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Your ultimate guide to user experience (UX) research

15 min read
To build outstanding products and services for your customers, you need a thorough understanding of who they are, what they need and where their pain points and priorities lie. UX research helps you fully step into your customers’ shoes.


What do we mean by user experience?

User experience (UX) is a customer’s-eye view of your business as it relates to completing tasks and using interactive platforms and services. It’s closely tied to the idea of customer experience (CX), but rather than being a holistic view of your brand, it’s more focused on utility and usability – the hands-on side of things. You can think of UX as a sub-discipline of CX.

For example, CX research might consider how customers perceive a company’s customer service levels and how confident they feel in having their issues resolved.

Meanwhile, UX research would focus on how successfully those customers navigate a self-service website, whether the language on that site is clear and how easy it is to use.

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What is UX research?

User experience (UX) research is about diving deep into how customers interact with your brand on a practical, functional level, and observing how easily they can complete their tasks and meet their goals.

It’s the process of discovering the behaviors, motivations, and needs of your customers through observation, task analysis, and other types of user feedback. It can involve working directly with members of your target audience through UX testing sessions, remote session observation using digital tools, surveys to collect user feedback and many more UX research methods and techniques.

UX Research phases

UX research is generally divided into two phases – generative and evaluative.

Generative is your starting point, also called the discovery phase. Here, you’re generally in exploration mode, actively searching for possible solutions or innovations to the problem. But to do that, you must first define the variables clearly, such as your market and their wants and needs. This ensures that whatever UX solution you’ll implement is in line with what your users want.

On the other hand, evaluative research tests a solution or idea to see if it’s viable with your target market. It determines whether a site or app prototype will be well received by your users. Evaluative testing often uncovers insights that help designers further enhance UX.

One misconception is that generative is only for the beginning of the app development lifecycle, while evaluative processes are more towards the latter end of projects. This is not the case; the truth is that these two phases can happen at any point. For example, it’s best practice to test even a rough idea as early in the process as possible.

Why is the UX research process important?

So what exactly is the value of user experience research? After all, you understand your business and its workings better than anyone. How can uninformed external users help you learn more?

In fact, the fresh perspective of your end-users is exactly why UX research is so valuable. Because they’re not already immersed in your language, processes and systems, user testing participants are in the best position to help you see where things might be confusing to a newcomer who isn’t involved with your business.

Better yet, they can show you where confusion or frustration might lead a new or potential customer to miss out on product benefits, fail to convert, or even give up and look towards your competitors instead.

In areas like new product design and development, user research allows you to head off potential issues with products and services before they even hit the shelves. You are able to design the product correctly the first time, instead of having to fix it later when customers are unhappy.

Simply put, UX research is critical because it keeps you from wasting time, money and effort designing the wrong product or solution. It’s valuable for all areas of your business and yields clear benefits for your product, your users and your bottom line.

  • Product benefits
    By asking your customers for direct feedback about a potential product, you can discover how and when customers prefer to use a product, what pain points your product will solve, and how to improve your product design.
  • User benefits
    UX research is unbiased feedback, straight from the most valuable source: your customers. Because this type of research is not biased by investors, company leaders or outside influences, it is the best resource for getting actionable product feedback.
  • Business benefits
    Knowing what your users value helps you spend less time and money fixing flawed designs, speeds up the product development process, and increases customer satisfaction.

UX research helps brands and organizations to:

  • Understand how users really experience products, websites, mobile apps and prototypes
  • Evaluate and optimize prototypes and ideas based on UX research discoveries – and nail the design and experience early in a product’s life cycle
  • Unearth new customer needs and business opportunities
  • Find and fix hidden problems with products and services that arise in real-world use cases
  • Make informed decisions through the product development process by testing various aspects of product designs
  • Provide user experiences that outperform other businesses in your sector (UX competitor research)
  • Understand each user interaction across complete customer journeys
  • Build a richer, more useful picture of your target audiences for better marketing and advertising

User experience research methods

The type of UX research methods you choose will depend on the type of research question you are tackling, your deadline, the size of your UX research team, and your environment. There are three research dimensions to consider as you decide which methods are best for your project:

Attitudinal vs. behavioral

“Attitudinal” refers to what people say, while “behavioral” refers to what people actually do – and these are often very different. Attitudinal research is often used in marketing because it measures people’s stated beliefs and needs. However, in product design and user experience research, what people actually do tends to be more relevant.

For example, A/B testing shows visitors different versions of a site at random to track the effect of site design on conversion and behavior.

Another behavioral method is eye tracking, which helps researchers understand how users interact and visually engage with the design of an interface by following their gaze.

Quantitative vs. qualitative

Quantitative UX research studies collect and analyze results, then generalize findings from a sample to a population. They typically require large numbers of representative cases to work with and are structured in their approach. Quantitative research uses measurement tools like surveys or analytics to gather data about how subjects use a product, and are generally more mathematical in nature. This type of inquiry aims to answer questions like “what,” “where” and “when”.

Qualitative UX research methods, on the other hand, gather information about users by observing them directly, as in focus groups or field studies. Qualitative research aims to understand the human side of data by gaining a sense of the underlying reasons and motivations surrounding consumer behavior. It tends to use small numbers of diverse (rather than representative) cases, and the data collection approach is less structured. Qualitative methods are best suited to address the “how” or “why” of consumer behavior.

Both quantitative and qualitative UX research methodologies can be useful when planning the design and development of your brand presence.

Context of use

By collecting and analyzing information about users, the intended use of the application, the tasks they perform with the application, and the technical constraints presented by the application, context of use analysis allows UX researchers to better understand the user experience.

Typically, context of use analysis data is collected through research surveys, focus groups, interviews, site visits, and observational studies.

Context of use analysis is one method for identifying the most important elements of an application or product in the context of using the application or product. This type of UX research is typically done early in the product lifecycle and continued as data identifies which components of the product and user experience are most critical.

Types of user research tools

There are many types of user research methods for discovering data useful for product design and development. Below are some common examples of tools user experience researchers may use to gather information and draw insights on mental models, or users’ thought processes.

UX research surveys or questionnaires can discover data at scale through in-person or remote polling, with specific questions designed to collate useful information about user experience.

Survey tools like Qualtrics are essential if you want to use this strategy at scale. It helps simplify the survey creation and distribution process, allowing you to reach more respondents quickly and cost-effectively. Templates and question suggestions also make it easy to conduct professional surveys, even for the inexperienced.

User groups or focus groups are a form of structured interview that consults members of a target audience on their experience, views, and attitudes towards the product or solution. They usually involve neutral parties, such as a moderator and note-taker, and are led by a researcher who asks open-ended questions focused on specific aspects of investigation.

User interviews are one-on-one structured interviews with a target audience member, led by a UX researcher to understand more about personal experiences with the product. These can be directed to compare and contrast answers between users, or non-directed, where users lead the conversation.

Ethnographic interviews take place within the user’s typical environment to get a better context of use view. Field studies and site visits are similarly observational in nature, and take place in situ where the product or service is used, but may involve larger groups.

Ethnographic surveys are done in-app while the person is using the product. For example, a prompt can pop up while a person is shopping an e-commerce site, asking for permission to conduct a survey. Because they’re currently experiencing the website, people can give more accurate feedback. The problem is that ethnographic surveys can be intrusive if not done correctly.

Usability testing is a software development phase and also a good source of user feedback. Hence, it’s also one of the many UX research tools in a marketer’s arsenal. It’s usually done in a controlled environment, where the participant is asked to use portions of the app. An interview or survey is often done afterward to assess their experience.

An increasing number of usability testing tools make this process easier and cheaper for organizations to conduct. UserTesting.com, for example, allows companies to conduct testing asynchronously by recording people as they use an app or site. As a result, scaling usability testing becomes more manageable because there’s no need for a scheduled and moderated live session.

Heat maps are another great way to gather usage data on an app or site. The tool highlights which sections of the UI got the most clicks, thus giving you an overview of which UI elements work and which don’t. Heat maps are handy for optimizing apps for better UX or websites for better conversions.

Card sorting is another tool used by UX researchers to help with data hierarchy and site maps. It involves asking participants to categorize a set of terms. Card sorting can either be closed (where categories are provided) or open (where participants are free to come up with their own categories).

This is not a comprehensive list of research techniques, but represents some of the main ways UX researchers might perform usability testing or UX design research trials.

When to conduct user experience research

Before launching a new product or service, understanding user preferences that could impact your design or development is key for success. The earlier user experience research is performed, the more effective the end product or service will be, as it should encompass the insights learned about your target audience.

As products and services’ use and value evolve over their lifecycle, user experience will change over time. User research should be undertaken on an ongoing basis to determine how to adapt to users’ new needs and preferences.

Five basic steps to conducting UX research

If you’re new to user experience research, here’s a step-by-step list of what to consider before you begin your UX testing program.

  • Objectives
    What do you need to find out about your users and their needs?
  • Hypothesis
    What do you think you already know about your users?
  • Methods
    Based on your deadline, project type, and the size of your research team, what UX research methods should you use?
  • Process
    Using your selected UX research method(s), begin collecting data about your users, their preferences, and their needs.
  • Synthesis
    Analyze the data you collected to fill in your knowledge gaps, address your hypothesis and create a plan to improve your product based on user feedback.

Qualtrics makes UX research simple and easy

User experience research is multifaceted and can involve a lot of both quantitative and qualitative data. To ease the process and make sure it is efficient and scalable, it’s best conducted using a highly responsive platform that allows you to collect data, analyze trends and draw conclusions all in one place.

Whether you need attitudinal or behavioral insights, Qualtrics is your go-to solution for collecting all kinds of UX data and making use of it in the context of your wider CX program. Conduct in-person studies or send beautifully designed surveys easily and quickly, and view your results via custom dashboards and reports using the most sophisticated research platform on the planet.

Check out our Essential Web Experience Playbook for more information on UX research