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UX Research Methods and Techniques

Explore 16 of the most common quantitative and qualitative methods for making informed decisions and generating actionable human insights

Introduction to UX Research Methods

What are UX Research methods?

UX research methods are the family of experimental protocols design teams use to study users and test prototypes. They include everything from simple interviews to specialized scorecards, and can be either moderated (ex. interviews) or unmoderated (ex. surveys).

While conducting UX research should generally be left to experienced designers, every member of a Design Thinking team can benefit from a deeper appreciation of the established techniques and rich insights they provide.

What are the types of UX Research methods?

For the sake of simplicity, this guide categorizes common UX research methods into three types based on the data they commonly provide: Quantitative, Qualitative, or Mixed.

Quantitative UX Research Methods
Best for benchmarking, prioritization and forecasting

Qualitative UX Research Methods
Best for modelling user experiences and inspiring ideas

Mixed UX Research Methods
Can be used to deliver both quantitative and qualitative data

The UX Research Methods Matrix

The landscape of UX Research methods maps the most common methods across two dimensions to help clarify their role. Note that many methods can be used to deliver a range of outputs, and so this landscape should be considered as a conceptual outline only.
Cluster diagrams like this help differentiate common UX research methods and make it easier to appreciate the range of applications and outputs.

X-Dimension: Situation vs Solution

The X-dimension separates methods based on what they are typically used to study: Either the situation as a whole (like a literature review or diary study), or the solution being created (like concept testing or an intercept survey). UX research methods are leveraged throughout the complete project cycle — they don’t end when the interviews are over.

Studying the SituationStudying the Solution
Studies the context of the solutionStudies the solution in context
Identifies opportunities and constraintsPrioritizes ideas and produces benchmarks
Used to create a current landscapeUsed to refine working prototypes
Ex: Literature reviews, diary studiesEx: Concept testing, usability testing

Y-Dimension: Qualitative vs Quantitative

The Y-dimension separates methods based on the type of data they typically output: Either more qualitative (like focus groups or concept testing), or more quantitative (like user surveys or A/B testing). Relying on only one type of data can be dangerous: Robust research projects should include a mix of both, as they provide different perspectives on the experience.

More QuantitativeMore Qualitative
Assesses the quality of an experienceAssesses the quantity of an experience
Identifies needs and inspires solutionsIdentifies patterns and informs KPIs
Most used during Observation and IterateMost used during Explore and Verify
Ex: User interviews, heuristic evaluationEx: User surveys, behavioral analytics

Which UX Research Methods should I use?

Typically, UX research methods are stacked together to create an overall UX research plan. That means that the selection of your methods is based on what stage of the plan you are in, and what questions you need to answer. Keep the following factors in mind as you browse the guide:

Related Guide
The Design Thinking Process
Go to Guide

Three factors to consider
when selecting a research method

  1. Questions: What do we need to find out specifically?
  2. Resources: How much time/talent/budget do we have?
  3. Risk tolerance: What are the risks of incorrect assumptions?
If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.
Richard Feynman

Qualitative UX Research Methods

Qualitative UX Research Methods are powerful sources of inspiration. They bring the voice of the customer directly into the design process, and answer critical questions about the goals and behaviors that solutions can support.

UX research methods in this section:

User Interviews

Interviews and focus groups are the primary method of direct user observation in UX research. Depending on the project, the UX interviews can be very informal, or highly confidential.
User interviews conducted either in person or online are one of the primary sources of UX research data.

User Interviews are the bread and butter of qualitative UX research methods. When designing user-centered solutions, there is no substitute for speaking with real users. While user interviews can take many forms and can integrate multiple methods (such as card sorting and concept testing), the quality of any interview is determined by the quality of its questions.

When planning user interviews, extreme care must be taken to develop questions that are most likely to make interviewees comfortable and actively engaged. If you have ever conducted user interviews before, you will appreciate how difficult this can be in formal settings.

Closed-ended question (Avoid)Open-ended question (Encourage)
Do you do this task/action often?Why do you do this task/action?
Is your job difficult?What makes your job more/less difficult?
Are there people supporting you?When do you turn to others for help?
Questions that can be answered with a simple yes/no should be avoided during user interviews. Instead, framing questions as open-ended will invite more thoughtful responses that are much easier to empathize with.

User interviews help to answer

  • Who are our primary and secondary personas?
  • What do they think and do? Say and feel?
  • What are their major pains and gains?
  • Who else should we be talking to?

Focus Groups

Focus groups are like user interviews conducted with a group of 5-10 people at once. While they can help expedite the research process, they require significant planning and expert moderation to conduct effectively. Because of this, focus groups are typically conducted by research firms experienced at building group discussion guides that balance personalities and ensure all participants are able to share their feelings openly and evenly.

Focus groups help to answer

  • What do teams think about a topic/solution?
  • What information gaps exist in the field?
  • Which disciplines should we be talking to?
  • Does our messaging spark controversy? Conversation?

Diary Studies

Diary studies are an ethnographic UX research method that provide rich qualitative insights. The basic premise of a diary study is to ask potential users to record their experiences in a diary, which is then collected by researchers upon completion.

Diary studies can be recorded as guided journal entries or photo essays, and typically aim to describe a “day in the life” of a particular person. Diary studies add a level of realism that can’t be achieved in controlled settings, and are a great way to gain the type of detailed insights that inspire genuine innovations. Note that due to their revealing nature, protecting user privacy is especially important to consider with this method.

Diary studies help to answer

  • What does a typical day look like?
  • Who do our users rely on and when?
  • When/where do our users engage with us?
  • What other factors influence the experience?

Literature Review

Also called secondary or desk research, Literature Reviews are a method for exploring available information to gain context about a specific domain. While the rigor required varies with every solution, every design project is likely to benefit from at least a cursory review of existing research. When conducting literature reviews, it is critical to consider the credibility and bias of the source. Government statistics and peer-reviewed publications are typically the most robust sources, with surveys, articles and other sources requiring additional caution.

Literature reviews help to answer

  • What cultural trends are influencing our users?
  • How has our demographic evolved over time?
  • What does science say about the unmet need?
  • How are other related solutions experienced?
  • What else do we know about our users?

Participatory Design

Participatory design is when teams integrate one or more users directly into their design process. This can be particularly helpful when designing enterprise solutions for specific roles, where deep domain knowledge is needed to appreciate the complexities of required tasks. It also helps to create external “champions” of the solution, who will then help train users and improve adoption.

While the benefit of having instant access to real user feedback can help remove bias and align teams, it is not without risks. The power of user personas is that they represent the collective goals and behaviors of target groups. Relying on n=1 comes with risks.

Participatory design helps to answer

  • What would the user do/think?
  • What challenges a decision cause?
  • Which feature is most important?
  • How do these experiences compare?

Remote Walkthrough

Screen-sharing tools have become ubiquitous in the pandemic-world, dramatically improving access to low-cost UX research methods such as remote walkthroughs.
The recent rise of remote collaboration solutions like Slack and Zoom has made remote walkthroughs methods much simpler and more cost-effective.

A remote walkthrough, also called a Touchstone Tour or simply “shadowing”, puts users in the driver seat as they walk design teams through their environment. For example, if you were designing a new video editing application, you may recruit current video editors to walk you through their daily tasks within the software. Thanks to modern video conferencing tools like Slack or Zoom, it’s easy to conduct and record remote walkthroughs alongside other ux research methods.

Remote walkthroughs help to answer

  • What tasks are required to complete their goals?
  • How do users complete these tasks?
  • What UX challenges do they face along the way?
  • Do they use any shortcuts? Customizations?
  • How comfortable are users in their environment?

Quantitative UX Research Methods

Today, digital “desire lines” are everywhere — but only if you know where to look. Whether you are improving an app used by millions, or building a service for select specialists, being able to parse big data into actionable insights is a mandatory skill for all UX researchers.

UX research methods in this section:

Behavioral Analytics

Behavioral analytics help model how users are engaging with an existing system or solution. The process of determining which metrics are the best proxy for the experience, and what the current data says about the solution, is where this UX research method shines.

Typically, the analysis is completed by a core research team and shared with the broader cross functional team during design thinking workshops to inform and inspire ideas. Common behavioral metrics include bounce rate, conversion rate, time to completion, time on task, or other digital/physical desire lines.

Behavioral analytics help to answer

  • Where are our users coming from?
  • Are they finding what they want?
  • How long are they spending with us?
  • What do they search for most?
  • How often do they engage with us?

User Surveys

User surveys are a powerful UX research tool, both for developing a clearer understanding of users, as well as benchmarking or optimizing an experience. Survey Monkey, shown here, is one of many modern tools UX researchers use to create quick, data-rich user surveys.
Survey Monkey is a powerful tool for conducting user surveys, and it includes pre-built templates for evaluating common metrics such as Net Promoter Score (NPS).

Surveys are an established research method adopted by myriad disciplines to collect hard data from groups of people. Data are then analyzed by statistical methods to generate “significant” insights that are unlikely to be due to chance. The power to discern signal from noise is the product of the size of the survey sample: The more people you ask, the more confident the statistics will be.

Like user interviews, the quality of a user survey relies on recruiting the right people and asking the right questions. But unlike interviews, these questions need to be formatted in a way that can be answered using a sliding scale or multiple choice — at least until natural language processing simplifies the analysis of free-text responses.

related guide
How to Create a user persona
Go to Guide

User surveys help to answer

  • Who are our users?
  • What challenges do they face?
  • What goals and behaviors do they share?
  • Where should we focus our design efforts?
  • What do they think about a situation or solution?

Intercept Surveys

Intercept surveys are a helpful UX research method for gathering feedback at the point of interaction. This makes it one of the most realistic resources designers can consider.
The most effective intercept surveys prompt users with a single, simple question. While this low barrier will result in a noisier dataset, the results can still be very helpful for identifying major trends and the impact of design updates/iterations.

Intercept surveys, also called feedback surveys, are a simplified form of user survey deployed in the wild where interactions occur. Intercept surveys are commonly found on websites and in emails, and can be as simple as asking “Was this information helpful?”. In practice, intercept surveys are best when limited to only a single question that is easy to understand and effortless to answer.

Intercept surveys help to answer

  • What are the biggest challenges users face?
  • Where does the experience go wrong?
  • Why are users dropping off at this point?
  • How is our current solution being received?

Click Tracking

Click Tracking is a specialized ux research method that lets designers observe and analyze everywhere users click or tap when visiting a website. While digital marketers have been using scroll depth and CTA conversion rates for years, modern click-tracking tools like HotJar can now passively record real user visits and generate cumulative heat maps for your pages. These heat maps show where users are (and aren’t) clicking. In fact, HotJar will automatically generate three different layers of heat maps to capture all clicks, moves and scrolls. Together, these session-tracking maps help designers present findings to stakeholders and improve on-page conversions.

Click tracking helps to answer

  • Is this button/content getting lost?
  • Are users trying to click the wrong thing?
  • How are users engaging with our pages?
  • What effect did this design update have?

Eye Tracking

Eye tracking is a specialized UX research method that records where your test users are looking — not just where they scroll or click to. Unlike click tracking which can be installed on a live website, eye tracking studies require controlled settings with user opt-in. In the past, eye tracking was prohibitively expensive due to the technology required; however, accurate, webcam-based tools like Real Eye have greatly reduced the barrier to entry.

Today, eye tracking studies are frequently used as a form of unmoderated usability testing that participants can complete on their own time. This dramatically simplifies the logistics and reduces the guesswork in major decision decisions.

Eye tracking helps to answer

  • Where do users look first?
  • What design is more attractive?
  • Is our message being missed?
  • Are we confusing our users?

A/B Testing

A/B Testing is a data-driven way to determine which of two (or more) options is the most effective at achieving a specific goal. A/B testing is used in a variety of industries, especially in digital marketing, where optimizing conversion rates is of critical importance. In user experience design, A/B testing can be used to optimize specific aspects of an existing solution, or to determine which of two designs to pursue.

Related Guide
This is User Experience Design
Go to Guide

A/B testing helps to answer

  • What experience converts best?
  • How can we optimize the experience?
  • What direction should we pursue?
  • What do our users prefer?

Mixed UX Research Methods

Mixed UX Research methods can be used to generate human insights and hard data. They allow for both direct observation of user behaviors, while also generating data that can be subject to statistical analysis.

UX research methods described in this section:

Heuristic Evaluation

Heuristic evaluation is effectively a “pragmatic review” of a user experience by design experts. When applied formally, it uses a point-based scoring system akin to those used to judge athletic performances (like gymnastics or diving). Using predefined criteria and scorecards helps to reduce bias and make scalable decisions in situations where direct usability testing is not possible or necessary.

Of course, the quality of a heuristic evaluation is determined by the experience of the reviewers, and their ability to make unbiased judgements from a user’s point of view. Having a validated set of personas helps improve the output of a heuristic evaluation, and the same interfaces can (and should) be reviewed from the perspective of multiple user personas.

The results of a heuristic analysis can easily be displayed using a polar chart, allowing before and after data to be compared easily.
Radar plots are a quick way to compare heuristic evaluation results for multiple interfaces, such as web pages.
Web users ultimately want to get at data quickly and easily.
Tim Berners-Lee

Heuristic evaluation helps to answer

  • Which design is more user friendly?
  • How much have we improved our UX?
  • Do we need to redesign this solution?
  • Where should we focus our design efforts?
  • What quick wins can we start with?

Concept Testing

Concept testing is exactly that: Testing concepts/prototypes with users to see what they say. Concept testing is common when developing marketing campaigns or other mass-market creative ideas where it is difficult or impossible to predict how people will respond. Concept testing and usability testing are quite similar in this sense; however, concept testing is concerned with deciding which concept (or “big idea”) to pursue, while usability testing is conducted with high-fidelity designs to validate decisions or make minor improvements. Concept testing is commonly integrated with other techniques to streamline the research efforts, and can use card sorting and scorecards to support data-informed decisions.

Concept testing helps to answer

  • What tasks are required to complete a user’s goal?
  • How do users complete these tasks?
  • What UX challenges do they face along the way?
  • Do they use any shortcuts? Customizations?
  • How comfortable are users in their environment?

Tree Testing

Tree Testing is a specialized UX Research method for developing information architectures. This example of an output from Optimal Workshop demonstrates what results from navigation studies look like.
Tree Testing is an Information Architecture method for observing how users interact with taxonomies.

Tree testing is a specialized UX research method for assessing how intuitive an information architecture is. In its simplest form, tree testing involves watching users interact with a prototype menu within a controlled setting (i.e., no content or visuals included, only the menu itself).

By prompting users to complete specific tasks by clicking through the menu (ex: Where would you go to find X or do Y), researchers can see how their architecture relates to their user’s mental models. This allows teams to optimize critical structural elements early in the design process, avoiding more expensive updates downstream.

Tree testing helps to answer

  • Is our information architecture intuitive?
  • Are we using the right labels?
  • Where are users getting lost?
  • Which sitemap is more effective?
  • How can we optimize click depth?

Card Sorting

Card sorting is a fundamental UX research method applied throughout the design process. In essence, card sorting is exactly that: Sorting a stack of cue cards that have words on them into piles that make sense to the sorter. For example, you may have a stack of 30 cards with the names of different foods on them.

If you asked someone to sort them into piles according to their most vs. least favorite items, you would learn more about their preferences than if you simply asked them their favorite foods. This basic card sorting theory can be applied to any situation, and augmenting the prompts and piles lets UX researchers answer a variety of questions about the opportunity.

Card sorting is a common UX research method that provides both qualitative and quantitative data. Card sorting is a great tool for building out the Information Architecture of a solution, with a simple content-sorting exercise shown here.
The two primary card sorting methods are called open sorting and closed sorting. In open sorting, the test subjects are asked to sort cards into piles of their own design, while in closed sorting these piles are predefined. Open sorts are typically used in more exploratory research, with researchers switching to closed sorts as more is learned.

Card sorting helps to answer

  • How do our users think about this domain?
  • What items belong together? Apart?
  • What navigation will work best?
  • Where will they look for this content?
  • Which experiences should we prioritize?

Usability Testing

Usability testing is used to assess how user friendly a higher-fidelity prototype is with your target users. Usability tests are typically used later in the design process, before shifting to the Implementation step of the design thinking process. Usability testing is conducted similar to other ux research methods such as Tree Testing or Card Sorting, where users are asked to complete specific tasks within a controlled environment.

Because usability testing is performed with fully functional prototypes (or the minimum viable product), UX researchers are able to benchmark quantitative metrics such as Time to Completion (TTC) in addition to other qualitative metrics. This makes usability testing a powerful tool for demonstrating business impact and deciding what areas to work on in future updates.

Usability testing helps to answer

  • How user friendly is our solution?
  • How much time/effort does our solution save?
  • What impact can we expect our solution to have?
  • What should we focus on in the next release?

Summary

So what are UX research methods?

UX Research methods describe the established protocols and best practices designed to help teams understand users and improve real experiences. They range from simple surveys to rich ethnographic field studies, and furnish teams with the actionable insights they need throughout the development process.

While UX research methods were once confined to specialized labs, the rise of cloud-based solutions has dramatically simplified the methodologies and reduced the overhead. Today, teams of all sizes can leverage UX Research methods to improve their solutions

UX Research Methods

  • Describes set of research protocols and best practices
  • Used to study both users, situations and solutions
  • Output quantitative or qualitative data
  • Helps develop personas and optimize prototypes
  • Support end-to-end Design Thinking process
  • Major methods include User Interviews, Usability Testing, Card Sorting, Surveys and Behavioral Analytics