A User Research Methods, Process and Overview Guide

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What is User Research?

User research is the practice of understanding the people using a design, product or service. While there’s many methods and approaches to conducting user research one thing is universally true, user research is critical to making more informed design, product and feature decisions.

​Jeff Gothelf, Author of Lean UX and Sense and Respond

Why Should You Do User Research?

“You can’t design for people without understanding people” – Erika Hall

The most successful companies, products and services regularly conduct user research to understand their customers better than anyone else. They do this because they know the key to success is making smart, informed decisions about their product development, design and new features. The biggest reason you should do user research is that it gives you confidence and clarity that you’re making the right decisions in your business.

“You know you’ve done your qualitative research when you have confidence in your decision” – Erika Hall

How to Plan User Research

Define Goals

The first step in user research is defining your goals. This can be done by having conversations with your stakeholders about what they’re trying to do and learn. From there, you should consider what information you and your team need from the research.

Good questions to ask to define user research goals are:

  • What do we need to learn?
  • Who do we need to learn it from?
  • How will we use the data we gather?
  • What questions do we need answers to in order to be more confident in our design/product/feature decisions later?
  • Who wants/needs to get answers to those questions?

We made a 4-point product strategy goal checklist you might find helpful here.

Select Research Method(s)

Once you have defined goals for the research and who your audience is, you can choose which method is best to collect data and answer your research questions. This will always be dependent on your situation, research goals, access to your audience and other factors. You can see a list of the most common UX research methods below.

Find and Recruit Your Audience

Next you need to schedule the research sessions with your participants. Finding and recruiting users for research can be the biggest challenge you face. Again, your situation will depend on how to do this. If you work in house at a company you can often work with sales, support and marketing teams to find and contact customers to research with.

If you work as a consultant with clients, you’ll want to work with them to help provide you access or places to recruit participants that are a good fit for your research.

Conduct the Research

“Key thing is, not to ask people what they want but to track their behavior” – Tomer Sharon

Whatever method(s) you choose, the next step is to go and do the research. A key guiding principle to remember is that you should focus on the users’ behavior. Avoid asking people what they want or to predict what they might do.

When doing interviews or observations, focus on what they do now or have done in the past. This is the most reliable information to make smart decisions from later.

Analyze and Synthesize User Research

“It’s not enough to do research, we have to make the research make sense” – Christina Wodtke

Once you’ve conducted your research and gathered all your data, you’re not done yet. Making sense of what you learned is even more important than simply collecting data.

Your main goal now is to find patterns and themes in the research data you have. From there it’s critical to determine what those patterns and themes mean. Be cautious of sharing or making decisions from raw research data, feedback and notes alone. We’ll discuss this in more detail below.

Share What You Learned

When you’re ready you should share all of the brilliant insights and findings from your research! Our goal is never to keep this data and findings to ourselves so the next step is to determine the best way to present or share what you learned to your client, team or company.

Difference Between Quantitative and Qualitative Research

What is Quantitative Research?

Quantitative research data is objective being made up of statistics and numbers. Common quantitative user research methods are surveys, questionnaires, analytics and a/b testing. Quantitative research is best used to answer the question of “What” is happening. For instance, if you’re looking to learn how many people are visiting your home page and dropping off, quantitative data is the way to go.

What is Qualitative Research?

Qualitative research data is subjective being made up of thoughts, opinions, statements and observations. Common qualitative research methods are interviews, observations, usability testing and diary studies. Qualitative research is best used to answer the question of “Why” with your users. For instance, if you want to know why people aren’t signing up for your free trial, or why people aren’t able to use a certain feature, qualitative data will help.

Which One is Better?

That’s the wrong question to ask as both qualitative and quantitative data help you paint a clearer picture of what your customers need. Both types of data and methods should be used to get a complete sense of confidence to inform your choices.

Using both types of methods and data can help you answer the questions of “What” (quantitative) your customers are doing and equally important “Why” (qualitative) they’re doing it. Used in reverse, quantitative data can be used to validate what you learned from qualitative data.

For instance, if you learned from interviews and observation that people are having a hard difficulty with a sign up form, you could use analytics to determine the percentage of people visiting the form and completing it.

UX Research Methods

User Interviews

User Interviews are done between the designer or researcher and the person they are hoping to learn from, typically a customer or user of their products and services. The goal of user interviews is a structured or unstructured conversation to learn more about the goals, needs, pain points and expectations of the user. These conversations can be done in person, over the phone or other remote means.

Field Study/In Person Observation

Sometimes called Contextual Inquiry, field study and in person observations are situations where the researchers) visit the users in the physical space in which they live or work. The biggest benefit of this in person observation is to understand the physical surroundings, challenges and details that may affect how the team and company then designs a product or service.

Field study offers the ability to learn about the details in tasks, interactions and processes of how someone lives and works that may not be as easily gathered from a User Interview.

Surveys and Questionnaires

Surveys are lists of questions sent out to a group of current or potential customers to gather a large amount of answers in a shorter amount of time. Surveys often aim to gather attitudinal data, or rather someone’s opinion and how they feel about products or features.

Diary Study

A diary study is a way of gathering rich qualitative data from users over time. In a diary study, the researchers will have a set of questions or topics they ask the participants to document over a specific period of time. Diary studies are often used to learn about user needs when in person observation is impractical, sensitive in nature or difficult to conduct.

Card Sorting

Card sorts are mainly used for determining how people find, use, organize and access information. There are two types of card sorts, open and closed. In an open card sort, users are asked to organize information and create labels for the groups or categories themselves. Closed card sorts provide users with a set of already made categories and asks them to organize a set of information into those categories.

Analytics and A/B testing

Analytics are the ability to track stats, behavior and usage of your website or app. A/B testing offers the ability to show different versions of a design (version A and B, hence the name) to then use analytics to determine which version performs better.

Sharing User Research Findings and Insights

“Research that isn’t shared is research that hasn’t been done” – Lindsey Redinger

As we discussed above, analyzing, synthesizing and sharing user research findings and insights is arguably the most important part of doing user research.

“People don’t do enough with the data they gather” – Steve Portigal

Research analysis is the process of finding patterns and themes in the data you collected. This is useful to determine groups of data and findings you should focus on and think more deeply about. At a high level, analysis helps you organize where to focus in the research data you collected.

User research synthesis is where you will create your key insights or findings from the research data. Synthesis is the process where you will summarize the data, make provocative statements about what they mean and the impact or recommendations to designs, products and features later.

Learn more about user research analysis, synthesis and creating key insights here.

User Research Tools

  • Ethnio
  • Manual (sales/support teams and email)
Survey tool(s)
  • SurveyMonkey
  • TypeForm
Usability testing tool(s)
  • UserTesting
  • Quicktime/Screen Recorder, Video Chat
Analytics and A/B Testing
  • Google Analytics
Note taking, data gathering, analysis/synthesis, sharing research

Popular User Researchers and Resources

Erika Hall

Steve Portigal

Indi Young

Lindsey Redinger

Tomer Sharon

Hear all of these guests and more on the Aurelius podcast

User Research Companies