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A comprehensive guide to UX research

UX research is essentially a study of human behaviour. User experience research as a discipline attempts to understand subtle nuances of how people are wired, how they approach products and services and what eventually draws them to things they use. To achieve this understanding, UX research makes use of many different methodologies, tools and fields of study to examine the human condition and draw inferences that can form the basis of better design.

Definition To UX Research

Definition-To-UX-Research

In the 1990s, a celebrated thought-leader in human-computer interaction (HCI) and renowned cognitive psychologist – Don Norman, famously concocted the term ‘User Experience Design’. He worked as the first self-proclaimed ‘User Experience Architect’ for Apple in the heydays of the tech boom in ‘93 and is considered a visionary in the industry as we see it today.

Don Norman states that user experience is the quality of experience a person has when interacting with a specific design; it covers all aspects of the person’s experience with a system, including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction, and the manual. UX Research is the process of gaining in-depth insights and understanding of the users and problems they face during the product interaction.  Different research methods generate actionable data on various types of users across different geographical, language, income and age groups. These insights are further applied in the development of responsive design and user experience across different digital products and services. 

UX Research and Design

UX research is directly proportional to the user experience design of a product; better the research, better the resulting design. Since the subject of observation is mankind, UX research as a discipline is a subset of many interrelated pure sciences and social studies. The goal is to understand multiple facets of human behaviour both conscious and unconscious to understand the underlying motivations of the target audience. Experts in the field credit the following areas of study with the development of UX research:

  • Neuroscience

Neuroscience is the subset of science that studies how we perceive the world around us by understanding our central nervous system. Anything we see in the physical is transformed into electrical pulses that flow through the optic nerve to the occipital lobe where all visuals are processed. The information further flows from the parietal lobe to the frontal lobe for segregation and simulation for deciphering meaning.   With respect to user experience, neuroscience studies how content, images and videos on a digital interface are recepted by the brain, triggering the flow of neurochemicals that impact observable human behaviour. 

Application
When a person takes a certain action on a website/app, neuroscience studies the different neurochemicals and hormones at play that are behind his action. Certain areas of the brain are activated when the brain perceives a certain set of content and visuals as a whole, neuroscience studies what gets activated and why.

Psychology
Psychology is a science that investigates and interprets human thoughts and emotions. The field of psychology includes a plethora of theories about human perception, biases, motivations and fears that are often at play in our daily life. The understanding of how people behave in the moment has a lot to do with how they have been conditioned over the years. The concept of human-computer interaction (HCI) is firmly grounded in the study of psychology and human behaviour; this is avidly applied in designing user experience that comes closest to emulating human to human interaction. UX research reasserts reasons and motivations, inherent psychological drivers, behind popular use of most popular digital applications.

Application
Psychology studies the mental makeup and personal biases behind a certain behaviour exhibited by a certain focus group of users. Infusion of psychology in UX research can efficiently deduce the reason behind user motivation behind their unique tastes and preferences.

  • Cognitive science

Cognitive science studies the trials and tribulations of human action. Different activities in the brain affect different brain functions such as memory, thinking, reasoning, emotion, linguistics et cetera. Cognitive models can be used in UX research to create several simulations of human behaviour in different circumstances. User experience research can benefit from these cognitive models by tweaking assumptions to derive different results in behavioural patterns. Utilising cognitive science in design can improve user testing and provide validation for many areas of experimental modelling. 

Application 

Cognitive science uses different areas of the brain such as memory and reasoning to incite familiar emotions and relatability. Different types of users can have different reactions to content and visuals on the website since it evokes different emotions. Cognitive science studies the physical manifestations and actions taken after these users are moved to action.

Different approaches to UX Research

different-approaches-to-UX-Research

There are a variety of analytical parameters that are used in UX research to build a better understanding of users and their expectations. We have broken them up into the following categories, viz, duration of the research, objective of the research, outcome of the research, nature of the data and sources of the data at play.

We’ll explore the different nuances of UX research by taking the example of ‘Tintra’- an online fashion marketplace. Ms Kurien who heads the business strategy team wants to understand what she can do to improve profitability from new product verticals launched across the country for men, women and children. Let’s see how she goes about reading the market pulse.

 a. Duration of the Research

The nature of research is strongly dependent on the duration of the research project and a detailed understanding of what the organisation is trying to achieve by piloting the project. Here are the two techniques that can be differentiated by duration:

  • Longitudinal Research:

This method records the changes in attitudes, perceptions, evolution of tastes and preferences in a user group over a period of time through the timely collection of responses. Longitudinal research can be considered an ongoing method through which respondents state their responses regularly over a stipulated period of time. Since this is an ongoing study, changes in answers can be used to detect a change in preferences over the long term.

At Tintra, Ms Kurien has introduced a new range of Ikkat garments made of pure cotton and linen for the spring-summer collection. She wants to understand how it’s being received by customers who prefer cotton clothes through the year. She decides to send customer feedback forms on email after 30 days of a successful product delivery and review how these responses change monthly. These responses help her understand the most viable facets of the newly launched clothes that can be reinforced in the upcoming marketing campaigns of the new line. 

  • Cross-sectional Research:

Cross-sectional research is a discrete method of analysis. All necessary data points are collected and collated in one time period without making room for repeated additions. This method involves the breaking up of the entire user universe into focus groups or cohorts based on their age, income, geographical location etcetera. This study then tests different hypotheses to understand if a behavioral characteristic is consistent with the cohort or not.  For example, an investment app can segregate people on the basis of income to study if savings increase as the income of a cohort increases.

At Tintra, the target group consisting of 28-35 years old urban women frequent the website most often and record the highest average spend per user. Ms. Kurien wants to investigate how the new launch is being perceived by this focus group in particular. To understand this better, she invites 500 women from this cohort to an exclusive online fashion show to mark the online launch of the collection and sends them one garment after the end of the online webinar. She follows this activity up with a questionnaire asking about the specific product that each consumer selected, collects feedback 
and develops new pieces in the collection accordingly. 

b. Nature of the Data

Data collection can happen in two primary forms, one is numerical in nature while the other is opinion based. Quantitative data includes parameters that can be objectively measured, while qualitative data includes symbols, opinions and attributes that can be observed easily, but may not be easy to measure.

  • Quantitative Research:

Quantitative research in UX is associated with data points in statistical research which are easy to measure. This includes page views, bounce rate, clicks per page, task completion rate, conversion ratios et cetera. This research is generated through active and passive collection methods, ie, page views are an involuntary data point, while buying a product or filling a questionnaire  is more deliberate from the user point of view.

Since the collection has already been launched, if Ms. Kurien wants to know how many customers prefer the printed black ikkat dress to the printed navy blue dress at this stage, she will have to resort to quantitative research to solve her query.  

  • Qualitative Research

Qualitative research digs deep into the thoughts, feelings and motivations of the target audience. This analysis may not be easy to quantify because two people may have similar feelings with varying degrees of intensity. However, since most user decisions are emotional, this form of research is more consequential for the purpose of UX design.

In the example above, Ms Kurien has arrived at the conclusion that her most frequent shoppers prefer the navy blue ikkat dress to the black one. But why? Is the preference dependent on the cut of the dress, the length of the sleeve or the relaxed fit? In order to answer these questions, she will have to carry out a qualitative survey to understand the root cause of her user’s preference.

c. Source of Data

Data can be sourced from many avenues for the purpose of research. Depending on the time constraints and goals, data can be gathered and collated from various primary and secondary sources. Another point of consideration is the number and quality of data scientists available during the effective life of the project to derive useful insights from data gathered.

Primary Research:

Primary research includes collecting real time fresh data through a variety of ways such as personal interviews, questionnaires, surveys and A/B testing methods. Since the data is ‘fresh’, it has not previously been gathered or tested for analysis. Primary data can often include many data points that are not relevant for current research in a direct way, but maybe used as ancillary points of analysis. This is a time-consuming method of gathering data, with a high incidence of incomplete information, depending on the user motivation.

Before Ms Kurien came up with the new spring-summer collection, she struggled to find ideas for a collection that would click. Although she heads the business vertical and has worked in the industry for many years, she is not a designer herself. To come up with the current line, she conducted primary research with the in-house designers to see how they approached the current market trends. She asked them to create a capsule collection of what they thought would be a success on the website and tried to understand each designer’s insight behind their creation.

Secondary Research:

Secondary research uses data points that are gathered from previously published sources of information. These can include credible blogs, research papers, journals and periodicals. The benefit of this method is that it takes into account treated data that is structured to reduce redundancies and improve authenticity. 

The fashion industry does not function in isolation; a lot of local influences and foreign trends affect what actually sells on the store shelves. Before deciding to launch a new collection for the upcoming season, Ms Kurien conducted some secondary research by reading fashion magazines, blogs by leading fashion reporters and trend reports authored by various fashion influencers.

d. Objective of the research

A well-defined objective for the research is the driving force of any research. IT guides the nature and method of data collection and collation while preventing the study from losing perspective of what is desired. The research team usually defines the research objective at the start to chart out important parameters for examination and review. 

Generative or Exploratory Research

This style of research can be used for the strategy and design of new products and services in the market to fulfill a gap in the market. The structure is largely unstructured and involves a variety of methods including in-person interviews, group discussions, online forums, complaint panels and surveys to figure out pain-points from the current market offerings. Generative research often throws up detailed insights that were previously unexplored about the environment, ecosystem and changes in user tastes and preferences.

In our example, Ms. Kurien felt that adding a new collection of cotton garments will really excite their company’s most loyal customers and compel them to spread the words among their friends. But business decisions cannot be made on assumptions and feelings. She needs to conduct exploratory research to test whether introducing a new fashion line will, indeed, create a stir amongst their customers and what variations of the product will be better received than others. 

Descriptive and Informative Research:

This is a more structured form of research and is a structured method of analysis. It begins with a well defined problem statement with a pre-structured set of parameters to generate responses that can go ahead to mould the user experience. Descriptive research is useful in dispelling assumed beliefs of what works in a product and what doesn’t by using qualified data to reach a conclusion either way. 

As a result of the exploratory research, Ms. Kurien decides that a Ikkat collection in soothing summer colors will be a definite hit with the customers. But to stock up the inventory appropriately she needs to take an informative research into the finer details of the products that will help their company stand out in the face of competition.

e. What is the Outcome of the Research?

outcome-of-the-UX-research

The outcome of UX research is a broad matter of speculation. Some UX research points in the direction of conclusive action that can be taken to improve the user experience, while the other outcomes are ongoing in the process of product  improvement. Researchers broadly categorise the outcome of research in these two parts:

a) Fundamental Research
As the name suggests, fundamental research or pure research is conducted for the purpose of advancement in a particular field of inquiry. The intrinsic purpose of pure research is to quench the thirst of curiosity and to understand the subject matter better. This form of research delves deep into the nature of variables at play in the ecosystem and the natural phenomenon that impacts these variables in a small or big way. Fundamental research is a scientific method of formulating, proving and disproving general theories that often form the base of more detailed focussed fields of study in the future.

The online fashion industry is a sub-industry functioning within the cumulative ecommerce domain. Tintra conducts many surveys to capture the changing sentiment of the space in general to be cognizant of changes in tastes and preferences. Their in-house researchers were one of the first few in the industry to see a shift from web shopping to app based retail through research they carried out when they were a young startup. The company undertakes fundamental research studies just to be relevant in the online space.

b) Applied Research
Applied research addresses a more narrow area of inquiry to look for a particular pattern or solve a well-defined problem. It uses an established fundamental research study as the basis for articulating a hypothesis that can be proved or disproved as the research progresses. Applied research is considered a focussed discipline that’s relevant in the current period; the results of similar studies may yield different results as time progresses. UX research can be considered an applied field of research for this very reason.

Due to their initial research, Ms. Kuriend has been following the emerging trends in app-based shopping very closely. A special team of people in her strategy team pick subjects within those reports to further look into how their inventory should be housed to keep up with the delivery time expectations of consumers using their mobile app. Whenever a product is successfully delivered, the team engages each customer through a feedback call and asks them if their shopping experience was satisfactory.  This helps them bridge the gap between product offering and customer expectation which increases their repeat business month on month. 

Benefits of UX Research

benefits-of-UX-Research

User research is an important facet of any business. Similarly, UX research is a critical component of any digital business. Understanding how the user behaves on a day to day basis and the challenges they face in going about their life can help companies make better decisions to solve these problems. Let’s see how UX research can benefit both companies and UX designers:

1)  For Businesses

·  UX research can help companies build intuitive products that generate long term value for users. Companies that build popular products tend to capture a larger portion of the market share and have better ROI than competition. According to IBM, “every dollar invested in ease of use returns $10 to $100.”

· A pleasurable UX induces positive word of mouth and attracts more users to the product. An ever-expanding user base can help smaller companies raise money from investors and scale-up. According to the research conducted by The UX School companies can experience at least 75% in sales post a favourable revamp of the user experience.

· UX research can lead product teams to various areas that are previously unexplored. Companies can leverage this research to create new product lines to increase user share of wallet.

· Effective insights from research can speed up the product development cycle by reducing inefficiencies. This leeway can often give companies a first-mover advantage and establish their position as a market leader. 

2)  For designers

· Well researched insights reduce the workload for UX developers. Re-work and unnecessary iterations are reduced because the development plan is clear at the time of execution.

· UX research also allows for a more cohesive and collaborative work atmosphere since everyone working on the project knows what they are working towards.

· The process flow of the development process is better organised because data backs up the decision making. There are fewer what-ifs in the design structure which helps the teams get more done on a fixed timeline.

Frequently asked questions related to UX research and design

1. What is UX research and design?

As the name suggests, UX research is a set of methodologies and techniques employed to study user behaviour for the purpose of developing user experience design in digital products. UX research seeks to develop an understanding of how humans form biases, perceptions and preferences in their mind that influence their product choices and behavioural patterns.

2.  What is a UX researcher?

A UX researcher is akin to a data scientist that investigates human behaviour traits for the purpose of designing user experience for online applications.

3.  How to create a UX research plan?

A research plan is the starting point of any successful research project. The following steps must be observed while creating a research blueprint
– Define the problem statement
– Outline the timeline of research
– Identify the parameters that need to be studied
– State the methodology (in-person interviews, online interviews)
– Treat the data to generate insights
– Present the findings in an actionable manner

4. How to do user research for UX design?

Starting the design process with research can help generate key insights that will be useful for development at the later stages. User research must ideally start with a problem statement that we intend to solve for through user experience design. Once we know what we are trying to achieve through the research process, we must go ahead and define concrete goals with practical timelines. In order to make this process more legitimate, you must provide for some room for error and inadequacies along the way. Discuss and decide on the methodologies that will be used for user research and strategize on how you intend to reach users who may be spread across many geographical locations. Collect responses and project results in a structured manner and make room for continuity of
research at more advanced stages of the process.

5.  How to conduct UX research?

While conducting a new UX research project you must:
– Define the problem statement for the research study
– Get an in-depth understanding of the resources needed in terms of people and technology
– Outline a budget for the research
– Outline a fixed timeline for the research
– Decide upon the methodologies suitable for your target audience
– Collate the results of the research
– Construct actionable insights that can be translated into usable design.

6. What does a UX researcher do?

A UX researcher performs a variety of tasks in the process of creating a body of work that delves deep to understand the typical user mindset. Here’s how they do it:
–  Making a research plan and crafting the objective of the project
At this stage of the research, the UX designer works towards making an efficient outline of the project with a strict eye on the budget and the timelines. They also formulate guidelines for desired usability and functionality of the product. In addition, they recruit users for sample groups who will answer questions for the research.
–  Data Collection 
UX researchers collect and moderate usability conversations with users on a one-one basis as well as in supervised group discussions. They collect responses to statistical surveys as well as qualitative inquiries.  
–  Analyse Data
At this stage, UX researchers group various user responses across different data points with an intention to spot patterns and recurring trends in user behaviour. These inferences are further translated into recommendations.
– Present Insights
Once all the data has been thoroughly examined, UX researchers present their findings to the product team. This user-specific information helps UX designers to make customised user personas that engage and delight different people in their own unique ways.

7.  How to get a UX researcher’s job?

Most UI/UX design studios recruit people for a UX researcher’s role within the design team. If you have a background in data analytics and a keen eye for detail, you can make the cut for a UX researcher’s job in this specialised field.

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