UX design is all about the user, and the only way to uncover user needs is through user research. The problem is that user experience research takes investment and expertise, so many consider it a luxury for larger companies, or it becomes a fleeting thought post design. This way of thinking is why small companies stay small.

When a designer sticks to unproven guesses and gut feelings, they miss opportunities and threaten usability.

It’s the research behind UX and UI design that keeps it relevant, usable, and drives ROI, turning passing users into loyal, converting customers. It’s what saves you time and money as research conducted throughout the design process can reduce development cycles up to 50%. 

But what are the user research methods available to you? What do they accomplish, exactly? And how do you conduct them?

Approaches to UX Research 

Before we get into the different UX research methods, there are four UX research types that every UX researcher needs to get acquainted with. Every method belongs to one or a combination of these four: 

Quantitative Research: Quantitative studies provide measurable, unbiased, numerical data on what behaviors users exhibit. 

Qualitative Research: Qualitative studies provide in-depth verbal insight into user behavior to explain why users behave the way they do.  

Attitudinal Research: Attitudinal studies involve listening to users and hearing out their thoughts, opinions, and perceptions. 

Behavioral Research: Behavioral studies involve observing user behaviors and interactions in real-time. 

Research methods can also be defined by the product’s context of use during research. Product use may fall under one of these three contexts. 

Natural: The product is used as it would be naturally in the real world. 

Scripted: Product use is scripted, providing greater control over use, and tests specific features, design elements, iterations, or insights.  

Decontextualized: The product isn’t used in the study at all.

In some cases, depending on design phase and research goals, a single research method can take on more than one approach or product context. For example, a study that’s behavioral in nature can tack on an attitudinal element by asking users about their perceptions in post. Metrics obtained in a scripted product context during design may also be gathered in a natural context after product release. 

Top UX Research Methods and How to Conduct Them

There are many UX research methods at your disposal, but the one you use will depend on where you are in the design process, what you need to know, and the problem you’re aiming to solve. 

What won’t change for any of these methods is the importance of debriefing your participants, reviewing confidentiality measures, and ensuring that your participants fit your user base or target audience. 

That said, here are the top 22 methods that you may call upon throughout the UX research process and an overview on how to conduct them:

Usability Testing

Uses

  • Upgrade the usability of your product
  • Learn why people don’t complete tasks or finish converting

Design Phase

During Design, Post Design

Cost

$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Medium

Difficulty of Analysis

Medium

Research Approach

Qualitative, Quantitative, Behavioral

Product Context

Scripted, Natural

The king (or queen) of UX research methods, usability testing is most renowned. Used to identify problem areas, opportunities, and make design choices, it tests a product’s usability throughout the design and development phases. A UX researcher observes as a user completes a task and monitors the user’s successes, frustrations, and pathways.

How to Do It

  • Define your goals and what you’re testing for.
  • Create clearly phrased tasks.
  • Determine if you’re conducting remotely or in person. 
  • Gather any usability testing tools you need (e.g., prototype, screen recording software).
  • Observe users as they complete the task(s).
  • Ask follow-up questions.
  • Analyze your results for insight.

Field Studies

Uses

  • Uncover user problems and needs
  • See how your product is used in context

Design Phase

Predesign, During Design

Cost

$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

High

Difficulty of Analysis

High

Research Approach

Qualitative, Behavioral

Product Context

Natural

A field study is a type of UX research that takes place in the user’s natural environment. These keep results as true to life as possible without the sway of being in an unnatural or new context. You can conduct other methods of research, like usability tests, with this approach.

How to Do It

  • Decide on the task to observe.
  • Decide on the natural location of the study.
  • Decide how long you’ll need to observe the participant.
  • Observe and record data.
  • Analyze key observations.

Contextual Inquiries

Uses

  • See how your product is used in context 
  • Evaluate where users have difficulty
  • Improve task completion and find opportunities

Design Phase

Post Design

Cost

$$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

High

Difficulty of Analysis

High

Research Approach

Qualitative, Behavioral, Attitudinal

Product Context

Natural

A contextual inquiry is a field study where a UX researcher observes the participant using the product in their usual environment. This provides insight into user behavior and reasoning that may be unknown to the user themself. Researchers are either passive (strictly observational) or active (may interact with the user and ask questions).  

Contextual inquiries are different from usability tests because participants use the product the way they usually would without defined tasks.

How to Do It

  • Go to the user’s location. 
  • Observe the user’s process and interaction with the product. 
  • Take detailed notes. 
  • Ask questions if you’re playing an active role. 
  • Go over your findings with the user to clarify your insights.

Accessibility Testing

Uses

  • Uncover usability problems for disabled
  • Broaden your audience and the contexts your product can be used in.

Design Phase

During Design

Cost

$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Medium

Difficulty of Analysis

Medium

Research Approach

Qualitative, Quantitative, Behavioral, Attitudinal

Product Context

Scripted, Natural

You should design your digital products to be accessible and ADA compliant to be legally safe, contribute to a fair online environment, and ensure that all members of your audience can easily use your product. Accessibility testing is a type of usability research that discovers usability problems for the disabled, such as the hard of hearing and visually impaired.

Accounting for disabled users means considering factors like designing for the colorblind and writing alt text for the deaf.

Save yourself time by conducting accessibility tests before your standard usability tests on the general user base. If completed the other way around, you may have to redo the standard usability tests after making changes for accessibility.

How to Do It

  • Gather participants with a range of disabilities.
  • Pilot test to ensure the test itself is accessible.
  • Conduct the usability test. 
  • Track and fix aspects that are inaccessible or hard to navigate.
  • Repeat until the product is accessible to all users.

Diary Studies

Uses

  • Uncover user needs and product opportunities
  • Understand long term use of product and UX

Design Phase

Predesign

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Qualitative, Behavioral, Attitudinal

Product Context

Natural, Decontextualized

Diary studies require users to track their personal experiences over a period of days to months. This type of user research uncovers trends in user behavior and emotion. It is optimal for conducting lengthy studies, when you’re tracking change over time, when user response is unpredictable or unplanned, or when direct observation would sway results. You may have users record their experience at defined times or respond to predetermined prompts.

How to Do It

  • Decide what you need users to record to get the insight you need.
  • Decide on the length of the study.  
  • Decide if you’re using a physical diary or a digital diary tool.
  • Give users access to the diary.
  • Give users clear, step-by-step instructions for what to track and when.
  • Have users submit their diaries for review. 
  • Look for trends and standout instances in user experience.

Interviews

Uses

  • Better understand the brand and product 
  • Uncover user desires and frustrations for optimization
  • Inform design direction and messaging

Design Phase

Predesign

Cost

$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Medium

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Qualitative, Attitudinal

Product Context

Decontextualized

Interviews are one-on-one conversations that help designers build personas and decide on design direction. You can conduct interviews with stakeholders to better understand their product, business goals, and brand. User interviews paint a picture of the user’s experience, thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

How to Do It

  • Set a goal for the interview. 
  • Make a list of non-leading, open-ended questions. 
    • Try to anticipate potential follow-up questions. 
  • Hold the interview.
    • Be empathetic and don’t rush or interrupt the interviewee. 
  • Record and transcribe the interview.

Competitive Analysis

Uses

  • Inform your brand, design, and marketing strategies
  • Identify your advantages and disadvantages

Design Phase

Predesign

Cost

Varies

Difficulty of Conducting

Medium

Difficulty of Analysis

High

Research Approach

Qualitative, Quantitative

Product Context

Decontextualized

Competitive analysis is done at the beginning stages of the design process to gain an understanding of product competitors – their brand, USP, process, features, strengths, and weaknesses. This allows you to create a superior product that stands out while meeting user needs and expectations.

How to Do It

  • Decide on your comparison criteria.
  • Create a list of your top 5 competitors. 
  • Collect data on your criteria. 
  • Analyze what they’re doing well and what they’re doing poorly. 
  • Get inspired.

Task Analysis

Uses

  • Simplify tasks and improve completion rates

Design Phase

During Design

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Qualitative, Behavioral

Product Context

Natural, Scripted

Task analysis is a design research method that puts into perspective the time and effort required to complete tasks so designers can simplify them. By listing all critical tasks and then all of the steps for each, you arm yourself with the knowledge to make a more efficient process. Task analysis is most effective when done by users because it gives a realistic perspective instead of the creator’s ideal scenario.

How to Do It

  • List all significant product tasks.
  • List all steps, or subtasks, for each. 
  • Make a note of what prompts the task, the desired outcome, and what knowledge users need to complete the steps.
  • Have users complete the tasks and note their process.
  • Compare user reality with the ideal and adjust the design.

Persona Building

Uses

  • Inform design goals
  • Build effective, user-oriented designs

Design Phase

Predesign

Cost

$$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Medium

Difficulty of Analysis

High

Research Approach

Qualitative, Quantitative, Attitudinal, Behavioral

Product Context

Decontextualized

Persona building is the process of creating fictional characters that represent segments of your target audience. A complete persona calls to mind the audience needs, goals, and motivations discovered in prior research. These characters help designers get in the user’s shoes and create an effective, empathetic design.

How to Do It

  • Review insight from the discovery phase of the design process (e.g., interview data).
  • Collect new data from secondary sources and user social profiles. 
  • Look for trends in user lifestyle. 
  • Create a persona that includes a name, demographics, responsibilities, problems, goals, hobbies, environment, and devices used.

Scenario Building

Uses

  • Guide design choices for each product feature

Design Phase

Predesign

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Qualitative, Attitudinal, Behavioral

Product Context

Decontextualized

From personas, a UX designer can create different narratives or scenarios for users, including their motivations, aims, and desired outcomes. A standard scenario includes what, how, why, and when descriptors that portray a user’s perspective without listing product features. Building scenarios that align with use contexts for product features can guide design choices for those features.

How to Do It

  • Review data from the discovery phase and user personas.
  • Brainstorm contexts under which users need the product (why and when).
  • Brainstorm the tasks and outcomes a user wants to achieve (how and what).
  • Create sample use scenarios.

Journey Mapping

Uses

  • Visualize the customer experience over time across all touchpoints
  • Optimize the user journey and assess drop-off points
  • Ensure all user needs are met
  • Align your team

Design Phase

During Design

Cost

$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Medium

Difficulty of Analysis

Medium

Research Approach

Qualitative, Attitudinal, Behavioral

Product Context

Scripted, Natural

Journey mapping visualizes a user’s process from beginning to end, combining product features and users’ behavioral and emotional reactions. Creating a journey map allows you to comprehend the complete user experience, look for opportunities and bumps in the road, and design a smooth, successful product. A map may consist of several user scenarios.

How to Do It

  • Review user personas and scenarios.
  • Make a list of all user actions, product tasks, and touchpoints.
  • Order tasks and actions into a timeline.
  • Add user thoughts and feelings associated with each task. 
  • Review the map for opportunities and friction areas.

Focus Groups

Uses

  • Discover product opportunities 
  • Learn why a product isn’t doing well
  • Uncover brand perceptions

Design Phase

Predesign, Post Design

Cost

$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Medium

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Qualitative, Attitudinal

Product Context

Decontextualized

Focus groups are moderated discussions with a small group of 5 to 10 people on a specific topic or product. Group discussion spurs answers and insights regarding motivations, desires, and frustrations that may not come up in a one-on-one interview. The moderator comes in with a list of questions to help guide and prompt discussion, but the conversation direction may change as discoveries are made.

How to Do It

  • Decide on your topic and goal. 
  • Hire a skilled moderator. 
  • Prepare open-ended questions. 
  • Hold the focus group (usually around 2 hours long). 
    • Adjust direction or get the discussion back on topic as needed. 
  • Record the session and take notes.

Surveys

Uses

  • Understand users and their needs
  • Obtain feedback on usability and user experience
  • Follow up other research methods for more insight

Design Phase

Predesign, Post Design

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Quantitative, Qualitative, Attitudinal

Product Context

Decontextualized

You can improve user experience and lower the risk of making design changes by using surveys to obtain feedback on overall task experience, design adjustments, new features, or to follow up other research methods for further insight. Surveys can provide quantitative data (close-ended questions) or qualitative data (open-ended questions).

How to Do It

  • Understand the goal and what you need to know. 
  • Decide how many responses you need for statistically significant results.
  • Develop the right line of questioning
    • Avoid leading questions.
    • Make sure all questions are easy to understand.
    • Set up trigger conditions for follow-up questions.  
    • Keep it short and include a progress bar.
    • Set up questions to screen for your target audience. 
  • Test survey usability before opening it to the public. 
  • Run your survey. 
  • Collect results and create a digestible report.

Prototyping

Uses

  • Evaluate and compare design concepts 
  • Obtain stakeholder and user feedback
  • Test design functionality

Design Phase

During Design

Cost

$-$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low to Hard

Difficulty of Analysis

Low to Hard

Research Approach

Qualitative, Quantitative, Attitudinal, Behavioral

Product Context

Scripted

A prototype is a visual representation or tangible model of a product that allows for user and stakeholder feedback. There are low-fidelity and high-fidelity prototypes, from sketches to digital models, that vary in how realistic and engaging they are and the time and cost to create them. The type of prototype used in design research depends on where you’re at in the design process. Use functioning prototypes to test how well a product design works, whether it meets the needs it’s supposed to, and catch errors before full-on development.

How to Do It

  • Complete preliminary research and ideation.
  • Determine the prototype’s purpose.
  • Determine the fidelity needed.
  • Draw or digitize the prototype.
  • Test with users and present to stakeholders.
  • Obtain feedback and adjust product design as needed.

A/B Testing

Uses

  • Compare the performance of two designs

Design Phase

During Design, Post Design

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Quantitative, Behavioral

Product Context

Natural

Also called split testing, A/B testing compares the effectiveness or user preference of two concepts. It optimizes design and UX by testing whether a design alteration performs better. Generally speaking, you only change one variable at a time to ensure that any difference in response is due to that variable. This change can be as simple as the color or word choice on a button.

How to Do It

  • Determine what you want to test or find out. 
  • Form a hypothesis from your question. 
  • Create a new design with one variable change. 
  • Determine the metrics to measure success. 
  • Decide on the results needed to declare either design the winner. 
  • Release both designs and run the test. 
  • Use an analytics tool to obtain and track results. 
  • Implement the winner. 
  • Continue to test new designs and optimize your product.

Card Sorting

Uses

  • Determine an effective information architecture

Design Phase

During Design

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Medium

Research Approach

Quantitative, Qualitative, Attitudinal

Product Context

Decontextualized

Card sorting is a popular, cheap, and useful tool for designers working on a product’s information architecture (i.e., how you structure its content). In card sorting, users group cards labeled with product content categories in a way that makes sense to them. Designers then get a sense of users’ mental models – what users think they know. This inspires information architecture that supports UX because a user’s mental models will affect how they interact with your product.

How to Do It

  • Create a list of topics that cover all of your product’s content.
  • Write each topic on a notecard. 
  • Have the user sort the cards into whatever groups they see fit. 
    • Make sure users know there are no right or wrong answers. 
    • Allow users to change their minds.
    • Have users set cards aside that they don’t understand. 
  • Have the user title each group and explain their reasoning. 
  • Look for common themes and patterns.

Tree Testing

Uses

  • Test and optimize your current information architecture

Design Phase

During Design, Post Design

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Medium

Research Approach

Quantitative, Behavioral

Product Context

Scripted

Tree testing also works to improve your product’s information architecture; only, it’s used to test whether what you’ve already created is easy to navigate. Users are given a text-only version of your product and select where they would go to complete assigned tasks. These tasks can be anything from finding information to purchasing a product. The downfall to tree testing is that it doesn’t account for the visual elements of your product.

How to Do It

  • Choose 15 to 20 short tasks to test.
  • Have users choose where they would go to complete each task. 
  • Analyze results for success (how many users got it right), directness (how many tries it took them), and time (how long it took).
  • Redesign areas that are difficult to navigate and retest. 

First Click Testing

Uses

  • Optimize information architecture 
  • Evaluate task flow

Design Phase

During Design, Post Design

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Quantitative, Behavioral

Product Context

Scripted, Natural

First click testing is yet another way to test product navigation, only it focuses on the first click a user makes when given a task. Users that start on the right track, or make the right first click, will complete their task 87% of the time, compared to 46% for those who make the wrong choice. You can conduct these tests on wireframes, prototypes, or fully developed products depending on where you are in the design process.

How to Do It

  • Make a list of tasks to test. 
  • Log the optimal route for each task.
  • Have users complete each task. 
    • Don’t tell users that you’re testing their first click until after. 
  • Note users’ choices and time their responses. 
  • Assess users’ ease and satisfaction with navigating each task. 
  • Make design changes where needed.

Eye Tracking

Uses

  • Assess which design elements do and don’t draw attention

Design Phase

Post Design

Cost

$$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

High

Difficulty of Analysis

High

Research Approach

Quantitative, Behavioral

Product Context

Natural, Scripted

Eye tracking is a form of usability testing that uses infrared technology to watch where users are looking on a page and monitor unconscious responses to page stimuli by tracking eye movement and pupil dilation. This UX research tool is great for assessing what design aspects are drawing user attention and which are getting skipped over.

How to Do It

  • Get an eye tracking tool or hire eye tracking experts.
  • Have users perform tasks and use your product uninterrupted. 
  • Review results for UI elements that draw and evade attention. 
  • Evaluate how your users progress through tasks.

Benchmark Testing

Uses

  • Monitor changes in usability
  • Track progress towards goals
  • Compare models or to a competitor

Design Phase

Post Design

Cost

$$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Medium

Difficulty of Analysis

Medium

Research Approach

Quantitative, Behavioral

Product Context

Natural, Scripted

Benchmark testing is what most companies do when they track key performance indicators (KPIs) over time. It’s a repeat process of gathering the same UX usability metrics and comparing them to a baseline to assess goals, track progress, and compare success with other models or competitors. Gather your metrics consistently either from surveys, usability tests, or analytics tools.

How to Do It

  • Make a list of essential user tasks and product features. 
  • Choose metrics that measure the success of these tasks and features. 
  • Choose methods, tools, and frequencies for obtaining these metrics. 
  • Obtain your baseline metrics. 
  • Perform a redesign or make any planned changes. 
  • Recollect metric data for analysis. 
  • Continue to collect and monitor this data even if you haven’t made changes.

Search-Log Analysis

Uses

  • Discover user needs, questions, and problem areas
  • Generate content ideas
  • Optimize information architecture

Design Phase

Post Design

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Quantitative, Behavioral

Product Context

Natural

Search engine optimization (SEO) for external search engines like Google has blown up, but few and far between are the teams using internal search engines for digital products. Including a search engine on your website better serves visitors and is a great way to gain user insight. Search-log analysis records the searches users conduct on your site and uses them to assess what users need and are looking for. It’s an effective way to determine what they are interested in (hello ideation) and what they have a hard time finding on your site.

How to Do It

  • Add a search engine to your website. 
  • Set up server-side recordings of search queries.
  • Extract lists of data, including top search terms, longest queries, and searches with no results.
  • Filter by user identifiers to see series of queries searched for in a session.
  • Check data every 4-6 months to track changes and trends.

Online Sentiment

Uses

  • Discover where your UX is good and bad
  • Stay on top of bad press and decrease churn rate

Design Phase

Post Design

Cost

$/$$$

Difficulty of Conducting

Low

Difficulty of Analysis

Low

Research Approach

Qualitative, Attitudinal

Product Context

Decontextualized

Tracking online sentiment is the process of monitoring all mentions of a product or brand online and evaluating people’s opinions and feelings about it. Keeping up with online sentiment is an effective way to determine when users are satisfied or dissatisfied with your product. You can track sentiment through polarity (positive, negative, neutral), specific emotions (happy, sad, angry), or interest (interested or not interested). The easiest way to conduct sentiment research is through language processing and machine learning tools, but you can also evaluate responses from qualitative research with a DIY sentiment score chart.

How to Do It

  • Invest in media monitoring and sentiment analysis tools.
  • Monitor mentions on online forums and social media.
  • Create a sentiment score chart from qualitative data.
    • Conduct a qualitative study.
    • Transcribe all quotes. 
    • Create categories for the topics, features, or products discussed. 
    • Assign portions of quotes to their topic categories.
      • Create more categories or adjust as needed. 
    • Tally the number of positive and negative comments for each category. 
    • Create a chart to showcase negative and positive response areas.

On Analyzing Your UX Research Data

Data is tricky, and there is far too much of it. No matter the user research methods used, you can find yourself with dirty, incomplete, or irrelevant data, so knowing how to analyze your results is of the utmost importance. Without analysis, you have nothing, and if done incorrectly, you have worse than nothing – you have a guide that will lead you in the wrong direction. 

So how do you make sure that you have useful data?

Always start the research process with questions in mind, and do research to answer those questions; don’t collect everything you can get your hands on and aimlessly look for random trends. And interrogate your data. Question its significance and reliability:

  • Is it representative of your audience?
  • Were there outliers, and were they addressed?
  • Is this causation or correlation?
  • Were the dependent and independent variables adequately isolated?
  • Was there room for bias?
  • Have you made any assumptions?

Make gathering your answers a purposeful process and analyze them with a critical eye. Only then can you leap into design.

Choose the Right UX Research Method

With so many types of user research methods at your disposal, it can be overwhelming to pick one. And to be fair, you should be careful in making your choice because not all methods will give you the answers you seek. If you have research to conduct, read our guide on how to choose the right user research method for your needs.

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