In an industry devoted to the people who use our products, services, and applications, research is paramount. We ask questions. We take notes. We learn everything we can about the target audience, and then iteratively test our work throughout the design process.
User research serves many purposes throughout the design process. It helps us prove or disprove our assumptions, find commonalities across our target audience, and recognise users needs, goals and mental models. Overall, research improves our understanding, informs our work and validates our decisions.
In this complete beginners guide, we’ll look at the many elements of user research, from interviews and studies to heat mapping and surveys. Readers will get a head start on how to use these design research techniques in their work, and improve their experiences for all users.
What is user research?
User research encompasses a variety of investigative methods used to add context and insight to the UX design process. UX practitioners have borrowed many research techniques from academics, scientists, marketers, and other professions. However, there are still types of research that are fairly unique to the UX world.
The main goal of user research is to inform the design or A/B testing process from the perspective of the end user. It is research that prevents us from designing for one user: ourselves. It is now well accepted that the purpose of UX is to design with the end-user in mind, but it’s research that tells us who that person is, in what context they’ll use this product or service, and what they need from us.
User research methods
User research incorporates a group of methodologies that include user testing, interviews, surveys and others. Every project is different, and the tasks that one researcher takes on will differ from those appropriate in another setting. Below we have listed some of the most popular methods and when they would be best used:
User testing (also known as usability testing): some times confused with user research, user testing refers to a specific method for evaluation of an interface (e.g users are asked to complete tasks, typically while they are being observed by a researcher, to see where they encounter problems and experience confusion).
1-1 moderated user research: allows users to carry out scenarios and tasks whilst talking through their needs, thoughts and frustrations. The moderator probes the participant with open questions in order to further explore and gain additional feedback about the user experience.
Remote moderated user research: 1-1 research where the research and participant are based in separate locations, sometimes this is conducted over a video call system with screen sharing such as Skype.
Remote unmoderated user research: remote testing tools such as UserTesting or WhatUsersDo allow you to set tasks for users to read and do. Their screen will be recorded and they will think aloud whilst completing the tasks. Video recordings of the sessions will be available for replay after.
Card sorting: in a card sort, a user is provided with a set of terms, and asked to categorise them. In a closed card sort, the user is also given the category names; in an open card sort the user creates whatever categories he or she feels are most appropriate. The goal of a card sort is to explore relationships between content, and better understand the hierarchies that a user perceives. Many content strategists and information architects rely on card sorts to test out hierarchy theories, or kick start work on a site map by exposing users’ models.
Tree testing: just are card sorts are a great way to gather information before a websites architecture has been created, tree tests are helpful in validating that architecture. In a tree test, users are given as task and shown the top level of a site map. Then, much like in a usability test, they are asked to talk through where they would go to accomplish the task. However, unlike in a usability test, the user doesn’t see a screen when they choose a site section. Instead, they will see the next level of the architecture. The goal is to identify whether information is categorised correctly.
Concept testing: a researcher shares an approximation of a product or service that captures the key essence (the value proposition) of a new concept or product in order to determine if it meets the needs of the target audience. Concept testing can be done one-on-one or with larger numbers of participants, and either in person or online.
Diary study: participants are given a mechanism (diary or camera) to record and describe aspects of their lives that are relevant to a product or service. Diary studies are typically longitudinal and can only be done for data that is easily recorded by participants. They allow you to explore how how attitudes and perceptions change over time.
Field study: research activities that take place in the user’s context rather than in your office or lab. The range of possible study methods and activities is very wide. Field studies also vary a lot in terms of how the researcher interacts (or doesn’t) with participants. Some field studies are purely observational, some are interviews in which the questions evolve as understanding increases, and some involve prototype feature exploration or demonstration of pain point in existing products.
Heatmap: these colourful tools provide more than just data – they offer incredible insight on how visitors are absorbing and interacting with your website. Simply put, a heatmap is a form of visual analytics tool that uses colour to instantly convey information about the activity of users on your website. The colours generated by a heatmap where users are scanning and clicking and, perhaps more revealing, where they aren’t scanning and clicking. Heatmaps will show you where your visitors are clicking and what areas of your website they are paying the most attention to. They can also show how effective your design is at encouraging your users to explore your entire page (scrolling).
5 second test: involves showing users a single content page for 5 seconds. The aim of a 5 second test is to gather a participant’s initial impressions and assess the screen’s clarity and conciseness using simple questions like “What is the most important information on the page?” or “How would you go about achieving your goal on this screen?”. The setup is similar to a standard usability test, and may sometimes be combined with one.
Guerrilla testing: a modern, lightweight take on traditional test. Instead of renting a lab, guerrilla research is typically done out in the community; users are found at coffee shops or stations and asked to complete basic tasks with a website or service, in exchange for a small incentive. While guerrilla testing is a great option, particularly on a budget, it is best used only for products or services with a large user base. More niche products will struggle to find reliable information from the random selection acquired in guerrilla testing.
Survey/poll: a simple way of gathering information. Surveys and polls typically consist of a set of questions used to uncover a participants preferences, attitudes, characteristics, and opinions on a given product or website. As a research method, surveys and polls allow you to count or quantify concepts – a sample or sunset of the broader audience is used, the learnings from which can be applied to the broader population.
Tools of the trade
Ethnio – Ethnio was the first moderated remote research software when it launched, and it’s still going strong. Ethnio finds users who are currently using a site or app, and (with their permission) allows interviewers to ask them questions about their experience as they go. It automates many elements of the typical in-person test, including real-time notifications, and paying participants with Amazon gift cards.
Optimal Workshop – Optimal Workshop has everything! The full Workshop is a bundle of four research tools, all of which are also available sold separately (and very affordably). Treejack is great for remotely testing information architecture, either to test the nomenclature or the hierarchies themselves. Optimal Sort provides online card sorting, to see how users choose to organise content. Chalkmark offers heat maps of click patterns across a site, and Reframer is a tool for taking notes and identifying themes easily. All come highly recommended.
SurveyMonkey – Surveys and questionnaires are great ways to gather information, but they’re most useful when hundreds of responses can be seen at once. Enter SurveyMonkey, an online survey-creation and reporting tool, which allows people to customise and brand their own surveys and then send them out via social media, embed them into websites, or integrate with mass mailings. SurveyMonkey also allows for easy analysis and reporting when the results come in.
UserTesting – When it’s not possible to schedule a real-time test with users, UserTesting is a great way to see how people use a site. Researchers can create a series of tasks, and then receive videos from participants—either pre-chosen, or randomly selected. Researchers are able to see a video of the participant using the site, and speaking aloud to explain what they’re doing.
UserZoom – The good news is, whatever you need, UserZoom has it. Usability testing, both moderated and unmoderated, remote testing for mobile and desktop, benchmarking, card sorting, tree testing, surveys, and rankings: they’ve got it!
What Users Do – WhatUsersDo is another remote user testing platform. You’ll get access to a global panel of 30,000 UX testers – real people, from a variety of backgrounds – who will complete any task you set for them. They’ll give you their spoken aloud thoughts and feelings, via video recordings of the test, which you can use to observe their behaviour, analyse and build a business case for improving the usability of your digital product.
Hotjar – Hotjar is a suite of analytics tools that will help you gather qualitative data such as heatmaps, funnel tracking, user polls, surveys and more.