UX research is a massive subject, so where do you start as a beginner? Right here, with this article! We’ve gathered everything you need to know to get going.
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What is UX research?
Put simply, UX research is a discipline that studies the user experience of a product or service by investigating and observing how users interact with it. The goal is to define problems and find solutions that can be used to improve the product.
UX research is far from a new profession, but it’s only become more mainstream in the last 10 years or so. The term user experience probably goes back to the 1990s and UX legend Don Norman, who worked at Apple as a User Experience Architect (yes, that’s the same Norman as in the great Nielsen Norman Group that he co-founded with Jakob Nielsen). You can read more about it in the articles Where UX comes from and A 100-year view of user experience—it’s interesting stuff!
Why is UX research important?
At an early stage of product development, the purpose of UX research is to find out if there is an interest in your idea. It’s so easy to make assumptions about what people out there like or need. As UXers like to repeat, “you are not your user”. If done well, UX research has the power to prevent nasty surprises that can wreck a startup or new product.
Once the product need has been validated, there are lots of benefits to making UX research an ongoing habit. It is used to investigate and test new features before they are released, but also to test and improve existing products.
The focus for a UX researcher is to improve the user experience, but it has been well-documented that better UX can increase conversions. So it makes sense from a business perspective too. Still, UX research is far from being universally embraced. It can be hard to persuade the people in charge that it is worth the effort.
What does a UX researcher do?
A UX researcher tries to understand users’ needs and pain points. Based on research data and insights, they can then suggest improvements to the user experience. UX researchers spend a lot of time setting up user interviews, surveys and usability tests. They work closely with clients, designers, and other stakeholders and have direct contact with users and test participants. As you can tell, it’s a pretty social job where you interact a lot with people.
Here are examples of tasks you may be involved with as a UX researcher:
- Create time and budget estimates for research projects
- Hold workshops to understand research needs
- Map research needs and identify hypotheses to test
- Write research questions and select the best research method
- Recruit participants for testing
- Conduct tests and analyze the results
- Transform your conclusions into concrete insights
- Write research reports
- Present your findings to designers, developers, and other stakeholders
- Last but not least, a UX researcher always asks lots of questions
If your job title is UX designer rather than UX researcher, you will also create wireframes to illustrate your findings and revise user journeys. This brings me to the next point—what’s the difference between UX research and UX design?
Are UX research and UX design the same thing?
What’s the relation between UX research and UX design? If you have befriended any UX designers, you know that user research is part of their job. So what’s the difference? Is there a difference?
Well, it depends. In large corporations, there’s most likely a UX research team and a UX design team. They collaborate closely for sure, but would divide the tasks between them. The UX designer may come up with a research task and request the researcher to do it (there will often be a discussion here about the best method and other details). The UX designer can use the results to create wireframes or prototypes, or revise a current user flow in a design tool like Figma.
In smaller companies and startups, you may well be a UX designer and researcher baked into one.
Another difference is that a UX designer is more involved with information architecture and interaction design.
Do I need to do research as a UX writer?
Again, it depends! If you land a UX writing or content design job in a large company like Google, Uber, or Amazon, you will be able to reach out to the UX research team for guidance and to find the insights you need. In a startup, you may do research yourself and/or collaborate with the UX designer.
In any case, research is fundamental for UX writing. Even if you’re not responsible for doing it yourself, be sure to consult any relevant research that has been done by others, and suggest research that may be missing. The more you learn about UX research, the better you will become in your job as a UX writer.
It is also good to remember that UX writers and content designers have specific research needs. Insights about our users’ language help us make informed decisions about things like tone, voice, grammar, style, and word choice.
There are even research methods that are unique to UX writing and content design—see the conversation mining example below!
User research related to language will come in handy when creating or revising a style guide or voice and tone, too.
Types of UX research
Quantitative and qualitative research
One of the first things you learn when you get into UX research is the difference between qualitative and quantitative research.
Quantitative research is about the bigger picture. It’s based on large numbers of data and statistics and answers the question “what’s going on here?” Examples of quantitative research are user surveys and A/B tests. For digital products, some quantitative research may be the responsibility of an SEO expert or data analyst.
Quantitative research doesn’t tell you why something happened, however. And this is why we also need qualitative research.
Qualitative research digs into personal experiences and opinions. By delving deep into what users think about a product or service, or finding out how they feel when they use it, the goal is to answer the question “why is this happening?” Examples of qualitative research include user interviews and usability tests.
Do you need both? Ideally yes, as they complement each other nicely.
And which one should you start with? It depends! Quantitative research can be a good starting point to get a general idea of what’s going on. You can then follow up with qualitative research to get a deeper understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. But if you’re working on a new product, you probably don’t have access to substantial quantitative data yet.
Attitudinal and behavioral research
It’s also common to distinguish between attitudinal and behavioral research. The basic difference is that attitudinal research listens to what users say (i.e. finds out how they feel about a product), and behavioral research observes what users do (i.e. finds out how they use a product).
Proactive and reactive research
One more important thing to keep in mind is the difference between proactive and reactive research. UX veteran Jared Spool knows a thing or two about this topic. He explains that while reactive UX research is more common, it makes much more sense to anticipate user concerns with proactive research.
UX research methods
Card sorting is used to arrange elements on a screen in the most logical and intuitive way. In brief, you create a bunch of cards with different categories or topics. Ask the participants to arrange the cards into groups and label them in a way that makes sense for them.
Whether you’re working on a new or established product, it’s really helpful to check out the competition. Not to copy what they do, but to decide how you’re going to distinguish yourself from them. What do they do well? What are they lacking? What’s your competitive advantage?
Usability testing means that you observe participants as they navigate through an interface or user flow. It’s common to ask them to talk their way through the task and comment on anything they find odd or difficult or unclear.
User and stakeholder interviews
Is there a better way to understand what people think and feel about a product than to sit down and talk to them? Probably not, as long as we’re aware of all the pitfalls: People are people, and in an interview situation we tend to reveal what we *think* we will do, not what we actually end up doing. It’s also crucial to avoid leading questions, which can be easier said than done.
Besides chatting with users, it can be really insightful to speak to other stakeholders. The customer service department is usually a goldmine for identifying issues users experience.
If you interview people in [small] groups, it’s often called a focus group.
Surveys are usually considered a quantitative research method, and they can be great for collecting data. But you can also include open-ended questions for a qualitative study.
With A/B tests you can use two versions of a screen for different sets of users. It’s then easy to see which version converts better than the other. Great for testing CTAs—just remember that an A/B test will never tell you how the users felt when they chose one button over another.
Personas are created to give a picture of your target audience. They often include details like a made-up name, picture, age, income, education, profession, hobbies, pain points, challenges and goals. The idea is that a detailed description will help you strike the right tone when writing copy.
It’s good to know that personas have had a bit of a bad rep recently. Some people even think that they can do more harm than good. There’s a risk that they reinforce static stereotypes about your ideal customers instead of saying something useful about the people that actually use your product.
An alternative is to work with so-called persona spectrums instead. Check out Microsoft’s Doug Kim’s article Kill your personas for more on the subject.
At the end of the day, the important thing is to develop deep empathy with your users!
The idea behind conversation mining is to scan public forums, social media groups and online reviews to find out how people talk about your product or similar products. You can also make notes of words and phrases used in user interviews.
By noting and wisely re-using the vocabulary they use, we can then create copy that is more likely to resonate with them.
It’s not just about finding good one-liners, though. It’s also a fab way to understand how users communicate in writing (tone, level of formality, use of emojis, etc.) plus their specific pain points and goals. As such, conversation mining can give our content strategy direction.
Tools UX researchers use
As you can imagine, there are tons of cool tools out there that help researchers map user behavior. Here are a few examples that come in handy when you’re starting out:
- Airtable for collecting and organizing your data. We’re so fond of this tool at the UX Writing Hub that we have a separate article about how to make the most of it for research—check it out: Getting started with UX research and Airtable
- Typeform or SurveyMonkey for creating surveys
- Miro for remote workshops
- Hotjar and Google Analytics for heatmaps and statistics
- Whimsical, Miro, or Figma for wireframes and mockups
- Zoom for remote user testing
- Simon Says for creating transcriptions
- Platforms like UXtweak, usertesting.com and userzoom.com for finding participants and carrying out tests
- Optimal Sort for help with card sorting and other research tasks
Get more inspiration from this article that analyzes 25 research tools for product design teams.
Challenges with UX research
UX research is both an art and a science, and it can be pretty challenging. It’s a well-known fact that people who know that they are part of a research study will provide answers they *think* we want to hear rather than what spontaneously comes to mind. As this article from the Nielsen Norman Group says, what’s the first rule of usability research? Don’t listen to users. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do research, only that we have to be very careful how we phrase our research questions and how we interpret research results.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself when you start doing research:
- Where do you find participants?
- How do you know that your participants are relevant to your study?
- How do you avoid asking leading questions?
- What do you do if the people you’re interviewing are reluctant to talk?
Essential UX research resources
If you’re short on time, start with a recorded presentation! This one, for example: Erika Hall—Just enough research (YouTube)
3 insights on UX content testing
Guide to user interviews (Nielsen Norman Group)
Tips for writing interview questions (Nielsen Norman Group)
The first rule of usability (Nielsen Norman Group)
What proactive UX research looks like (Jared Spool)
Undervaluing user research is a deadly disease (Jared Spool)
Kill your personas (Doug Kim)
That’s it for today! Research is a crucial part of UX, whether it’s done by a dedicated researcher or by a UX designer or writer. We hope this article has given you a decent overview of the subject.
Want to learn more about UX research?
Try out the most common UX research methods for yourself with our UX writing courses. If you’re brand new to the field and don’t know where to start, you can’t go wrong with our free UX writing course.