UX Research: A Quick & Easy Guide

May 12, 2020 | UX Guide, User Research

It’s vital to undertake user research before the design phase of any project so that proper informed decisions can be made. User research should be the core, it’s critical to the success of any project – whether it’s for an internal project, an external client, or even a new product you’re building – to adopt a user-first or user-centred approach that prioritizes the people that use the product.

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User-Centred Design Needs User Research

Designing effective and memorable user experiences is impossible if your users aren’t placed at the heart of the design process. When embarking on the design process – as you’re framing the problem you’re trying to solve, it’s important to ask:

  • What do your users want to get done?
  • What are their goals?
  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • What problems are they facing in trying to achieve their goals?

User research is able to give you the insights into the answer to these questions, it should be one of the first things you focus on and undertake. It is critical to do user research at the beginning, it helps to define the scope of the project and the goal.

Great products help enable your users to get things done, as effortlessly as possible. That’s why it’s so important to conduct user research, spend time with your users, getting to know their needs, and what it is they are trying to achieve.

If you don’t focus on your users first, you’re in danger of designing and building based on assumptions, which are often incorrect. So instead of beginning with assumptions, begin with user research. Define the problem you’re trying to solve with evidence, build a prototype, test your assumptions and iterate.

Research is indeed important to have at the beginning of a project, but it should also be an ongoing process – it’s rarely, if ever finished, it should be integrated throughout the process. Ideally, an iterative approach should be adopted towards your product.

Iterative Research Process

Looping iteratively throughout this process leads to better results as user feedback shapes user experience. With something built, even a functional prototype, it’s important to test it. Crafting the user experience without user research is simply educated guesswork, which can lead to expensive mistakes that need to be fixed.

Research Methods

There is an abundance of research tools that can be used, and as your experience of user research deepens, you’ll develop the experience in knowing when to use which tool.

Before going into some research methods, it’s important to remember that who you test with is vital. Testing with your colleagues may be more convenient but your findings will very likely be biased and irrelevant compared to your actual target users.

When undertaking research, especially qualitative research, it’s essential to find the right kind of people. For example, if you’re designing a product for the elderly, it’s vital to have a panel of users that fit the profile. Select your users with care, they will shape the research findings considerably.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is mainly exploratory research, used to gain understanding in pain points, reasons, opinions and motivations. It helps provide insights into the problem, aiding in developing ideas and solutions.

Qualitative research methods tend to be unstructured and subjective, usually done with a small sample size, with a degree of facilitation. This research method is best used to gather data on user behaviour and attitudes directly.

We’ll be exploring several different qualitative research methods in this article: contextual inquiries, interviews, card sorting, and usability testing.

Contextual Inquiries

Contextual inquiry is a type of ethnographic interview, where the users are observed and interviewed in their own environment to determine their approach towards specific tasks.

Contextual inquiry is focused around four key principles:

  1. Context: Interviews are conducted in the user’s workplace, which provides an opportunity to experience their typical working conditions, existing solutions and their frustrations.
  2. Partnership: Where the user and researcher work together in understanding the user’s workflow, including any existing tools or products they use.
  3. Interpretation: By sharing the researcher’s insights and observation with the user, it creates an opportunity for the user to clarify or build on the researcher’s findings.
  4. Focus: The researcher is present and able to guide the user’s interactions towards areas that are relevant to the project’s scope.

Adopting this approach is beneficial because users are observed and questioned in their own workplace. A contextual inquiry provides a rare opportunity to have a realistic view of the users’ needs and frustrations in a day-to-day context.


Interviews are an excellent way to really understand your users’ needs if the researcher is able to effectively facilitate interviews. A good interviewer requires empathy, social skills and a sense of self-awareness.

It’s important that your interviewees are at ease, they need to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions. Bonus points if the researcher is able to build a rapport with them as they’ll open up and be even more honest. One key benefit of interviews is that you not only learn from your interviewees’ answers but by observing their body language as well.

Interviews fall into two categories:

  1. Structured Interviews: The researcher or interviewer uses a set of structured questions, not straying from the script.
  2. Semi-Structured Interviews: The researcher or interviewer adopts a looser, discussion-driven approach to allow the interview to evolve naturally.

Reality is, interviews are organic by nature. Even with a set structure of questions, it’s important to allow some breathing room for the interview to evolve naturally and organically.

With that in mind, put some thought into your questions in advance and allow the interviewee the room to move into areas, even if it’s something unforeseen. Interviews are a great user research method to challenge your assumptions, make unexpected discoveries and things you were perhaps unaware of.

Tip: Again, it’s important that the interviewee feels at ease so they are comfortable in answering your questions. To facilitate this, it’s good to have a note-taker, preferably discreetly, to allow the interview to fully focus on the interviewee.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is a useful user research method in establishing information architecture (IA). For example, designing the navigation menu of your website or app. Card sorting is a process of deciding what goes where, creating information groupings and ensuring that it makes sense to the widest possible audience.

Card sorting involves writing phrases or words onto cards separately, taking care to shuffle the cards before each session to avoid bias, and then asking your users to organize them into logical groupings.

This method of user research is considerably cheap, and it can also be a helpful way to build consensus amongst stakeholders by asking them -as a team- to define groupings. In addition, by asking your users to name their groupings, alternative navigation labels are discovered and explored.

Although card sorting exercises can be done online, there are valuable insights that can be derived from observing and listening to your users’ debate groupings to understand how users see logical groupings.

Usability Testing

Usability testing is a highly recommended UX research method, commonly used by UX practitioners and usability professionals to evaluate the usability of a product by testing it out with real users.

Usability testing can be done in-person or remotely, is a great way of seeing how your users actually use your product. In a usability testing session, the user is asked to perform a series of tasks and to speak aloud their thoughts, and whilst the user is trying to complete each task, the researcher observes the user’s behaviour and listens to their feedback and opinions. Bonus points of having an in-person usability testing is the ability to observe the user’s body language and nonverbal cues for more insights.

There are incalculable benefits of this user research method. Through usability testing, problems in the product are identified, opportunities for improvement are also uncovered, as well as valuable insights to the users’ behaviours and preferences.

As mentioned above, usability testing can be done in-person or remotely, in-person usability testing provides more insights and a more in-depth study whereas remote usability testing is less time-consuming and more affordable.

Click on this article to know more about Usability Testing.

Quantitative Research

Quantitative research is mainly to test assumptions, it’s useful in shaping thoughts and establishing ideas, which can then be built and tested using quantitative research methods.

Quantitative research methods are largely structured, tend to be objective and are about testing theories or assumptions. Compared with qualitative research which is usually done with a small sample size, quantitative research tends to be large sample sizes. This user research method is best used to gather data on user behaviour and attitudes indirectly.

We’ll be exploring several different quantitative research methods in this article: A/B testing, surveys and questionnaires and digital analytics.

A/B Testing

A/B testing is useful in testing out multiple ideas to see which works best. It’s essentially a controlled experiment with two variants, A and B, providing a direct comparison allowing you to test different designs effectively against each other.

The two variants, which are more often than not identical apart from a single variation that may affect the user’s behaviour. This method is useful when testing assumptions informed by qualitative findings.

A/B testing doesn’t have to be just visual design, it can focus on language too. In an A/B testing conducted by unbounce, they compared two call to action (CTA) buttons with different variants of copy:

  • Start your free 30 day trial
  • Start my free 30 day trial

Only one word was tweaked in the copy, and after running the test for three weeks, the click-through rate (CTR) of ‘Start my free 30 trial’ increased by 90%.

This method of user research is best done in large sample size where there’s more reliability in your data when your findings are backed by a substantial quantity of data.

Surveys and Questionnaires

Surveys and questionnaires are powerful in gathering high volumes of opinions. They are conducted in a more hands-off manner, however, it doesn’t mean they are not useful, but try to focus on interviews first if it’s possible.

There is generally a lack of interaction between the interviewer and interviewees in this user research method, especially if it’s done remotely. As such, it is difficult to gain valuable insights compared to working directly with your users and observing them.

It helps to incentivize surveys, because you need to try to motivate as many users as possible to participate. It’s important to design your survey well, this means spending time on the questions and distilling them down. It’s better to ask fewer questions and increase the chance of completion than to have many, often irrelevant questions and lose participation.

This also includes making sure the survey is beautifully designed, and for it to be easily completed to improve completion rates.

Digital Analytics

Technology allows us the convenience of having considerable amounts of data at our fingertips, digital analytics allows website traffic to be measured with reports generated easily and quickly.

Drawn from data, digital analytics can be a very persuasive tool when working with stakeholders who prefer to see things in ‘black and white’. By having access to numbers of unique visitors, page views, pages per visit and other various metrics, it allows the ability to test your thinking once you’ve implemented your design after conducting some qualitative research.

Tips and Techniques

    • Screeners are helpful in screening potential users before undertaking user research. Conducting tests with the wrong people will result in time and effort lost.
    • When developing questions, it’s important to consider both qualitative and quantitative questions, this applies to both interview questions, and surveys and questionnaires. Both types of questions are important: qualitative questions are open-ended whereas quantitative questions are closed-ended.
    • Be wary of herd mentality when conducting research with groups, an opinionated user could influence the group. It may be better to conduct one-to-one research like interviews.

    When it comes to choosing user research methods, it’s important to use both qualitative and quantitative methods hand-in-hand. Qualitative research leads to insights, quantitative methods allows you to test those insights.

Research Findings Analysis

If you do not take time to analyze your findings, then you will be missing the biggest benefit of undertaking the user research in the first place. 

It’s beneficial to triangulate your findings, looking for patterns and correlation. The aim is to see if any findings are confirmed by the other different research methods so you can implement these verified findings.

Analyzing Research Findings

Triangulation is the process of using multiple research from multiple methods to increase the confidence in your research and assumptions. The more data points, the more confident we can be in our assumptions, this can be done by looking for points of overlap in the different user research methods used.

Different research methods have their own different strengths, and different users respond in their own ways, offering differing opinions. Endeavour to have a mixture of various research methods and different test subjects, this will help in making sure all the bases are covered. 

Fret not if you’re only able to conduct one type of test instead of three, the findings of one research method should be enough to point you in the right direction. The main benefit of doing more than one test is to validate and support your findings across various research methods.

In Closing

Design should be informed and shaped by user needs, and user research is vital towards understanding these needs in improving user experience. The aim is to make informed design decisions and process from the perspective of users, not from our assumptions.

Seeing through the users’ eye is the surest and best path in delivering a better user experience, and user research is how we find that path.

When it comes to analyzing research data, it’s important to use a mixture of research methods to ensure your findings are informed and grounded from a variety of perspectives.


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