User research, or UX research, is a booming field that every UX designer should know about. An essential part of user experience design, it’s carried out to learn as much as possible about your users in order to improve your products — what they need and what’s important to them, how they behave and use your products or services, the challenges they encounter, along the way, and how you can fix those. Put simply, if you don’t take the time to engage with real users, how else would you know what they need or struggle with?

To conduct user research, there are various observational techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies you can use to help improve the usability of your product and service. It’s an interactive process that’s typically done at the beginning of a project, but that’s also very valuable throughout, right up to the end when you conduct user testing with real users to refine your finished product.  

In this article, we’ll cover the importance of user research and explore the two main categories of user research methods — and the many techniques you can use for each — to gather valuable data. Whether you’re new to user research, or need some inspiration for new methods to try out in your projects, we’ve got you covered. 

The importance of user research

“Empathize” is the first step in the design thinking process, and user research is one of the best ways to do that. It helps you understand your target audience, their needs and wants, and how they currently do things. By involving potential users from the start, you can ensure there’s actually a demand for your product and position it better in the market. Placing people firmly at the center of your process and putting yourself in their shoes is the only way to design something that’s relevant and a delight to use.

It also improves the usability of your product. Really digging into user preferences might encourage design tweaks that enable you to design a product that’s not only easy, but also a delight to use, delivering a great user experience in the process. These days, user-centered design is crucial in creating a successful product in a competitive market. 

Finally, user research helps you understand your product’s return on investment (ROI). Stakeholders might still be reluctant to invest in user research because it doesn’t feel that tangible. However, if you can show that the changes you’ve made — for example, based on a round of A/B testing to decide which version users prefer — have resulted in more sales or in more customers, chances are user research will become an integral part of your process. 

There are many user research techniques — a lot of them surprisingly easy and cheap! — that are usually divided into qualitative and quantitative methods. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular ones. 

Qualitative vs. quantitative research

Qualitative research refers to descriptive data and helps you uncover how people think and feel. It answers the “why” and its results are often observations and comments that give you a better idea of your users’ actual experience. Quantitative research, on the other hand, is usually based on numerical data and answers the “what”. It’s often used to add context to the opinions and behaviors of your users (for example, you discover that it took them less time to complete a task on prototype A). 

Here’s a rundown of different user research methods you can use for each type: 

Qualitative research methodologies

Participant observation (also known as contextual inquiry)

One of the easiest and most effective user research methods is watching real users interact with a product in their natural environment at home or their workplace. The benefit here is that participants don’t need to remember their behaviors and motivations and report them back to you. It’s especially valuable in the early stages of a project; for example, when you want to test if users have a real need for the app you’d like to build. 

Moderated and unmoderated usability testing

You can also collect data on your product by asking test participants to complete a specific set of tasks — either with a researcher (a moderator) present during the test, or by leaving the participant to carry out the tasks without anybody else in the room. Unmoderated tests can be a lot easier, cheaper and quicker, while moderated tests tend to be more suitable for the early stages of a design; for example, when you want to test a concept or prototype.

In-depth interviews

Interviews, for which participants meet with a researcher one-on-one to discuss aspects of a product or service, can give you more detailed insights into the user experience of individual users. Put together a list of questions to encourage users to describe their thoughts and feelings when they interact with your product. You can use interviews at the beginning to inform personas, journey maps, feature ideas, or to complement contextual inquiries, or you can use them at the end of a usability test. Example questions may include “what are you trying to get done?” and “can you show me what’s frustrating about your current process?”

Focus groups

A group of participants from your target audience gathers in one room and — led by a moderator — discusses your product or service. Focus groups enable you to gain a range of inputs that will replicate real world perceptions. You’ll understand multiple viewpoints and users’ reactions to help create a more well-rounded product that will appeal to a larger audience. Again, thoughts and feelings are compiled and used to inform the direction of the product. Focus groups are especially useful during early discovery and early stages of new product development.

Quantitative research methodologies

Eye tracking study

Eye tracking measures the gaze of the eye, enabling the researcher to observe what the user is looking at and for how long. It also reveals how eyes move and search for information on the screen, which can help identify whether users are attracted to specific content or features, for example because of a particular color or the way the navigation is designed. Eye tracking can provide valuable insight into users’ viewing behaviors and where they focus their attention and uncover usability problems in which elements are being missed. 

A fairly new methodology, eye tracking requires specific equipment, like Clicktale for Adobe Analytics, which uses heat mapping software to track the user’s eyes when they interact with a web page. 

Product analytics

Tracking and monitoring your website or app gives you a wealth of data you can use to understand your users. Not only do analytics detect and prioritize any potential problems to keep your product running smoothly, such as broken links, but the data you gather also includes useful information about the demographics of your users (gender and age, their location, the languages they speak, the browsers and devices they use, etc). You’ll also learn how your users find your website, how they move through it, how long they spend on certain pages, how frequently they visit, and where they drop off (the so-called bounce-rate). 

A/B testing / Multivariate testing

Comparing two slightly different versions of a web page (or even more in the case of multivariate testing) is a great way to find out which converts more. It’s especially useful to test button placements, colors, banners, text variations (eg “add to cart” vs. “buy now”) and other elements in your UI. It can also prevent problems in the future because you will have a more solidified idea of what people like. 

Quantitative usability testing (benchmarking)

This method enables you to track the progress of your product’s usability over time by testing it with users at various benchmarks. Participants are asked to perform a set of tasks and the researcher collects metrics like time on task or success to determine how changes affect the user experience. You’ll need a relatively large sample size (around 35 users or more), but you’ll gain valuable information that you can use to compare it to the usability of your competitors’ products. It’s also possible to carry out qualitative usability testing, which focuses on observations. 

Card sorting

To help understand your information architecture and naming conventions better, you can ask test participants to group your site’s information with a card sort. They can group the cards into categories in a way that makes sense to them and then choose potential names for the categories they’ve put together. Or they can sort the cards into groups that have already been labelled and defined. This helps ensure the site structure matches the way users think and can be really handy to sort large amounts of content.

Tree testing

Tree testing is typically used to evaluate the information architecture of your website and validate the results of card sorting. Once the main categories for a website are already established, participants attempt to complete tasks using only the category structure of the site to find a particular item or piece of content. For this purpose, the information architecture is isolated from all other aspects of the UI. Tree testing can be conducted well in advance of designing page layouts or navigation menus. 

Screen from the tree testing tool Treejack, which creates a clickable menu with categories that helps you prove your information architecture.
Tree testing tools like Treejack help you prove your information architecture by creating a clickable menu with categories and subcategories. Image by Optimal Workshop

Surveys and questionnaires

You can also get feedback from users on a live product by posing a series of questions via online surveys and questionnaires, which you can use to collect satisfaction metrics and ratings. It’s another quick and easy way to understand the people who visit your site, their attitudes, and their behaviors. To gather quantitative data, make sure you ask closed, neutral questions, which tend to have higher response rates and are easier to analyze. 

Getting started with user research

This article has given us a brief overview of the many common user research methods available. There are even more but, fear not, you don’t need to use all of them on any given project. Choose the ones that make the most sense for your product or service (depending on what you want to achieve as well as your timeline and budget), and ensure you employ a good mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to form a bigger picture. 

As soon as you have anything to show, test it with users. If you use a tool like Adobe XD, you can even hide the UI elements you expose during usability testing sessions to give them a more authentic web experience. Or use one of the many user testing plugins available. 

So, if you don’t want to just base your design on assumptions, which may cost you a lot of time, money, and nerves, make user research an integral part of your process and create products that resonate with real users and solve real problems.