Understanding UX research is just the first step. The real game-changer?
Using the right methods.
When you know how and when to apply the right UX research methods in your design projects, you'll:
- Gather relevant and appropriate data
- Gain deeper and higher quality insights into user needs, preferences, and pain points
- Maximize the use of limited resources — time, budget, and manpower included
- Make informed decisions and recommendations that make sense to your stakeholders
Let's explore why is UX research important in the first place, the common UX research methods and how you can excel with best practices.
If you're interested in learning how to make data-backed design solutions with the right planning and execution, check out our UX research course by Michael Wong, also known as Mizko.
UX research: What is it?
Before we explore UX research methods, it's important to understand what is UX research. It's the process of understanding how users discover, interact, and use products to better our own as UX/UI designers.
Through user surveys, focus groups, usability testing, and A/B testing, UX research collects data to understand user behaviors, needs, and motivations.
This data is crucial for forming insights that help design and develop products and services centered around the user.
However, becoming skilled in UX research involves more than just understanding its principles. It's a skill that combines a deep understanding of user behavior and the ability to interpret data effectively.
Strong communication skills are another must-have, as presenting your findings and recommendations to your stakeholders is crucial to getting their buy-in.
Where you can learn UX research
To dive deeper into UX research, there are plenty of available resources available:
- Best UX research courses: In this list you'll find the top UX research courses suitable for beginners and seasoned professionals.
- Books and eBooks: Titles like “Think Like a UX Researcher" by David Travis & Philip Hodgson or “Just Enough Research” by Erika Hall offer foundational knowledge and insights.
- Podcasts and YouTube: Mizko's Youtube channel explores topics on UX research and product design. UXPodcast also covers various UX design and research topics.
- Community: UXDesign Subreddit and Design are online communities where UX professionals can network, share ideas, and seek advice.
Qualitative UX research methods
In UX/UI design, qualitative research methods tell the story behind the user experience.
These methods focus on gathering rich, in-depth insights about users’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. In user interviews, for example, UX researchers can listen and observe their interactions in real-time.
These insights are invaluable for refining the user experience to better meet their needs and expectations.
1. User interviews
What is it: Deep-dive conversations with users about their experiences, needs, and frustrations. This UX research method provides rich and detailed insights into individual perspectives.
Best to use for:
- Understanding deep user motivations and experiences
- Gathering detailed feedback on specific features or issues
- Building user personas and journey maps
- Post-launch product evaluation
- Subjectivity and bias: Responses in user interviews can be influenced by personal bias or the desire to provide socially acceptable answers
- Time and resource intensive: Recruiting, conducting, transcribing, and analyzing user interviews can be time-consuming and expensive. This might be challenging for smaller teams or tight timelines
- Limited representativeness: The insights gathered are often from a small sample of users, which may not accurately reflect the broader user base
- Memory limitations: Users may have difficulty recalling past experiences accurately
- Influence of interviewer: How questions are asked, or the interviewer's demeanor can influence responses
- Prepare open-ended questions that prompt detailed responses.
- Create a comfortable environment where participants feel safe sharing honest opinions.
- Actively listen to understand and let them fully express their thoughts before offering any input.
- Be mindful of your own biases and preconceptions, and approach each interview with an open mind
- Prepare follow-up questions to explore deeper insights based on participants' initial responses
- Use the appropriate tools to speed up your workflows, such as recording and transcribing apps (with the interviewee's consent, of course)
Learn step-by-step on how to conduct user interviews in our UX research course. It covers several topics: sample sizing, participant selection, efficient onboarding procedures, and effective note-taking techniques.
Mizko also breaks down a real user interview, sharing his thought process. This can equip you with valuable insights and preparation for your upcoming user interviews.
2. Focus groups
What is it: Real-life user review sessions where a small group openly discusses your product with a moderator. This method uncovers collective views and diverse opinions.
Best to use for:
- Exploring initial reactions and perceptions
- Understanding user attitudes and preferences
- Generating new ideas and insights
- Validating assumptions and hypotheses
- Groupthink: Participants may conform to the dominant views within the group
- Moderator influence: The moderator's style and biases can influence the direction and nature of the discussion
- Limited depth: Focus groups can sometimes prioritize breadth over depth, leading to a surface-level understanding of issues rather than detailed insights
- Contextual limitations: The artificial setting of a focus group can affect how participants respond
- Recruit a varied group that reflects different demographics.
- Use a skilled moderator to guide discussion and stay on course.
- Prepare a focused discussion guide with key questions while allowing for spontaneous conversation.
- Foster an environment where participants freely share without judgment.
- Keep discussions on track, but explore unexpected insights as they arise.
3. Usability testing
What is it: Observing real users as they interact with your product to identify usability issues and understand user-friendly elements.
Best to use for:
- Identifying usability issues
- Validating design decisions
- Iterative design process
- Evaluating user satisfaction and effectiveness
- Limited scope: Usability tests often focus on specific aspects or features. This can potentially overlook broader issues or the overall user experience
- Artificial environment: Testing in a controlled environment may not accurately reflect real-world usage
- Participant bias: Users knowing they are being observed can influence their behavior, a phenomenon known as the Hawthorne effect, which might not represent their natural interactions with the product
- Resource intensive: Conducting thorough usability tests requires significant time, effort, and cost
- Interpretation of results: Analyzing and interpreting the results of usability tests can be subjective, as it depends on the expertise of the researcher
- Establish specific goals to ensure focused and actionable results.
- Select participants who accurately represent your target audience.
- Develop testing scenarios that mimic real-world use so users can interact with your product naturally and authentically.
- Carefully observe how participants use the product – recording sessions can also be valuable for further analysis.
4. Concept testing
What is it: Presenting early-stage and high-level sketches, wireframes, or prototypes of a product or feature.
Best to use for:
- Validating initial product concepts
- Refining and improving ideas
- Prioritizing features and functionality
- Limited feedback scope: Concept testing often focuses on initial reactions and may not provide comprehensive feedback on deeper usability or long-term engagement issues
- Risk of misinterpretation: Participants' feedback might be based on an incomplete understanding of the concept
- Influence of presentation: The way a concept is presented can heavily influence user feedback
- Early-stage bias: Users might favor familiar concepts over innovative ones due to a lack of context or understanding
- Participant diversity: If the sample of participants is not diverse or representative of the target audience, the feedback may not accurately reflect the broader user base's needs and reactions
- Start with specific goals for what you want to learn from the concept testing.
- Present concepts clearly and concisely so that participants have a good understanding of what is being proposed
- Combine numerical ratings for quick, comparative insights with open-ended questions for deeper understanding and context.
- Use the feedback to refine and improve the concept.
5. Card sorting
What is it: Participants are given cards containing various topics and ideas. They are then instructed to group these cards based on their personal interpretation.
There are two types of card sorting: open cards and closed cards. In open card sorting, participants categorize cards with topics into groups they create. In closed card sorting, participants organize cards into predefined categories.
Best to use for:
- Designing intuitive navigation
- Understanding user mental models
- Improving content findability
- Validating information architecture
- Identifying user language and terminology
- Limited to information architecture: Primarily focuses on categorization and hierarchy
- Participant subjectivity: Responses can be highly subjective and influenced by individual participants' understanding and perspectives
- May not reflect actual behavior: Theoretical categorization might not accurately mirror how users navigate real-world scenarios
- Set clear objectives to define and understand what you want to achieve
- Select participants who accurately represent your target audience
- Provide clear instructions so your participants understand the task and what each card represents
- Opt for open card sorting for exploratory insights and closed card sorting for validating existing structures.
6. Journey mapping/diary studies
What is it: Journal mapping is a user-directed form of documentation where participants record their experiences, interactions, and thoughts about a product or service over time.
Best used for:
- Understanding long-term user behavior
- Assessing how well a product fits into their daily routine
- Identifying evolving needs and issues
- Gathering in-depth user feedback
- Time-consuming for participants: Requires a significant time commitment from users, which may lead to drop-offs or inconsistent data
- Subjectivity and bias in self-reported data: Data might be influenced by users' subjective perceptions and biases
- Potential for incomplete data: Participants may forget to record entries or certain experiences
- Resource-intensive analysis: Analyzing narrative and qualitative journal data can be time-consuming and complex
- For consistency and relevancy, provide clear guidelines and specific instructions on what and how to record.
- Design user-friendly journaling tools so that it's easy and convenient for users.
- Be mindful of participants' privacy, especially when dealing with personal or sensitive information.
Quantitative UX research methods
Quantitative UX research involves collecting and analyzing numerical data to focus on quantifiable aspects like user behavior, task completion times, click-through rates, and error frequencies.
The data you gather here is statistically significant and can be easily analyzed to spot trends, patterns, and general user behaviors.
1. User surveys
What is it: User surveys are structured questionnaires tailored to collect specific information from a broad user base efficiently. They include different types of questions, like multiple-choice, ratings, and open-ended questions, to collect a wide range of user feedback.
Best used for:
- Measuring user satisfaction
- Understanding user preferences
- Evaluating user needs and desires
- Market research
- Pre and post-release feedback
- Limited depth of responses: Surveys often provide surface-level insights and may miss nuanced details.
- Response bias: Users may provide socially desirable answers or may not fully engage with the survey, leading to skewed data.
- Low response rates: Getting users to complete surveys can be challenging, potentially leading to a small sample size.
- Misinterpretation of questions: Users might misunderstand questions, leading to inaccurate responses.
- Keep it short and focused to increase completion rates.
- Use clear and simple language to make questions easy to understand.
- Test your survey to identify any confusing questions or technical issues.
- Offer incentives when possible to help increase response rates and engagement.
2. A/B testing
What is it: A/B testing is a method in which two versions of a webpage or app feature are compared to see which performs better. This method tests various design, content, or functionality changes.
Best to use for:
- Optimizing webpage layouts
- Testing the effectiveness of a feature
- Improving user experience
- Limited scope: Can only test one variable at a time, making it less effective for complex decision-making.
- Misinterpretation of results: Results can be misinterpreted if not properly set up or analyzed.
- User experience disruption: Frequent changes or tests might confuse or frustrate returning users.
- Overemphasis on short-term gains: May lead to focusing on immediate improvements rather than long-term user satisfaction.
- Use a randomized and representative sample of your audience for testing.
- Limit variations to one main element per test to isolate its impact.
- Run both versions simultaneously to account for external factors like time of day or week.
3. Web analytics
What is it: Web analytics is about understanding how users interact with websites and tracking their actions and behavior. Collecting and analyzing this data offers valuable insights into user habits, website traffic patterns, and overall performance.
Best to use for:
- Improving user experience
- Optimizing conversion rates
- Traffic and engagement analysis
- Data overload: Can lead to an overwhelming amount of data, making it challenging to identify actionable insights.
- Privacy concerns: Raises questions about user privacy and data security, especially with stringent privacy laws.
- Technical complexity: Requires a certain level of technical expertise to set up and interpret data correctly
- Understand the metrics and what they represent thoroughly.
- Concentrate on metrics directly related to your business goals or key performance indicators (KPIs).
- Use insights to refine and improve your website continuously.
- Combine with other research methods for a comprehensive understanding of user behavior.
4. Usability metrics
What is it: Usability metrics turn the user experience into numbers to measure how easy, efficient, and satisfying a product is. They focus on collecting hard data over opinions and analyzing user performance and behavior.
Best to use for:
- Evaluating user interface design: To assess how intuitive and user-friendly a website or application’s interface is.
- Improving user efficiency: Helps to understand and enhance how quickly and effectively users can complete tasks.
- Testing user satisfaction: Useful for determining users' satisfaction with their interaction experience.
- Identifying usability issues: Assists in pinpointing specific areas where users encounter difficulties or frustrations.
- Comparing design variations: Effective in comparing different design versions to see which performs better in terms of usability.
- Limited scope: Focuses mainly on usability aspects and might miss broader user experience issues.
- Contextual limitations: Data might not fully capture the context of user interactions, leading to incomplete insights.
- Reliance on test conditions: Results can be influenced by the specific conditions of the usability test, such as the test environment or task selection.
- Quantitative overemphasis: Over-reliance on numerical data might overlook qualitative feedback that provides deeper user insights.
- Define clear usability goals before conducting tests to ensure focused and relevant data collection.
- Choose metrics that best align with your usability goals and user tasks.
- Combine with qualitative methods for a comprehensive understanding of user experience.
- Use metrics as a continuous benchmark, regularly reviewing and updating them to track usability improvements.
What is it: Heatmaps are visual tools that graphically show where users click, move, or scroll on a webpage. Color codes highlight which parts of a webpage draw the most attention and interaction
Best to use for:
- Analyzing user engagement
- Improving website layout
- Content placement optimization
- Identifying usability issues
- Lacks context: Heatmaps show where users interact but don’t explain why, potentially missing the reasoning behind user behavior.
- Static data snapshot: Typically represents a snapshot in time and might not capture evolving interaction patterns.
- Over-simplification: Might oversimplify complex user behavior into basic interaction hotspots
- Device variation limitations: User interactions can vary significantly across different devices, which heatmaps might not fully capture.
- Use alongside other analytics tools for a more comprehensive understanding of user behavior.
- Continually update heatmaps and review them regularly to track changes and trends over time.
- Prioritize analyzing high-impact pages or sections of your website.
- Analyze heatmaps across various devices to understand different user experiences.
- Integrate with user feedback for deeper insights into user behavior and preferences.
What is primary and secondary research?
Primary and secondary research are two fundamental approaches to gathering information. Each serves a distinct role in the research process.
Primary research generates data through UX research methods, whether user interviews, surveys, and/or usability. Secondary research summarizes all the data and notes you've gathered in the primary research process.
Primary research is key to gathering fresh, specific data directly related to your objectives. Both qualitative and quantitative UX research methods fall into primary research. This method involves obtaining first-hand information, which means the data is original and tailored to your specific study needs.
For example, you are designing a music-listening app. In this stage, you can conduct the following primary UX research methods:
- Surveys: To gather information on user demographics, music preferences, and listening habits.
- User interviews: Potential users to understand their needs, frustrations, and desires on the existing music apps they use.
Secondary research refers to synthesizing and interpreting data collected through primary research methods. This phase is crucial for transforming raw data into actionable knowledge.
Here's a look at different types of secondary research methods in UX research:
1. Affinity mapping
This method involves organizing qualitative data into groups or themes.
In the same example, you can use affinity mapping to categorize the information you've gotten from the surveys and user interviews into themes like 'Ease of Use,' 'Music Discovery,' 'Playlist Management,' and 'Social Sharing.'
2. Customer personas
Developing customer personas is a way to create representative profiles of key user types.
Based on the primary research data, you create several customer personas:
- "Casual Listener Laura" – A user who enjoys background music while working or relaxing, values ease of use, and prefers curated playlists.
- "Audiophile Alex" – A music enthusiast who values high-quality audio, diverse music libraries, and advanced search features.
- "Social Sharer Sam" – A user who enjoys sharing music with friends and discovering new tracks through social features.
These personas help the design team focus on specific features and interfaces that cater to different user types. For instance, creating simple, user-friendly interfaces for Laura while offering advanced features for Alex.
3. Customer journey mapping
This involves creating a visual or narrative representation of the user’s experience with a product or service over time.
For Laura, the journey might start with opening the app, easily finding a suitable playlist, and playing music with minimal interaction.
On the other hand, Alex's journey involves exploring different genres, searching for high-fidelity tracks, and customizing playlists.
These maps highlight critical touchpoints, such as the ease of finding music, the quality of audio streaming, and social sharing capabilities. The team identifies that a streamlined onboarding process is essential for first-time users and that personalized recommendations can significantly enhance user engagement.
Comparative research techniques
Comparative research techniques are a systematic approach used in various fields to compare two or more entities, ideas, systems, or phenomena.
This method is used to find out what is similar and different between things, understand how and why they work, or see which works better or has more impact.
Here are two examples of comparative research:
1. Heuristic evaluation
What is it: A systematic approach to reviewing a product and comparing it against established usability principles.
By comparing a product's design against recognized best practices, it helps quickly identify areas where the user experience can be improved.
Consider your music listening app being evaluated using Nielsen-Molich's Heuristic Evaluation. In this scenario, you would review the app against Nielsen's heuristics to identify potential usability issues.
Here's how it might go:
- Visibility of system status: Check if the app shows what’s playing and if it’s clear when a song is paused, playing or loading. This will determine if the user knows what's happening in the app.
- Match between the system and the real world: Assess if the app uses familiar icons and terms, like a play button or the word 'Playlist'.
- User control and freedom: Look for features like the back navigation and the ability to quickly stop or skip songs so that users don't feel stuck or frustrated.
- Consistency and standards: Check if the app follows standard conventions, such as tapping a song to play it or swiping to add it to a playlist.
- Error prevention and recognition: Review if the app has clear error messages (like when a song can't be played) and if it prevents errors (like accidentally deleting a playlist).
- Recognition rather than recall: Ensure users don’t have to remember information from one part of the app to another. For example, if they add a song to a playlist, that action should be visually confirmed.
- Flexibility and efficiency of use: Look for shortcuts and customization options, such as creating quick playlists or setting favorite songs.
- Aesthetic and minimalist design: Determine if the app's design is not cluttered and that all elements on the screen serve a purpose.
- Help and documentation: Finally, they check if the app provides easily accessible help or FAQs for new users.
2. Competitive analysis
What is it: This method compares your product's usability and features with those of competitors. A competitive analysis can help you determine where your product stands in the market, and identify opportunities to innovate and differentiate it from the others.
For example, you've been tasked to conduct a competitive analysis on a travel booking app that your team is building. This requires a deep dive into other existing listening music competitors, such as Spotify and Apple Music.
Here are some aspects to consider:
- Design & navigation: Compare how each app handles the user interface and ease of navigation. Which takes you from login to music playing the quickest and most effortlessly?
- Feature showdown: List and contrast the features. Who leads with unique offerings like exclusive content or personalized playlists?
- Speed test: Check which app is faster and more responsive. Speed is key for a smooth experience.
- User reviews: Scan what users are saying. Identify what they love and loathe, and spot opportunities for your app.
- Value for money: Evaluate which app offers more for the price - think subscription costs versus features like ad-free listening or offline play.
How to choose the right UX research method
The right UX research method is crucial to gaining valuable insights and driving your product's success.
Here's a structured approach to choosing the best UX research method:
1. Define your objectives
Are you trying to understand user behavior, test a new feature, or evaluate the usability of your product? Different objectives will require different research methods.
2. Consider the stage of your product
The stage of your product development plays a crucial role. For instance, early stages may benefit more from exploratory methods like interviews or surveys to understand user needs, while later stages might require usability testing to refine the product.
3. Understand your users
Tailoring your research method to your audience is key. Younger demographics might be more responsive to online surveys, while in-depth interviews could be better for engaging with professionals for a B2B product.
4. Check the availability of resources
Assess your resources in terms of time, budget, and expertise. Some methods require more resources than others. For instance, usability testing might need more specialized skills and tools compared to conducting surveys.
5. Plan for secondary research
Consider how you will analyze the data. The chosen method should align with your ability to effectively analyze and interpret the results.
6. Stay flexible and iterative
Be prepared to adapt your approach based on initial findings. UX research is iterative, and initial results might lead you to adjust your methods.
Best practices in applying UX research methods
Every design project is unique, but there are best practices that can improve your UX research process.
Let's go through some of them:
1. Start with your problems, not ideas
Focus on identifying and understanding the core problems before jumping to solutions. This approach ensures that your research is driven by genuine user needs rather than preconceived ideas. Start by asking questions like "What problems are our users facing?" rather than "How can we implement this feature?"
2. Build your foundational report
Create a foundational report as a central repository for all your research findings. This report should include user personas, pain points, user needs, and behavioral patterns. This will become a great reference point for your team so that everyone clearly understands the user insights.
3. Know your priorities
Assess which areas will have the most significant impact on user experience and align with your business goals. Frameworks like the Eisenhower Matrix can help you categorize research tasks based on urgency and importance. This helps allocate resources effectively and focus on research that will provide the most value.
4. Apply the mixed-methods approach
Combine qualitative methods like interviews and focus groups with quantitative methods like surveys and analytics. This mixed-methods approach gives both depth and breadth to your findings.
5. Regularly validate assumptions
What you assume about your users may not always be accurate. Regular validation ensures your product development is on track with user needs.
6. Iterate your findings
UX research should be an iterative process. Use the findings to make improvements, then test and research again. Each cycle brings you closer to a more refined and user-friendly product.
7. Involve stakeholders
Keep stakeholders involved in the UX research process. Their insights and feedback can provide additional perspectives and help align the research with business objectives.
8. Consider ethics
Always conduct research ethically. Ensure user consent and privacy are maintained, especially when dealing with sensitive user data.
9. Communicate clearly
Communicate your findings clearly and effectively to your team and stakeholders. Use visual aids like graphs and charts for quantitative data and storytelling for qualitative insights.
10. Focus on user-centricity
Finally, always keep the user at the center of your research. Every method, analysis, and conclusion should aim to improve the user experience.
Cut through the clutter and learn how to execute UX research in just 10+ hours
Knowing how and which UX research methods to apply in your design projects requires more than theory. With so much methods to choose from, it can get lengthy and tedious.
That's why the most effective way to understanding these methods is through consistent, hands-on application.
The good news is that you don't need to review thousands of pages or sites to master UX review methods. With Mizko's Practical UX Research & Strategy Course you're not just learning theory — you're applying real-world skills in strategic thinking challenges.
By the end of the course, you'll be able to confidently plan and execute data-driven, user-centric designs that stakeholders can get on board with.
Learn straight from Mizko, a successful designer turned successful agency owner and startup advisor. You'll also get access to the same resources and templates he used to build, scale, and sell multiple online ventures.
Best of all, you'll learn more, in less at time at your own pace. There's no pressure of fixed schedules here.
This course is trusted by over 6,000 designers, including professionals from tech giants like Google, Meta, and Airbnb:
"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." - UX/UI Designer Alyssa Durante
"This course helped me structurize and focus my research on the things that are really important to the launch of any product. This is one of the best courses I've ever take in the UX/UI and Product Design Field. Thanks Michael Wong for all the knowledge and effort you did to bring us this incredible course!" - UX/UI Designer Luis Veloz
"The process in this course connects the dots and its easy to lead the clients through this process... + I can adapt the process based on the resources and the needs of the client. Life is now way easier to be honest because I have clear path to show to the clients even before we start the project because I can build expectations from the start." - UX/UI Designer Milosh Jakjimovski
Learn the efficient and smart end-to-end workflow of UX research:
- Master the art of formulating objective-driven questions for sharp insights.
- Conduct unbiased, structured interviews like a seasoned pro.
- Learn the secrets of choosing the right participants for quality data.
- Transform your findings into clear affinity maps.
- Perform competitor analysis with expert precision.
- Skillfully handle large data sets and user insights for meaningful conclusions.
- Simplify complex research with frameworks and automated customer journey maps.
- Effectively sort and present data to your team with compelling frameworks.
- Turn your research into a prioritized, actionable plan.
- Present key metrics and goals in a way that resonates with stakeholders.