A Complete Guide to Primary and Secondary Research in UX Design

UX Design
7 min read
February 19, 2024

To succeed in UX design, you must know what UX research methods to use for your projects.

This impacts how you:

  • Understand and meet user needs
  • Execute strategic and business-driven solutions
  • Differentiate yourself from other designers
  • Be more efficient in your resources
  • Innovate within your market

Primary and secondary research methods are crucial to uncovering this. The former is when you gather firsthand data directly from sources, while the latter synthesizes existing data and translates them into insights and recommendations.

Let's dive deep into each type of research method and its role in UX research.

If you are still hungry to learn more, specifically how to apply it practically in the real world, you should check out Michael Wong's UX research course. He teaches you  the exact process and tactics he used that helped him build a UX agency that generated over $10M+ million in revenue.

What is primary research in UX design

Primary UX research gathers data directly from the users to understand their needs, behaviors, and preferences.

It's done through interviews, surveys, and observing users as they interact with a product.

Primary research in UX: When and why to use it

Primary research typically starts at the start of a UX project. This is so that the design process is grounded in a deep understanding of user needs and behaviors.

By collecting firsthand information early on, teams can tailor their designs to address real user problems.

Here are the reasons why primary research is important in UX design:

1. It fast-tracks your industry understanding

Your knowledge about the industry may be limited at the start of the project. Primary research helps you get up to speed because you interact directly with real customers. As a result, this allows you to work more effectively.

Example: Imagine you're designing an app for coffee lovers. But you're not a coffee drinker yourself. Through user interviews, you learn how they prefer to order their favorite drink, what they love or hate about existing coffee apps, and their "wishlist" features by talking directly to them.

This crucial information will guide you on what to focus on in later stages when you do the actual designing.

2. You'll gain clarity and fill knowledge gaps

There are always areas we know less about than we'd like. Primary research helps fill these gaps by observing user preferences and needs directly.

Example: Let's say you're working on a website for online learning. You might assume that users prefer video lessons over written content, but your survey results show that many users prefer written material because they can learn at their own pace.

With that in mind, you'll prioritize creating user-friendly design layouts for written lessons.

3. You get to test and validate any uncertainties

When unsure about a feature, design direction, or user preference, primary research allows you to test these elements with real users.

This validation process helps you confidently move forward since you have data backing your decisions.

Example: You're designing a fitness app and can't decide between a gamified experience (with points and levels) or a more straightforward tracking system.

By prototyping both options and testing them with a group of users, you discover that the gamified experience concept resonates more.

Users are more motivated when they gain points and progress levels. As a result, you pivot to designing a better-gamified experience.

Types of primary research methods in UX design

Here's a detailed look at common primary research methods in UX:

1. User interviews

  • What is it: User interviews involve one-on-one conversations with users to gather detailed insights, opinions, and feedback about their experiences with a product or service.
  • Best used for: Gathering qualitative insights on user needs, motivations, and pain points.
  • Tools: Zoom and Google Meet for remote interviews; Calendly for scheduling; Otter.ai for transcription.

2. Surveys

  • What is it: Surveys are structured questionnaires designed to collect quantitative data on user preferences, behaviors, and demographics.
  • Best used for: Collecting data from many users to identify patterns and trends.
  • Tools: Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, and Typeform for survey creation; Google Sheets and Notion for note taking.

3. Usability testing

  • What is it: Usability testing involves observing users interact with a prototype or the actual product to identify usability issues and areas for improvement.
  • Best used for: Identifying and addressing usability problems.
  • Tools: FigJam, Lookback.io, UserTesting, Hotjar for conducting and recording sessions; InVision, Figma for prototype testing; Google Sheets to log usability issues and track task completion rates.

4. Contextual inquiry

  • What is it: This method involves observing and interviewing users in their natural environment to understand how they use a product in real-life situations.
  • Best used for: Gaining deep insights into user behavior and the context in which a product is used.
  • Tools: GoPro or other wearable cameras for in-field recording; Evernote for note-taking; Miro for organizing insights.

5. Card sorting

  • What is it: Card sorting is when users organize and categorize content or information.
  • Best used for: Designing or evaluating the information architecture of a website or application.
  • Tools: FigJam, Optimal Workshop, UXPin, and Trello for digital card sorting; Mural for collaborative sorting sessions.

6. Focus groups

  • What is it: Group discussions with users that explore their perceptions, attitudes, and opinions about a product.
  • Best used for: Gathering various user opinions and ideas in an interactive setting.
  • Tools: Zoom, Microsoft Teams for remote focus groups; Menti or Slido for real-time polling and feedback.

7. Diary studies

  • What is it: A method where users record their experiences, thoughts, and frustrations while interacting with a product over a certain period of time.
  • Best used for: Understanding long-term user behavior, habits, and needs.
  • Tools: Dscout, ExperienceFellow for mobile diary entries; Google Docs for simple text entries.

8. Prototype testing

  • What is it: Prototype testing is when users evaluate the usability and design of early product prototypes with users.
  • Best used for: Identifying usability issues and gathering feedback on design concepts
  • Tools: Figma for creating and sharing prototypes; Maze for unmoderated testing and analytics.

9. Eye-tracking

  • What is it: A method that analyzes where and how long users look at different areas on a screen.
  • Best used for: Understanding user attention, readability, and visual hierarchy effectiveness.
  • Tools: Tobii, iMotions for hardware; Crazy Egg for website heatmaps as a simpler alternative.

10. A/B testing

  • What is it: A/B testing compares two or more versions of a webpage or app feature to determine which performs better in achieving specific goals.
  • Best used for: Making data-driven decisions on design elements that impact user behavior.
  • Tools: Optimizely, Google Optimize for web-based A/B testing; VWO for more in-depth analysis and segmentation.

11. Field studies

  • What is it: Research done in real-world settings to observe and analyze user behavior and interactions in their natural environment.
  • Best used for: Gaining insights into how products are used in real-world contexts and identifying unmet user needs.
  • Tools: Notability, OneNote for note-taking; Voice Memos for audio recording; Trello for organizing observations.

12. Think-aloud protocols

  • What is it: A method involves users verbalizing their thought process while interacting with a product. It helps uncover their decision-making process and pain points.
  • Best used for: Understanding user reasoning, expectations, and experiences when using the product.
  • Tools: UsabilityHub, Morae for recording think-aloud sessions; Zoom for remote testing with screen sharing.

Challenges of primary research in UX

Here are the obstacles that UX professionals may face with primary research:

  • Time-consuming: Primary research requires significant planning, conducting, and analyzing. This is particularly relevant for methods that involve a lot of user interaction.
  • Resource intensive: A considerable amount of resources is needed, including specialized tools or skills for data collection and analysis.
  • Recruitment difficulties: Finding and recruiting suitable participants willing to put in the effort can be challenging and costly.
  • Bias and validity: The risk of bias in collecting and interpreting data highlights the importance of carefully designing the research strategy. This is so that the findings are accurate and reliable.

What is secondary research in UX design

Once primary research is conducted, secondary research analyzes and converts this data into insights. They may also find common themes and ideas and convert them into meaningful recommendations.

Using journey maps, personas, and affinity diagrams can help them better understand the problem.

Secondary research also involves reviewing existing research, published books, articles, studies, and online information. This includes competitor websites and online analytics to support design ideas and concepts.

Secondary research in UX: Knowing when and why to use it

Secondary research is a flexible method in the design process. It fits in both before and after primary research.

At the project's start, looking at existing research and what's already known can help shape your design strategy. This groundwork helps you understand the design project in a broader context.

After completing your primary research, secondary research comes into play again. This time, it's about synthesizing your findings and forming insights or recommendations for your stakeholders.

Here's why it's important in your design projects:

1. It gives you a deeper understanding of your existing research

Secondary research gathers your primary research findings to identify common themes and patterns. This allows for a more informed approach and uncovers opportunities in your design process.

Example: When creating personas or proto-personas for a fitness app, you might find common desires for personalized workout plans and motivational features.

This data shapes personas like "Fitness-focused Fiona," a detailed profile that embodies a segment of your audience with her own set of demographics, fitness objectives, challenges, and likes.

2. Learn more about competitors

Secondary research in UX is also about leveraging existing data in the user landscape and competitors.

This may include conducting a competitor or SWOT analysis so that your design decisions are not just based on isolated findings but are guided by a comprehensive overview. This highlights opportunities for differentiation and innovation.

Example: Suppose you're designing a budgeting app for a startup. You can check Crunchbase, an online database of startup information, to learn about your competitors' strengths and weaknesses.

If your competitor analysis reveals that all major budgeting apps lack personalized advice features, this shows an opportunity for yours to stand out by offering customized budgeting tips and financial guidance.

Types of secondary research methods in UX

1. Competitive analysis

  • What is it: Competitive analysis involves systematically comparing your product with its competitors in the market. It's a strategic tool that helps identify where your product stands about the competition and what unique value proposition it can offer.
  • Best used for: Identifying gaps in the market that your product can fill, understanding user expectations by analyzing what works well in existing products, and pinpointing areas for improvement in your own product.
  • Tools: Google Sheets to organize and visualize your findings; Crunchbase and SimilarWeb to look into competitor performance and market positioning; and UserVoice to get insights into what users say about your competitors.

2. Affinity mapping

  • What is it: A collaborative sorting technique used to organize large sets of information into groups based on their natural relationships.
  • Best used for: Grouping insights from user research, brainstorming sessions, or feedback to identify patterns, themes, and priorities. It helps make sense of qualitative data, such as user interview transcripts, survey responses, or usability test observations.
  • Tools: Miro and FigJam for remote affinity mapping sessions.

3. Customer journey mapping

  • What is it: The process of creating a visual representation of the customer's experience with a product or service over time and across different touchpoints.
  • Best used for: Visualizing the user's path from initial engagement through various interactions to the final goal.
  • Tools: FigJam and Google Sheets for collaborative journey mapping efforts.

4. Literature and academic review

  • What is it: This involves examining existing scholarly articles, books, and other academic publications relevant to your design project. The goal is to deeply understand your project's theoretical foundations, past research findings, and emerging trends.
  • Best used for: Establishing a solid theoretical framework for your design decisions. A literature review can uncover insights into user behavior and design principles that inform your design strategy.
  • Tools: Academic databases like Google Scholar, JSTOR, and specific UX/UI research databases. Reference management tools like Zotero and Mendeley can help organize your sources and streamline the review process.

Challenges of secondary research in UX design

These are the challenges that UX professionals might encounter when carrying out secondary research:

  • Outdated information: In a world where technology changes fast, the information you use must be current, or it might not be helpful.
  • Challenges with pre-existing data: Using data you didn't collect yourself can be tricky because you have less control over its quality. Always review how it was gathered to avoid mistakes.
  • Data isn't just yours: Since secondary data is available to everyone, you won't be the only one using it. This means your competitors can access similar findings or insights.
  • Trustworthiness: Look into where your information comes from so that it's reliable. Watch out for any bias in the data as well.

The mixed-method approach: How primary and secondary research work together

Primary research lays the groundwork, while secondary research weaves a cohesive story and connects the findings to create a concrete design strategy.

Here's how this mixed-method approach works in a sample UX project for a health tech app:

Phase 1: Groundwork and contextualization

  • User interviews and surveys (Primary research): The team started their project by interviewing patients and healthcare providers. The objective was to uncover the main issues with current health apps and what features could enhance patient care.
  • Industry and academic literature review (Secondary research): The team also reviewed existing literature on digital health interventions, industry reports on health app trends, and case studies on successful health apps.

Phase 2: Analysis and strategy formulation

  • Affinity mapping (Secondary research): Insights from the interviews and surveys were organized using affinity mapping. It revealed key pain points like needing more personalized and interactive care plans.
  • Competitive benchmarking (Secondary research): The team also analyzed competitors’ apps through secondary research to identify common functionalities and gaps. They noticed a lack of personalized patient engagement and, therefore, positioned their app to fill this void in the market.

Phase 3: Design and validation

  • Prototyping (Secondary research): With a good grasp of what users need and the opportunities in the market, the startup created prototypes. These prototypes include AI-powered personalized care plans, reminders for medications, and interactive tools to track health.
  • Usability testing (Primary research): The prototypes were tested with a sample of the target user group, including patients and healthcare providers. Feedback was mostly positive, especially for the personalized care plans. This shows that the app has the potential to help patients get more involved in their health.

Phase 4: Refinement and market alignment

  • Improving design through iterations: The team continuously refined the app's design based on feedback from ongoing usability testing.
  • Ongoing market review (Secondary research): The team watched for new studies, healthcare reports, and competitors' actions. This helped them make sure their app stayed ahead in digital health innovation.

Amplify your design impact and impress your stakeholders in 10+ hours

Primary and secondary research methods are part of a much larger puzzle in UX research.

However, understanding the theoretical part is not enough to make it as a UX designer nowadays.

The reason?

UX design is highly practical and constantly evolving. To succeed in the field, UX designers must do more than just design.

They understand the bigger picture and know how to deliver business-driven design solutions rather than designs that look pretty.

Sometimes, the best knowledge comes from those who have been there themselves. That's why finding the right mentor with experience and who can give practical advice is crucial.

In just 10+ hours, the Practical UX Research & Strategy Course dives deep into strategic problem-solving. By the end, you'll know exactly how to make data-backed solutions your stakeholders will get on board with.

Master the end-to-end UX research workflow, from formulating the right user questions to executing your research strategy and effectively presenting your findings to stakeholders.

Learn straight from Mizko—a seasoned industry leader with a track record as a successful designer, $10M+ former agency owner, and advisor for tech startups.

This course equips you with the skills to:

  • Derive actionable insights through objective-driven questions.
  • Conduct unbiased, structured interviews.
  • Select ideal participants for quality data.
  • Create affinity maps from research insights.
  • Execute competitor analysis with expertise.
  • Analyze large data sets and user insights systematically.
  • Transform research and data into actionable frameworks and customer journey maps.
  • Communicate findings effectively and prioritize tasks for your team.
  • Present metrics and objectives that resonate with stakeholders.

Designed for flexible and independent learning, this course allows you to progress independently.

With 4000+ designers from top tech companies like Google, Meta, and Squarespace among its alumni, this course empowers UX designers to integrate research skills into their design practices.

Here's what students have to say about the 4.9/5 rated course:

"I'm 100% more confident when talking to stakeholders about User Research & Strategy and the importance of why it needs to be included in the process. I also have gained such a beautiful new understanding of my users that greatly influences my designs. All of the "guesswork" that I was doing is now real, meaningful work that has stats and research behind it." - Booking.com Product Designer Alyssa Durante

"I had no proper clarity of how to conduct a research in a systematically form which actually aligns to the project. Now I have a Step by Step approach from ground 0 to final synthesis." - UX/UI Designer Kaustav Das Biswas

"The most impactful element has been the direct application of the learnings in my recent projects at Amazon. Integrating the insights gained from the course into two significant projects yielded outstanding results, significantly influencing both my career and personal growth. This hands-on experience not only enhanced my proficiency in implementing UX strategies but also bolstered my confidence in guiding, coaching, mentoring, and leading design teams." - Amazon.com UX designer Zohdi Rizvi

Gain expert UX research skills and outshine your competitors.

Michael Wong
Founder of Designership & z0 Studio

Mizko, also known as Michael Wong, brings a 14-year track record as a Founder, Educator, Investor, and Designer. His career evolved from lead designer to freelancer, and ultimately to the owner of a successful agency, generating over $10M in revenue from Product (UX/UI) Design, Web Design, and No-code Development. His leadership at the agency contributed to the strategy and design for over 50 high-growth startups, aiding them in raising a combined total of over $400M+ in venture capital.

Notable projects include: Autotrader (Acquired. by eBay), PhoneWagon (Acquired by CallRails), Spaceship ($1B in managed funds), Archistar ($15M+ raised) and many more.

You can learn more about me on:
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