Understanding the Top UX Research Methods
After defining your objectives and planning your research framework, it’s time to choose the research technique that will best serve the project's goals and yield the right insights.
In this chapter, we walk you through the most common research methods and help you choose the right one for you.
Choosing the right user experience research method
Choosing the right research method starts by knowing what problem you’re trying to solve and what type of data you need to collect. A good way to go about this is to start by considering what you want the outcome of your research to be.
Choosing the right research method starts by knowing what problem you’re trying to solve and what type of data you need to collect.
In his talk on how to do research that has real impact, Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures, says that to conducting effective research starts at the end by defining the questions you’re trying to answer and working backward to understand the method you need to use, the people you need to talk to, and what data will answer the questions you have.
Here’s some questions Michael proposes to go through before getting started with research:
- “What do your users need?”
- “What are your users struggling with?”
- “How can you help your users?”
For Nannearl LeKesia Brown, Product Researcher at Figma, choosing the research method depends on the goal of the research, the stage that you’re at in the design process, and the available resources:
“The method I choose would need to be able to get me answers to the research questions I have, but I also must take into account the project timeline, budget, and the amount of synthesis required for that method versus another one.”
Gregg Bernstein, UX Researcher at Signal, echoes this sentiment and explains that in the past when he was paired with a designer in a current sprint, it didn’t leave time for something like a diary study or a site visit. Instead, he looked at the shorter feedback loops of interviews, card sorts, or usability tests. “When working a few sprints ahead of production, that opens up the door to more generative research methods,” he adds.
Clearly understanding where in the design process you are will help you choose the right UX research method. For example, if the team is very early in product development, doing more exploratory work using generative research methods such as field studies makes sense. On the other hand, if you need to test design mockups or a prototype, evaluative methods such as usability testing will work best.
“Make sure you understand where you are in the UX design process. Once you clarify that, having a good idea of the different methods you can use and when they’re best applied throughout the design process will help you identify what might yield the most helpful results within the constraints under which you’re working.”
Additionally, understanding existing data and what the team already knows is another step to choosing the right method. Gregg Bernstein, UX Researcher at Signal, says that “Sometimes, you might learn from secondary data, such as research that’s already been done in your organization or desk research.”
Tanya Nativ, Design Researcher at Sketch also talks about the importance of applying the right method at the right stage of the product lifecycle:
“In the discovery phase, we focus on user interviews and contextual inquiries. In the testing phase, it's more about dogfooding, concept testing, and usability testing. Once a feature has been launched, it’s about ongoing listening.”
To choose the right user research method for a project, the research team at Sketch starts by asking the following questions:
- ”What do we already know?”
- “What still needs to be discovered?”
- “Is it a new feature, or is this an existing feature we want to improve?”
So, when selecting a UX research method, consider your goals, resources, and timeline. Identifying these things at the start will help you choose the right method for you.
Most common UX research methods
There are various research methods available, but in this chapter, we highlight the top techniques you need to know when conducting research.
User interviews are a well-known research method that allow you to gather information through conversations with your users.
“When conducted wisely, user interviews can provide a good amount of qualitative data by probing users with the ‘Why’ question.”
During user interviews, you typically ask a few questions on a specific topic and analyze the answers participants give you. 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.
Importantly, Yuliya says that when users are narrating an incident, you should let them speak freely: “The narration of incidents can help you analyze a lot of hidden details with regards to user behavior,” explains Yuliya.
- 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 says that research is a team sport, so it’s crucial to start with defining the goals and assumptions you have 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.
“To be able to ask good questions, you need to know the feature or topic you are researching inside-out, but it’s also important to be empathetic and curious and encourage participants to share information. When you really try to understand your users’ needs and behaviors, that’s when you start asking better questions.”
Tanya shares these tips to asking better UX research questions:
- Never ask users to predict the future. For instance, the question “Will you use this feature in the future?” isn’t great because people will most likely answer “Yes” to make you feel good. Their actual choice once the feature is released might differ.
- Understand existing user behavior. A good question to ask to understand existing behavior is “How did you solve a similar problem in the past?” If you can, ask people to show you their process, so you can observe their behavior.
- Ask “Why” to uncover users’ needs. Following up statements with the “why” question will help you uncover why someone does or doesn’t do something, why they prefer one thing over the other, etc.
- Keep your bias in check. Don’t include your opinion into a question. For example, a common trap is asking about pain points. If the user doesn't seem to have any pain points, this question will add biases and the user will start looking for some pain points, even if they don’t have any.
- Avoid closed-ended questions. Don’t ask too many questions that lead to Yes/No responses unless they're really needed. Closed-questions will not give you too many insights or allow you to understand the reasoning behind an answer.
Asking the right questions is an important step to getting actionable results, so make sure you’re phrasing them correctly or get someone like a copywriter to review them beforehand.
Field studies are research activities that take place in the user’s environment rather than in your lab or office, and they’re a great method for uncovering context, unknown motivations, or constraints that affect the user experience.
The main advantage of field studies is observing people in their natural environment, giving you a glimpse at the context in which your product is used. A field study is useful to understand the context in which users complete tasks, learn about their needs, and collect in-depth user stories.
For example, the Uber Design Research goes out driving with partners and gives them real-life scenarios and tasks to complete, while observing the physical artifacts that the partners interact with. On the benefits of field research, they write:
“Field research, put very simply, is getting out of the lab and into the world to talk with and observe people in their environment. It’s trying our best to walk in their shoes, see their point of view, and understand the context they live and work in. By seeing it ourselves, we recognize workarounds, physical artifacts, and motivations that are essentially invisible to our participants.”
Through field studies, you can develop a better understanding of your customers and study aspects of how your products are used that may not be possible from your office.
A focus group is a qualitative research method that includes the study of a group of people, their beliefs and opinions, usually for market research or gathering feedback on products, messaging, etc. Focus groups are carried out as face-to-face meetings, as well as remotely through video conferencing tools.
Focus groups can help you better grasp:
- How users perceive your product
- What users believe are a product’s most important features
- What problems users experience with the product
In a typical focus group, a moderator guides six to nine participants through the discussion. A session typically lasts about two hours.
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 plan you can refer to during the discussion. Here’s some things to consider:
- Understand the goals of your focus group and come up with the questions that’ll get you the responses you need
- Write a script for the topics you want to discuss during the session
- Ask specific questions: make sure your questions are clear, open-ended, and focused on the topics you’re trying to learn about
- Include the right amount of participants. Around five to ten participants are recommended to keep the sessions focused and organized.
A diary study is a longitudinal research method you can use to uncover user behaviors, activities, and experiences that take place over an extended period of time.
“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.”
This research method includes getting users to keep logs or diaries, take photos, explain their activities, and highlight things that stood out to them.
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.
Tanya Nativ, Design Researcher at Sketch says that good planning is an essential part of an effective diary studies session. “You need to be clear on what participants should do, how they should communicate with you in case they have questions, what kind of feedback they should deliver, and how they should share it with you,” she explains.
Tanya recommends asking yourself some questions before conducting a diary study. For instance, “Do you want the feedback to be free-form, or structured?”
According to Tanya, this is important because freeform feedback will give users more freedom, but also lead to missed opportunities, as users might overlook the information that you need.
When planning a structured diary, you need to determine the trigger, which is the signal that lets the participants know when they should log their feedback. Make sure to communicate the trigger to participants in advance.
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.
The feedback you get from a diary study will provide behavioral insights and help you develop a rich understanding of the participant’s context and environment.
During the study, it’s important to be available to participants for any questions they might have. Tanya explains:
“Whether you are running moderated or unmoderated diary studies, you need to make sure the participants can reach you for any questions they have, that they understand what they need to do, what is expected from them, and how they should deliver their feedback.”
For example, when Tanya worked on a project to develop Sketch’s new feature, Assistants, the team had the participants keep a log of their experiences creating and configuring their Assistant’s rules in their real-world environment.
“We wanted to be a fly on the wall for one working week and understand how people go through the process. For instance, each day they logged their notes about their progress, ideas, struggles, and questions. Diary studies are one of the few ways you can really get a peek into how users interact with our product in a real-world scenario.”
The feedback you collect from diary studies gives you context around how users interact with your product and real-time information to help you create a better product
Surveys are a research tool that helps you collect data from a group of participants and gather meaningful insights. They can be used for both qualitative studies, such as asking people for open-ended feedback and comments, as well as collecting quantitative data by tapping into a larger volume of responses.
Surveys can include both closed-ended and open-ended questions:
- Closed-ended questions are questions that come with a predefined set of answers to choose from. Examples are rating scales, rankings, multiple choices, etc.
- Open-ended questions are typically open text questions where test participants give their responses in a free-form style.
When running a survey, take the time to plan and formulate your questions correctly. The way you ask a question will determine the responses you get. Avoid leading questions that prompt the participant to respond in a way, thus giving you biased responses.
For example, Gregg Bernstein, UX Researcher at Signal, says that when planning online surveys, a safe bet is to eschew any 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.
Whether you want to gather data like general impressions or attitudes or get users to rate their preferences, surveys are a great tool to get meaningful UX insights.
Card sorting is a UX research method in which users organize topic cards into categories in a way that makes sense to them. This research activity is an important step to creating an intuitive information architecture (IA) and user experience.
“Card sorting is a great exercise for understanding the mental models of our users, and it’s a great way to question biases in the team by validating it with real users.”
You can run a card sorting session using physical index cards or a digital tool. In a card sorting session, users are asked to group the cards into groups that make sense to them.
Run a card sorting with Maze
Maze allows you to do card sorting and discover how users categorize and understand information. Try it for free.
There are three types of card sorting: open, closed, and hybrid card sorting.
In an open card sorting session, participants organize topics into categories that make sense to them, thus generating new ideas and category names.
In contrast, in a closed card sorting you offer participants a predefined set of categories and ask them to sort the items into the available categories.
Finally, in a hybrid card sort, participants can sort cards into categories a researcher has already defined, but also have the option to create their own categories.
Read more about card sorting and learn how to run a card sorting session here.
Tree testing is a research method that helps you evaluate the hierarchy and findability of topics in an 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 website or app.
During tree testing, only the text version of the site is given to the participants, who are asked to complete a series of tasks to locate items on a site or application. It’s recommended that you keep these sessions short ranging from 15 to 20 minutes and ask participants to complete no more than 10 tasks.
To get started with a tree testing session, you will need to:
- Define the tree structure
- Create goal-based tasks
- Conduct pilot tests with your team
- Select the participants
Product tip ✨
If you need to test the architecture of your website or app with your target audience, Maze allows you to conduct tree testing and get the feedback you need to design a functional website. Get started for free.
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. 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.
To learn more about tree testing, check out this chapter.
Usability testing is a research method for evaluating your product with people by getting them to complete a list of tasks while observing and noting their interactions.
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 goal, resources, and timeline.
The goal of conducting usability testing is to understand if your design is intuitive and easy to use and if there are any usability problems. Users should be able to easily accomplish their goals and complete their tasks with your product.
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Maze is a remote user research platform that allows you to conduct usability testing and collect actionable insights. Learn more.
In a moderated usability test, users complete tasks while a researcher observes and takes notes. The researcher can collect both qualitative and quantitative data that help to detect usability issues.
To inform your design decisions, you should do usability testing early and often in the process. Here’s 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
The tasks you create for usability tests should be realistic and describe a scenario.
An example of a task is: Imagine you’ve just set up a new account to measure signups to your product. Create a new project in your dashboard for that.
To get users to interact with your design use action verbs such as “create”, “sign up”, “buy”, “subscribe”, “download”, etc. However, be mindful of using leading words such as “click here” or “go to that page” in your tasks. These types of instructions bias the results by helping users complete their tasks—something that doesn’t happen in real life.
To learn more about usability testing, check out our complete guide to usability testing.
Five-second testing is a UX research method in which participants are given five seconds to view an image such as a design or web page, and then they’re asked questions about the design to gauge their first impressions.
So why five seconds? According to data, 55% of visitors spend less than 15 seconds on a website, so grabbing someone’s attention in the first few seconds of their visit is essential.
Run a five-second test with Maze
Maze’s five-second testing feature lets you test user recall, measuring what information users take away and what impressions they get within the first five seconds of viewing a design. Sign up for free now.
With a five-second test, you can quickly determine what information users perceive and what impressions they have during the first five seconds of viewing a design. The results will help you determine if your messaging is effective, or if you need to adjust it based on the feedback collected.
To read more about five-second testing, check out this chapter.
The UX research methods described in this chapter are not a one-size-fits-all model. Research is all about problem-solving, so choosing a method comes down to understanding the problem and questions you need to answer. At the same time, seeking out the most suitable method that will help you achieve your goals means taking into account other constraints, such as your resources and timeline.
“Sometimes the right methodology is the one you can get buy-in, budget, and time for.”
In the next chapters, we dive deeper into card sorting, tree testing and five-second testing, and share how you can use these methods effectively.