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GuidesUser experience (UX)All you need to know about UX research

All you need to know about UX research

Last updated

21 February 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

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Are you looking for ways to optimize your product, service, or software to better reach and resonate with your audience?

User experience (UX) research is one of the most efficient, effective ways to ensure your company is user-focused at every touchpoint. It's also one of the most complex business skills to master.

The first step to successful UX research is to discover what UX research is, its process, and how you can leverage it in your business.

Read on to discover everything you need to know, including:

  • What UX research is

  • Why UX research is important

  • The five steps of UX research

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What is UX research?

User experience (UX) research involves gathering valuable insights into how your consumers use your product, service, or software and learning more about your target users to better meet their needs and preferences. Depending on your focus area, UX research serves different purposes in the user-centered design process.

Uncovering what your end users want and need will inform your product team's decisions on product ideas, prototypes, and changes in current designs. In marketing, these targeted user insights from your user researchers can help to customize brand designs and create messaging for the right target audience.

Why is UX research important to businesses?

There was a time when products and services sold themselves. If it was decent, people bought it. Today, however, customers want more. They want product experiences and brand interactions to be customized. There is also far more competition in most industries than ever before.

As Nielsen Norman Group points out, "end-users pay for products and services that make organizations profitable." In other words, consumers will make or break your company, and for them to buy from you, you need to serve their needs. To better meet user needs, you must “seek a deeper understanding” or "risk weak results, diminished opportunities for growth, and misguided research, thus wasting design and development time."

Here are some examples of the importance of UX research to your business's success.

Bring more value to your customers

Your customers are the reason for your company's existence. If they didn't need what you're offering, there'd be no reason for you to offer it. UX research goes beyond the basics of what your product/service provides and focuses on improving customer satisfaction and customer experience.

In turn, your customer gets more value out of what you've launched—a smoother experience, more tools and resources, additional features, and more—while you boost customer retention and gain an advantage over the competition by going above and beyond to fulfill your customer's needs.

Take the bias out of your user-centered design process

Believe it or not, quite a few companies still think they know what the end user wants more than the end users themselves. This kind of thinking can be limiting because it's often wrong. The UX design process can offer a solution so long as it’s focused on real users.

UX researchers take the bias out of the process to ensure the user is at the center of brand and product decisions since your customers are the ones buying your products—not you.

Increase your odds of success by making more informed decisions

When heading into a product launch, brainstorming ideas, or reevaluating your product, the most daunting question is: Will people buy it? The odds of succeeding when you launch your product or reconstruct a current one skyrocket if your decisions are based on consumer data and human insights.

This is because you're not making decisions derived from “gut feelings” and guesswork. You’re using cold, hard facts that come straight from the users themselves via techniques such as:

What is the return on investment (ROI) for UX research?

The significant time, effort, skill, and expertise your UX researcher needs to conduct their work effectively may make you wonder whether the process is worth the cost and effort. However, research suggests it's a necessary part of product success.

Baymard Institute reveals some telling statistics in its report:

  • When done right, a flawless UX design can potentially produce 400% higher conversion rates

  • The average ROI of UX research is 9,900% or $100 back for every $1 spent

  • Studies show that data-driven companies often outperform their counterparts by 228% or more

  • By redesigning its site with a more UX focus, Staples was able to increase its eCommerce revenue by 500%

The important takeaway here is that your users’ experience is vital to your success. Despite the complexities of user research, it is essential to every part of your business and development process because it puts the customer at the center of everything you do.

If you don’t focus on your users in this way, you risk your “solution” missing the mark as far as your prospective users' needs and wants are concerned. Misses like this can be due to building products on guesses or assumptions that internal stakeholders believe to be true without any validation. The result is unhappy users, falling retention rates, and costly designs and builds, resulting in negative impacts on ROI.

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User experience research methods

According to the Nielsen Norman Group, the methods you use to conduct UX research depend on what stage of the design cycle you're in.

Stage 1: Discover

During this stage, researchers conduct methods such as:

  • Field studies

  • User interviews

  • Diary studies

  • Interviews with stakeholders (discuss designs with stakeholders)

  • Requirements and constraints

  • Sales and support interviews

  • Support call monitoring

  • Competitive testing

Stage 2: Explore

Researchers use different methods to explore the problems at hand more deeply. They use methods such as:

Stage 3: Test

The most common testing methods are:

  • Qualitative usability testing

  • Accessibility evaluation

  • Benchmark testing

  • Training research

  • Social media monitoring

  • Forum post analysis

  • User group outreach

  • Help documentation

Stage 4: Listen

Some excellent methods of listening to your users are:

  • Surveys

  • Search-log analysis

  • FAQ reviews

  • Feedback reviews

  • Analytics reviews

  • Usability error reviews

  • Conference outreach

  • Q&A talks and demos

All these methods can be categorized into several UX research methods, which fall under one or more of the following terms.

Attitudinal vs. behavioral

Consumer insights and data are either attitudinal or behavioral. Attitudinal research refers to the data end users report to you when questioned about their opinions. This is the information you obtain through surveys, focus groups, card sorts, etc.

Behavioral research is the data your researchers collect through observing participants. Examples of observation methods include usability studies, A/B testing, and eye-tracking.

Qualitative vs. quantitative

Qualitative research methods strive to better understand end users through words and meanings. Quantitative methods draw insights from numbers and statistics.

Their purpose, methods, and sampling are very different.

The purpose of qualitative methods is to understand a phenomenon better, while quantitative methods aim to identify relationships and describe a phenomenon. Qualitative sampling is more intentional and on a smaller scale, whereas quantitative sampling is random and larger scale.

Qualitative methods include case studies, clinical research, and ethnography (studies of cultural contexts); in other words, data you draw from interviews, focus groups, and field observation. On the other hand, quantitative methods consist of quasi-experimental, experimental, and comparative techniques drawn from conducting surveys, tests, and questionnaires.

Generative vs. evaluative

Another important distinction when studying user experience is generative versus evaluative.

Generative research refers to the methods your team implements in the Discover and Explore stages of the Nielsen Norman Group design cycle. It seeks to uncover a deeper understanding of your users to identify opportunities for more valuable solutions.

On the other hand, evaluative research analyzes potential usability issues to validate that your product is aligned with real users who will benefit from it. You would conduct this type of research in the Test and Listen stages of the Nielsen Norman example.

Qualitative UX research methods with examples

Qualitative UX research is often much more complex than the straightforward structure of quantitative data that requires numerical data points and statistical analysis. Although both are very important pieces of the puzzle, qualitative goes beyond the numbers to interpret what that data means. As a result, data analysis and user participation often take longer and require a wide range of language skills to conduct effectively.

Here are some examples of a user research method you can employ to gather qualitative insights.

Participatory design

One way to approach your UX research is by getting advice from people who use and work on your products, bringing them into the early stages of your design process. The participatory design method involves stakeholders—end users, partners, the design team, the development team, product managers, and more in the design decisions to ensure the final product is user-centered.

It's excellent for user testing and usability research methods and often leads to higher customer satisfaction ratings. It also works to bring your team together around a table to work on a shared problem and democratically decide on a solution. While it often involves a higher time investment upfront, it can result in a more fluid approach and greater efficiency throughout the project.

Card sorting

Card sorts are another popular UX research method. Through the use of mental models, they help you discover how users would organize your product. It’s often used in information architecture (IA) design. Here's how it works:

  1. On index cards or Post-it notes, researchers write topics their product (e.g. a website) will have.

  2. Participants organize these topics into groups that they define.

  3. After grouping topics, participants will write a name for each group.

  4. In an optional step, researchers may debrief participants with observations on the difficulty of placing topics in groups, overlapping topics, and thoughts on topics that weren't included in the card sort.

Diary studies

Diary studies are a qualitative research method that requires users to record their thoughts, experiences, and daily activities in a journal. How long a user keeps this record will depend on the head design researcher, but it can range from a few days to a few weeks.

Researchers evaluate and collect information from these diary studies to better understand user behavior and inform the ideal user journey. This method can be excellent for understanding user habits, journeys, attitudes, feelings, and the context of using your product (when, where, why, and how).

Diary study templates

Types of user research tools

If you were to explore a UX research team's arsenal of tools, you would find dozens of ways to gather and interpret data. The tools used by one research team aren't always the same as those used by another team.

The differences can be due to several factors like preferences, budget, purpose, product types, design scope, and more. 

Surveys or questionnaires

There are tools available to help you create surveys and questionnaires, which make the process more informed and efficient in terms of time and cost. Depending on your needs, you can also toggle with different levels of complexity.

User groups or focus groups

User groups and focus groups bring together a larger team of people to capture insights from all of them at once.

Your team will need tools to help participants schedule a time and pick a place. You'll also need tools for the actual interview process (keeping participants on track) and the observations that follow.

Documenting, analyzing, and sharing

You can gather all the data in the world about your target market, but it's useless if you can't pull actionable insights from it.

This is where tools that allow you to store, analyze, and share data become crucial. Dovetail can help you manage, analyze, and share your user and product research. Collect and organize all your data in one place and action everything from transcribing and evaluating interviews to recording and organizing user insights.

User interviews

User interview tools help you manage different stages of your user interview process, such as:

  • Recruitment

  • Scheduling

  • Offering incentives

  • Live user testing

  • Collaborative insights

With more robust apps, you'll find interview tools already integrated into your centralized research platform.

The five stages of conducting UX research

There are five basic stages to good user research. Let’s take a look.

Stage 1: Objectives

The first stage of conducting good UX research is defining and detailing your research objectives. Well-thought-out, defined goals lead to significantly more success than poorly defined ones. Clear objectives also allow researchers to focus their research on a common goal: reducing usability issues, identifying user needs, etc.

This process will include the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How questions of your design process and research.

Stage 2: Hypothesis

The next stage of good research is framing your hypothesis, that is, making assumptions about user behaviors or potential solutions based on what you know about your end users (or think you know about them). This stage is structured to help you determine the best methods for moving forward with your research.

Stage 3: Methods

By the third stage of UX research, your research team has defined goals and made some hypotheses about the results. Now it's time to use that information to determine the best research methods for achieving your goal(s). There are dozens to choose from, so you'll need to consider important factors when selecting the ones you’ll use.

Consider asking yourself some of the following questions about each UX research method you’re considering:

  • Are you trying to define the phenomenon or explain why it’s happening?

  • Does it align with your goals?

  • Will it get you the desired results in your set time frame?

  • Is it a method researchers would typically use for this type of research?

  • Is it compatible with your dataset?

  • Is it appropriate for your ideal users/participants?

If you can answer yes to all these questions, the method may be the right choice. It will take significantly more thorough discussions before finalizing your approach, but this is a good starting point.

Stage 4: Process

You’ve decided on your UX research methods, so now it's time to put them to work. The next step is to source and gather the right participants. Make sure they're representative of your ideal end users. Otherwise, you risk getting inaccurate results from inadequate or irrelevant data.

Whether you’re interviewing, creating surveys, card sorting, or observing (or all these), this stage of your research requires capturing the results. Doing so may take specific skills depending on the method. For example, in qualitative sessions, psychological tricks like remaining silent so that your participant will want to speak or whether to use open or closed questions for certain survey questions.

The most successful research produces a wide range of content and material from which to collect insights, such as videos, notes, images, and more.

Stage 5: Synthesis

In the final stage of your UX research, you’ll gather all your results and make sense of what you've learned. First and foremost, does it prove or disprove your hypothesis? What insights can you take from your research to better accommodate the people who use your products?

In summary

The work of a UX researcher never ends, as human behavior is constantly changing. It is up to UX researchers to keep conducting studies and interpreting the results to better understand customer needs and expectations. This approach ensures that solutions will always bring the most value possible to your customers.

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