Chapter 2

How to nail your UX research strategy

This chapter will explore why you need a UX research strategy, and how to create one—plus, the questions to ask before research, and how to build your UX research team.

The old anecdote goes that ‘anything worth doing at all is worth doing well’, and UX research is no different. If you’re investing time and resources into UX research, it deserves to be conducted properly.

When it comes to UX, that means you need a robust UX research strategy.

What is a UX research strategy?

Let’s start with what we mean by UX research strategy.

A UX research strategy is the guiding plan for everything you do related to UX research. This means what research you do, when and how you do it. Your UX research strategy is also a way of democratizing research and cultivating an atmosphere of constant iteration and investigation through timely research.

In its simplest form, a UX research strategy is a plan of action to help you achieve your design research goals. It establishes a shared vision of what you’re aiming to achieve and who to involve along the process.

Eddie Saia, Senior Experience Designer @ ENGINE

Why you need a UX research strategy

Having a solid UX research strategy in place serves several purposes, most namely:

  • To emphasize the value of research across your organization and teams; to get stakeholders on board and involved
  • To oversee and guide your individual UX research projects and provide a guiding set of principles, checkpoints, best practices, and goals

Think of a UX research strategy as a North Star to guide your research plans and ensure everyone involved is aligned to the same objectives and UX research methods.

UX research strategy is about establishing key research objectives, and identifying the activities required to give you the insights needed to achieve those objectives.

Nazar Ali Khan, Digital UX Strategy Lead @ Economist Impact

Without a thoughtful UX research strategy, you can end up floundering—using up resources on ill-timed or irrelevant research attempts. These may still yield data, but the data will lack purpose and may not answer the questions you’re looking to answer.

How this differs from UX strategy

With so many strategic and UX-related terms thrown about, it can be a little confusing to nail down what strategies or plans you need for what. This chapter should clear up just what UX research strategy is—and what it’s not.

UX research strategy is a defined set of investigative actions that create a path to find the truth to a problem, or the reality of an experience from the user's perspective. Ultimately it is a plan on how we move from uninformed opinions to informed ones.

Joe Smith, Co-founder, UX & Service Design Director @ Sunny Lemons

So while your UX research strategy will fit within your wider UX strategy or a broader research strategy or user research strategy, they’re not the same thing. Your UX research strategy is a focused strategy, specifically targeting the kind of UX research you’re doing and the ethos around it.

This chapter will be zooming into UX research strategy, so we won’t be covering how to conduct research. Alternatively, you can check out this article if you’re looking to learn about setting a broader UX strategy.

Planning your UX research strategy + questions to ask before research

It’s a lot of responsibility to create a UX research strategy that makes up the overarching set of objectives and attitudes for any UX research you conduct—it’s also a lot of information to include. To make your job easier, we’ve included our tips on what to consider before (and during) your strategizing.

💡 We recommend also featuring these questions in the strategy as jumping off points for your research team to answer before future individual research projects.

Who is your research for?

Before you can begin any research, you need to know who you’re doing the research for. Of course, all UX research is ultimately for the benefit of the user, but consider the immediate purpose and outcome of your research and the long-term research goal—is it to support project proposals going to stakeholders? Or is it more for the product team to review current product iterations?

Nazar Ali Khan, Digital UX Strategy Lead @ Economist Impact, says it's crucial to get buy-in early on:

“It’s important to establish a strategy that ensures the research outputs are relevant and meaningful for interested parties—colleagues may be depending on actionable insights to make business-critical decisions. Stakeholders may be skeptical about the value of research, so you should be able to clearly communicate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”

Determining who you’re researching for helps ensure any subsequent decisions (e.g. methods, analysis types) are made with the relevant people, and results, in mind.

Why are you researching?

Next you need to nail down why you’re researching. Your research goals will significantly impact the kind of research you do, the methods you use, and when you run the studies—so the importance of knowing why you’re researching can’t be overstated.

Generally, your reason for researching may be to:

What are you researching?

Related to the why is the what; what are you researching? The possibilities are endless and will vary between individual projects, so it’s crucial to narrow down what your overall UX research focus is. Once you’ve nailed down the specifics of what you’re studying, you can ensure any participants are appropriate and pick the ideal research method.

Flowchart style graphic showing topics of research: idea/concept, behavior, user preference, prototype, theory/hypothesis, existing product

When will you conduct your research?

Deciding when to press ‘go’ on your research is tricky. It often comes down to ‘when the prototype is ready’, but for some research the when is more important—for example, if you’re researching the use of a de-icer car spray, researching in the height of summer won’t be much good.

Remember to think about both the calendar timing and the timing of what design stage you’re in. The best research is done early and often; we suggest conducting some sort of research at each stage of the product development process, along with any time you’re making decisions that will impact end-users.

Infographic showing types of research to conduct as each product design stage

There may never be the ‘perfect’ time for your research, but—depending on your focus and design stage—there could be a wrong time, so it’s worth flagging this in your UX research strategy.

How will your research support business goals?

Like any element of an organization, UX research needs to offer value and serve a business purpose in a demonstrable way, so it’s worth mapping this out in your UX research strategy by including documentation evidencing the value of UX research in a concise, measurable way.

Joe Smith, Co-founder, UX & Service Design Director @ Sunny Lemons, emphasizes the importance of aligning business and research:

“Your research strategy will work best when it’s aligned with your business strategy. Before starting you should have clearly defined business goals. These are not the goals of the research itself but the flag in the ground for the business. The research is likely informing a decision on activities that are pushing towards a specific goal.”

You can consider conducting stakeholder or executive interviews to understand current opinions and attitudes to research. It’s also worth offering clear guidance for individual research projects on feeding back specific metrics and showcasing results, so internal stakeholders can see ongoing work and its input.

As Joe says, your research should ultimately tie back to business goals. Good research is done to impact or guide decision-making—whether this is about what product to to build, what solution to prioritize, or something else—these decisions tie back into organizational objectives. In the end, if your research isn’t for decision-making, and impacting decision-making, then it’s likely not that effective.

Further considerations

There’s always more to think about when it comes to research—like what UX research method to use, or what research tool to opt for—but this will be decided on a case-by-case research project basis. Start with the questions above, and you’ll have a foundation to guide your work moving forward.

Building your UX research team

Part of creating a successful UX research strategy is having the right people around to help. Whether your research team is already formed, growing rapidly, or you’re just getting started, building the dream team is crucial.

The research strategy aligns the whole team on how—and most importantly, why—we are conducting the research, preventing a false consensus.

Joe Smith, Co-founder, UX & Service Design Director @ Sunny Lemons

To help, we spoke to several senior UX researchers to discuss the roles you should look to fill in your team.

Research lead

Your UX research lead is the captain of your research team. They’ll work closely with the team lead to strategize on both a UX-specific and business-wide level. While strategy and people management is a large portion of this role, you want to look for someone with plenty of experience who’s not afraid to get their hands dirty helping out with day-to-day research tasks, too.

Adaptability is a key skill to look for, notes Nazar Ali Khan, Digital UX Strategy Lead at Economist Impact:

“You need team members who are comfortable with the organizational and administrative aspects of the work, but can equally be agile and prepared to improvise when the situation calls for it. There’s also a need to be genuinely interested in people and their stories, and enjoyment to be gained from putting your case together.”

UX researcher

Likely making up the bulk of your UX research team, UX researchers will spend each day conducting and analyzing UX research. With a detailed understanding of UX—perhaps a background in other kinds of research or UX design—these team members should have an in-depth knowledge of multiple UX research methods and types of analysis, making them the go-to person for any and all-things UX research.

Joe Smith, Co-founder, UX & Service Design Director at Sunny Lemons, notes that a two-team research team is ideal for starting out.

“Finding one qualitative researcher who can conduct interviews and empathetic research, and another with statistical skills who can analyze data on large scales is ideal. This tandem often helps find patterns effectively and communicate those findings correctly.”

Data analyst

If you have room in your budget, it’s well worth investing in space for a focused data analyst. Your UX researchers may fit the bill well, but provision of a specific role for analysis will free up significant time for UX researchers to focus on planning and conducting the research.

Eddie Saia, Senior Experience Designer at ENGINE, suggests looking for organized, data-focused candidates:

“Individuals with an eye for trends and structure are invaluable throughout the research process. The same goes for individuals who can help to organize and shape the structure of your investigation—making sure it stays in line with the overall strategy and delivered in a way that is both relatable and meaningful.”

Program manager

The final (optional, but invaluable) member of your team is a program manager. Known as UX Research Operations Coordinators in the Gitlab UX research team, this person is your organization hero; they’ll own the participant recruitment process and management, plus anything else related to the logistics of UX research—from location and equipment sourcing, to ensuring participants have everything they need before and after research.

Eddie emphasizes the importance of organization: “If you’re fortunate enough to have access to a wider team then make sure there are enough players to run through the nitty-gritty of research. Capturing and organizing data takes time, so establishing who does what (and when) is key to streamlining the process.”

The 5 stages of your UX research strategy

Now you know how to build the ultimate UX research team, let’s get into the strategy—here’s our five steps to a successful UX research strategy.

Psst: If you’re looking for how to establish a research process, click the link 📎

Step 1: Build research into your organization’s decision-making

The best UX research strategy is built in collaboration with business strategy. Today, while many company leaders see the value of UX research, this isn’t enough—to truly excel, we need to democratize research and use it to inform everything we do.

Like all elements of the design process, research is a team game - your stakeholders are essential members. And whilst they may not always participate in research, they should be taken along the journey… Share research in a way that makes your data relatable—you’re aiming for everyone around the table to share the ‘aha!’ moment, not just fellow researchers or designers.

Eddie Saia, Senior Experience Designer @ ENGINE

This means you need to involve internal stakeholders and business leaders in the conversation, and work together to align strategies and ensure research will support the business objectives and product roadmap.

In short, we must build research into not just the foundation of an organization, but the blueprint, the building materials, and the decor.

Step 2: Gather your team

Next up is building your UX research team—you may already have in-house researchers as part of your UX team. If you’re looking to set up a new team, either work with an external agency or follow our steps above.

Your UX research strategy should align all team members, creating a culture of constant learning. The strategy focuses the team on the right priorities, driving efficiency, and creating meaning to why team members are asked to take certain actions. Everyone in an organization has an impact on the user experience, whether direct or indirect, and will benefit from a UX research strategy.

Joe Smith, Co-founder, UX & Service Design Director @ Sunny Lemons

Ensure everyone’s on the same page about overarching research strategy; everything from communication guidelines to participant recruitment practices and post-study reporting.

Step 3: Catalog best practices

An underrated element of any UX research strategy is best practices. As with any research, consistency is key, so cataloging UX research best practices and any research standards at an organizational level is an important step in your documentation.

Become familiar with tried and trusted techniques and technologies, but be curious and be open to new ones. Plan ahead and establish a clear structure for reporting. Keep building on what you’ve done before. Fuel your enthusiasm for people and solving the right problems for them.

Nazar Ali Khan, Digital UX Strategy Lead @ Economist Impact

Laying out these principles early on will mean any new team members, external agencies, and stakeholders remain aligned. What’s more, it ensures all your research will follow a set standard of ethical and methodological practices, resulting in consistent, high-quality research across the board.

Step 4: Put your plan on paper

This step is all about documentation. Now’s the time to confirm your strategy and record everything—whether you have a single place of truth on an intranet or Notion, catalog your strategy and send around to stakeholders. It’s imperative to communicate this to ensure everyone’s on the same page. That means recording it all: UX team structure, research goals, tool preferences, how your strategy aligns to business objectives, etc.

Communication is king. If your team understands how to conduct your research and remembers to use the insights throughout the project, then the research was successful.

Joe Smith, Co-founder, UX & Service Design Director @ Sunny Lemons

Step 5: Always bring it back to the strategy

Finally, remember to always return to your strategy. When you complete a research project, however big or small, check in with your UX research strategy—did you find the documentation clear? Were you able to tie research back into business objectives and communicate with stakeholders? Did you deviate from anything in the strategy, does this suggest any needed changes? By revisiting your strategy after research—as well as before embarking on a project—you’re able to keep momentum and move forward with an effective strategy.

Thinking in the long-term

Yes, UX research is a complicated undertaking, but it’s one well worth investing time in—and building a solid UX research strategy is the first step to mapping your UX research journey.

Conducting research without a plan is the quick path to failure. A strategy is the enabler to conduct the right research, at the right time, for the right purpose.

Joe Smith, Co-founder, UX & Service Design Director @ Sunny Lemons

Consider using UX research tools to help streamline your practices, but it ultimately comes down to your core research principles and building curiosity into your business at a ground-level.

To sustain quality research, you need a quality strategy—one your business, and research team, can grow with. Your UX research strategy should be a living document; iterate at every opportunity, and use it to keep your research fresh and effective, serving current and future UX research needs.

Unsure where to start with UX research?

Take a look at how Maze can help streamline your UX research today

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Frequently asked questions about UX research strategy

What is UX research strategy?

A UX research strategy is the overarching plan for everything your business does related to UX research, including what research you do, how you approach research, and any research principles.

Is UX research different from UX design?

UX research is different from UX design: Where UX design is about designing the user experience, UX research is about understanding what the ideal user experience is, and gathering information about your user’s experience.

What should a UX research strategy include?

A UX research strategy should include information on your research principles, research best practices, your team make-up, and considerations for researchers to take before embarking on a project.