When looking for UX services, you often come across the term “user research” or “user experience research.” This concept may be difficult to grasp, especially for those who are new to UX terminology. Hence this article explains what user research is and why it is an essential part of UX services.
What is user research?
User research or user experience research is a process that involves directly observing and interacting with end-users to gather information regarding user experience. It is the act of collecting data about your target audience to generate ideas for product development. This research is usually done on a small scale before conducting a large-scale survey.
User research helps developers understand their target audiences and refine their products accordingly. Essentially, it’s the process of finding out what functions users need in a product and then developing those features.
It is important, however, to differentiate user research from market research. These two notions overlap to some extent, but their focuses are different.
Market research aims to find the answer to whether people will be willing to buy a specific product or service. If yes, market research should provide more data about the potential market size, market niches, existing competitors, and demographics of potential customers. All this should allow us to decide whether launching a new product or service makes sense. So, market research is about getting a bigger picture on a specific market or industry.
User research, on the other hand, focuses on making existing products or services better. It tries to answer the question of how customers are using them, and how their user experience can be enhanced. So, user research is about gathering more detailed insights about people’s behavior.
What is the goal of user research?
User research helps us to understand users’ expectations and the problems they want to solve in their daily lives. It is used to enhance existing digital products or services. This can include design proposals, requirements and specifications for an offer, the model of interaction, and many other things that trigger a purchase or other targeted type of behavior.
The goal of user research is to create better designs that meet users’ needs and expectations. These designs should be consistent with their operations but be also based on statistical data, especially where it comes to specific group segmentation and to who the offer is addressed to. This can also help create processes for improved accessibility, reliability, and efficiency.
User research methods—an overview
UX research methods can be split into two basic types: quantitative and qualitative.
Quantitative research involves collecting and analyzing numerical data, establishing patterns, and making predictions. The obtained information is then used to generalize the target audience or topic of study.
An example of quantitative user research methods is A/B testing, also known as “bucket” or “split” testing. It consists in comparing two web pages or app versions (with different variations) against each other to determine which one has the highest performance. For example, you can test identical landing pages but with different CTA (Call to Action) buttons or messages to determine which one appeals more to users and has a higher conversion rate.
Another quantitative method is eye tracking, i.e., determining which UI elements are distracting, findable, or discoverable. To conduct this type of research, you need special equipment that tracks users’ eyes as they scan across an interface. When many research participants perform the same action on the same user interface, you can get meaningful insights on how particular elements attract or distract their attention. Based on these insights, you will be able to determine which UI elements need to be emphasized or de-emphasized to enable users to reach their goals.
Qualitative research, on the other hand, involves methods such as user interviews, field studies, and usability tests. These approaches are used to collect data through studying participants via direct observation. The aim of this UX research is to understand “why,” based on people’s attitudes, thoughts, and motivations.
Interviewing current users is an excellent way of getting feedback on your app’s or website’s design and functionality. Interviews are more effective when they’re conducted face-to-face as opposed to over the phone or via email. You can ask current users questions about their experiences with your app or website and collect their suggestions for improvements.
During field studies, researchers focus on analyzing user behaviors in the environments in which products or services are most likely to be used. It may sound terribly complicated and you may expect that a team of anthropologists is needed to conduct them, but this presumption is wrong, as a basic field study is pretty easy to perform. Just ask your design team to visit customers to talk about their experiences with your product or service. A field study does not need to be a complex project. Even a tiny one will provide you with valuable insights into how people are actually using your digital product.
Usability testing, often used interchangeably with “user testing,” helps designers identify areas of poor usability and fix them early in the process. During the test, a participant is asked to perform tasks using one or more user interfaces. A researcher observes his/her behavior and gathers feedback. Usability tests aim at identifying problems, areas for improvement, and learning about target users’ behaviors and preferences.
Possible wrong assumptions when doing user research
Paradoxically, users are often forgotten in research reports since they are not easy to identify. Potential users may be difficult to pinpoint since they are usually busy and hard to engage. Researchers must contact people who have an interest in their product or service and ask them questions about their needs, preferences, and difficulties with the process which they have defined.
Additionally, the process itself is not easy because it may be subject to several traps:
- the bias effect, which is the tendency to interpret information by finding or understanding information in a way that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs or theories;
- the bad persona effect—we assume we chose the right persona, while the real customer remained undefined;
- questions are too general or allow only for “yes” or “no” answers;
- bending the interpretation of the survey results to obtain the desired effect.
How to approach user research correctly
To avoid these traps, you should focus on the following:
- getting to know what users really need, be it in the context of the service or in the context of the product;
- acquiring knowledge of actual personas, proto-personas, and user habits in terms of current and potential customers, in particular in the context of the competition;
- collecting data about the processes and procedures themselves, how easy it is to perform the desired operation on the “customer journey” path;
- verifying whether the established path is in fact a critical path, to what extent it intersects with other paths, and what the users’ touch points and pain points are;
- understanding what processes are crucial and how to ensure smooth and intuitive navigation through the product or service allowing customers to perform desired actions (purchase, subscribe, etc.).
Additionally, you should gather all the data needed for conducting user research before commencing. This includes customer profiles, market analysis, and competitor analysis. Each of these areas must be covered comprehensively before starting any kind of user research.
It’s also important to have an outline of questions you want to ask your users so you can accurately capture the data you need. Doing so will save time during the field study and ensure everything you need is available for you when you need it.
Conducting user research: who should do it
When talking about user research, we have assumed that it is intended for the companies working in a B2C model, e.g., selling goods or services through their websites or mobile apps. And this is true in most cases.
But user research works not only in B2C models, such as e-commerce. B2B companies that offer services or solutions to other companies may also benefit from research in the phase of business modeling. Those companies should focus on improving their services and competing with their rivals, using methods for business model enhancement like benchmarking or looking for USPs (unique selling points) and a real value proposition for their business users.
Tools like the business model canvas (for typical business modeling) may be supported with research not only in the design process but also in the process of educating and informing users and strict business modeling to better understand users’ needs. For example, you can check whether a dedicated solution is a priority for the users or whether it is described in the proper way to get a dedicated reaction that is programmed into the CTA journey.
Companies with B2B models can use this information to develop or adapt products and services that meet those needs, shaping the final revision of a service or product in a process called pivoting. Additionally, they can use this information to track successful clients (main personas) so they can build business models around specific needs of their target market, upselling or extending models to other groups that represent additional personas.
User research to drive your business—wrap up
As you can see, user research tools can provide you with valuable business insights both for B2C and B2B business models. Since there are many user research techniques that differ in terms of complexity, cost, and type of data provided, you need to decided what works best in your case. But any type of user research, even with a limited scope and budget, is better than none. Failing to conduct research means that you will not have any data on how your target users interact with your product. And without that, your project risks reaching a dead end.