, UX research speaks the user’s thoughts—without any influence from outside authority. It also serves as a bridge between users and the company.

“User experience research provides powerful insights that allow companies to humanize their customers and insert their needs, intentions, and behaviors into the design and development process. In turn, these insights enable companies to create experiences that meet—and sometimes exceed—customer needs and expectations. User experience research should be conducted well before the first sketch is drawn and integrated throughout the concept, iterative design, and launch phases of a product.”

—Janelle Estes, Director of Research Strategy at UserTesting

Introduction To User Experience Research Methods

UX research is based on observation, understanding, and analysis. With the help of various UX research techniques, you will:

  • Observe your users, keeping an eye out for non-verbal clues as to how they are feeling;
  • Develop an understanding of the user’s mental model: what does the user anticipate when using a certain product? Based on their previous experience, how do they expect this particular product to work?
  • Analyze the insights you’ve gathered and try to identify patterns and trends. Eventually, these insights will inform the decisions you make about the product and how it is designed.

With that in mind, let’s consider some of the most valuable user research techniques.

1. User Groups

User groups—also called “focus group discussions” or “focus groups”—are structured interviews that quickly and inexpensively reveal the desires, experiences, and attitudes of a target audience. User groups are a helpful user experience research method when a company needs a lot of insight in a short amount of time. If you are unsure when to use a user experience research method, user groups can be a good one to start with.

Why Do We Conduct User Groups?

User groups can help your company better understand:

1) How users perceive a product

2) What users believe are a product’s most important features

3) What problems users experience with the product

4) Where users feel the product fails to meet expectations

User groups can also be used to generate ideas of what users want to see in the future.

What people say and what people do are often very different, therefore user groups do not provide an accurate measurement of behavior. And because user groups are conducted with more than one user at a time, participants may influence each other’s opinions and preferences (aka “groupthink”), thus introducing bias and producing inaccurate data.

Best Practices For User Groups

Getting the most out of your user group is straightforward if you consider the following best practices when conducting this particular user research technique.

  1. Ask good questions: Make sure your questions are clear, open-ended, and focused on the topics you’re investigating.
  2. Choose a few topics: On average, plan to discuss 3-5 topics during a 90-minute focus group.
  3. Include the right amount of people: A good focus group should include 3-6 users—large enough to include a variety of perspectives, but small enough so everyone has a chance to speak.

“Conducting user research allows you to dive deep beneath the surface of what your users say they want, to instead uncover what they actually need. It’s the key to ensuring that your products and features will actually solve the problems that your clients face on a day to day basis. User research is imperative if you want to create a successful, habit forming product.”

— Jennifer Aldrich, UX and Content Strategist at InVisionApp

How To Conduct User Experience Research With User Groups

Conducting user groups can be broken down into a few major steps:

  1. Create a schedule that provides enough time for recruiting, testing, analyzing, and integrating results.
  2. Assemble your team, and establish roles: choose a moderator, note-taker, and discussion leader.
  3. Define the scope of your research: what questions will you ask? And how in-depth do you want to explore the answers? This will determine the number of people and the number of groups that need to be tested.
  4. Create a discussion guide that includes 3-5 topics for discussion.
  5. Recruit potential or existing users who are likely to provide good feedback.
  6. Conduct user group testing, and record data.
  7. Analyze and report findings.

“It’s really hard to design products by user groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

—Steve Jobs

2. Usability Testing

According to the website, usability testing refers to “evaluating a product or service by testing it with representative users.” During a test, participants will be asked to complete specific tasks while one or more observers watch, listen, and record notes. The main goal of this user experience testing method is to identify usability problems, collect qualitative data, and determine participants’ overall satisfaction with the product.

Why Do We Perform Usability Testing?

Usability testing helps identify problems before they are coded. When development issues are identified early on, it is typically less expensive to fix them. Usability testing also reveals how satisfied users are with the product , as well as what changes are required to improve user satisfaction and performance.

Unfortunately, usability testing is not 100% representative of the real life scenario in which a user will engage with your product. Also, because the data is qualitative, this kind of UX testing method doesn’t provide the large samples of feedback a questionnaire might. The good news it that the qualitative feedback you receive can be far more accurate and insightful.

Best Practices For Usability Testing

  1. Test with five users: Testing five users is typically enough to identify a design’s most important usability problems.
  2. Invite your team to the testing sessions: Anyone who is involved with how fast and how well problems are addressed should be invited to the usability testing sessions. These stakeholders may include the executive team, and lead developers or designers.
  3. Keep the findings brief and to-the-point: When you report the findings of a usability test, limit the comments to the ones that are really important. One good rule of thumb is to include the top three positive comments and the top three problems. The overall report should be no more than approximately 50 comments and 30 pages.

How to Conduct UX Research with Usability Testing

Usability testing can be broken down into a few major steps:

  1. Identify what needs to be tested and why (e.g. a new product, feature, etc.)
  2. Identify the target audience (or your desired customers).
  3. Create a list of tasks for the participants to work through.
  4. Recruit the right participants for the test.
  5. Involve the right stakeholders.
  6. Apply what you learn.

“One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the user experience for outsiders, not insiders.”

– Jakob Nielsen

3. User Interviews

A well-known user experience methodology is an interview. An interview is a user experience research method used to discover the attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of users (and potential users) of a product. Interviews are typically conducted by one interviewer speaking to one user at a time for 30 minutes to an hour. Interviews can take place face-to-face, over the phone, or via video streaming.

Why Do We Conduct Interviews?

Of all the user experience design methods, interviews are typically conducted at the beginning of the product development cycle when reviewing product goals. Because of the one-to-one nature of the interview, individual concerns and misunderstandings can be directly addressed and cleared up.

Face-to-face interviews also allow you to capture verbal and nonverbal cues, such as emotions and body language, which may identify enthusiasm for the product or discomfort with the questions.

When thinking about what research methodology to use, bear in mind that interviews are also a good supplement to online surveys: conducting an interview beforehand helps you refine questions for the survey, while conducting an interview afterwards allows you to gain explanations for survey answers.

There are a few drawbacks, however. First, because interviews require a team of people to conduct them, personnel costs are usually difficult to keep low. Sample size is also limited to the size of the interviewing staff.

Best Practices For User Interviews

  1. Hire a skilled interviewer: A skilled interviewer asks questions in a neutral manner, listens well, makes users feel comfortable, and knows when and how to probe for more details.
  2. Create a discussion guide: Write up a discussion guide (or an interview protocol) for all interviewers to follow. This guide should include questions and follow-up questions.
  3. Get informed consent: Before conducting the interview, make sure to get permission or consent to record the session. It’s also good to have one or two note takers on hand.

How To Conduct User Experience Research With User Interviews

Conducting an interview can be broken down into a few major steps:

  1. Prepare a discussion guide, or a list of questions to ask participants.
  2. Select a recording method (e.g. written notes, tape recorder, video).
  3. Conduct at least one trial run of the interview.
  4. Recruit the right participants for the interview.
  5. Conduct the interview.
  6. Analyze and report the results.

“Curiosity is a natural outcome of caring, and it is the single greatest contributor to effective user research … Caring and curiosity engender personal investment, and investment motivates a researcher to develop a deep understanding of users.”

– Demetrius Madrigal

4. Online Surveys

A survey is a research tool that typically includes a set of questions used to find out the preferences, attitudes, and opinions of your users on a given topic. Today, surveys are generally conducted online and in various lengths and formats. Data collected from surveys is received automatically, and the survey tool selected generally provides some level of analysis, the data from which can then be used for user experience studies further down the line to inform your product.

“It is so important to avoid using leading questions when it comes to surveys. It’s a common mistake that many people make. For example phrasing a question like “What do you dislike about Uber?” assumes the user has a negative preference for the service off the bat. A more neutral phrase would be “Tell us about your experience getting around town.” – this elicits more natural user feedback and behavior instead of forcing them down a funnel.”

– Top tip from UXBeginner

Why Do We Conduct Online Surveys?

Unlike traditional surveys, online surveys enable companies to quickly collect data from a broad (and sometimes remote) audience for free—or a low price. Surveys also help you discover who your users are , what your users want to accomplish, and what information your users are looking for.

Unfortunately, what users say versus what they do are two different things and can often yield inaccurate results. Furthermore, poorly worded questions can negatively influence how users respond. Length can also be an issue—many people hate taking long surveys. This is why it’s important to create short surveys so users are more likely to complete them and participate in future research efforts.

Best Practices For Online Surveys

  1. Keep it short: Keep your surveys brief, especially if participants will be compensated little or not at all. Only focus on what is truly important.
  2. Keep it simple: Make sure questions can be easily understood: ambiguous or complex wording can make questions more difficult to understand, which can bring the data into question.
  3. Keep it engaging: Include a mix of both multiple choice questions and open-ended questions (or questions in which users complete the answer).

How To Conduct User Experience Research With Online Surveys

Conducting an online survey can be broken down into a few major steps:

  1. Identify goals and objectives of the survey.
  2. Create survey questions.

Note: Consider collecting information about how satisfied users are with your product, what users like/dislike, and if they have suggestions for improvement.

  1. Select an online survey tool (e.g. SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics).
  2. Recruit participants.
  3. Conduct the survey.
  4. Analyze and report the results.

“We have to arm ourselves with data, research … and a clear understanding of our users so our decisions are not made out of fear but out of real, actionable information. Although our clients may not have articulated reasons for why they want what they want, it is our responsibility to have an ironclad rationale to support our design decisions.”

– Debra Levin Gelman

5. User Personas

A user persona is a fictional representation of your ideal customer. A persona is generally based on user research and includes the needs, goals, and observed behavior patterns of your target audience. You can find out how to create a user persona in this detailed guide.

Why Do We Create User Personas?

Whether you’re developing a smartphone app or a mobile-responsive website, any user experience research job will require you to understand who will be using the product. Knowing your audience will help influence the features and design elements you choose, thus making your product more useful. A persona clarifies who is in your target audience by answering the following questions:

  1. Who is my ideal customer?
  2. What are the current behavior patterns of my users?
  3. What are the needs and goals of my users?

Understanding the needs of your users is vital to developing a successful product. Well-defined personas will enable you to efficiently identify and communicate user needs. Personas will also help you describe the individuals who use your product, which is essential to your overall value proposition.

Unfortunately, creating personas can be expensive — it all depends on how deep into user research your organization is willing to go. There is also no real “scientific logic” behind persona building, which makes some people a little more hesitant to accept them.

Best Practices For User Personas

  1. Create a well-defined user persona: A great persona contains four key pieces of information: header, demographic profile, end goal(s), scenario.
  2. Keep personas brief: As a rule of thumb, avoid adding extra details that cannot be used to influence the design. If it does not affect the final design or help make any decisions easier: omit it.
  3. Make personas specific and realistic: Avoid exaggerated caricatures, and include enough detail to help you find real-life representation.

How To Conduct User Experience Research By Creating Personas

Creating user personas can be broken down into these main steps:

  1. Discuss and identify who your target users are with stakeholders (e.g. UX team, marketing team, product manager).
  2. Survey and/or interview real users to get their demographic information, pain points, and preferences.
  3. Condense the research, and look for themes to define your groups.
  4. Organize your groups into personas.
  5. Test your personas.

“Be someone else. It takes great empathy to create a good experience. To create relevant experiences, you have to forget everything you know and design for others. Align with the expected patience, level of interest, and depth of knowledge of your users. Talk in the user’s language.”

– Niko Nyman

Which User Experience Research Method Should You Use?

Now that you know more about the various user experience research methods, which one do you choose? Well, it all depends on your overall research goals.

You’ll also need to consider what stage you’re at in the design process. If you’re just starting out, you’ll want to focus on understanding your users and the underlying problem. What are you trying to solve? Who are you trying to solve it for? At this early stage in the design process, you’ll typically use a mixture of both qualitative and quantitative methods such as field studies, diary studies, surveys, and data mining.

Once you’ve established a direction for your design, you’ll start to think about actually building your product. Your UX research will now focus on evaluating your designs and making sure that they adequately address your users’ needs. So, you’ll choose research methods that can help you to optimize your designs and improve usability—such as card sorting and usability testing.

Eventually, you’ll have finalized your design and developed a working product—but this doesn’t mean your research is done! This is the ideal time to investigate how well the product performs in the real world. At this point, you’ll focus mainly on quantitative research methods, such as usability benchmarking, surveys, and A/B testing.

To help you with the task of choosing your research methods, let’s explore some important distinctions between the various techniques.

Behavioral vs. Attitudinal Research

As mentioned before, there is a big difference between “what people do” versus “what people say.” Attitudinal research is used to understand or measure attitudes and beliefs, whereas behavioral research is used to measure behaviors. For example, usability testing is a behavioral user research method that focuses on action and performance. By contrast, user research methods like user groups, interviews, and persona creation focus on how people think about a product.

UX designers often conduct task analysis to see not how users say they complete tasks in a user flow, but how they actually do.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research

When conducting UX research and choosing a suitable method, it’s important to understand the difference between quantitative and qualitative research.

Quantitative research gathers data that is measurable. It gives you clear-cut figures to work with, such as how many users purchased an item via your e-commerce app, or what percentage of visitors added an item to their wishlist. “Quant methods”, as they’re sometimes called in the industry, help you to put a number on the usability of your product. They also allow you to compare different designs and determine if one version performs significantly better than another.

Qualitative research explores the reasons or motivations behind these actions. Why did the user bounce from your website? What made them “wishlist” an item instead of purchasing it? While quantitative data is fixed, qualitative data is more descriptive and open-ended. You can learn all about qualitative research in the video guide below, in which CareerFoundry graduate and professional UX designer Maureen Herben takes you through the most common qualitative user research processes and tools.

A further distinction to make is between how qualitative and quantitative studies go about collecting data. Studies that are qualitative in nature are based on direct observation. For example, you’ll gather data about the user’s behaviours or attitudes by observing them directly in action. Quantitative studies gather this data indirectly—through an online survey, for example.

Qualitative research methods (e.g. usability testing, user groups, interviews) are better for answering questions about why or how to fix a problem, whereas quantitative methods (e.g. online surveys) are great for answering questions about how many and how much.

Ideally, you’ll use a mixture of both qualitative and quantitative methods throughout your user research, and work hard to ensure that the UX research you conduct is inclusive!

6. What Next? Conducting User Research Analysis

Once you’ve conducted extensive user research, you’ll move on to the analysis phase. This is where you’ll turn the raw data you’ve gathered into valuable insights. The purpose of UX research analysis is to interpret what the data means; what does it tell you about the product you’re designing, and the people you’re designing it for? How can you use the data you’ve gathered to inform the design process?

Watch this video to learn how to conduct user research analysis in five simple steps:

Final thoughts

“User experience research is the work that uncovers and articulates the needs of individuals and/or groups in order to inform the design of products and services in a structured manner.”

—Nick Remis, Adaptive Path

Overall, the purpose of user experience research is simple: to discover patterns and reveal unknown insights and preferences from the people who use your product. It basically provides the context for our design. Research also helps us fight the tendency to design for ourselves (or our stakeholders)—and returns the focus on designing for the user.

If you’d like to learn more about UX research, check out these articles:

And to get inspired, check out these 15 quotes from influential designers in the industry.

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