The products we use every day are not all created equally—those that we love and appreciate typically have three things in common.
First and foremost, they work. They do what they were intended to do, and they solve real-world problems.
Secondly, they're easy to use. While we tend to take this quality for granted, creating an intuitive product with a manageable learning curve is an arduous task that demands an in-depth understanding of its users.
Last but not least—we enjoy using these products. After all, nobody would say they love a product if they didn't like using it.
Creating a product that checks all of these boxes isn't exclusively a matter of a designer's skill—it also requires conducting extensive research that allows companies to learn more about the people they design for.
In this comprehensive guide, we'll take a closer look at what UX research is, and any business, large or small, should invest time and effort into it. We'll go over the most important tools, methods, and steps of the UX research process, and offer you a downloadable briefing template.
Let's dive right in!
“There is a big difference between making a simple product and making a product simple”
UX research is the process of understanding how users interact with a product, service, software, or interface. Its goal is to figure out what's working with a product and what isn't. The ultimate goal in mind with any product or service is to solve a problem for somebody. Still, if a user can't figure out how to use it or doesn't like using it, it isn't solving the problem well. Creating a great user experience is fundamental to making any product a success because it is a core part of the overall customer experience.
UX Research allows you to ensure that your product or feature is enjoyable, functional, and easy to use by the time it hits the market.
“Users are not always logical, at least not on the surface. To be a great designer you need to look a little deeper into how people think and act.”
Understanding the importance of UX research is critical if you want to get buy-in from stakeholders to support and invest in your research efforts.
Most of the time, when you are working on developing or improving a product or feature, the answers to even your most challenging questions lie with the users. People know what they want and can show you what they need. That is why UX research is critical to the success of any product or service. By striving to understand your users, you can make data-driven decisions and test your product or service before it goes live.
One of the fundamental tenets of good design is the acceptance that the person developing a product is not the user. Every single person that is even remotely connected to design or product development has heard the "you are not your user" mantra hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. However, all of us happen to fall victim to our own biases and assumptions—and there's plenty of research to back this claim up.
For instance, a study conducted by Acquia suggests that over half of consumers feel that brands fail to meet their experience standards, and two-thirds of respondents don't really remember the last time their expectations were exceeded.
More importantly, research conducted by Dr. Susan Weinschenk suggests that a huge number of projects end up failing specifically due to poor or a total lack of research. As a result, this leads to inadequate user experience. As a matter of fact, nearly one in six projects end up being scrapped just because they don't really meet the end-user's experience expectations.
But that's not it—Dr. Weinschenk's book "100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People" also mentions the fact that about 50% of a people's time is wasted on reworking what are otherwise preventable issues—just because stakeholders refused to invest time and resources into studying the people they're developing the product for.
There’s an ever-growing body of academic studies that suggests how detrimental a lack of UX research can be—and while we can spend a lot of time expanding on it, let's instead shift our focus towards the value of actually incorporating this practice in your product's development.
Let's take a closer look at some of the benefits of conducting UX research.
There are several good reasons to conduct UX research before making your product or service available to the general public. Let's examine five of its most substantial benefits in more detail and explore why it's so important for a product's market fitness and overall success.
In order to make sure that your product or service is as useful as possible for its intended users, it's crucial to gain insight into who those people are. This is typically done early on in the UX research process with the aid of surveys, interviews, and other research methods.
By surveying and interviewing users, you can determine what motivates them to use a certain product over others and what types of features and benefits would be most useful for them, allowing you to implement them into your design, prioritize features accordingly, and give yourself the best chance of appealing to people when your product goes live. It also allows you to surface the peculiarities and sensitivities of your end-users so that you can tailor the user experience to their particular needs.
Studies have long confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that understanding your users and empathizing with them does, in fact, help businesses achieve a more user-centric design, which invariably leads to better experiences and, as a result, greater product success.
When the time comes to test your prototype, UX research will help you see how users engage with your product. It may be the case that they can figure out how to use it by themselves without much explanation, and indeed this is the goal when designing anything. Nobody likes to read through lengthy manuals to try and figure out how something works; they expect it to be straightforward to use from day one.
Being able to see where people are looking, what they are clicking, and what features they seem to be missing will allow you to position page elements in a way that will facilitate an optimal design and allow the user to do what they want to achieve with minimal friction and effort.
UX research also allows you to structure a user’s interaction with your product in a way that encourages them to take specific actions. As a result, you can guide your users through the most useful and informative parts of your product’s experience while also ensuring higher conversion rates and sales.
When you see how customers interact with your product, you can identify areas of your product’s experience that may have been overlooked. As you work on a product, you gain a sense of familiarity with it, you understand exactly how it works both on the inside and the outside, which can force you into thinking that first-time users will be able to figure things out straight away.
If a user clicks on something and nothing happens, or they can't figure out what to do next, you will have identified a valuable opportunity to fix the problem before the service is launched. Test users are much more forgiving than paying customers, and if something doesn't work right after a customer has purchased your product, then you had better believe it will be detrimental to your business.
After you have had test users engage with your product, you now have the opportunity to survey them again to find out what they liked and what they didn't like. This is one of the most important phases of the UX research process and is one that should never be skipped.
It may well be the case that your test user will have no problem figuring out how to use your service. They may say it was easy to use and everything seemed to work perfectly, but when you ask them if they would buy the product or service in the future, they say "no, not at all," why?
By getting direct feedback from your test users,' you will be able to identify what you need to add, change, or remove in order to make the product as attractive as possible to people.
Maybe your product was designed to do a certain very specific thing, but after conducting UX research, you realize that people are actually using it to do something totally different or could be using it to do something else as well. This, in turn, can inform your marketing strategy and allow you to implement features, bells, and whistles that your competition may have entirely overlooked, giving you a significant competitive advantage.
We have been speaking about UX research in very broad general terms, but there are actually several different types of UX research. Let's go over the two main types of UX research so that you can determine when and how to use each type.
The primary purpose of quantitative research is to provide you with a data-oriented explanation of what's happening. It allows you to put a value on the usability of your product and compare designs by leveraging statistics and hypotheses. Contrary to qualitative research that we'll discuss below, it doesn't offer much wiggle room for exploration—instead, it helps you take a more impartial and analytical look at your users' interaction with your product.
For instance, surveys are an example of commonly used quantitative research. By polling a diverse group of different users and comparing their responses, you can derive useful statistics and determine the overall efficacy of your product or service, at least in its current state.
Another widespread quantitative research method is user- and event-based analytics. Google Analytics, for example, is used to determine how people find, interact with, and ultimately behave on a website. By looking at this type of data, businesses can identify what works, what doesn't, and what should be added or removed from a site in order to increase revenue, engagement, and other critical metrics.
Here's a list of some other quantitative methods that are commonly used in UX design:
On the other side of the spectrum is qualitative UX research. The difference between quantitative and qualitative research is quite simple. If quantitative research tells you what is happening, qualitative research shows you how and why it is happening.
This sort of research relies on observation to infer insight and inform your design process. When you allow test users to actually try out your product and you watch how they engage with it, you are conducting qualitative UX research. Conducting personal follow-up interviews, field studies, and usability tests are other widely employed qualitative UX research methods.
Generally speaking, many UX specialists prefer qualitative research to quantitative research—and there are a number of good reasons for this. Qualitative research is much easier to understand; instead of analyzing and extracting the data, you can get it first-hand. It is much easier to figure out what the end-user thinks of your product by asking them directly rather than making an informed guess based on statistics or analyzing numbers.
For some companies whose product analytics are not up to mark, qualitative studies can also be less expensive and quicker than quantitative research. Relying on external parties to conduct quantitative research is both time-consuming and expensive, whereas setting up some usability tests and user interviews can be a quick and easy way to gain the user insights you need.
At the end of the day, it isn't a matter of choosing between quantitative and qualitative research. It's still well worth conducting both as they can work together to offer you a complete picture of who your users are, what they need, and how they behave with regard to your product.
Now that we've gone over the more general categories of UX research let's dive deeper to explore some commonly used methods.
There are many different UX research methods, and each has its own advantages and limitations. Let's examine the top ten UX research techniques so that you can determine which ones will be most helpful for you in any given situation.
Conducting interviews or having one-on-one follow-up conversations with your users allows you to glean a ton of information about who they are, what motivates them to undertake certain actions, and how they engage with products or services like your own. With remote working experience being ubiquitous nowadays, it is easier than ever to interview customers and gain insights rapidly.
Focus groups are basically group interviews. Rather than speaking with one individual, you might be speaking with 15 or 20, or however many people have tested your product or service on any given day. One advantage of conducting focus group sessions rather than individual interviews is that you get a greater volume of data to work with, which can help avoid certain biases and yield less speculative data than a one-on-one interview would.
Sending out surveys is another step up from a focus group. Instead of interviewing 15 people in person, you can send out a survey to hundreds or even thousands of people, which can give you the most amount of feedback and data compared to interviews and focus groups. Surveys can certainly still be conducted in person, but they can also be conducted online, over the phone, or through email, which is a more cost-effective method that requires less of your time. The downside of surveys of course is that you will never go off-script, which in interviews and focus groups can sometimes lead to insights you would never have expected. Sourcing unbiased respondents for surveys can also be difficult and expensive.
A prototype is a preliminary design. To use the example of a website again, you might create a mock-up and then ask users what they think, how they like the design, what could be improved, etc. It's much less expensive to fix a design before the product or service is actually coded, built, or developed than it is afterward, and so prototyping is a valuable stage in any design process.
This is when you allow the test users to interact with your product in a specific way. So, you might say "do X," and after they accomplish the task, you would ask them follow-up questions, and then you would say, "okay, now do Y," and so on. This allows you to get real-time feedback on how easy your product is to use and identify how a user is feeling while using the service.
It's also important that usability testing is a fairly efficient tool. According to a study conducted by Nielsen Norman Group, the best results come from testing no more than five users—running more tests will statistically result in diminishing returns (identified usability problems). Plus, the article's authors encourage teams to do as many small tests as they can afford.
A specific use case for apps, websites, software, and user interfaces, first click testing is conducted the very first time you allow users to test your product. This type of UX research allows you to see how users will behave with the product, what they click first, how they navigate the service, and gain other insights of that nature.
Having everyday people test your product is essential as, in most cases, these are the types of people who will be using the service and make up the vast majority of your potential customers. That said, having an expert review your product can yield a different type of valuable feedback. Experts know exactly what they are looking for and will be able to rank and compare your product against industry standards and your competition.
One excellent way of coming up with the perfect design is having various different designers draft a design for the same product or service independently with no correspondence between each other. This allows you to see what they each did in common and incorporate the very best elements of each design into one excellent design. Parallel design is an excellent method for drafting a preliminary design, prototype, or mock-up.
Card sorting is a common method used by UX researchers to determine the best arrangement for informational structures and optimize navigation if applicable. The idea is that users test and then sort elements into how they think they should be organized, which can inform your design and IT structures.
Task analysis is a specific type of research that involves learning about your end-users' goals, motivations, and desires so that you can implement the features that would attract them to your product or service. Furthermore, task analysis allows you to understand how users want to engage with your product and similar products, if there are any.
There are many UX research tools available, but they are not all created equally. Let's take a look at the top 5 best UX research tools, what they do, and how to use them.
UsabilityHub is a remote user research platform that helps you validate designs in real-time. There are many tools online that allow you to conduct interviews with people all over the world, but if you're looking for a cost-effective way to get rapid insights on specific pages and features, UsabilityHub is an excellent solution.
Hotjar is a tool that offers heatmaps and behavior analytics for both websites and applications. If you’re doing UX research, you probably have used Hotjar before. It is a great way to gain quick, real-time insights without having to invest too much time into the research process.
We mentioned surveys before, and if you're looking for a powerful all-in-one surveying tool, then SurveyMonkey is the way to go. Not only can you easily craft surveys that meet your research needs, but you can quickly source respondents to make sure those surveys garner the responses you need.
If you’re dealing with websites, Google Analytics is most likely going to be your go-to for all of your quantitative analytics. However, if you’re working with a digital product like a SaaS application, Amplitude is a great solution for proper events-based tracking. The product isn’t cheap, but there is a very expansive free plan that allows you to work with one of the best tools available until you can afford to pay more. Amplitude allows you to cross-reference user attributes with their in-app behavior like no other tool.
All the research in the world is worth nothing if you don’t have a clear place to gather, organize and share your insights. We created Reveall because we know how difficult that can be. Our platform allows you to bring together all your research findings in one platform so that you can turn data into actionable insights and share them between teams. Reveall supports you throughout your user research and helps make the most out of it.
Other notable tools we enjoy include Typeform, Usabilla, Zoom and Mixpanel.
UX research is typically done in four distinct stages. There are different versions and namings for this process, and it is always good to tailor it to your company's needs. Still, most good UX research processes follow the same general outline that was originally created by the Nielsen Norman Group.
This is when you conduct preliminary interviews and market research, consult with experts, and get a general sense of what the design should encompass and what sorts of features should be included. This phase may also involve researching your competitors to see what they have done right and wrong.
The next phase involves prototyping, parallel design, task analysis, card sorting, and these types of tasks; the goal is to improve upon the insights that you gained during the discovery stage. The goal of this stage is to finalize a preliminary design and get ready for development.
The next step is actually building a working model of the product or service and then testing that service out with different users to see how they interact with it. During this phase, you might want to conduct usability tests, first click tests, and conduct qualitative research with a platform, such as Reveall, to see how customers are interacting with the product and gain all of the customer insights you need in order to finalize the design and prepare for the final version to launch.
The last and most important phase of UX research is the feedback phase. This is your opportunity to query testers on how they liked the service, what they enjoyed, and what they didn't much care for, and ask what should be included or removed to make the product easier to use and more attractive for other potential customers.
There are a lot of different UX research processes out there to explore, so it's always good to explore, get inspired and build a process that works for you.
When conducting UX research, it's important to have a plan before you start. Writing a good brief can help you get your whole team aligned. The research brief template below helps you to think about those important questions before you start, so you can make your research project a success.
A quick google search for "UX research" will yield an overwhelming amount of resources, but knowing which to trust isn't always straightforward, and sorting through the information can be complicated and time-consuming. Below is a list of resources that are really fantastic at explaining the ins and outs of UX research in an easily digestible manner.
A great YouTube channel with everything from the educational to the inspirational, with a number of videos dedicated to UX research.
A leading UX blog that also offers a great newsletter for all those interested in the latest trends in UX research and design.
NN/g doesn’t need an introduction and not much needs to be said other than that they regularly publish awesome articles on UX research.
And of course if you’re looking for a place to stay up to date on the latest trends and related to UX research, you can always check out the Reveall Blog.