11 Key UX research methods: How and when to use them
After defining your objectives and planning your research framework, it’s time to choose the research technique that will best serve your project's goals and yield the right insights. While user research is often treated as an afterthought, it should inform every design decision. In this chapter, we walk you through the most common research methods and help you choose the right one for you.
What are UX research methods?
A UX research method is a way of generating insights about your users, their behavior, motivations, and needs. You can use methods like user interviews, surveys, focus groups, card sorting, usability testing to identify user challenges and turn them into opportunities to improve the user experience.
More of a visual learner? Check out this video for a speedy rundown. If you’re ready to get stuck in, jump straight to our full breakdown.
The most common types of user research
First, let’s talk about the types of UX research. Every individual research method falls under these types, which reflect different goals and objectives for conducting research.
Here’s a quick overview:
Qualitative vs. quantitative
All research methods are either quantitative or qualitative. Qualitative research focuses on capturing subjective insights into users' experiences. It aims to understand the underlying reasons, motivations, and behaviors of individuals. Quantitative research, on the other hand, involves collecting and analyzing numerical data to identify patterns, trends, and significance. It aims to quantify user behaviors, preferences, and attitudes, allowing for generalizations and statistical insights.
Qualitative research also typically involves a smaller sample size than quantitative research (40 participants, as recommended by Nielsen Norman Group).
Attitudinal vs. behavioral
Attitudinal research is about understanding users' attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs. It delves into the 'why' behind user decisions and actions. It often involves surveys or interviews where users are asked about their feelings, preferences, or perceptions towards a product or service. It's subjective in nature, aiming to capture people's emotions and opinions.
Behavioral research is about what users do rather than what they say they do or would do. This kind of research is often based on observation methods like usability testing, eye-tracking, or heat maps to understand user behavior.
Generative vs. evaluative
Generative research is all about generating new ideas, concepts, and insights to fuel the design process. You might run brainstorming sessions with groups of users, card sorting, and co-design sessions to inspire creativity and guide the development of user-centered solutions.
On the other hand, evaluative research focuses on assessing the usability, effectiveness, and overall quality of existing designs or prototypes. Once you’ve developed a prototype of your product, it's time to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. You can compare different versions of a product design or feature through A/B testing—ensuring your UX design meets user needs and expectations.
11 Best UX research methods and when to use them
There are various UX research techniques—each method serves a specific purpose and can provide unique insights into user behaviors and preferences. In this section, we’ll highlight the most common research techniques you need to know.
Read on for an at-a-glance table, and full breakdown of each method.
User interviews are a qualitative research method that involves having open-ended and guided discussions with users to gather in-depth insights about their experiences, needs, motivations, and behaviors.
Typically, you would ask a few questions on a specific topic and analyze participants' answers. The results you get will depend on how well you form and ask questions, as well as follow up on participants’ answers.
“As a researcher, it's our responsibility to drive the user to their actual problems,” says Yuliya Martinavichene, User Experience Researcher at Zinio. She adds, “The narration of incidents can help you analyze a lot of hidden details with regard to user behavior.”
That’s why you should:
- Start with a wide context: Make sure that your questions don’t start with your product
- Ask questions that focus on the tasks that users are trying to complete
- Invest in analysis: Get transcripts done and share the findings with your team
Tanya Nativ, Design Researcher at Sketch recommends defining the goals and assumptions internally. “Our beliefs about our users’ behavior really help to structure good questions and get to the root of the problem and its solution,” she explains.
It's easy to be misunderstood if you don't have experience writing interview questions. You can get someone to review them for you or use our Question Bank of 350+ research questions.
When to conduct user interviews
This method is typically used at the start and end of your project. At the start of a project, you can establish a strong understanding of your target users, their perspectives, and the context in which they’ll interact with your product.
By the end of your project, new user interviews—often with a different set of individuals—offer a litmus test for your product's usability and appeal, providing firsthand accounts of experiences, perceived strengths, and potential areas for refinement.
Field studies are research activities that take place in the user’s environment rather than in your lab or office. They’re a great method for uncovering context, unknown motivations, or constraints that affect the user experience.
An advantage of field studies is observing people in their natural environment, giving you a glimpse at the context in which your product is used. It’s useful to understand the context in which users complete tasks, learn about their needs, and collect in-depth user stories.
When to conduct field studies
This method can be used at all stages of your project—two key times you may want to conduct field studies are:
- As part of the discovery and exploration stage to define direction and understand the context around when and how users interact with the product
- During usability testing, once you have a prototype, to evaluate the effectiveness of the solution or validate design assumptions in real-world contexts
3. Focus groups
A focus group is a qualitative research method that includes the study of a group of people, their beliefs, and opinions. It’s typically used for market research or gathering feedback on products and messaging.
Focus groups can help you better grasp:
- How users perceive your product
- What users believe are a product’s most important features
- What problems do users experience with the product
As with any qualitative research method, the quality of the data collected through focus groups is only as robust as the preparation. So, it’s important to prepare a UX research plan you can refer to during the discussion.
Here’s some things to consider:
- Write a script to guide the conversation
- Ask clear, open-ended questions focused on the topics you’re trying to learn about
- Include around five to ten participants to keep the sessions focused and organized
When to conduct focus groups
It’s easier to use this research technique when you're still formulating your concept, product, or service—to explore user preferences, gather initial reactions, and generate ideas. This is because, in the early stages, you have flexibility and can make significant changes without incurring high costs.
Another way some researchers employ focus groups is post-launch to gather feedback and identify potential improvements. However, you can also use other methods here which may be more effective for identifying usability issues. For example, a platform like Maze can provide detailed, actionable data about how users interact with your product. These quantitative results are a great accompaniment to the qualitative data gathered from your focus group.
4. Diary studies
Diary studies involve asking users to track their usage and thoughts on your product by keeping logs or diaries, taking photos, explaining their activities, and highlighting things that stood out to them.
“Diary studies are one of the few ways you can get a peek into how users interact with our product in a real-world scenario,” says Tanya.
A diary study helps you tell the story of how products and services fit into people’s daily lives, and the touch-points and channels they choose to complete their tasks.
There’s several key questions to consider before conducting diary research, from what kind of diary you want—freeform or structured, and digital or paper—to how often you want participants to log their thoughts.
- Open, ‘freeform’ diary: Users have more freedom to record what and when they like, but can also lead to missed opportunities to capture data users might overlook
- Closed, ‘structured; diary: Users follow a stricter entry-logging process and answer pre-set questions
Remember to determine the trigger: a signal that lets the participants know when they should log their feedback. Tanya breaks these triggers down into the following:
- Interval-contingent trigger: Participants fill out the diary at specific intervals such as one entry per day, or one entry per week
- Signal-contingent trigger: You tell the participant when to make an entry and how you would prefer them to communicate it to you as well as your preferred type of communication
- Event-contingent trigger: The participant makes an entry whenever a defined event occurs
When to conduct diary studies
Diary studies are often valuable when you need to deeply understand users' behaviors, routines, and pain points in real-life contexts. This could be when you're:
- Conceptualizing a new product or feature: Gain insights into user habits, needs, and frustrations to inspire your design
- Trying to enhance an existing product: Identify areas where users are having difficulties or where there are opportunities for better user engagement
Although surveys are primarily used for quantitative research, they can also provided qualitative data, depending on whether you use closed or open-ended questions:
- Closed-ended questions come with a predefined set of answers to choose from using formats like rating scales, rankings, or multiple choice. This results in quantitative data.
- Open-ended questions are typically open-text questions where test participants give their responses in a free-form style. This results in qualitative data.
Matthieu Dixte, Product Researcher at Maze, explains the benefit of surveys: “With open-ended questions, researchers get insight into respondents' opinions, experiences, and explanations in their own words. This helps explore nuances that quantitative data alone may not capture.”
So, how do you make sure you’re asking the right survey questions? Gregg Bernstein, UX Researcher at Signal, says that when planning online surveys, it’s best to avoid questions that begin with “How likely are you to…?” Instead, Gregg says asking questions that start with “Have you ever… ?” will prompt users to give more specific and measurable answers.
Make sure your questions:
- Are easy to understand
- Don't guide participants towards a particular answer
- Include both closed-ended and open-ended questions
- Respect users and their privacy
- Are consistent in terms of format
To learn more about survey design, check out this guide.
When to conduct surveys
While surveys can be used at all stages of project development, and are ideal for continuous product discovery, the specific timing and purpose may vary depending on the research goals. For example, you can run surveys at:
- Conceptualization phase to gather preliminary data, and identify patterns, trends, or potential user segments
- Post-launch or during iterative design cycles to gather feedback on user satisfaction, feature usage, or suggestions for improvements
6. Card sorting
Card sorting is an important step in creating an intuitive information architecture (IA) and user experience. It’s also a great technique to generate ideas, naming conventions, or simply see how users understand topics.
In this UX research method, participants are presented with cards featuring different topics or information, and tasked with grouping the cards into categories that make sense to them.
There are three types of card sorting:
- Open card sorting: Participants organize topics into categories that make sense to them and name those categories, thus generating new ideas and names
- Hybrid card sorting: Participants can sort cards into predefined categories, but also have the option to create their own categories
- Closed card sorting: Participants are given predefined categories and asked to sort the items into the available groups
You can run a card sorting session using physical index cards or digitally with a UX research tool like Maze to simulate the drag-and-drop activity of dividing cards into groups. Running digital card sorting is ideal for any type of card sort, and moderated or unmoderated sessions.
Read more about card sorting and learn how to run a card sorting session here.
When to conduct card sorting
Card sorting isn’t limited to a single stage of design or development—it can be employed anytime you need to explore how users categorize or perceive information. For example, you may want to use card sorting if you need to:
- Understand how users perceive ideas
- Evaluate and prioritize potential solutions
- Generate name ideas and understand naming conventions
- Learn how users expect navigation to work
- Decide how to group content on a new or existing site
- Restructure information architecture
7. Tree testing
During tree testing a text-only version of the site is given to your participants, who are asked to complete a series of tasks requiring them to locate items on the app or website.
The data collected from a tree test helps you understand where users intuitively navigate first, and is an effective way to assess the findability, labeling, and information architecture of a product.
We recommend keeping these sessions short, ranging from 15 to 20 minutes, and asking participants to complete no more than ten tasks. This helps ensure participants remain focused and engaged, leading to more reliable and accurate data, and avoiding fatigue.
If you’re using a platform like Maze to run remote testing, you can easily recruit participants based on various demographic filters, including industry and country. This way, you can uncover a broader range of user preferences, ensuring a more comprehensive understanding of your target audience.
To learn more about tree testing, check out this chapter.
When to conduct tree testing
Tree testing is often done at an early stage in the design or redesign process. That’s because it’s more cost-effective to address errors at the start of a project—rather than making changes later in the development process or after launch.
However, it can be helpful to employ tree testing as a method when adding new features, particularly alongside card sorting.
While tree testing and card sorting can both help you with categorizing the content on a website, it’s important to note that they each approach this from a different angle and are used at different stages during the research process. Ideally, you should use the two in tandem: card sorting is recommended when defining and testing a new website architecture, while tree testing is meant to help you test how the navigation performs with users.
8. Usability testing
Usability testing evaluates your product with people by getting them to complete tasks while you observe and note their interactions (either during or after the test). The goal of conducting usability testing is to understand if your design is intuitive and easy to use. A sign of success is if users can easily accomplish their goals and complete tasks with your product.
There are various usability testing methods that you can use, such as moderated vs. unmoderated or qualitative vs. quantitative—and selecting the right one depends on your research goals, resources, and timeline.
Usability testing is usually performed with functional mid or hi-fi prototypes. If you have a Figma, InVision, Sketch, or prototype ready, you can import it into a platform like Maze and start testing your design with users immediately.
The tasks you create for usability tests should be:
- Realistic, and describe a scenario
- Actionable, and use action verbs (create, sign up, buy, etc)
Be mindful of using leading words such as ‘click here’ or ‘go to that page’ in your tasks. These instructions bias the results by helping users complete their tasks—something that doesn’t happen in real life.
When to conduct usability testing
To inform your design decisions, you should do usability testing early and often in the process. Here are some guidelines to help you decide when to do usability testing:
- Before you start designing
- Once you have a wireframe or prototype
- Prior to the launch of the product
- At regular intervals after launch
To learn more about usability testing, check out our complete guide to usability testing.
9. Five-second testing
In five-second testing, participants are (unsurprisingly) given five seconds to view an image like a design or web page, and then they’re asked questions about the design to gauge their first impressions.
Why five seconds? According to data, 55% of visitors spend less than 15 seconds on a website, so it;s essential to grab someone’s attention in the first few seconds of their visit. With a five-second test, you can quickly determine what information users perceive and their impressions during the first five seconds of viewing a design.
Product tip 💡
And if you’re using Maze, you can simply upload an image of the screen you want to test, or browse your prototype and select a screen. Plus, you can star individual comments and automatically add them to your report to share with stakeholders.
When to conduct five-second testing
Five-second testing is typically conducted in the early stages of the design process, specifically during initial concept testing or prototype development. This way, you can evaluate your design's initial impact and make early refinements or adjustments to ensure its effectiveness, before putting design to development.
To learn more, check out our chapter on five-second testing.
10. A/B testing
A/B testing, also known as split testing, compares two or more versions of a webpage, interface, or feature to determine which performs better regarding engagement, conversions, or other predefined metrics.
It involves randomly dividing users into different groups and giving each group a different version of the design element being tested. For example, let's say the primary call-to-action on the page is a button that says ‘buy now’.
You're considering making changes to its design to see if it can lead to higher conversions, so you create two versions:
- Version A: The original design with the ‘buy now’ button positioned below the product description—shown to group A
- Version B: A variation with the ‘buy now’ button now prominently displayed above the product description—shown to group B
Over a planned period, you measure metrics like click-through rates, add-to-cart rates, and actual purchases to assess the performance of each variation. You find that Group B had significantly higher click-through and conversion rates than Group A. This indicates that showing the button above the product description drove higher user engagement and conversions.
Check out our A/B testing guide for more in-depth examples and guidance on how to run these tests.
When to conduct A/B testing
A/B testing can be used at all stages of the design and development process—whenever you want to collect direct, quantitative data and confirm a suspicion, or settle a design debate. This iterative testing approach allows you to continually improve your website's performance and user experience based on data-driven insights.
11. Concept testing
Concept testing is a type of research that evaluates the feasibility, appeal, and potential success of a new product before you build it. It centers the user in the ideation process, using UX research methods like A/B testing, surveys, and customer interviews.
There’s no one way to run a concept test—you can opt for concept testing surveys, interviews, focus groups, or any other method that gets qualitative data on your concept.
*Dive into our complete guide to concept testing for more tips and tricks on getting started. *
When to conduct concept testing
Concept testing helps gauge your audience’s interest, understanding, and likelihood-to-purchase, before committing time and resources to a concept. However, it can also be useful further down the product development line—such as when defining marketing messaging or just before launching.
Which is the best UX research type?
The best research type varies depending on your project; what your objectives are, and what stage you’re in. Ultimately, the ideal type of research is one which provides the insights required, using the available resources.
For example, if you're at the early ideation or product discovery stage, generative research methods can help you generate new ideas, understand user needs, and explore possibilities. As you move to the design and development phase, evaluative research methods and quantitative data become crucial.
Discover the UX research trends shaping the future of the industry and why the best results come from a combination of different research methods.
How to choose the right user experience research method
In an ideal world, a combination of all the insights you gain from multiple types of user research methods would guide every design decision. In practice, this can be hard to execute due to resources.
Sometimes the right methodology is the one you can get buy-in, budget, and time for.
Gregg Bernstein, UX Researcher at Signal
UX research tools can help streamline the research process, making regular testing and application of diverse methods more accessible—so you always keep the user at the center of your design process. Some other key tips to remember when choosing your method are:
Define the goals and problems
A good way to inform your choice of user experience research method is to start by considering your goals. You might want to browse UX research templates or read about examples of research.
Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures, recommends answering questions like:
- “What do your users need?”
- “What are your users struggling with?”
- “How can you help your users?”
Understand the design process stage
If your team is very early in product development, generative research—like field studies—make sense. If you need to test design mockups or a prototype, evaluative research methods—such as usability testing—will work best.
This is something they’re big on at Sketch, as we heard from Design Researcher, Tanya Nativ. She says, “In the discovery phase, we focus on user interviews and contextual inquiries. The testing phase is more about dogfooding, concept testing, and usability testing. Once a feature has been launched, it’s about ongoing listening.”
Consider the type of insights required
If you're looking for rich, qualitative data that delves into user behaviors, motivations, and emotions, then methods like user interviews or field studies are ideal. They’ll help you uncover the ‘why’ behind user actions.
On the other hand, if you need to gather quantitative data to measure user satisfaction or compare different design variations, methods like surveys or A/B testing are more suitable. These methods will help you get hard numbers and concrete data on preferences and behavior.
*Discover the UX research trends shaping the future of the industry and why the best results come from a combination of different research methods. *
Build a deeper understanding of your users with UX research
Think of UX research methods as building blocks that work together to create a well-rounded understanding of your users. Each method brings its own unique strengths, whether it's human empathy from user interviews or the vast data from surveys.
But it's not just about choosing the right UX research methods; the research platform you use is equally important. You need a platform that empowers your team to collect data, analyze, and collaborate seamlessly.
Simplifying product research is simple with Maze. From tree testing to card sorting, prototype testing to user interview analysis—Maze makes getting actionable insights easy, whatever method you opt for.
Meanwhile, if you want to know more about testing methods, head on to the next chapter all about tree testing.
Frequently asked questions
How do you choose the right UX research method?
How do you choose the right UX research method?
Choosing the right research method depends on your goals. Some key things to consider are:
- The feature/product you’re testing
- The type of data you’re looking for
- The design stage
- The time and resources you have available
What is the best UX research method?
What is the best UX research method?
The best research method is the one you have the time, resources, and budget for that meets your specific needs and goals. Most research tools, like Maze, will accommodate a variety of UX research and testing techniques.
When to use which user experience research method?
When to use which user experience research method?
Selecting which user research method to use—if budget and resources aren’t a factor—depends on your goals. UX research methods provide different types of data:
- Qualitative vs quantitative
- Attitudinal vs behavioral
- Generative vs evaluative
Identify your goals, then choose a research method that gathers the user data you need.