User experience research, often abbreviated to UX research, is the study of target users and their needs. The goal of this practice is to provide user insights to guide design processes and business decisions.
To identify difficulties, trends, and potential solutions, UX researchers use a variety of methods. User experience research uncovers valuable user insights that may be used to create new products or improve existing ones. User feedback is a highly valuable tool in every organization’s arsenal to better prioritize decisions in product features or digital experiences.
Within user experience research, there are common methods researchers rely on to gather informative, accurate insights. Methods are selected based on the goals of the researchers, choosing testing types that will garner the most informative data for them to derive insights from. Let’s explore the approaches user experience researchers take in gathering this vital user feedback.
Types of User Experience Research
When conducting a study, UX researchers may ask participants questions, observe their behavior, and measure the results of their actions when completing a wide variety of tasks. All of these approaches gather information about the target group in relation to the factor(s) that the researchers want to measure. There are two overarching types of information that UX researchers gather: quantitative and qualitative.
Quantitative and Qualitative Data
Quantitative research involves collecting and analyzing numerical data, recognizing patterns, making predictions, and generalizing findings that pertain to a target audience or topic. The metrics gathered from quantitative research include error and success rates, time spent on a task, and number-based responses. Sometimes, the collection and organization of this data can be automated, since computers can handle numbers quite well on their own.
Qualitative research is more people-oriented and focuses on the “why” of user behaviors and opinions. User interviews and field studies are examples of qualitative UX research techniques that may be used to collect qualitative data through direct observation and study of participants. These strategies reveal people’s motives, ideas, and attitudes and lead to a better understanding of the context behind their behavior.
Quantitative research answers questions around how much, how many, and how often, whereas Qualitative research answers questions around why and how. To get the full picture and the most useful insights for decision-making, it is imperative to gather and analyze both quantitative and qualitative data.
Behavioral and Attitudinal Approaches
Another distinction among UX research methods is between behavioral and attitudinal studies. Behavioral studies aim to look at what people do, whereas attitudinal studies gather data on what people say. A person may have widely different responses in terms of what they say and what they actually do. A comprehensive research study can collect both types of information, but different questions or tasks may focus on one or the other.
If you know these four core definitions well, you’re already well on your way to understanding the nuances and diversity of approaches to UX research. In the next section, we do a deeper dive into UX research methods and describe some common approaches in detail.
Research methods can be categorized based on whether they measure quantitative or qualitative data and whether they look at behavioral or attitudinal aspects of participant responses. It’s rarely black and white, and many strategies incorporate a blend of all four, though often leaning more toward one direction (qual or quant, behavioral or attitudinal).
User Experience Research Method Quadrants
There are many different ways in which UX researchers can apply a focused lens on their human subjects, whether they want to find out their opinions on a set of options or give them a new product to test out. The strategies listed below are organized based on the above infographic, which shows where they fall in terms of the emphasis and type of data collected. Some are more intent than others.
These strategies fall everywhere on the spectrum, from heavily attitudinal or behavioral to a balanced blend of the two. Most strategies are either more quantitative or more qualitative, even though some methods do incorporate questions that measure both numbers and “why” explanations.
Qualitative + Attitudinal Methods
Starting in the bottom left quadrant of the chart, qualitative attitudinal methods look at the explanations behind people’s attitudes toward a topic. They tend to be heavy on questions that ask participants to give an opinion or statement and gather data on the reasoning behind what they say. The data gathered using these methods can give great insight into the way people think, and people often enjoy participating in these studies. However, it is wise to take what people say with a grain of salt, as their responses can sometimes depend on their current mood or the kind of day they’re having, and contain biases or misinformation.
A focus group is a small group discussion on a specific topic that is facilitated by a moderator. The moderator poses scripted and follow-up questions and guides the discussion, and it’s their job to make sure that the participants understand what is being asked of them. A focus group could last from 30 minutes to several hours depending on the complexity of the topic and the desired data.
User interviews are similar in format to a focus group, except that only one person is asked the questions at a time, instead of in a group setting. This approach gathers information about the user’s ideas, beliefs, and opinions on a given topic. In this scenario, since each individual is interviewed separately, they are not influenced by the statements of others.
A diary study gathers data from participants by asking them to record their thoughts about a certain activity or experience on a regular basis. The study may take place over the course of a few days to several months. Diaries can be a rich source of contextual information that give deep insights into what people think and why.
Qualitative + Behavioral Methods
Whereas qualitative attitudinal methods gather contextual and explanatory information about thoughts and opinions (what people say), qualitative behavioral methods gather the “why” data about what people actually do (not just what they say they would do.) Often with these studies, the maxim “actions speak louder than words” rings true. Observing and recording people’s behaviors can be eye-opening for businesses seeking to understand their customer base. The success of these studies is highly dependent on the user’s understanding of the task(s), so clear instructions are important. User error can skew the results in some cases.
Also known as reverse card sorting, tree testing is a method in design to observe how well users can perform a task in a given environment. Most often, this method is used to test the usability and intuitiveness of a website or app design. Users are given a task and are asked to identify the name of the page in the site or app’s organization that would allow them to complete that task (such as finding a piece of information.) Tree testing gives insight into how easy or difficult the proposed hierarchy for a site or app would be for the average user.
Borderline Between Qualitative Attitudinal and Behavioral
A few UX research methods reside somewhere between qualitative attitudinal and qualitative behavioral in terms of what kind of data they collect. These approaches to social science data collection look at the intersection between the “what” and the “why” of human behavior.
In usability testing, participants interact with a website, app, or other product with the purpose of discovering how people think and feel about the product, and how easy it is for them to use. The participants are typically given a set of tasks to complete, which may be moderated (guided by a facilitator—good for giving participants a similar experience) or unmoderated (completed independently—useful for seeing how the product is perceived as if the participants were using it at home).
Usability testing can be conducted remotely or in person. Remote sessions are convenient and may attract more participants, but in-person sessions can sometimes collect more contextual data. Finally, there are two main styles of usability testing: explorative and comparative. An explorative test is conducted in the early stages of product development and involves allowing participants to give their initial feedback. Comparative tests are conducted toward the final stages of product development and look at a hard comparison between two different designs or products to determine which is preferred and why.
Most UX research takes place in an office or lab setting that is highly controlled. To get a more realistic environmental perspective, UX researchers conduct field studies that take place in the user’s direct context. These studies may involve observing participants using a product in their home, visiting a workplace or other group setting to conduct interviews and make observations, and interviewing people about the things they do in their everyday settings. UX researchers often use a combination of different methods to conduct field studies.
These are just some of the many types of UX research methods out there. Stay tuned for part 2, coming next week, where we will dive into Quantitative + Behavioral Methods, Quantitative + Attitudinal Methods, and the Borderline between Qualitative and Quantitative + Attitudinal Methods.