UX research is playing an increasingly important role in the design of digital products, and research-based design is slowly becoming a standard. In this article, we will introduce you to this interesting topic.

What can you learn?

  1. What exactly is user experience research?
  2. Why is it conducted?
  3. What is the history of UX research?
  4. What research techniques are used at different stages of the design process?
  5. How to present the research results to convince the customer and inspire the project team?

Let’s start.

What is UX research?

User Experience Research is part of User Experience Design. More specifically, it is about the user’s impressions and reactions when using a product. When you design a digital product, you try to make sure that it evokes positive emotions in the user and that the user, when interacting with it, performs certain activities that correspond to the purpose for which the product was created. Usually, these are activities intended to bring profit to the application owner, such as making a purchase in an online store.

However, it is not always about money. Imagine that you visit a hospital website and need to find information on the procedures performed there, how to book an appointment, and what documents you will need. Accomplishing the tasks, and the amount of time you have to spend on doing them, depends on whether the site is properly designed.

User Experience Design is thus a kind of link between software developers and software users.

So how do you know what the users’ needs are and how they use the product? From research, of course. Research is one of the two main branches of User Experience Design. A UX Researcher conducts research with users or analyzes data, and a designer, based on the research results, designs solutions to meet users’ needs.

What are the benefits of UX research?

Research with users is becoming more widely used in the IT industry, and since companies are investing money in it, it means it must bring them specific benefits. What do you gain if you decide to do UX research?

1. You get to know your users

When designing a product, you need to know who it will be aimed at. A corporate employee and a retiree will have different digital skills and needs in terms of technology products. This is a rather glaring example, but in fact, every product has its own specific audience, and how well you manage to get to know this audience largely determines the success of your project.

2. You learn how users use your product

When creating an application, designers usually have a vision of how users will use it. But does this vision coincide with reality? The way users interact with your product is what research shows. In addition, you can learn from research what the context of the product use is, e.g., under what circumstances and in what places the user interacts with your product.

3. You discover the difficulties encountered by the user

Users encounter all sorts of problems when using the application. Perhaps the navigation you have conceived is not so obvious to users and they find it difficult to find the information they need? Maybe a step in the purchasing process leaves them bewildered? UX research allows you to identify such difficulties, and thus gives you a chance to fix the mistakes that have been made.

4. You become aware of your strengths

If based on research, you are able to determine what the weaknesses of your product are, you can, of course, also find its strengths. This will tell you what your existing competitive advantages are, and which solutions are worth maintaining or even developing.

5. You know what emotions your product evokes

The times when it was enough for a digital product to be useful are long gone. Progressive competition in the IT market has made higher and higher demands on applications, usability is a kind of basis, but it is also important to what emotions your product evokes among its users. And this is where UX research comes to your aid, allowing you to determine the emotions of users interacting with your product.

6. You verify design hypotheses

While working on a project, individual team members have different opinions about particular solutions and come up with various, sometimes contradictory hypotheses. How to reach a consensus in such a situation? You can rely on UX research in this respect as well. Research, by definition, provides objective data that allows you to make accurate decisions and facilitate resolving possible conflicts between team members.

What are the types of User Experience research?

When choosing the type of research, you should consider what kind of information you want to obtain, what resources and budget you have at your disposal, how much time you intend to spend on the research, and what the accessibility of the studied group is like. The types of research methods themselves provide a certain hint when choosing the appropriate variety to apply. Considering various criteria, User Experience research can be grouped as follows:

  1. moderated and unmoderated studies, in terms of the participation of the person conducting the research
  2. face-to-face and remote studies, in terms of the form in which they are conducted
  3. product and contextual studies, in terms of the subject of the research
  4. expert studies and studies with users, in terms of the respondents’ presence
  5. studies concerning behavior and concerning attitudes
  6. quantitative and qualitative studies, in terms of the type of data obtained
  7. formal and informal studies, in terms of the criteria they meet.

At which stages of the design process should research be conducted?

User-Centered Design process consists of several stages, the main ones being analysis, design, verification, and implementation. Thus, the question arises: At which stage do you decide to do research? You should know that you can opt for research at virtually any stage of product development.

At the initial stage of the project, especially when you are dealing with a new product, exploratory research, such as individual in-depth interviews or ethnographic research, will work perfectly. Once you have a working product, you can of course still conduct exploratory research, but you will probably also need evaluation research to verify whether your design meets the users’ needs.

Importantly, you do not need to have a fully functional product to conduct testing. You can test digital prototypes created in dedicated programs such as Sketch or Adobe XD, or even paper prototypes, drawn with a marker on a piece of paper. In principle, the earlier you test, the better. It is simpler and cheaper to fix problems detected early in a project than those defined late.

User needs research: An overview of methods

This research focuses on understanding the users, learning about the context in which they interact with the digital product, exploring the problems they face, or determining their motivations.

  1. Individual In-depth Interviews (IDI) are conversations between the researcher and the respondent. The conversations focus on an area relevant to the researcher, hence the interviews are called in-depth ones. Their purpose is to obtain information about the users and the context in which they function. According to the freedom to ask questions, interviews are divided into structured, free-form, and semi-structured ones. In-depth interviews can be conducted both directly and remotely. The interview with the respondent usually provides a broad knowledge of the topic and reveals phenomena of which the researcher may not have been aware.
  2. Focus group interview is a form of study similar to individual in-depth interviews, but its distinctive feature is the group nature of the conversation. This makes it possible to learn the opinion of a larger number of people in a shorter period of time. An additional feature of focus group interviews is the group dynamics, as individual interviewees influence each other. Focuses usually concentrate on a single issue, since it would take too long to talk to several people about numerous topics. During group interviews, projective techniques are often used with the interviewees, i.e., tasks that allow reaching the hidden opinions of the respondents in a form of play.
  3. Ethnographic research involves the observation of a selected process, events, and people; it originated in the social sciences and was developed by Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, among others. For the purposes of UX research, observation, and contextual interviewing, i.e., individual interviewing combined with field observation, are mainly used. Through ethnographic research, it is possible to observe the natural setting and context of a process. Seeing a phenomenon at the moment of its occurrence allows the researcher to react immediately and ask additional questions.
  4. Questionnaire research is most often conducted in the form of surveys containing closed or open questions. Currently, the most popular are online surveys. Questionnaire research provides quantitative data on a given topic and basic information about the surveyed group. It is also used when the study concerns sensitive issues.
  5. Diary surveys involve the respondent keeping a diary for a specified period of time, in which s/he describes the activities s/he performs, answering questions specified in the diary. Diaries come in both paper and electronic forms. They have the advantage of being mobile, as the respondent may carry them with him or her at all times. They allow an in-depth understanding of the long-term process.

Visualization of User Experience research results

In the previous paragraph, you learned what selected UX Research techniques are all about; in this one, you will find some ways to visualize your research results in an attractive way. Choosing the right visualization method is crucial. The customer or other members of the project team will more easily understand the essence of the findings if they are presented in a clear and pictorial way. Dedicated UX maps and diagrams developed by specialists come to the rescue. Below you will find some of them.

1. User Persona

Persona is a kind of representation of a typical user. A persona should be created on the basis of research, as only knowledge backed by studies will give you a true picture of the people you design for. A typical persona describes the users through their: goals, needs, concerns, age, and demographic data. Personas are a tool that can be used not only by UX designers but also by other members of the design team. Each of them will find it useful to have an image of the audience of the product they are creating.

If the persona was not created on the basis of research, but only on the basis of the designer’s knowledge, it is called a proto-persona. Usually, several personas are created for the project, representing different groups of users.

2. Empathy Map

An empathy map is an uncomplicated technique used to visualize user behavior. It helps you realize what people think and feel, and what their pains and motivations are. Like a persona, an empathy map will be useful to various members of a project team, and it should not be difficult to understand.

An empathy map is usually a canvas divided into 6 parts. The individual fields tell you what the user says and does, thinks and feels, sees and hears, what difficulties s/he faces, and what benefits s/he gets.

3. User Journey Map

This map shows the interactions between the user and the product and analyzes how the relationship changes over time and space. User Journey Map in a single diagram depicts the users (preferably personae), their points of contact with the service or product, the feelings they experience, and the artifacts they use. A user Journey Map is usually in the form of an infographic on which the elements are arranged in chronological order, in layers, one below the other. The map can be enhanced with drawings, icons, etc.

The different types of maps and diagrams are quite conventional. You yourself can choose the elements you happen to need and create your own diagrams based on them. Synchronization diagrams are particularly interesting, showing in one graphic image what is happening on the side of the organization/product and on the side of the user/customer. Popular diagrams include Service Blueprint, Customer Journey Map, Mental Model Diagram, and User Experience Map.

UX research as the basis of good solutions

In summary, UX research provides the knowledge needed when creating or optimizing a digital product. It helps identify problems faced by real or potential users, determine what their needs are, and how they use a given application. Knowledge backed by research allows you to make the right design decisions, as ultimately it is the users who will determine the success or failure of your project. For this reason, before you decide to make an expensive investment, you should carry out UX research.