How to establish a strategic UX research process—and common mistakes to avoid
Your platform’s user experience (UX) plays a major part in adoption and growth rates—but to maximize user-centricity and minimize wasted resources, you need a systematic approach to conducting UX research.
In this chapter we’ll cover key steps to refine your UX research process and establish it within your organization. We’ll also explore the benefits of introducing a streamlined research process—and common mistakes to avoid, with top tips from industry pros.
Why you need a research process in UX design and development
If research allows you to gather insights to inform UX design and development decisions, having a tailor-made UX research process ultimately streamlines your research practices, and elevates the way you build products as a whole. Without a robust process in place, you can end up making decisions in the dark or conducting research only when your team has the spare capacity—which is likely a rare occasion.
“Skipping research causes you to miss out on opportunities to change directions or adjust your design to make the most impact. You should make sure you’ve taken the necessary steps to clarify and validate your direction,” warns Nick Simpson, Head of UX at Airteam.
A UX research process also helps you make better use of your resources as you can anticipate potential design flaws and avoid redesigns. It’s also valuable in getting stakeholders involved early on and reinforcing the role of research throughout your organization.
Key steps in the UX research process
Each company’s UX research process is like a fingerprint: personal and distinctive. While there are similarities across the board, there is no one way to do UX research. Individual UX research stages will vary, depending on the methods you use, your objectives, and the phase of product development you’re in. However, here’s a broad list of steps to bear in mind when you conduct UX research:
1. Set research goals: Determine what you want to achieve and the types of questions you need answering, then identify your research objectives—e.g. evaluate how easy the sign-up process is.
2. Choose research methods: How are you going to reach your objectives? What type of tests do you need to conduct? What usability metrics will inform your research? Choose a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods that answer your questions—e.g. to test your SUS, you need to conduct usability tests.
3. Pick a testing tool: Simplify your team’s work by using an intuitive UX research platform. The ideal tool should let you perform multiple research methods and give you an automated report with key highlights. For example, researchers love Maze because it covers multiple types of UX testing, has a shallow learning curve, and comes with a broad bank of testing templates.
4. Write a testing script: List all the different scenarios, tasks, or questions you want your participants to complete. For example, if you’re conducting a usability test, plan the usability tasks, accompanying instructions, and any follow-up questions.
5. Recruit participants: Who’s going to complete your tests? Look for research participants that fit your target audience and user personas, then conduct your screening process to ensure their answers will add value. You could also use a recruitment tool like the Maze Panel to simplify this process.
6. Conduct the research: Now’s the moment you’ve been working towards—whether you’re hopping on a call, sending a link, or watching live website testing, dive into the research and speak to and observe your participants.
7. Analyze the results: Analysis will vary depending on your method and tool, but remember to look out for trends and unexpectedly low or high metrics. Synthesize the data and build a report or download your research tool’s automated summary.
8. Share findings: Keep product and design teams up to date with research findings, whether it’s through Slack updates or a meeting to assign follow-up actions. Share the report and next steps with all relevant stakeholders, and decide if you need to conduct any further research.
9. Implement takeaways: It’s time to use the insights you’ve collected to make design and usability improvements, or inform your next feature, new product or update. Remember to report back to relevant teams and stakeholders with any follow-up performance analytics and updates.
Created by Erin Sanders, the Research Learning Spiral provides five main steps for conducting user research.
How to establish a UX research process at your organization
Mapping the steps of your UX research process is only the beginning. The next challenge is actually getting that process established within your team and getting buy-in across the organization.
Without this, you may find it difficult to allocate the resources you need to make the process work—or get sign off on decisions that arise from your research. Here’s how to fully establish your UX research process at your organization.
1. Understand how your organization works
Spend time learning about your organizational culture, the different departments, and where the decision-making power lies. This will help you grasp how research can provide value and play a significant role in your company.
Learning what user experience research you’re currently doing lets you identify any gaps, and build a process around the current dynamics, instead of changing your workflows unnecessarily. Pay close attention to these two business aspects:
1.1. Learn and outline your company’s decision-making process
Internal discussions with stakeholders will help you learn the needs of your organization and how research can contribute to decisions being made. To implement a successful UX research cycle, sit down with stakeholders and ask:
- How do we actually make decisions?
- What areas do you feel you are lacking context when making decisions?
- What kind of decisions are different parts of the company making?
- What decisions can the design team make and which ones do they run by the executive team?
- What evidence do you need to sign off or make decisions? What types of research data would build evidence?
1.2. Find out people’s prior experience with research
Asking stakeholders about their experience with research gives you insight into their perspective, and context for their decision-making process. It also helps you notice warning signs when they arise and determine which stakeholders you should engage with.
Christina Janzer, Senior Vice President of Research and Analytics at Slack explains that this understanding will help you to recognize an opportunity when you see it, and equip you to successfully implement a research practice across the organization: "If people across your organization understand the value of research, it’s easier to get buy-in for different research projects when opportunities come up.".
It also helps to know what people don’t know about research—so you can evangelize research and its benefits. Ask your stakeholders if they’ve been exposed to the research team’s work to understand how familiar they are with the value of user insights. Use that to determine how much effort you’ll need to put into showing them the benefits behind it.
Everyone should have access to information that helps them make better decisions. Information should take the path of least resistance and should go where people already are.
Gregg Bernstein, UX Researcher at Signal
2. Know what you’re trying to decide
UX research is all about answering a question or hypothesis the design or product teams may have. Learning what kind of research to do, why, and how you should do it are important steps to establishing a research practice.
If you’re building user-centric products, you already know why data should inform your decisions. However, to determine when to collect it and what kind of insights you need to get from research, you should start by answering: “What’s the decision I need to make? What are my research goals?”. Behzod Sirjani, Founder of Yet Another Studio and Research Advisor at Maze, says: “Research should always be oriented around a decision, because knowing what you’re trying to decide is going to help you understand what you’re trying to look at—and how you’re actually going to do it.”
As research is the foundation of user-centric design, you should do it during the entire product development process—at the early stages and even after the product is live. However, the ability to conduct user research depends on your bandwidth and resources, as well as the research maturity level of your organization. Starting with the goal and overarching question in mind helps you invest time and money in research that directly impacts the project.
3. Scope the research project properly
“To properly scope user research, you need to understand and balance long-term organizational goals against the impact of each project,” says Gregg Bernstein, Director of User Research at Hearst Magazines. “This means asking my research team, product manager, and organizational leadership, questions to grasp the big picture.” Then, you can contextualize where a given project fits in—and start to scope your research.
During this UX research step, you should ask questions specifically about the project, instead of the organization's work and culture. It's impossible to set a single defined process because it’ll change every time you try to answer a different question—but you can standardize the process.
To enable your researchers and designers to scope the project without being blocked by a bureaucratic loop, you should install a flexible approach to research. Gregg explains: “I don’t necessarily adhere to a framework so much as a devotion to providing information that helps everyone make better decisions, using whatever user research methods support our mission of gathering information.”
Tanya Nativ, Design Researcher at Sketch, also echoes the sentiment that properly scoping and planning your research is essential: “One of the processes that we set up early on was making sure every project starts with research goals and assumptions. It’s incredibly important to know why we are doing this research, and what we believe we already know about the user behavior.”
3.1. Pick your UX research methods
The UX research cycle also changes depending on the methodology you use. You should choose between:
- Qualitative or quantitative research: Sentiment-focused or number-focused insights. For example, user interviews are a form of qualitative research, whereas A/B tests are quantitative. Some research methods can offer both kinds of data, depending on the tasks you set or metrics you track. It’s best practice to have a mix of both data types, though.
- Evaluative or generative research: Assessing vs. creating. For instance, usability testing can be used to evaluate and rate how intuitive and usable your design is, while card sorting or focus groups with users can generate ideas.
- Attitudinal or behavioral research: What users say vs. what they do. For example, you can hear a user’s attitude or opinion in surveys or user interviews, but see if that correlates with the way they behave in diary studies, prototype testing, or live website testing.
- Remote or in-person studies: Online vs. face-to-face. This means users can complete remote studies via a link or by having a video call with you. In-person studies require you to invite them to a physical location for tests, incurring things like travel and accommodation expenses. For example, you can do tree testing and 5-second testing remotely using templates from a tool like Maze.
- Moderated or unmoderated tests: With supervision from a moderator vs. no moderator. When observing participants in a moderated study, you have the flexibility to ask questions based on their actions or ask contextual follow-up questions. However, unmoderated sessions are popular as they lead to more organic behavior and minimize things like social desirability bias.
4. Get stakeholder buy-in
“Your job as a researcher isn’t to have all the answers, but to help your company learn and make better decisions,” says Behzod. Getting stakeholder buy-in means getting the approval to find those answers. But, to get it, you must communicate its undebatable benefits to stakeholders, in the context of what matters to them.
For example, if you’re talking to the CEO, explain how building user-centric products will increase the ROI. If you’re talking to the Head of Product, present an example of research leading to improved SUS. While both are real and important benefits, the case for research can be tailored for each stakeholder.
To support your case, you can explain how the research affects your team, your user group, and the company as whole. You may need to modify the allocated budget and time spent on each piece of research, depending on how great this impact is.
Getting stakeholders involved in the research process is a key to getting their buy-in. Make sure you communicate your plans clearly and provide space for their insights and questions.
5. Engage the entire team in your UX research process
Research impacts the whole company; it gives marketers an inside look into user motivations, sales reps can identify unique selling points, and product managers and designers can build based on real user insights. “The more you make research a learning tool for everyone, the more you help people recognize its value,” explains Tanya.
Some ways to make research a collaborative discipline include:
- Inviting stakeholders to user interviews and preparing them in advance
- Documenting research findings in an accessible format
- Making sure product teams have information they need to make effective decisions
- Having a shared repository of insights where everyone can contribute
- Hosting cross-functional ideation sessions
- Sharing the research plan with your team and making sure they understand what you’re trying to answer
- Collaborating on questions and discussion guides to ensure you’re asking the right questions
- Hosting org-wide post-research sessions to discuss observations and learnings
- Asking for feedback across the UX research process and ensuring your team can see you’re implementing their ideas
“Your role is to shepherd your team to understand that you’re not doing research to have all the answers. Instead, you’re facilitating a way for everyone to learn so you can all make the important decisions that address real user needs,” says Behzod. So whether you implement one of the above changes or all of them, you’ll be on your way to cultivating a company-wide culture that sees research as a team sport.
At Shopify, I encouraged my product team to get involved in research by providing feedback on the plan, facilitating alignment workshops like assumption slams, inviting others to facilitate research sessions and take notes, and be part of the synthesis process.
Melanie Buset, Insights Manager at Spotify, previously Senior UX Researcher at Shopify
6. Share your findings with your team
Having discussions around findings makes it easier for teams to know exactly what they need to do, instead of guessing or trying to understand what some insights mean for their team. “It’s important to go over the final results after all your sessions, discuss the research outcome, and decide what you’re going to implement,” says Tanya.
To ensure your findings are implemented, avoid research silos happening through confusing information or closed feedback loops. One way to do this is to create an organization-wide library or repository that contains all the insights you’ve discovered.
“Everyone should have access to information that helps them make better decisions,” says Greg. Conducting research is just one part of the equation, making the data digestible and actionable for your teams is the other half.
Determining the most effective format and medium to share your research findings will depend on the preferred communication channels your company already uses. For example, if your team is most receptive to live discussions, you can organize an all-hands presentation, but if they’d rather read a report, you can make it available on a shared repository.
For example, Behzod explains that during his tenure at Slack, part of the researchers’ job was building knowledge for the company via one or two-page documents, similar to Wikipedia articles, that included links to different studies and data points, and then sharing them with the team. “I encourage people to start the sharing process before the project starts,” he says. “You want your team bought in about the fact that you’re doing this work because you want it to impact their decisions and so you need their voice represented in the plan—you want them participating all along the way.”
The advantage of including your team in the UX research process is that when the time comes to discuss the findings and next steps, everyone is on the same page.
7. Measure the effectiveness of research
“As researchers, we’re just as responsible for the outcomes of the products we work on as everyone else,” explains Melanie. “Remember to keep the conversation going after sharing the results and follow up to see how the team is progressing on implementation,” concludes Melanie.
Last but not least, a key part of advocating for research and its value is making sure that the findings you shared are implemented and actively worked on. That is, ensuring the research has been effective in improving the product and informing the decision-making process.
Here’s some questions to consider when measuring the effectiveness of research:
- Will the insights produced still be valid in a year? What is their shelf life?
- How many team members have seen and reacted to findings?
- Have the insights been retranslated into actual deliverables for new or updated features?
- Has this development solved a user’s pain point?
- Are the insights influencing current or future product design?
More than that, the decisions made based on key findings should benefit your target audience or the team, and make things better for your users. To do this, you have to define what ‘better’ means by knowing who your users are and if your decision will have an irreversible impact. The research questions that can guide your assessment include:
- Are you doing the right things for your end users?
- Are you doing things that are in service of your business?
Ultimately, the value of research comes down to building a successful product based on insight and new learnings, so it’s key to measure how the changes and decisions taken due to research perform over time.
Your job as a researcher is not to have all the answers, but to help your company learn and make better decisions.
Behzod Sirjani, Founder of Yet Another Studio
Mistakes to avoid in the UX research cycle
Conducting research and building out a UX research process comes with a lot of moving parts. This means there are many opportunities for product-shaping discoveries, but there are also many potential roadblocks or challenges you may face on the way.
Some common mistakes to look out for include:
- Not conducting research before launching a new feature or product: The worst UX research mistake you can make is not doing it at all. You’ll just end up making decisions based on assumptions rather than the user, which could set your products up to fail.
- Not testing a large sample or using a mix of methods: Teams with limited resources or time may be tempted to reduce the pool of test participants or only conduct either quantitative or qualitative research (rather than a mix of both). With this approach, you risk getting biased results or misinterpreting your insights.
- Working in silos: If you don’t regularly share your insights with other teams, you could compromise all that hard work you did to get buy-in. You need co-operation from these important stakeholders to make the most of your research and get backing to make user-centric decisions.
- Wanting to please stakeholders at all costs: While stakeholder involvement is important, that doesn’t mean you should act on their every whim. Aligning your goals with the business strategy and clearly communicating those goals early will give you something to refer back to if a stakeholder request could derail your research goals.
Getting others to see the value behind research and building intentional ways of learning with a structured process across the organization makes UX research a highly beneficial company-wide practice. Partner up with an easy-to-use UX research platform like Maze to conduct continuous research, and use results to inform every design decision with user insights.