UX research is a broad discipline encompassing an array of specific practices. Its goal is to cut through the fog of assumptions and shine a light on the reality of who people are, what they do, and what they want.
Article written by Emerson Dameron, UX Consultant, Content Strategist, and Writer based in Los Angeles.
Design is about empathy, about understanding humans and human behavior in all its sloppy complexity. It’s about finding patterns and stories in information, looking at big data and getting the bigger picture. Most importantly, it’s about asking the right questions.
Here are six approaches to UX research. You’ll notice some overlap, and most common tactics fall into more than one category.
Quantitative research deals in things that can be precisely measured. It is the realm of facts, figures, analytics, stats, and STEM. If you can put a number on it or place it on a grid, it’s quantitative.
Analytics, A/B testing, and surveys all fall under the rubric of quantitative research. It deals with large groups of people and large data sets, and looks for commonalities, averages, and aberrations.
Qualitative research deals in the “soft science” of information that cannot be quantified. It addresses truths that cannot be expressed with charts and integers.
At its most intensive, it requires ethnographic research. How do people use a product in their natural habitats? And, in a more general sense, how do they behave? How do they think of themselves and the world? What are their joys, frustrations, goals, and expectations? Who are they?
Where do we begin?
Generative research is how ideas are born and nurtured. It derives from observations, interviews, reviews of existing literature, and free association.
Based on what we observe and study, what needs are not being met? What solutions are users “MacGyvering” for lack of a better alternative? What can we build that would be more useful than a faster horse?
Generative research means looking at the world in the manner of a stand-up comedian from the ‘90s. “What’s the deal with taxi services?”
Define the problem as clearly and specifically as possible. Make assumptions and test them. Get as granular as you need to, but don’t lose sight of the main challenge.
Now we’re getting somewhere! Are we on the right track?
As prototypes come into being and iteration begins, we use evaluative research to determine what we’re doing right, where we might be dropping the ball, or where we may find new, hidden insights that can shift or transform our work.
What snags are users hitting? Are they psyched? Are they frustrated? Do they want more, or something else?
Usability testing, one-on-one interviews, or even focus groups, can help elucidate the design process when it’s already in progress.
The easiest way to find out what someone thinks or feels is to ask.
Attitudinal research measures the expressed thoughts, feelings, and opinions of users, usually self-reported. It includes surveys, focus groups, and person-on-the-street interviews. It seeks correlations and ferrets out inconsistencies.
Does the left side of the brain know what the right side is doing? Sometimes, the most useful information can only be obtained through indirect questioning.
Keep asking “why.” The best insights often come with the forth of fifth repetition of “why?” This is the Socratic method.
(We should mention that Socrates was executed. UX research requires courage and a tough hide.)
Behavioral research looks at human behavior in practice. It shows us who people really are, not what ego and peer pressure make them want to be.
How are people really using the prototype? Are the using it for purposes other than the ones intended?
In concert with attitudinal research, behavioral research can throw sunshine on the dark valleys that separate our self-images from our real selves, as defined by the way we use tools, the way we treat each other, actions we take in the world.
The fundamentals, in one sentence
Be curious. Be skeptical. Test hypotheses. Acknowledge and overcome bias. Involve the whole team. #UXresearch
UX research is a meaty topic. This is merely an appetizer. For the next courses, we recommend:
“A Crash Course in UX Design Research” by Matt Lavoie – Lavoie came up with the six-dimensional model of UX research we use here. This essential piece includes abundant insights, a breakdown of common UX research methods, and resources for further exploration.
Just Enough Research by Erika Hall – Hall’s short book is a witty and wise guide to design research for people with too many irons in the fire to spend years puzzling over a problem.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – This thorough and critically lauded book is perhaps the ultimate “deep dive” into the science of understanding why people do the weird things they do.