The Basics of UX Research
What is UX Research?
UX research studies the interaction between people and the products, services or solutions they use. As an integral part of the overall design process, UX research allows teams to model their current users and optimize future engagements.
UX researchers conduct a variety of controlled experiments to generate the insights Design Thinking teams rely on. These experiments, also called “methods” or “tools”, range from qualitative walkthroughs and interviews to quantitative surveys and card sorting.
Why is UX Research important?
Today’s highly competitive global market means people expect more from every experience than ever before. It is no longer enough for your solution to have utility — usability is equally important. If your solution isn’t fun or friendly to use, you can expect adoption will suffer.
What is UX Research vs UX Design?
UX research and design are two sides of the same coin: The former is concerned with understanding an experience, and the latter is focused on defining it. Each discipline relies on its own specific set of skills, and they are often conducted by different teams or team members.
While UX Research and UX Design have distinct focuses and methods, they are connected through pivotal UX artifacts, including user personas and information architectures.
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What is usability vs accessibility?
Usability and accessibility are closely related concepts considered throughout the UX research process. In short,
- Usable interfaces require little or no explanation to use
- Accessible interfaces can be used by people with a range of abilities
The goal of UX research is to provide designers with the data they need to develop solutions that are both immediately usable and widely accessible.
Over the past 30 years, several tools and standards have been developed to help identify usability and accessibility issues. Two well-known benchmarks are described below.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG)
Initially developed in the late 1990s, the WCAG are designed to help improve the accessibility of online content for people with disabilities by providing a comprehensive set of design recommendations. In some countries, such as the UK, these guidelines are enforced by law.
Learn more about WCAG guidelines
System Usability Scale (SUS)
Developed in the 1980s, the SUS is a simple survey that asks participants to answer 10 questions about a product or service on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The ratings are then combined, and a resulting score from 0-100 is produced. Traditionally, a score of 68 or higher is considered more usable than average.
Learn more about the System Usability Scale
Common UX Research Tools
To study the user experience, UX researchers employ a variety of tools derived from disciplines including ergonomics, psychology and engineering. These tools are commonly divided into Quantitative UX Research Methods and Qualitative UX Research Methods. The difference between the two is the type of data they provide — i.e. specific quantities or observed qualities.
Quantitative UX Research Tools
Quantitative UX research techniques generate hard data that can be used to prioritize needs, benchmark designs, and assess KPIs. Among the most common techniques are:
Qualitative UX Research Tools
Qualitative UX research techniques generate human insights that can be used to model users, map interactions and inspire innovative ideas. Among the most common techniques are:
You can find more detailed information about each of the methods listed below in our UX Research Methods guide.
The 4-Stage UX Research Process
The following framework breaks down the complete UX research process into a series of four distinct stages: Explore, Observe, Iterate and Verify.
These four UX research stages can be completed individually to fill specific knowledge gaps, or in sequence to support a complete design thinking process.
Stage 1Explore the solution space
Whether developing new solutions or improving existing ones, the UX research process always begins in the explore stage. The only difference between the two situations is the type of data that will be available to researchers — while existing designs can be examined for their performance (through analytics, surveys and heuristic evaluation), novel designs requires other ways of proxying the current experience.
Deliverable: The primary deliverable of this stage is an insight-filled document called the “Current Landscape”. This document identifies major opportunities and constraints within the solution space, and is often compiled prior to design thinking workshops in order to streamline creative collaborations. For more details about the current landscape, see our design thinking workshop guide.
Stage 2Observe users in context
Arguably the most important stage of the entire UX research process, this is where teams generate the actionable human insights that inspire new ideas and align cross functional efforts. Here, a variety of moderated (direct observation) and unmoderated (fly on the wall) methods are used to model users and identify their most relevant behaviors and goals.
While this stage is mandatory for user-centered design, the scope and scale of the research is highly variable: For example, global teams building a new product for an emerging market will need to spend significantly more time here than teams looking to improve an existing solution for a familiar audience.
Deliverables: Insights generated during the Observe stage are typically delivered in the form of: user stories, user personas, user journey maps and empathy maps. Together, these artifacts define who your “users” are, providing design thinking teams with the context they need to develop supportive solutions.
Note that user stories (As a / I want / So that) and empathy maps (Think/Do/Say/Hear, Pain/Gain) capture the direct observations of specific individuals, whereas personas and journey maps reflect the collective experiences of a user group. As such, personas and maps developed during UX research should always be treated as prototypes that are iterated upon as a broader team.
Stage 3Iterate architecture and flows
The Iterate stage is where UX research shifts from studying situations to studying solutions. As such, the methods move from primarily qualitative toward more quantitative methods which are easier to connect to KPIs. Given the iterative nature of design, multiple rounds of research may be needed here to guide major design decisions regarding the most effective conceptual models, user flows, interfaces and other design elements. Large projects with low risk tolerance such as healthcare can expect to spend a significant amount of time in this stage, while projects that can afford to launch an MVP and “learn live” should devote considerably less.
Deliverables: Score-carding is a common way to articulate insights gathered during the Iterate phase. By developing a transparent set of predetermined criteria, researchers can reduce bias and create reusable benchmarks for future design projects.
Stage 4Verify critical decisions
When a pre-production prototype is ready, UX researchers are able to shift from studying aspects of an experience, to studying the entire experience in context. This process is often referred to as usability testing, and it allows teams to verify design decisions and make accurate measurements of the design performance. Based on the domain, these measurements can confirm improvements to the design, and make predictions about the real-world impact marketing purposes or financial considerations.
Similar to the Iterate stage, the requirement to “smoke test” designs prior to launch is determined by the risk tolerance of the domain. While a simple Hallway Usability Test leveraging a System Usability Scale is enough for some, others will require more rigor. Note that while usability tests used to require dedicated labs, the ease of screen sharing and recording today have opened the door to a variety of low-cost, unmoderated testing possibilities.
Deliverables: The results of Usability Testing can be delivered either directly (ex. System Usability Scale scorecards), or formalized as Performance Forecasts that speak directly to specific project KPIs. For example, performance metrics like 15% increase in time-on-task, or 50% higher conversions could be important metrics to drive adoption.
How to Create a UX Research Plan
UX research plans are a helpful tool for organizing complex design efforts with cross functional teams. While there are countless ways to format your plan (documents, diagrams, spreadsheets, slideshows), they should always aim to cover the basic “WH” questions regarding each planned method.
When creating your UX research plan, consider the following 5 steps as a starting point:
- Step 1
Determine your research objectives
The first step of creating a UX research plan is clarifying what you hope to gain.
- Why do we need to conduct UX research?
- What do we hope to learn?
- Are we looking to support an entire project
- Or answering a specific question?
Using the four stages above (Explore, Observe, Iterate, Verify) is a helpful way to define your objectives.. In practice, tactical UX research will focus on a single stage, while strategic support will address several or all. You can also determine your objectives based on what deliverables you need: For example, if you know you need User Personas, your research plan should focus primarily on methods within the Explore and Observe.
- Step 2
Consider business constraints
UX research isn’t a blue-sky endeavour — it’s a targeted system for improving real-world solutions. That means the same constraints that guide your design project decisions apply. In general:
- Team: What experience do we have internally? Who can fully commit?
- Time: Do we need it done yesterday, or are we preparing for tomorrow?
- Budget: How much are the answers we want worth to us?
Fortunately, new technologies have significantly reduced UX research costs, and much of what used to require special labs can now be done remotely with easy-to-use (as you’d expect) online tools.
- Step 3
Select your research methods
Knowing what you need to know — and what you have to work with — will define the methods you select. In addition to knowing what stage you are in, the following groups can help guide your selections.
- Lean methods help teams align early
- Rich methods provide inspiring user insights
- Reactive methods support steady improvements
- Preventive methods model future experiences
Lean Rich Stakeholder interviews User interviews Intercept surveys User surveys Card sorting Remote walkthroughs Reactive Preventive Heuristic evaluations Concept testing Click tracking Moderated tests A/B testing Tree testing
Note that the design thinking process is highly iterative, so leave room to stay flexible. This is especially true when building novel solutions or addressing new markets. That’s where applying UX research stages are especially helpful to maintain the overall direction.
- Step 4
Identify research participants
You will never get the right answers if you ask the wrong people. That’s why having validated user personas is such a powerful part of the UX design process, as it makes recruiting the right people relatively simple. However, if your goal is to develop personas (as is often the case), more careful consideration is required.
When recruiting for each method, consider:
- Internal or external?
- Clients or crowdsourced?
- Experienced or naive?
- How many per persona?
How many is enough? While cost/risk tolerance is typically a key driver for the number of participants, statistical methods should dictate sample sizes when confidence intervals are desired (as in surveys).
Note: It is generally held that UX research conducted with five participants can identify 80% of the usability issues. Beyond that, the laws of diminishing returns take over, and the additional issues you find will be niche. See  for an interesting study on the “5 participant rule”.
- Step 5
Compile a shareable roadmap
The final step when creating a UX research plan is assembling the plan itself. Cloud-based spreadsheets or documents are generally best.
UX Research plan outline
- The primary research objective
- The stages that will be used
- The methods within each stage
- Top question each method answers
- Who will participate in each method
- Deliverables for every stage
- Key dates and major milestones
And note, UX research plans provide a strategic overview; details like specific interview questions and survey stimuli should be determined using the most current information available at the time of testing.
UX Research Benefits and Examples
Today, the results of great UX research are everywhere: From the websites we browse to the services we use, virtually all successful public-facing solutions prioritize the user experience. That said, there are clear leaders when it comes to usability. This section is dedicated to celebrating those examples, while demonstrating how good UX research goes a long way toward building unforgettable brands.
Prioritizing features and functions is one of the most difficult aspects of modern design. What’s the primary CTA? What do users need to know most? What do we say first? In the end, many design teams try to prioritize everything, resulting in elements that compete for attention instead of guiding it through.
By studying real users in context, UX research helps teams build clear, clutter-free solutions that prioritize what users want to do — moving the rest of the experience out of the way. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the home pages and screens of UX-obsessed brands like Nike or AirBnB.
Personalized experiences are no longer a nice-to-have. We expect the products and services we use to not only know our names, but to also anticipate our needs. And as technology continues to advance, our ability to support these moments does too.
Today, examples of how UX Research supports a more personalized experience are everywhere, and especially obvious during behavior-based onboarding flows.
Modern UX research reveals more about how people use our products than ever. And with the ability to parse large sets of quantitative data, design teams can remove engagement bottlenecks with scientific precision. The result is especially apparent in examples of gamification, where user-friendly becomes user-fun.
UX Research Best Practices
Test in the most natural settings possible
While focus groups and lab-based usability tests are rich sources of information, they are a far cry from a real, everyday situation. Whenever possible, aim to observe users where the experience in question actually takes place. Unmoderated tests, remote walkthroughs, diary studies and intercept surveys are great for this reason.
Consult experts, but don’t rely on them alone
A common mistake in design projects is to rely on inputs from experienced users and subject matter experts alone. While they will provide great insights, their experience will differ dramatically from that of naive users. UX designers can easily fall into this trap, too, given how easy it is to forget that the vast majority of people are far less tech savvy or digitally aware.
Let your data do the talking
The fastest way to align cross-functional teams is to let the data do the talking. Personal experiences and “gut instincts” will always play a role, but they shouldn’t be driving complex decisions that have million- or billion-dollar implications.
Encourage the think-aloud protocol
While focus groups and lab-based usability tests can be rich sources of information, they are a far cry from a real situation. Whenever possible, aim to observe users where the experience usually takes place.
So What is UX Research?
UX Research is a discipline devoted to studying how people interact with specific products, services or solutions. It is often used to help Design Thinking teams model current/potential users and optimize future solutions. The ability for UX research to uncover strategic design opportunities has made it a clear differentiator in today’s digital landscape.
Unlike the overarching Design Thinking process, UX research methods are typically conducted by experienced UX practitioners — either dedicated UX researchers or multi-faceted designers.
- UX research methods are both qualitative and quantitative
- The benefits of UX research include creating clarity, providing personalization, and elevating engagement
- Four UX Research stages are: Explore, Observe, Iterate and Verify
- Surveys, interviews and walkthroughs are commonly used tools
- Common UX research deliverables include the current landscape, user personas, and accessibility audits
- Faulkner L. Beyond the five-user assumption: benefits of increased sample sizes in usability testing. Behav Res Methods Instrum Comput. 2003;35: 379–383.