There’s a dizzying amount of UX research tools to choose from. Whether it’s Balsamiq for wireframes, Optimal Workshop’s card sorting or tree testing tools, collaborative user research platforms like condens, or real-time feedback tools like UserTesting, there’s something out there for every team and every budget.
We recently looked at the best free and paid usability testing tools, and the web is full of lists that compile all the tools that are out there. For this article, we wanted to dig a little deeper and ask UX researchers and designers for their user research tools of choice. In the following paragraphs we discover tools that help you with remote qualitative research and evaluation, capturing behaviors and interactions as they happen, team collaboration, prototyping, and more.
Before we get started, let’s remind ourselves that the best UX research tool is free:
“It’s actually just doing the work and talking directly to people,” points out Marisa Morby, UX designer at Netlify. “Nothing is better than starting a conversation and listening to what people have to say.”
So, here are the tools that made our list:
When doing exploratory research for product innovation, it’s important to understand your users, their daily context, and their needs. But it’s difficult to capture product and user research insights and “in the moment” ah-ha’s because it’s usually not possible to follow and observe users all day round. To that end, Monal Chokshi, head of UX research at Lyft, swears by dscout and its robust functionality.
“It allows us to recruit people who fit our needs, or bring our own, and we can then ask these scouts — the participants — to do activities and answer questions via various media,” she explains. “It also provides a great interface for managing, collecting, and organizing all the data.”
For example, as part of a diary study at Lyft, the research team asked drivers to capture moments just after great — and not so great — ride experiences, so they could better understand in detail what makes, or breaks, such experiences for drivers.
“We got lots of rich input through screenshots and videos, short answers and surveys, both during the day and night,” Chokshi remembers. “Overall, this rich set of moment-by-moment data with drivers in various locations was something that we could not have collected so quickly and easily — and possibly not at all — without having made a much larger investment of time and resources.”
Dscout also enables you to organize masses of data with visual data filtering and sorting capabilities, provides automatic video transcriptions, and an ability to create highlight reels. Chokshi is also excited to try the new “Express Missions” feature, which lets you run quick surveys (outside of a full diary study), as well as their “Live” product, a video conference/screen share tool you can use for in-depth user interviews (for example, to dive deeper with diary study participants) and that even lets you “invisibly” add observers.
Zoom, GotoMeeting and other video conferencing tools
David Sloan, UX research lead at accessibility consultancy The Paciello Group, often conducts user research with people with disabilities. As there isn’t time or budget for face-to-face usability testing, he has found great value in web conferencing tools like Zoom or Skype for remote evaluation.
“Zoom’s ability to record system audio as well as the participant’s own speech and their screen makes it ideal for remote testing with screen reader users,” he explains. “By setting up a multi-participant call you can also have observers watch and listen and take notes. The fidelity of the recorded audio supports high-quality transcription of the screen reader output and moderator/participant dialogue, which can be used for analysis purposes. For assistive technology users, minimizing demands for additional software to be installed before a remote evaluation is particularly important, and the Zoom interface is pretty accessible.”
Sloan points out that one limitation of web conferencing software is their inability to out-of-the-box broadcast or record a screen as seen when magnification or a high contrast color scheme has been applied. However, in his experience of carrying out research with screen reader users, these tools are ideal, especially for quick, targeted evaluations as a way to inject accessible user experience into an agile development process.
Bekah Rice, senior UX designer/developer and accessibility expert at user experience strategy firm truematter, agrees that video conferencing tools are great to capture tests and share them with observers. In her experience, GoToMeeting is one of the more practical ones.
“It allows us to easily capture all audio, the user’s face, their screen and interactions while clients/observers watch remotely,” she points out.
Similarly, Lindsey Wallace, senior experience researcher at Adobe, recommends audio recording apps:
“I love using an audio recorder on my phone because it’s always with me, and my participants are used to having phones around, so it doesn’t make them uncomfortable or feel like they’re being interrogated.”
For Ben Grace, lead UX designer at WordPress-centric digital agency 10up, team collaboration software Miro has become an indispensable tool to plan and prep for research, keep the team organized as they execute, and a great way to socialize their findings.
“Our team has found that having a single place for our work that is visible to the team is very useful, and common in shared physical spaces,” he explains. “However, at 10up, we’re a fully remote team, and Miro has really enhanced how we work. Remote collaboration is always challenging, but we’re able to quickly access and keep our insights in a single space for the full team to view.”
Grace also discovered that workshops that would often only run in physical locations are much easier to translate to remote work with Miro.
“After all, participating in not just the generation, but the assimilation of user research is often when the aha moments are most impactful to the team,” he adds.
One of the best tools Melissa Vander Wilt, another lead UX designer at 10up, has used in recent years for user testing and insights is Hotjar.
“Drop a snippet of code into your site, tell the tool what pages to look at, and watch the insights roll in,” she enthuses. “Session recordings capture actual interactions, from mouse movements to scroll depth to clicks, including rage clicks!”
There are also interactive heat maps to visualize actions; you can run quick surveys and polls, and the analysis of the form and funnel is a breeze. Recently, Hotjar also introduced the ability to target polls and incoming feedback to users based on user attributes shared over Hotjar’s Identify API.
“It’s an incredibly powerful tool for behavior analysis and ongoing optimization, and I recommend it on nearly all of my projects,” Vander Wilt says.
Bekah Rice, senior UX designer/developer and accessibility expert at user experience strategy firm truematter, says that her team tries new tools pretty regularly but that their standby tool is Axure.
“We typically want to test more complex interactions with users early on in a project and so far, Axure is the only product that gives us the flexibility to do that,” she explains. “I can use it to go from gray box sketching, to formal wireframes and all the way to a testable prototype.”
Ideally, the team carries out several prototype tests with users before anything gets designed in a tool like Adobe XD or physically coded.
“We also recently started trying out Unite UX Studio and participated in their beta testing,” Rice adds. “It shows a lot of promise for prototyping quickly with real data. We typically use Kendo UI for our projects, and Unite UX gives us a way to test with those controls in our prototype.”
Choose a tool that works for you and focus on the users
There are a ton of UX research tools out there, and you’ll need to decide which ones are most suited to your projects and way of working. As user and product research leader Gregg Bernstein points out, the best tools are those already in use by your organization.
“People are creatures of habit — your colleagues included,” he explains. “To make research visible and accessible, keep as much of the research process within their current technological ecosystem. Whether your org uses Slack and Google Drive, or Basecamp and Zoom, there you go: that’s your research toolbox. After six months to a year like this, you’ll know what’s working just fine and what’s ripe for better tooling.”
Lindsey Wallace, senior experience researcher at Adobe, meanwhile, advises to check your ego at the door and remember your participants are the experts: “When running research, I always want my participants to feel like nothing they can say is a ‘wrong answer’ because I’m there to learn about their experiences. This requires patience and the ability to create an environment of trust and safety. User research is a judgement free zone!”
Wallace also believes it’s critical to be able to interpret observations and data.
“Ultimately, no tool is a substitute for the expertise of a trained researcher who approaches their work and participants with deep curiosity and leverages literature and other resources in their field to contextualize their insights.”