From card sorting to interviews, here are a few ways you can collect data from your users.
User research is the process of understanding user needs and desires through observation and feedback.
It's one of the most important aspects of UX design, and it's used to inform all aspects of the design process, from initial sketches to the final product. Through user research, we can answer important questions about our design, such as Who are our users? and What do they need?
In this blog post, we will discuss six common user research methods, what they are, when to use them, and some common challenges associated with each one.
User research is a process of gathering data about users in order to design better products that meet their needs.
It's used in every part of the design process, from the initial market research and concepting stages, through the final interface design testing and iteration stages.
The goal: to gather data that will allow you to make informed decisions as you create design solutions.
Term Check: User Research vs. UX Research
Depending on what you read, you might come across the terms user research, UX research, or simply design research—all used interchangeably.
While they all tend to refer to the process of collecting user-centric data, there is some distinction that can be applied:
The term user research is often used when you want to learn more about the target audience for a product or service; who they are, how they think, what their goals are, etc.
UX research, on the other hand, tends to be used when you’re conducting research that focuses on how users interact with a product or service.
In this article, we’ll be looking at user research holistically, whether specifically talking about the users themselves, or learning more about how they interact with and experience your design work.
Why is User Research Integral to the UX Process?
User research is an integral part of the design process: it ensures you have enough data and insights to make informed decisions about the design work you produce, reducing the risk of making assumptions and creating something no one truly wants.
Successful UX design requires a deep understanding of the people who will be using your product and how they interact with it. No matter how experienced you are as a designer, there is no way to validate your assumptions about design solutions without data. And the only way to acquire this understanding is by collecting data from the users themselves.
6 Common User Research Methods
There are a variety of user research methods, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Here are 6 common methodologies that are easy to incorporate into your UX design process.
1. User Interviews
Interviews are a type of user research method in which the researcher talks with participants to collect data. This method is used to gather insights about people's attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and experiences. Interviews are a great way to gather in-depth, qualitative data from users.
Interviews are best conducted in a live conversation, whether that takes place in person, on a video call, or even on the phone. They can be structured or unstructured, depending on what best fits your research needs:
Structured interviews follow a set list of questions
Unstructured interviews are intended for more open-ended conversation
When deciding whether to use interviews as a user research method, it is important to consider the goals of the research, the target audience, and the availability of resources. Interviews are extremely time-consuming, both for the interviewer and the interviewee. However, if the goal of the research is to observe behavior in a natural setting, or if the target audience is not available to participate in interviews, then another user research method may be more appropriate.
Surveys are a user research method in which participants are asked to answer a series of questions, usually about a specific topic. Surveys are well suited for collecting data that can be quantified, but they are not as well suited for collecting qualitative data, since answers are often nuanced and lack appropriate context.
Surveys are best used when …
Since surveys can be easily distributed to a large number of people, they’re often a good choice for gathering information from people who might not be able—or willing—to participate in other types of user research (such as usability testing).
Since surveys rely on self-reported data, it’s important to avoid phrases or words that might influence the users’ answers. Furthermore, this type of user research often provides data without context, since you aren’t able to follow up and understand some of the nuances of the responses.
3. Focus Groups
Focus groups are a type of user research method in which a group of people are brought together to discuss a product, service, or experience. Focus groups provide an opportunity for users to discuss their experiences and opinions with each other in a guided setting. When done correctly, focus groups can provide valuable insights that can help shape both product design and marketing strategies.
Focus groups are best used when …
Focus groups can help uncover user needs and perspectives that may not be apparent through individual interviews or surveys.
Tips to make it work:
To get the most out of a focus group, it is important to carefully select participants that are representative of the target audience, as well as those who represent various accessibility needs, which might otherwise be overlooked or receive less consideration. The moderator should also be skilled in leading discussions and facilitating group dynamics to avoid participants from influencing each other.
4. A/B Testing
A/B testing is a user research method in which two versions of a design are created, then tested against each other to determine which is more effective.
These versions can be identical except for one small change, or they can be completely different. Once the two versions have been created, they are then assigned to users at random. The results of the test are then analyzed to see which version was more successful.
A/B testing is best used when …
You can incorporate A/B testing at any stage of the design process, but you might find you get the most helpful insights when you’re in a state of refinement, or are at a crossroads and need some data to help you decide which route to take.
Tips to make it work:
Once you have your design variations ready to test, it’s up to the developers (or an A/B testing software program) to make the test live to users. It’s important to let the test run long enough so that any statistical significance is steady and repeatable. (If the test does not provide statistically significant results, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and try out a different variation.)
5. Card Sorting
Card sorting is a user research method that can be used to help understand how people think about the items in a given category. Card sorting involves providing users with a set of cards, each of which contains an item from the category, and asking them to sort the cards into groups. The groups can be based on any criteria that the users choose, and the sorted cards can then be analyzed to identify patterns in the way that the users think about the items. Card sorting can be used with both small and large sets of items, making it a versatile tool for user research.
For example, if you were designing a website for a library, you might use card sorting to understand how users would expect the website's content to be organized.
Tips to make it work:
Like the other research methods mentioned so far, a successful card sorting exercise requires a significant amount of thought and setup ahead of time. You might use an open sorting session, where the users create their own categories, if you want insight into the grouping logic of your users. In a closed sorting session, the categories are already defined, but it’s up to the participants to decide where to file each card.
6. Tree Test
Tree testing is a user research method that helps evaluate the findability and usability of website content. It is often used as a follow-up to card sorting, or when there are large amounts of website content, multiple website navigation structures, or changes to an existing website.
To conduct a tree test, participants are asked to find specific items on a website, starting from the home page. They are not told what the navigation options are, but are given hints if they get stuck. This helps researchers understand how users find and interact with the website content.
Tree testing is best used when ...
This method is most effective when combined with other user research methods, such as interviews, surveys, and focus groups. This is because it’s really a way to finesse the user’s experience at the end of the design process, rather than a method of collecting the preliminary data that’s needed to arrive at this point.
Tips to make it work:
Tree testing can be a challenging method to conduct, as it requires specific instructions and data collection methods for each test. In addition, participants may not use the same navigation paths that you intended, making it difficult to analyze the results. To account for this, it’s important to have a large enough sample size to be able to differentiate between outliers and general trends.
How To Get Started With User Research In UX Design Projects
User research is a critical part of any project or product development process. It helps you to understand the needs and expectations of your target users, and ensures that your final product meets their requirements.
There are many different ways to conduct user research, but the most important thing is to start early and to continually iterate throughout the development process.
For this, you’ll need to make sure that you have enough resources to incorporate the research successfully, which includes:
A budget that accounts for the various expenses incurred during the research process, whether that’s subscribing to a user research tool or compensating participants for their time.
An awareness of your own personal biases, and how they might affect the data you collect and the interpretation of results.
Time for research and analysis, since you might need to adjust the research method, or number of participants, that you were initially planning on including.
Buy-in from stakeholders, since the results might be jarring and contradict some of the assumptions that the project was built on.
Finally, it is important to be aware of your own personal biases. Despite these challenges, user research is an essential tool for designers, as it provides insights into how people interact with products and what their needs and wants are.
User research is essential for designing products that meet the needs of your target audience.
By understanding your users, you can design better products that meet user needs and improve the overall user experience.
Getting started with user research can be daunting, but there are a few common methods that are easy to learn and incorporate into your design process.
By being aware of the challenges involved in conducting user research, you can create a research plan that minimizes potential problems and maximizes the chances of obtaining valuable insights.
Once you have collected your data, it is important to analyze and interpret it so that you can use it to improve your product or design process.
User research can be challenging, but by following best practices and being prepared for common challenges, you can conduct successful user research studies that will help you create better products.
To learn more about establishing a UX design practice rooted in research and user-centered data, check out UX Academy Foundations, an introductory course that teaches design fundamentals with practical, hands-on projects and 1:1 mentorship with a professional designer.