Every fantastic and every horrific artifact ever made by a human exists due to a sequence of design decisions. The difference between fantastic and terrific user experience often in UX research.
Yet UX research is often neglected because even the word “research” sounds like the time you don’t have, and the money you could have spent in a more productive way — like designing actual products.
But for design to be successful, it has to be convenient for actual humans. And unfortunately, just being a human is not enough to understand what the rest of humans think. The best tool that mankind has for understanding users’ needs is UX research.
Designers can’t escape UX research, so let’s figure out how we can conduct it quickly and effectively.
What are the stages of the UX research process?
At different phases of product development, you need different insights. Say, you need to design an app. First, you will figure out what problem it solves for its target audience.
Later, you would want to test prototypes to understand whether you’re moving closer to the aim. Finally, you will probably test the working app to see if any improvements are needed.
According to the designer’s intent, UX research can be divided into four stages:
- Discovery phase
- Exploring phase
- Testing phase
- Listening phase
The discovery research helps to deal with the uncertainty that is inevitable at the beginning of any design project.
To beat the uncertainty, designers explore the topic, run interviews with stakeholders, and target users to collect and analyze information about the app, its audience, and intended market.
The exploring research overlaps with the active phase of the design process. It helps to solve applied problems of design that appear in the course of work.
Like, you build user personas and then user flows, to understand the path users take when using the product from an entry point through to the final interaction.
Testing research happens repeatedly during the design process and beyond. The primary method of the testing phase is usability testing, called to show how users interact with the product and what changes can be done to make such interaction more effective.
The listening research phase happens after the product is released. You can try to foresee all the bugs and difficulties new design brings before the release, through usability testing.
But your final and your most reliable test team consists of final users — shortly after the design goes live, you will get your most valuable user feedback. Probably the reaction you see will trigger a new round of design improvements.
UX research methods and how they are used
There are dozens of UX research methods useful at each stage of the research process, and it’s important to be familiar with all the options available.
But projects with budgets and timelines stretched enough to use the full set of methods exist only in our dreams.
In real-life design projects, time and budget for research are strictly limited 99 times out of 100. So the top priority skill for a researcher is to choose one the most suitable method in each individual case.
Especially for you to make perfect choices Nielsen Norman Group invented their genius three-dimensional landscape of user research methods.
In the figure below, you can see 20 methods mapped across the box with the following axes:
- Attitudinal methods vs Behavioral methods;
- Qualitative methods vs Quantitative methods;
- Context of use.
Attitudinal methods vs Behavioral methods of UX research
The gradation between Attitudinal and Behavioral methods helps to identify the gap between what people say and what people do.
At the beginning of your design project, at the discovery or exploratory phase, you focus more on Attitudinal methods.
Interviews focus groups and surveys are useful to gather information needed to start and analyze the sentiment of the audience.
But people are irrational creatures, designers should know that more than anyone else. Users don’t always do everything just like they say they will do.
In the later stages of the design process, when you already have early prototypes, you’d better pay attention to Behavioral methods, like usability testing.
Qualitative methods vs Quantitative methods of UX research
Qualitative methods observe the event or behavior directly and provide you with descriptive results. You use such methods, like interviews or usability lab tests, to understand why people choose this and not that or how to fix a problem they meet along the way.
Qualitative studies are often based on small samples. For instance, Nielsen Norman Group recommends inviting no more than five respondents for usability testing.
That’s why qualitative research methods can give you insight, but they can’t give you accurate data.
For accurate data, choose quantitative studies. They gather data indirectly, through an analytical tool, for instance.
You get such indirect information from Google Analytics after it collects data from thousands of user sessions. Quantitative methods are useful when your questions start with how many and how much.
Research methods’ context of the use
The context of using different methods means content that you need to prepare to conduct research.
Some studies, like card sorting or email surveys, can run without a product at all. Some other methods require a scripted version of the product.
For example, you can test usability on paper prototypes of future interfaces. And finally, for the methods that require a natural use of the product, you need your design to be (almost) ready.
When you know what is the basic question of your study, and what context of use you can afford at the stage where you are, choosing the right UX research method is a piece of cake.
Final thoughts on UX research
Mark Twain once said that supposing is good, but finding out is better. Sure, you can make some assumptions instead of running research and build your design on what you suppose users will do. But assumptions make a shaky foundation.
Successful design is impossible without proper research.