4 Key UX Research Techniques

Good research forms the backbone of the UX design process. Here are four essential techniques that will get you inside the user’s head.
Headshot of author Nick Babich
Nick Babich
Expert Columnist
May 11, 2021
Updated: May 12, 2021
Headshot of author Nick Babich
Nick Babich
Expert Columnist
May 11, 2021
Updated: May 12, 2021

UX research, also known as user research or design research, is perhaps the most important part of the product design process. It informs everything we do by giving us access to the perspective of the end-user. The more we know about our users, the better we can design products that meet their needs. User research helps us recognize user needs and wants and align product design decisions accordingly.

4 Key UX Research Techniques

  1. User Interviews
  2. Contextual Inquiry
  3. Surveys
  4. Usability Testing


1. User Interviews 

One-on-one interviews are a tried and tested method for UX research. These discussions are typically structured in a question-and-answer format. A researcher asks specific questions, which are usually prepared beforehand, and participants answer them. The interviewer should listen to the answers and ask follow-up questions where necessary so that the interviewee can provide additional details.

You can conduct these interviews either in person or remotely via phone or video conference. In-person interviews are preferable, however, because they allow the interviewer to watch the body language of a participant and listen for verbal cues like tone and inflection.

You can recruit research participants in a couple of different ways. Special tools like User Interviews or UserTesting are good for finding people. Alternatively, you can create a job offer on Craigslist or a similar resource in your area. Note that you need to specify the terms for participants and whether they’re volunteering will be paid. In the latter case, be clear about the amount that participants will receive for their time. The average price for this type of service in the U.S. is currently $100 per hour.  

When To Conduct Interviews

Interviews enable researchers to get detailed information about a user’s attitudes and desires. They work best at the early stages of the product design process when a team is exploring a product niche and wants to know more about the target audience. User interviews can validate some of the team’s initial product design hypotheses. 

User interviews can also be valuable after a product’s release. For example, it’s possible to frame interview questions around the common scenarios of interaction with a product and collect user opinions on how easy or hard it is to use. In this case, user interviews uncover areas of friction, and this information helps product teams prioritize backlog in order to make the product more usable. 

Best Practices

Recruit relevant participants. The person who you interview should represent your target audience. Create a user persona, which is the archetype of your ideal customer, and evaluate your participants according to it. 

Understand the goal of your interview. What do you want to achieve with it? For example, you might want to learn why 80 percent of your users leave your mobile app after the first visit. This goal will influence the questions you choose to ask, focusing on finding answers for why the app doesn’t satisfy user expectations.

Avoid leading questions that direct participants to a particular answer. “Why do you like this product?” is an example of such a question. It makes participants think about why they like the product rather than allowing them to verbalize their genuine opinions. Avoid leading questions because they don’t add any value to your research.

Practice participatory design. This process allows participants to interact with a prototype of a future product during the interview. You then collect feedback on their experience with it. By doing so, you will learn whether your future design meets their needs.

Watch the participants’ body language. Experienced interviewers not only ask relevant questions, but they also watch the body signals of their interviewees. This non-verbal information gives cues about when the interviewee is stressed or uncertain. When an interviewer notices such behavior, they might want to ask some clarifying questions to understand the root cause of this emotional response (i.e., ask “Why did this question make you feel uncomfortable?”) 

Don’t believe everything you hear. What users say is not always the same as what users do. Thus, always validate key findings with other research techniques. 

 

2. Contextual Inquiry

Unlike user interviews, which mostly involve asking questions, contextual inquiry primarily deals with observation. The UX researcher observes how users interact with a particular product in their day-to-day lives. The contextual aspect means that the research takes place in a user’s natural environment, like her home or office. The inquiry consists of watching the user as she performs her tasks and then asking clarifying questions. The goal of contextual inquiry is to immerse yourself in the user’s environment to understand the gaps between what people say versus what they do.

You can select the participants for contextual inquiry from your existing user base. In most cases, you can just send an email invitation to an inquiry session to particular users.

Users should match your research criteria. For example, if you want to know the problems new users face when interacting with your product, you might frame criteria to match users who are recent adopters of your product.

When To Conduct Contextual Inquiry

Contextual inquiry gives the design team an in-depth understanding of user behavior. Typically, you should conduct it during the early discovery stages for a new feature or product. Researchers use this technique to collect valuable insights on how users interact with that feature/product and use that information to introduce changes to the feature/product requirements. 

Best Practices

Remember the purpose of your research. You should have a clear understanding of what information should be collected and why. This understanding will make the inquiry session more focused because the researcher will focus on particular aspects of the user interactions. 

Minimize interference in the study. Your goal is to understand user behavior as realistically as possible. Thus, do not interrupt users when they interact with a product. Simply observe and take notes. 

Speaking of: Take notes! Don’t just try to remember all the things that you see or hear. Human memory is fallible, and it’s important to make notes about the most critical findings. 

 

3. Surveys

Surveys consist of a series of questions asked of multiple users. They’re an easy way to gather a large amount of information while spending minimal time on the collection process. A researcher creates a survey using tools such as Survey Monkey or Google Surveys, emails it out to the target group that matches the research criteria and receives dozens of responses from users quickly.

To increase the survey competition rate, you can use monetary incentives such as money or gift cards. Alternatively, you can also offer small gifts or swag items like branded pens and notebooks.

When To Conduct Surveys

Surveys are an excellent tool when you have a large and diverse group of users and want to know their opinion on one or a few topics. Typically, surveys work better for quantitative research (i.e., how many users do something) rather than qualitative (i.e., why users do something). For qualitative answers, follow up a survey with an interview. In this case, you will first find whats happening, and after that, you will find why.  

Best Practices

Remember that, with a survey, you cant interact directly with the respondents. Unlike user interviews, you cant ask follow-up questions to understand why respondents answer in a particular way. This dynamic means that you need to be very careful when creating questions.

Try to use clear language to minimize the chance that participants will misinterpret them. And put the easier questions at the beginning of the survey. Three to five simple, lightweight questions such as “How much time do you spend online every day?” will put the respondent in the mood to complete the full questionnaire. After that, you can start asking more specific questions.

Try to avoid open-ended questions that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no.” Although this type of question provides an opportunity to collect more detailed user behavior information, they make survey analysis much more difficult. 

The number of questions you ask impacts the survey competition rate. The more questions you ask, the fewer participants will complete the full survey. Thus, always try to keep the total number of questions to the absolute minimum that will still give you the necessary information. You should also specify the time required to complete the survey in the introductory message (i.e., “This survey will take three minutes to complete.”) so that respondents will plan their time accordingly.

Test your questionnaire on a small group of people before sending it to the whole group. This will allow you to see whether all questions are clear to your participants. 

 

4. Usability Testing

Usability testing involves asking potential or current users of a product to complete a series of tasks and then analyzing their behavior to determine the usability of the product. You can do this with a prototype or a finished product either in person or remotely via screen share.

When To Conduct Usability Testing

You can do usability testing at any stage of the product design process. As a general rule, the earlier you start testing, the earlier you will find key usability issues, and the less expensive it will be to fix them.

Best Practices

Define key usability metrics before starting the testing. Select these metrics according to the goal you want to achieve. For example, you might want to know whether its easy or difficult for the user to complete a particular task. In this case, you might want to measure time-on-task to figure it out.

Provide clear instructions. Ensure that all tasks are crystal clear to your participants. Clear instructions guarantee more relevant testing results. 

Use the think-out loud protocol. Ask test participants to verbalize their thoughts as they complete the tasks. The information that participants will provide can be helpful during later analysis.  

 

Master Your Research Process

As Dieter Rams famously said, “You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people.” User research prevents us from making one common yet costly mistake — designing products for ourselves rather than for our users. Properly conducted user research helps us create a solid foundation for user-centered design. It forces us to evaluate every design decision from the perspective of user needs and wants.

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