Last updated Aug 2020
Complete guide to UX research
Josh Zak,
Founding Partner at Turtle Design
For nearly a decade, Josh has designed world-class experiences for tech companies. A co-founder and managing director at Turtle, he uses UX strategies to design winning digital products.

Introduction to UX Research

Designing user experiences is kind of like feng shui for your app or website: it’s all about creating an optimal experience that’s delightful, logical, and tailored to a user’s goals and needs. UX research is one of the most crucial ingredients to doing this well. More and more companies are realizing that research can’t be skipped, because answering critical questions about your users – and adopting a user-first approach to design – leads to more satisfied customers and fewer inefficiencies.

That’s why, after my years of experience at Turtle, I've created this guide as a foundation for understanding the impact UX research can have, and the steps you should take to start to incorporate UX research into your design process.

What is UX research

User experience research is a systematic approach to helping companies understand a user’s perspective. It’s about diving deep into how people interact with a product and observing how easily they can complete their tasks and meet their goals. Through UX research, you can discover behaviors, needs, and motivations via observation, task analysis, and other types of user feedback.

There are a number of different methods that fall under the umbrella of UX research, from usability studies to interviews and focus groups. The main element that ties everything together is a focus on understanding the user.

UX researchers act as a bridge between customers or users and the product, engineering, and company leadership teams. They distill learnings from their research into easily digestible stories and visual artifacts to inform how product development teams solve user problems and design the best user experience, validate assumptions, evaluate solutions, assess the impact of a product. UX research insights can even help guide a company’s strategic direction. Take it from Summer Kim, Head of User Research at WhatsApp:

“As a user researcher, my mission is to humanize data and spread impactful and memorable user stories, so we make products and services that matter to people, companies, and their missions.”

Qualitative vs. quantitative data

At the beginning of your research process, you’ll be thinking about your goals and what you’re trying to discover. Are you trying to measure something? Or gain more high-level insights? That’s when you’ll be deciding on your qualitative and quantitative research methods. What’s the difference? As UX researcher Laura Klein puts it:

“Quantitative research tells you what your problem is. Qualitative research tells you why you have that problem.”

As an example, imagine you run a test that determines that over 99% of users who sign up for your service do not complete the purchase process. When you analyze the data, you find that the majority of users drop off at the Payment & Billing page. You’ve just done quantitative research to pinpoint a problem.

Now you need to understand why it is happening. You can use more quantitative data, like an A/B test to try changing up the experience of the page until you get more conversions. You can also dig deeper into understanding why users are not converting by leveraging qualitative data.

You might consider conducting user interviews, focus groups, or usability studies to find out what people are feeling or thinking when they arrive at that page. It is this analysis that, combined with the quantitative data you’ve gathered, can help you address the user’s problem.

Why UX research is important

User-centered design – in which you include users in every stage of the design process – is becoming widely adopted across companies of all sizes and industries. With user-centered design, empathy is the key to understanding someone else’s point of view and avoid the common trap of assuming that you are your user. What are the people who use your product actually thinking, feeling, and observing? UX research is the process to discover the answers to these questions and beyond.

UX research gives you:

  • Insight into what users want and need and WHY

  • An understanding of how users use your product

  • A foundation for how to design your product to fulfill those needs

  • Data to inform your design decisions

  • Insight into your return on investment for designs

From a business standpoint, the benefits of UX research are clear: it positively affects user satisfaction, retention, and growth through informing product and design decisions. This ends up cutting down support costs, stirring product innovation, and influencing business strategy.

What UX research accomplishes

The Nielsen Norman Group describes four main product design stages in which UX research can be effective. If you incorporate research at each of these stages, you stand a far greater chance of success. However, keep in mind that research can be incorporated at any point – it doesn’t need to be a linear process to be effective.

1. Discover

Doing UX research during the Discovery phase of your project is critical for understanding the user problems, the current alternatives, and the opportunities for your company to create a winning solution This is when uncovering new insights that may surprise you. Some of the questions you may ask when conducting UX research during this stage include:

  • Who are we designing for?

  • What problem are we solving?

  • What pain points do users have with their current solutions?

  • What is preventing customers from using our product? Why are customers churning?

  • How do we differentiate from other solutions on the market?

During the Discovery phase, you may conduct user interviews and send out surveys, run diary studies with users, gather feedback from Sales and Customer Support teams, interview stakeholders across the company, and do competitive research.

2. Explore

In the Explore phase of the design process, you’re diving a bit deeper into understanding the problem, and scoping out the solution. UX research tasks conducted during this phase may include:

  • Creating personas

  • Customer journey mapping

  • User story mapping

  • Co-creation research

All of these activities may involve sitting down with stakeholders, either in person or using an online whiteboard, and talking through the ideas and solutions together. During this phase, ideas become a bit more tangible, prototypes and designs are created, and getting a variety of feedback becomes really important.

3. Test

The Test phase often happens while a product is being developed, and is important for validating designs with users, and for making sure products and features are accessible for all. Some of the UX research activities you could do during this phase are:

  • In-person usability testing

  • Remote usability testing

  • Card sorting

  • A/B testing experiments

  • Accessibility evaluation

4. Listen

Listening is all about opening your ears to what users are actually saying about your product. You can engage in listening activities at any point, even if a product isn’t actively being developed. Some of the common UX research activities that involve listening are:

  • Social media monitoring

  • Help desk query analysis

  • Third-party review analysis

  • Search log analysis

  • Contextual enquiry

  • Q&As at events and demos

The role of a UX researcher

You don’t need to have a dedicated UX research team to conduct UX research. Despite the fact that many larger tech companies and financial firms are foregoing agencies to bring UX in-house, many smaller companies leverage designers, product managers, or marketers to take on UX researching roles. Eduardo Gomez, UX Research Lead at Miro says:

“Can anyone become a decent UX researcher? The short answer is ‘yes’ – although it took me more than a year of failing to feel confident about the positive answer.”

Regardless of where UX research sits within an organization, there are some key responsibilities that the function has:

1. Inspiring empathy for the user

Taking a step back from the specific tasks that they carry out, UX researchers often serve as the “voice of the user” and aim to inspire empathy among those who are others who are developing the products or experiences.

Not only do UX researchers need to understand the context, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and motivations of users, they also must align them with the motivations and expectations of internal stakeholders.

2. Collecting and analyzing data

Of course, research is about gathering and making sense of data. One of the key deliverables at the end of a UX research project is a list of recommendations for the product development and design teams. But before you make those suggestions, you need to understand and synthesize the findings.

One common mistake with research is not considering how you will analyze it until after all of the research is done. Savvy UX researchers start thinking about data analysis from the start, so they can design the project to deliver the most useful results, and also revisit their plan periodically as the project progresses.

Many UX researchers employ thematic analysis to start grouping data into meaningful categories. Affinity diagramming is a great way to make sense of qualitative data in a visual way, and identify meaningful patterns.

3. Collaborating with key stakeholders

Since UX research is still a fairly new field for some people, there are bound to be people in a company who don’t understand the purpose or benefits, or who aren’t sure where UX research should sit in the organizational structure to be most effective.

Often you can engage stakeholders across the company in UX research by carrying out educational sessions. This can also show you who will be great supporters, influencers, and advocates for UX research in the future.

Learn UX research methods and process

Ready to learn more about the process and specific methods you can use for UX research? Keep reading the next chapter of this guide.


What do remote UX Teams love doing in Miro?

  • Creating affinity maps, personas, and customer journey maps

  • Brainstorming and collaborating on projects

  • Running remote design sprints

  • Sketching out or iterating prototypes

  • Documenting everything together

  • Presenting their work

Learn more about Miro’s free online whiteboard tool>>

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