While many businesses understand the need to invest in an in-depth UX design phase for their digital solutions, many still fail to recognize the importance of user research. Whether it’s a multi-week investigation or just a few brief testing sessions, user research isn’t just optional — UX design can’t exist without it.
The reason for UX design’s inextricable link to research is simple: the conclusions drawn from the user research goes on to inform the entire design process, and serve as touchstones for the end product. Just as you wouldn’t erect a building without sampling the land it was built upon, you wouldn’t rush into designing a product without understanding its context, audience, and environment – and that’s where user research comes in.
While working for a UX design agency, I’ve seen firsthand the difference between projects that invest in user research, and those that don’t. The projects that do invest in user research end up with a much stronger product.
In this article, I’ll touch on what UX design agencies mean when they say ‘user research’, what they’re actually doing in that phase, and will demonstrate why user research indispensable for any site or app to build.
What Is User Research?
The worldwide digitization of nearly every product, service, and experience you can imagine— and the booming user experience design industry that’s grown with it—has helped dispel the myths and misconceptions of UX design that plagued it in its earlier days.
Nowadays, every company should understand that UX design is more than just slapping a fresh coat of paint on an outdated website. But user research is a different story—many of our clients still ask questions about what it is, what actually goes into it, and why they should care.
To put it simply, user research describes the process of collecting both qualitative and quantitative data about a digital product’s users and how, where, when, and, perhaps most importantly, why they are using it.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about user research is that we’re simply defining an audience or demographic, rather than the much broader task of characterizing the basis of an entire experience.
To erase this misconception, UX researchers must leverage a variety of different research techniques, each with their own levels of intensity, cost, and time commitment.
What User Research Methods Are There?
In the software development life cycle, user research is typically either grouped into the larger category of UX design or included in the discovery phase. Regardless, it's a process that’s performed early in the software development lifecycle (SDLC), because designers use the data user research produces to draw conclusions that shape their larger design strategy.
UX designers have a whole arsenal of different research methods and techniques at their disposal. While they differ from agency to agency, I’ll describe a few of the most common ones here, as well as which are best-suited for different businesses.
Contextual observation is one of the more directly insightful methods for learning about users, and describes the act of observing and recording a user’s experience with a platform or product – basically, watching them in their natural habitat.
Conducting contextual observation is much simpler for projects with a pre-existing platform, where the design team isn’t crafting one from scratch. With screen recording and cursor tracking software, UXers can easily collect, track, and analyze user behavior. Are they accomplishing tasks the most efficient and intuitive way? Is there an easier way to do it that they’re not taking advantage of?
But contextual observation without a digital product can be even more helpful. For these cases, UX designers observe how they’re currently completing the task the platform hopes to accomplish. What’s their current workflow? How can we digitize it? How can we streamline it? These are the kinds of questions that must be answered to create a user-friendly experience.
Surveying, interviews and focus groups are not likely to offer the same level of insight as contextual observation, but are much more straightforward and sometimes easier to conduct. While the goal of these techniques is to better understand the user, larger clients will often already have their user completely characterized – meaning that their marketing team has already developed in-depth personas and has full knowledge of their likes, dislikes, wants, needs, and expectations.
And while there is overlap between the user personas created by marketing departments and the ones made by a UX design team, there are key differences that make additional surveying and interviewing necessary in the user research phase.
For example, a company may know from their marketing research that their target user is a busy, career-oriented 18 to 24 year old with scholarly or academic interests. But that research might not include information about what kind of apps and websites that particular 18 to 24 year old uses.
Do they prefer a professional social media experience like LinkedIn to Instagram? Do they dislike Apple products and expect their digital products to have a full Google integration?
Again, these are important questions for designers to ask, and these three research techniques—surveys, interviews, and focus groups—are industry standards to discover the answers.
Here’s an excerpt from the results of a survey that was conducted to see how user-friendly the task of navigating to an extremely specific product was:
The result couples both qualitative data such as the descriptive words and quantitative data such as the “How Easy?” “How Clear?,” and “How Frustrating?” ratings.
The quantitative data in this survey shows which tasks demand more attention, while the qualitative data provides design touchpoints.
Process mapping combines contextual observation and user interviews through a one-on-one activity between user and UXer. A user completes a process, writes out each step, and plots the steps on an XY graph of two different criteria, the most common being difficulty and necessity.
Basically, this process tracks how necessary each step is to complete the task, and how hard it is to complete each step.
By having a user write down each step as they’re completing it, the process becomes deconstructed into its smallest units, making for easier analysis. It’s an incredibly useful technique for identifying inefficiencies and pain points in a process. In fact, our designers often find entire steps that are redundant or unnecessary.
Here’s a photo of a process map created during my own agency’s user research phase:
As you can see, the map is nothing too fancy – all it takes is a few Post-It notes and a willing test subject – but the amount of insight the map reveals is incredibly helpful for the design team.
From just this map, we were able to focus our attention on a particular step in the workflow that needed serious redesign.
Is User Research Really Necessary?
We’ve only scratched the surface of methods UXers rely on in the user research phase, and there are dozens of other techniques to collect meaningful, actionable user data, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
What do all of these methods have in common? They help measure the value-action gap, a fundamental component of the SDLC.
Market research alone cannot accurately predict how a user will actually engage with a digital interface, thanks largely to the value-action gap, which stipulates that there is a difference between what people do and what people say that they will do.
But, you may be surprised just how large the gulf between what people say and what people do actually is. Gerald Zaltman’s cornerstone study on the value-action gap found that 60% of participants said they were likely to buy a kitchen appliance in the next three months, but only 12% actually did so.
We can account for this phenomenon in user research. The value-action gap is why designers need to collect both qualitative and quantitative data, and why contextual observation is so powerful.
Why Can’t Designers Just Use Best Practices?
This is a question we get all the time, and it’s not a bad one – after all, we are supposed to be design experts. With so much industry experience under our belts, shouldn’t we already know the best way to design every project that comes across our desks?
The confusion here stems from the fact that there is an infinite amount of types of projects and types of user. Every experience is different, and while the knowledge of past projects’ successes and failures is a useful tool, it’s still just a tool. User research reveals how exactly to apply it.
Putting It All Together
User research should not be considered a luxury that only huge enterprises can afford. User research is a necessity, and prudent UX design can’t exist without it.
Whether through in-depth methods like contextual observation and user interviews, or a quick survey paired with process maps, businesses should invest some amount of time into user research when launching a new digital product.
Years of industry expertise and a polished SDLC all make for good user experience design agencies. But to take an experience from good to great requires a commitment to user research.