Great UX designers create experiences their users love. But how do you know what people really want?
Philosophers, psychologists, and marketers have spent centuries trying to understand human motivations. And while we’ve gotten pretty good at knowing why we do certain things. It’s a mistake to assume you understand anything before you start designing.
At the core of UX design is the idea of user-centricity. You are building for your user. Not yourself.
Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as simply asking users what they want. If you asked ten users what new feature they’d absolutely use, five will suggest whatever’s in front of them, three will ask for something they’ll never actually use, and the rest won’t know what to say.
None of that’s very useful.
Instead, user research is what allows UX designers to look beyond what people say and make smart decisions based on what they do.
There are tons of user research methods you can use to learn about users and test your theories (we cover the most important ones below). But before you dive into the tools, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of user research and how it works within the UX process.
What is user research? What does a UX researcher really do?
User research is a systematic approach to understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through using tools such as observation, task analysis, and other feedback methods.
That’s a pretty vague description. But that’s only because user research covers so many different angles and approaches to understanding user goals and needs.
So let’s start with a simple example.
Let’s say you have a friend’s birthday coming up, but you don’t know what to get them. You know them well, but you’re stumped on what they might want (and you don’t want to just ask because that would ruin the surprise).
So you need to make your best guess and then judge their response based on how they look when they open it. (Are they genuinely happy? Or do they give you a fake smile that just tells you they’re thinking of who to regift it to?)
User research is the process of finding out what is the best gift for your friend.
Maybe you’d ask them related questions like what their favorite color is or if they wear crew or turtleneck sweaters. Or, you could go shopping with them and observe what they’re drawn to.
These are all variations of methods and techniques used in user research.
For UX designers and UX researchers, the user research process involves finding a problem to solve, understanding your users so you can frame that problem in the best way, and then coming up with a research plan to test ideas.
So what does the user research process look like?
The 6 questions that will help you deeply understand your users
You can’t pick a good gift if you don’t know who you’re buying it for. And you certainly can’t design an experience users love if you don’t know who they are.
In both cases, the worst thing you can do is design (or buy) for yourself rather than the user (or friend!)
The idea of user-centricity and a focus on user research is what differentiates UX from other design disciplines. While a graphic designer might use brand guidelines or look at what’s popular on other sites to design a landing page, a UX designer gets to find clear answers before making anything.
Not only does this give you confidence in your designs, but it also removes the subjective aspect at the end. It’s harder for a boss or manager to argue your design decisions when they’re rooted in real user behaviors.
So where do you start with understanding your users and their behaviors? Toss on your best private investigator hat and ask who, what, where, when, why, and how.
Who are your users?
What problems are they facing?
Where do they encounter this problem?
When do they normally face it?
Why is this a problem?
How are they currently dealing with it?
Some of these questions are qualitative–they help you understand why users do what they do. While others are quantitative–they measure data on what users are doing.
Both approaches are important for gathering insights that will drive your design process. However, to start, it’s important to focus on qualitative questions.
Why your users are facing a problem will help you dig deeper into the root cause. UX design isn’t about solving surface-level problems, but fundamentally shifting products to be easier to use, more enjoyable, and exciting for users.
But here’s the thing: you won’t always know why users are facing a problem.
Sometimes, you won’t even know what the problems are from the beginning. And in many cases, you might create more problems with your solutions!
UX design is a never-ending process of discovery, designing, and testing. And there are elements of user research that happen at every stage of your work.
The four phases of user research: Discover, Explore, Test, Listen
User research happens at nearly every phase of the UX process, not just the beginning.
Of course, you need to know what problem to solve, why it’s an issue, and who your users are. But equally as important is learning how users react to your prototypes and how they engage with your final designs!
That’s a lot to remember. But to make it easier, we can break user research down into four stages:
Discover: Understand your users and find problems to solve
Explore: Frame those problems within the context of your product (and others)
Test: Create a research plan and try out your solutions with real users
Listen: Continually look for new insights and ways to make your designs better
There are specific user research methods that work best during each phase. However, it’s important that you use the right research methods during each phase.
Discover: Finding a problem to solve
At the very heart of user research is this fundamental statement: You are not your user.
This is what makes user research important. Because you are not your user, you don’t know their problems, and how they are trying to solve them.
The discovery phase is when you shine a light on what you don’t know and try to better understand what problems your users are facing.
As a UX designer, there are plenty of ways to find a problem to solve. However, here are the two most common scenarios you’ll face when approaching a new project:
No idea what problem to solve: In many cases, you won’t know where to start and can only find problems by talking to users. You’ll use methods like user interviews, stakeholder interviews, and requirements gathering to uncover problems. From this research, you’ll then decide if it’s worth pursuing (from a business perspective).
A potential business opportunity: There will also be situations where there’s a potential business opportunity in solving a problem. User research will help you validate your assumptions and ensure you’re solving the right problem for your users.
It bears repeating that the best thing you can do in either scenario is to talk to your users. User interviewsare the treasure map that will guide you to the richest and deepest user insights possible.
Explore: Framing the problem
A problem is a good place to start. However, it’s not enough to start designing.
Next, you need to truly define the problem. What is it that you’re solving, exactly? What’s the best way to solve that problem?
There are a number of user research methods you can use to explore the problem space including task analysis, customer journey mapping, and card sorting.
However, we like to start with a document called framing the problem.
The problem framing document gathers stakeholder opinions, assumptions, and questions to help you dig deeper, understand the problem, and come up with more research questions.
Framing the problem has six parts:
The general problem you’re solving
“How might we” question(s)
The desired business impact of solving the problem
Your assumptions about the problem
The questions you need to answer in order to solve it
The project’s constraints
Sometimes the insights you gain from your research will indicate that you actually framed the wrong problem. At that point, you’ll come back to the document and rewrite it to reflect the problem that you're now trying to solve.
Framing the problem is a living document that might change along the way as you gain a deeper understanding of the user.
We see framing the problem as one of the only mandatory parts of the UX process. It’s the primary document that we use as a north star throughout the UX process to provide clarity and focus on what we actually need to solve.
Once you’ve framed the problem, it’s time to document how you’re going to go about answering the questions uncovered from framing the problem.
That’s where a research plan comes in.
Your research plan documents your questions, the methods you’ll use to answer them, and the goals of your research. It can cover all aspects of research, from finding problems to testing designs with users.
Here’s what we like to include in our research plan:
Research goals (why you’re conducting research)
Research questions (what you’re trying to answer)
The research methods you’ll use to answer those questions (how you’ll go about it, i.e., user interviews, surveys, etc.)
The location you’ll conduct the research (where you’ll conduct it). With everything going on in the world, the location you’ll enter here will probably be “remote.” You’d also include the meeting software information (Zoom, Google Meet, etc.).
The timeline of the research (when it will happen)
The participant profile (the description of the people you’ll be conducting the research with, i.e., the product’s ideal user). You’ll use this information to recruit participants.
This is a document that we almost always have in all of our projects. It helps keep the research questions we need to answer at the center of our process and narrows down the methods you’ll use to answer those questions.
And what methods should you be using? It depends on the project, constraints, and where you are in the UX design process.
For example, maybe you're unsure of where people are struggling with the product. To find answers, you could run some usability tests to determine where users are running into trouble.
Or maybe you're unsure where users expect to find certain information in your product. This means you might choose to run a card sort or a survey with participants to get quantitative, statistically significant data to back up your design decisions.
And remember, in 99.99% of cases you don't have time to use anywhere close to all methods for any given project. When creating your research plan, choose the fastest, most reliable methods to answer your research questions.
Listen: Finding new insights
User research can uncover insights that sometimes go against what you’ve already learned. You don’t know what you don’t know, which is why it’s important to stay open to new insights, even if they mean going back to the drawing board!
The listening phase isn’t really a phase. Instead, it’s a group of user research methods that help you continue to learn about the problem you’re solving and analyze data as your project progresses.
The most common tool to use here is surveys.
A survey is a list of questions that you use to collect responses from people in your target audience. Surveys are relatively quick and straightforward to build and help you gather data about your target audience. They’re great for quantitative data collection and the results are easy to analyze.
Surveys can include two different types of questions:
Open questions allow participants to answer however they’d like to. They come in the form of text boxes and are a great way to understand the underlying reasons why a user is making a decision.
Closed questions have a limited number of possible responses (yes/no, 1–10, multiple choice, etc.) Participants can’t elaborate further. However, you get data that is easier to analyze and compare.
User research toolkit: 14 common user research methods
As we’ve mentioned throughout this guide, there are tons of user research methods you can use to get the information you need. The key is in picking the right method for the right purpose.
Here are 14 common methods you’ll use:
SWOT analysis:SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It’s a way to understand the business context of a company or product and uncover opportunities.
Competitive analysis: A competitive analysis is when you dig into a competitor’s features and approach to solving problems. It can help you identify gaps in your own product and understand industry standards.
Heuristic (usability) evaluation: A heuristic evaluation focuses on how well a user can learn and use your product. It covers all sorts of factors including clarity, error prevention, the efficiency of use, memorability, and positive emotional engagement.
Task analysis: Task analysis is when you list out every step involved in taking an action. It’s a great way to identify places where the user experience breaks down or could be improved.
Stakeholder interviews: Stakeholder interviews are one-on-one conversations with people who have a vested interest in your product (not users). These interviews are goldmines of information about business goals, parameters and limitations, and any assumptions you’re working with.
Survey: Surveys are great ways to collect feedback from a number of users at the same time. You’ll most likely use surveys throughout the UX process to make sure you’re on the right track.
User interviews: Talking to users is a great way to uncover motivations, understand behaviors, and gain empathy. User interviews can be conducted at any stage of the UX process, however, they’re most effective early on when you’re still defining the problem.
Card sorting: Card sorting helps you understand how users group content together so you can create an intuitive structure and navigation. Basically, you’ll give users ‘cards’ and ask them to either organize them into their own groups (‘open’ card sorting) or place them into predefined categories (‘closed’ card sorting).
Customer journey map: A customer/user journey map is a way to visualize the process and emotional state a persona goes through as they accomplish a goal. They help you step back from small problems and picture the experience as a whole.
Empathy map: An empathy map is a 2X2 grid that helps you gain empathy for your user. Each section covers a different angle of the user experience: Hear, Think & Feel, See, Say & Do.
Affinity diagram: An affinity diagram helps you connect pieces of information and understand the relationships hidden within large sets of data. Essentially, you’ll write down research data on sticky notes and then group them together based on themes or experiences.
Personas: Personas are fictional representations of your target users based on your research. Rather than a real person, a persona is a collection of common traits you can use to make sure you’re staying user-centric throughout the UX process.
Contextual inquiry: A contextual inquiry involves observing participants using a product in their natural environment (sort of like a nature TV show!) The goal is to see what they would do if you weren’t there observing them.
Diary study: A diary study is a long-term research tool used to collect data about user behaviors and experiences. During a defined period of time, ask users to log specific data about how they’re using your product, how it made them feel, and when they use it.
There’s a reason we saved talking about specific user research methods for last.
Picking the right method at the right time is what makes a great UX designer (or UX researcher!) But to do that, you first need to understand the phases and goals of your research. Stick with the fundamentals first and the rest becomes so much easier.
User research is your first step towards building better experiences
It’s safe to say that user research is one of the biggest differentiators between UX and other design disciplines. It’s also what makes UX such an exciting career path.
When you truly understand the people using your products you can create meaningful experiences they’ll love. And that feels amazing for everyone.