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.

Strategies and Methods for Conducting UX Research

Your objective as a UX researcher is to empathize and uncover truths about your customers they may not even know themselves. It’s important to ask great questions, and use different methods to get to the insights you’re seeking – and to avoid your own cognitive biases in the process.

UX research newbies, keep reading. Here’s a basic outline to help you map out your strategy and choose methods to uncover the insights you seek.

Forming a UX research strategy

Many UX experts will have their own process for conducting research, but this is a basic skeleton of one that will work for you.

1. Define your goals

Clarifying your objectives ahead of time will help all team members and stakeholders understand why you’re doing research, and how the findings will impact the business. Are you doing early exploration of a new market or problem space? Evaluating how users feel about a proposed solution? This is a good time to think about your success metrics, and how research findings will be tied to how you’re improving an experience, engaging users, increasing adoption, or something else.

You should always begin by exploring the user’s goals and understanding their problems. Based on that understanding, decide what questions you need to answer as part of your research. What do you already know about how people use your product? What do you still need to find out? This is also where you record different hypotheses and assumptions you have, which you want to validate with research.

2. Create a plan

Once you have defined your goals and outlined hypotheses, you can create a plan for how to conduct research. A plan usually includes:

  • Objectives: What are the goals? What questions are you trying to answer?

  • Hypothesis: What assumptions are you making? What do you think will happen?

  • Methods: What research method are you using?

  • Audience: Who are you gathering insight from?

  • Schedule: What is the timeline?

  • Internal participants: Who at your organization will be involved?

Once you’ve mapped out your plan, put everything in a one-page summary that can be shared with your internal team for alignment.

3. Identifying stakeholders

Who should be involved in conducting UX research? The answer: anyone who is involved in understanding and designing for this group of users. This could include designers, product managers, content strategists, developers, and even marketers. You can get started by mapping out your stakeholders and their roles in the process.

4. Collect baseline research

Begin with baseline research, which covers what you already know about users. For example, at your company you may already have a bank of insights you’ve gathered in conversations, or from user feedback. You may have a competitive analysis or user personas that already exist. These are helpful starting points you can collect and organize in a central location (like Miro) for everyone to easily access.

Supplement these points with some new interviews with your sales and customer success teams, learnings gleaned from reviews and ratings, and other relevant data sources.

5. Conduct UX research

Now that you have your research plan and have selected the methods you’d like to use to gather data from your audience, it’s time to put it into action. Remember, UX research is about observing, understanding, and analyzing.

Start by observing your users through the UX research methods you’ve chosen. Seek to understand their thinking through their responses and behaviors – and develop a user mental model.

Finally, work to analyze the info you’ve gathered. Look for patterns and trends — and you’ll start to form insights that will influence how you’ll improve your product or service.

6. Synthesize findings

Once you’ve finished conducting your research, it’s time to make it understandable and actionable by turning qualitative and quantitative data into insights. As you comb through everything, try organizing it on this board – you can even divide and conquer by recording findings as a team.

With everything visualized and organized in a more manageable format, you can easily create a presentation to highlight key takeaways for stakeholders. Remember, your report on UX research findings should synthesize and describe important points using data, photos, quotes and videos.

“As a user researcher, my mission is to humanize data and spread impactful and memorable user stories.”

–Summer Kim, Head of Research at WhatsApp

11 common UX research methods

There are many methods for conducting UX research. Here are some of the most common types for you to consider.

1. User Interviews

During user interviews, a researcher or designer will talk directly to the people who use a product and record their answers. A user interview can cover a variety of topics, including the subject’s background, occupation, goals, how they use the product, motivations, and pain points.

2. Eye Tracking

Use eye-tracking technology to literally track where your users are looking. Simply put, it involves using programs that can observe and track eye behavior, like pupil dilation and movement.

3. Usability studies

Usability studies involve designers and researchers bringing users into a lab or other research setting and observing how they interact with a project. Often, the users have a set of tasks they need to perform, and those who are observing take notes about where they stumble or have questions.

4. Remote usability studies

You can conduct usability studies remotely by using technology like an insight platform to record the screen and voice of your user as they interact with your product. This is a great method because the user can take the test from a familiar setting, like their home.

5. Ethnography

Ethnography is related to usability studies, but it specifically focuses on observing a user in their natural environment. For example, a researcher may accompany an employee to work or sit directly with them in their home. This helps uncover unmet needs, pain points, and any workarounds, as well as what makes users happy.

One main benefit to ethnography over usability studies is that it may uncover obstacles that only arise in real-world scenarios, rather than a controlled environment.

6. Empathy mapping

The goal of an empathy map is to help you see the world through a user’s eyes, instead of relying on your own personal experience. Empathy maps have four quadrants: says, thinks, feels, and does. During a workshop, you add sticky notes to each quadrant as you explore a particular goal or pain point, like “buying a house” or “closing a sales deal.”

7. Field studies

Ever heard a TV investigator refer to “conducting interviews in the field”? Similarly, field studies are all about interviewing a user in their context instead of yours. For example, in their home instead of at your office.

8. User personas

Personas are representative composites of the types of people using your product. The main benefit of creating personas is to provide the team – and the greater organization – with a better understanding of who you are building and designing for.

Personas aren’t meant to be real people, but are more like characters with key attributes of the group they represent, including their values, lifestyle, culture, tastes, and behaviors. After you have completed user interviews or gathered other UX research inputs, you can begin to create your personas.

9. Longitudinal studies

Also known as a panel study, longitudinal studies consist of repeatedly studying the same variables over a period of time. For example, you might interview or observe the same user (i.e. the variable) multiple times over the course of a week, a month, or even longer. A classic example of a longitudinal study is the Up series, which studies the lives of 14 British children, starting in 1964 when they were seven years old.

10. Card sorting

Card sorting is useful for understanding how users label different types of information, and can be particularly helpful if you’re designing an information architecture. With card sorting, you present a user with a number of cards that they then bucket under different categories. You can either present the subjects with a set number of categories (closed card sorting) or let them create the categories themselves (open card sorting).

11. Customer journey mapping

To clearly understand the goals and tasks that users are trying to accomplish with your product, service, or app – and prioritize them appropriately – map out their journey. The first point in the journey could be when a user first hears about your product, or when they become a customer. From that point on, chart every interaction they have with your company to better understand their experience.

When to use different methods

There is no “best methodology” for UX research – the method you choose for a given project depends on a number of factors: what product or service you’re building, what questions you’re trying to answer, how much time you have, what resources you have, etc. But which methods are beneficial for different goals? Here are a few frameworks to consider:

Observing behavior

Want to understand what people do or why they do something? When you’re looking to observe user behavior, you might want to choose methods like focus groups, field studies, longitudinal studies, or usability studies.

Gathering self-reported data

Attitudinal data is just our way of describing data that comes directly from the user. In other words, it’s when a user self-reported answers to your questions to tell you what they think or feel about something in their own words. Some great research methods for this are surveys, focus groups, or user interviews.

Getting quick feedback

Qualitative research is great for understanding user stories, and getting quick pieces of feedback that can help you iterate on an idea. It’s a great tool to use during the prototyping stage of the UX design process, where you want to test out a lo-fi prototype, iterate, then test it again. Some great methods for this are usability studies on a small group of users.

3 best practices for conducting UX research

Many people fail to do these three things when conducting UX research. And in all my experience I always come back to these tips when conducting research or kicking off a UX project.

1. Start with clear objectives in mind

Involve key stakeholders early to determine key objectives of the research project. Know what specific problem is the focus, and how it will affect all touch-points. Share your findings with the stakeholder group to ensure everyone is aligned before conducting the study.

There will be more than one approach to consider. Be aware of the business constraints (budget, timeline, access to customers etc.) as you can only execute on a plan that the organization can support. Based on the objectives, consider the impact, effort, and risks involved in carrying out the research activities that could be used to uncover the desired insights.

Define an objective-based research plan with a clear scope and hypothesis that the team can understand and implement.

2. Make your findings easy to understand

Visualize key insights to be digestible and easily understood by all stakeholders, considering there will often be a range of technical proficiencies. Use charts, graphs, iconography, and tables. Keep language straightforward and easy to understand – avoid industry jargon.

Provide optional access to the full data for those interested in a more thorough look (but most just want the key findings).

3. Plan for an iterative process

A successful initial study will provide the team with insights needed to chart a course. However, it's often impossible to answer everything perfectly with the initial study and most projects benefit from an iterative research process.

For example, when building an app you may have an initial study to help determine the feature set of the MVP followed by studies, using prototypes, to evaluate the effectiveness of those features designs. Working in this way allows for a balance between the strategic and the tactical activities required to build a great product

Learn to create great surveys for UX research

Ready to learn more about questions to ask and how to design UX user surveys? 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

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