What is UX / User Research?

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UX Research, or User Research is a structured study of users, their needs and requirements, which work in tandem with the design process. UX Researchers use a plethora of methods and techniques, to reveal issues and opportunities that can be fed back into the design.

Research is a hugely broad term. There’s an exhaustive amount of different methods, with variations of the same meaning, and to be quite frank it can be intimidating and baffling. With that in mind, we’ll aim to try and decipher it all, packing all the good stuff in a short and sweet account, all within a 5-minute read.

Image by Jo Szczepanska

So what is it, and why?

In a nutshell, UX Research is not focused on aesthetics or designing interfaces but moreover immersing yourself in the background, learning as much as possible about the business, objectives, customers and competitors. This will help you to make informed design decisions throughout the lifecycle of the project. To put it simply, without research you are purely guessing, and working on assumptions. It’s very likely that you could end up designing, or worse yet building something that has usability issues, design flaws, doesn’t completely fit user needs, or simply has no market fit. Research lets you uncover these early on, saving you time, frustration and money.

“It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the Web the same way we do, and — like everyone else — we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.” — Steve Krug, Don’t Make Me Think.

User Research can be done with any means and budget, the key is that it’s done in some form or another, even if it has to be quick and dirty. At the beginning it may seem like an unnecessary drain of resources, however without a shadow of a doubt, it is a necessity. It is an investment that will not only save you money in the long run but also give you a solid ROI (return on investment).

The research process has been forever hailed by the likes USAA, Amazon and Airbnb. Joe Gebbia an enthusiastic proponent of research and testing, famously credited it for the majority of Airbnb’s early success. Another famous example is that of Heinz Ketchup. For years there was little research done on their famous glass bottle, once they did and found out that children were their core demographic, they changed the design to suit a more fun and friendly experience. This led to a 12% increase in sales!


The process begins with research, it can be boiled down into two parts. Gathering data, and then synthesising that data. This usually starts with qualitative measures, to understand the users. This can be methods such as field studies, contextual inquiries and interviews. This will determine users’ motivations and needs. Later you might introduce quantitative data to extend these results. Examining competitor analysis as well as looking at existing products that have similarities that you can analyse for usability issues, and improvements is also useful at this point. Whatever the method, with quantitative research one can gather objective data that’s not affected by your presence nor biases. On the other hand, quantitative measures alone cannot solely reveal deeper human behaviours and insights, this is why using both quantitive and qualitative methods is useful.

The next stage is usually design, early on this would be in the form of paper sketches, wireframes or a low fidelity prototype that you create to capture feedback from earlier insights. Later on, it could be high fidelity designs, a clickable prototype or the product itself. The next process is to apply the research again, usually with testing to evaluate the worth of the design.

At the heart of User-Centered Design, research is arguably as important as design and the build itself, they go hand-in-hand and a design cycle shouldn’t be completed without it. Also the more research the better, it’s important to consult with the user in some form or another, as often as possible. This iterative process does not have to be super detailed, but there should be clear improvement each time, as you learn and reflect on the knowledge gained from the previous iteration.

Our top research methods:

The ones in bold show the methods we always aim to incorporate:

  • Interviews
  • Field studies and Contextual Inquiries
  • Competitive analysis
  • Journey Mapping
  • Personas
  • Focus Groups
  • Surveys and questionnaires
  • Task Analysis
  • Card Sorting
  • Usability Testing
  • Analytics
  • A/B testing

I’ll save the details on each for another post, but if you’re curious check out some further reading in the footer.

Image from Nielsen Norman Group

As the Nielsen Norman Group explain, “when deciding where to start or what to focus on first, use some of these top UX methods. Some methods may be more appropriate than others, depending on time constraints, system maturity, type of product or service, and the current top concerns. It’s a good idea to use different or alternating methods for each product cycle because they are aimed at different goals and types of insight.

The Nielsen Norman Group later go on to highlight that, if you could only choose one method for improving the UX, then usability testing is the one (we would also agree). This then follows data analysis, user interviews, surveys and questionnaires.

“Usability testing…is the most effective method to improve usability.” — Nielsen Norman Group

In conclusion

It’s clear to see how paramount research is, it is the staple of every exceptional product. Design can be highly subjective, hence why understanding the needs of the people using the product is essential. Although the array of research methods can be daunting and overwhelming, if you begin to incorporate it in some shape or another (and preferably as early and as frequent as possible), you’ll then soon see it’s worth, and reap all the rewards. At the end of the day the product is being used by people, so having them front and centre every step of the way is key to a fool-proof result and successful outcome.

“I get very uncomfortable when someone makes a design decision without customer contact.” – Dan Ritzenthaler, Senior Designer at HubSpot

Research tools

UX Research tools —

Further reading

What is UX / User Research? was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.