What is User Research?

If you work in or around the fields of user experience or product design, you’ve probably heard of user research. But with so many terms like usability testing, user testing, and more swirling around digital products, it can be difficult to keep up with what’s what. 

Despite some common conflations, user research goes beyond usability testing and it is essential to creating a product of value to users. But what exactly is user research?

What is user research? 

User research is the process of understanding your user or personas via different methods of research in an effort to center their needs in the design process. While it may be particularly crucial during the prototyping process, this practice should be an ongoing one that is employed at every stage of the design process. 

Once we start getting into the nitty-gritty, there are many other ways to slice and dice this topic, so next we’ll cover the different types and methodologies of user research.

Why should I conduct user research?

If your team isn’t conducting user research at the moment, you should be. Why? Well it’s difficult to have product-market fit, and therefore to grow or sustain as a company without it. In fact, companies often waste money building something nobody needs, much less wants to buy. This phenomenon has been called the “build trap” by product thinker Melissa Perri and it describes the tendency for companies to being rapidly releasing features or products without analyzing why they’re releasing those particular features or products. As Perri puts it, “building is the easy part of the product development process. Figuring out what to build and how we are going to build it is the hard part.”   Moreover, it’s really the only way to improve the user experience and design products that are actually useful, because that’s pretty much impossible to accomplish without input from users. 

From another perspective, user research will inevitably save you time and money by identifying design mistakes and usability issues. As much as many UX professionals may hate to think this way…user research ultimately helps teams become more profitable. 

What are the different types of user research?

There are lots of methods for and types of user research. In this section, we’ll overview a few options and how they work.

But before we dive in, the graphic below from the Nielsen Norman Group can help give you a sense of the many different methods that exist for user research. 

Table categorizing different types of user research methods based on behavioral, attitudinal, qualitative, and quantitative factors.

The graph is organized based on 2 axes as well as a key for context. 

Attitudinal vs.  Behavioral User Research

The first axes is attitudinal vs. behavioral. According to Nielsen Norman, you can think of the difference here as “contrasting ‘what people say’ versus ‘what people do.’” Of course, behavioral correlates with what people do (think A/B tests) while attitudinal correlates with what people say (think surveys). 

However, that doesn’t mean survey data is bad. You can still get useful insights from surveys or interviews. You’ll just want to make a few adjustments to make sure that you do. Specifically, make sure you’re asking the right questions. This means avoiding things like leading or double-barrelled questions as well as using industry jargon that may be confusing to users or customers. For thoughts on what questions to ask, check out our question guide for product owners. 

Another way to make the most of surveys is to make sure that you send them in the moment as opposed to after the fact. For example, you may think it makes sense to send a user a survey after they’ve completed a key activity and in some cases, like after purchasing, you’d be right. You wouldn’t want to distract a user who’s about to pay you! However, if you need insights regarding usability, navigation, or other product and design insights, you’d get more accurate responses by asking questions when users are actually engaging with your product. 

Quantitative vs. Qualitative User Research 

The second axes referenced is qualitative vs. quantitative. Some forms of qualitative user research would include user interviews or observations. On the other hand, quantitative user research can look like conducting surveys or usage statistics. You can simplify the difference between what these types of user insights tell you as what’s happening (quantitative) and why it’s happening (qualitative). 

Not only are both of these types of user research valuable, but teams also really need both types of research in order to make holistic decisions. 

Context in User Research 

The final portion of the graph covers context. In this case, context describes if and how users are interacting with the product at this point. The categories listed include natural use of product, scripted use of product, not using the product, or combination. This information is important as it may inform the quality or kind of insights that are provided. A note about a specific feature may be more valuable when it’s given in the context of using the product than when not using the product as it could be misremembered in an interview. 

A note on channel: Online vs. Offline 

While this isn’t explicitly covered in Neilsen Norman’s diagram, it’s important to note that user research can be conducted both online and offline, depending on your approach and toolset. Which option is preferable really just depends on your product and your goals. 

Offline user research consists of things like in-person interviews or observing testers use your product. However, many of these tactics can now happen online. Screen recording tools let you see what users see and the actions they take. Video conference and calling software makes in-depth interviews possible as well. 

Of course, there are pros and cons to both channels. While offline or in-person user research can provide a rich experience, it’s often expensive to source and coordinate with participants, especially if your participants need to travel. On the other hand, online tools can be much more scalable and affordable, but may not be able to give you everything you need to understand. 

Depending on your product, goals and budget, both types of user research have their place. In fact, online and offline efforts are not mutually exclusive. When you need the types of insights in-person provides, conduct offline research. But for ongoing research (especially for existing products), online tools can help you sustain research initiatives.

How do I conduct user research? 

Once you’ve determined the right mix of types of user research for your goals, it’s time to start figuring out what methods you’ll use to get you there. The Nielsen Norman Graph above does a great job of outlining different methods. In this section, we’ll walk you through some of those and when they make sense. 

A/B tests: 

One easy way to conduct user research is to implement A/B tests within your product or website. You may have heard this term before from marketer. The concept is simple: decide what you want to test (onboarding language or color scheme for example) then launch both versions.

Interviews:

Interviewing users is another common method for conducting user research. Whether it’s in person or via video conference/phone call, asking your users open ended questions is a common way to get rich insights. We recommend interviews as a method to help you learn what you didn’t know you didn’t know. 

Surveys: 

Another common method in user research is conducting surveys. Surveys are great because they can be conducted on or offline and the questions you ask can be as pointed or as open-ended as you’d like. If you conduct your surveys online using a tool, many survey software tools offer logic branching, which gives you the ability to ‘react’ to user responses. Because they can be conducted online so easily, surveys are also one of the most scalable ways to conduct and standardize user research. 

Card Sorting

According to usability.gov, card sorting is “a method used to help design or evaluate the information architecture of a site.” This type of research involves asking your participants to organize topics into groups based on what makes the most sense to them. This is a helpful tool when you’re either designing a new website or understand the mental models behind how users think of content and ideas. 

There are different types of card sorting techniques: open, closed, and hybrid. The difference between these techniques comes down to whether or not you give your participants categories to sort these topics into. If you want a real deep dive into this technique, we love this Optimal Workshop piece

Tree Tests 

The Nielsen Norman Group recommends following up card sorting efforts with tree tests. This is because the tree test goes one step further than card sorting. In a tree test, participants are asked to look at a list of categories or the navigation on your site and determine where they need to go in order to complete a specific task. You can get as simple or complex as you need to with categories and subcategories. Overall, the goal is to understand if the way information is organized on your site or within your product makes sense to your audience. 

Eyetracking 

Eye-tracking software is a tool that can be used to detect the movement of a participant’s eyes while they engage with your product. What eye-tracking tells researchers is when a participant actually processes an element on the page or within the product and when they, quite literally, glaze over information. 

The benefit of this type of research is that it provides tangible data about where users’ eyes are actually drawn, rather than requiring researchers to guess. This type of data goes one step deeper than something like heatmaps or screen recording tools. However, a common criticism of eye-tracking software is that it doesn’t really help researchers understand why users do what they do. It just tells us what they do. Like many methods of user research, this simply means that eye-tracking isn’t enough on its own, but can be one part of an ecosystem of user research tools. 

Clickstream Analysis

According to UX Planet, clickstream analysis or click path, is another common form of user research that analyzes and aggregates the pages users visit and in what order. Clickstream analysis is a great method for understanding what users are actually doing on your site. Similarly to eye tracking, this is a form of user research that tells us what users are doing, but not necessarily why. 

Usability Testing 

Usability testing encompasses a number of different types of research. This umbrella term describes a number of methods that can be used to determine how usable a product is. Typically these tests are conducted by asking participants to complete a set of tasks. 

UX Booth describes the different types of user research as moderated, unmoderated, and guerrilla. 

Moderated research means there is an administrator available to guide the user. While you may picture this type of research only taking place in person, it is possible to conduct remote moderated user research as well. These tests can feel somewhat clinical as users are made very aware that someone is watching them. However, one benefit this type of research provides is that researchers can guide participants to ensure they get all of the insights they need for the study. 

Unmoderated usability tests, on the other hand, don’t require someone to be standing by and guiding the research. This type of research almost exclusively takes place online. The participant will typically receive instructions on the site and record their thoughts over audio. The marked difference between moderated and unmoderated is that there’s no one able to intervene if the test goes awry or the participant doesn’t understand something fundamental in the instructions. However, unmoderated tests are much easier to schedule and cheaper to conduct. 

Guerrilla user research is the most budget-friendly option for user research. We recently put together a beginner’s guide to guerrilla user research, where we describe this method as “[committing] to doing user research in a way that saves time and money” and “the minimum viable product (MVP) of user research.” Oftentimes, this means taking measures such as narrowing the scope of your questions or being liberal about your recruitment of user participants. One of the most common methods for guerrilla user research is intercepting people at a Starbucks or on the street and  observing while they test your product or website quickly. Guerrilla research typically won’t provide you the depth of insights as full UX research, but it can still provide you actionable insights. 

PS, if you’re tight on funds – check out our tips to conducting user research on a budget.

When should I conduct user research? 

We talk to a lot of clients who only conduct user research before they launch something new or at the MVP phase. While obviously getting user input and testing at this phase is important, it’s also not the only phase in the design process where you should be conducting user research. 

Whether you’re trying to get an MVP off the ground or want to optimize an existing product, user research can provide helpful insights to help you get closer to your business goals. 

As the Interaction Design Foundation phase puts it: 

You can—and should—do user studies at all stages of the design process. You do studies before you start designing so as to get an understanding of what your target group needs; you carry out iterative tests during development to ensure that the user experience is on track, and you can measure the effect of your design after your product is released. This ‘holy trinity’ approach can keep you three steps ahead as every dimension of your release will have been considered, analyzed, and tested before you sit down to see the results of the ultimate test (the ROI), more confident that you’ve got a winning design.” (source)

Whatever stage of the product lifecycle you’re at, you should probably be conducting user research. User research can offer actionable insight at every phase of the design process. 

What tools can I use? 

One of the great things about user research, is that even if you don’t know how to get started or don’t think you can do it on your own, there are so many tools available on the market that can make every step of the way much easier. 

Survey & User Feedback Tools 

Screen Recording 

Usability Testing

A/B Tests

…and so many more! These are just a few ideas to help get you started. For more ideas, the graph below from InsightPlatforms maps out a number of different tools that may be helpful. 

Venn diagram of user research platforms from insightplatforms.com.

But…

Something we see pretty often at Qualaroo is that clients will find a million and one reasons not to conduct user research. And it’s understandable, user research has a reputation for being time-consuming and expensive. But it doesn’t have to be! 

We’ve listed some common reasons for not conducting user research…and exactly why they shouldn’t stop you. 

Reason #1 – I don’t have money to conduct user research.

This is perhaps the most common reason we hear from teams as to why they don’t conduct user research. However, we have one thing to say to them: user research on a budget is possible! If you can scrounge up some cash to dedicate to the cause, we recommend following some of the tips from our guide to conducting user research on a budget. If you have absolutely $0, then try your hand at guerrilla user research. 

Reason #2 – I don’t have time to conduct user research. / I don’t have a dedicated user researcher on my team. 

If not having the money to conduct user research is the most common excuse we hear, then not having time is the second most common. When we hear this, our first thought is that’s what tools are for! Using a tool like Qualaroo to set up questions at key moments along the user lifecycle is a pretty quick way to set up user research questions and collect insights while you do a million other things. Beyond Qualaroo, many of the tools mentioned above can essentially run in the background and have dashboards or other insight reporting. Need help convincing upper management to okay your user research tool? Check out our blog post on how to get executive buy-in. 

Reason #3 – I don’t need to conduct user research because my product is already established.

Occasionally, we’ll hear from teams that they’re not interested in conducting user research because their product is already live. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception as products require constant iteration to provide the best UX possible. 

Reason #4 – My product isn’t established 

On the other end of the spectrum, we sometimes hear from teams or individuals that they’re not ready to conduct user research because they either don’t have a product at all or are at the MVP phase. It’s understandable that some teams may feel they aren’t ‘ready’ to conduct user research, but this isn’t the case. Of course, user research at the prototyping or MVP phase is going to look different than it does post-deployment, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t happen. In fact, we recently launched a new feature that allows you to collect user insights on prototypes and mockups. 

Reason #5 – I don’t have enough people to test with OR I don’t have the right people to test with.  

A lot of our clients get hung up on having the exact right profile of a person to test with and having a big enough group to make the research worth it. This thought is often tied to the perception that there’s not enough money to conduct user research. However, UX expert Steve Krug argues that when it comes to recruiting user research participants, you should “recruit loosely and grade on a curve.” What does that mean? Don’t worry about having a critical mass of people who perfectly match your target persona, because you can get often get just as good insights from a few testers, even if they aren’t exactly your target persona. Besides, some user research is better than none. So don’t let not having enough of the right kind of people stop you. 

Resources and Further Reading 

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