I have an important question to ask you.

If you answer correctly, there is no greater sign that you have what it takes to become a top UX designer. If not, perhaps your time hasn’t come.

Phew. No pressure then!

Here it is…

What does UX stand for?

Take your time. Think carefully. This is a hard one.

“UX stands for User Experience,” I hear you cry.

Well done, you’re well on your way to making it in UX.

But wait. Before I’m absolutely sure that you have what it takes, there is another question I need to ask.

If UX stands for User Experience, then who would offer us the greatest insight into designing this experience?

Again, take your time. I’ll even give you a clue: the answer is in the name.

That’s right. It’s the user.

Despite the risk of sounding condescending, I couldn’t move on until this was made abundantly clear.

The number of internal stakeholders, often including those at the very top, who think it’s possible to create a great user experience without talking to their users would surprise you.

This is why user research is at the beginning of the UX process.  It sets the foundation on which all subsequent steps are based.

Quite simply, if you’re not doing user research, you’re not doing UX.

Before we delve into all the available user research methods, we need to get our head around a few concepts.

3 Must Know User Research Concepts

1. You Are Not the User

One of the most important concepts to grasp in UX is that you are not the user. Every other person in the world may be the user – but you aren’t.

You are too close to the product. You know too much about the business, its business model, the decisions that have been made, the reasons behind them, as well as the product and technology behind the product.

I’m not the user. Got it.

But how about someone in the company who isn’t directly involved with the product’s design. Perhaps someone who works in the marketing, finance or IT department?

They are not the user either.

Everyone within the company has at least some knowledge of the company itself as well as the industry it is operating in. They regularly come across terms that are relevant to the industry and understand at least some of the inner workings of the company. By default, they are insiders, while your users are outsiders.

If you make decisions based on what you or the people in the company like or dislike you are designing for insiders.

2. Assumptions Are Dangerous

In UX, every time you make an assumption, you are playing a dangerous game. You begin to accept something as the truth that may have no basis in reality and no relevance to your users.

Does this mean that there is no room for any assumptions in UX?

No.

Assumptions must at times be made otherwise there is a risk of being stuck in the product development process indefinitely. You may never get out if you dedicate the time, money and resources to validating every single assumption you have.

The key is to balance assumptions as much as possible with the facts and insights obtained from user research.

The more important the assumption is to the core usability of the product, the more the need for validation.

3. Actions Speak Louder Than Words

“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things”

– Margaret Mead

Before Spotify, the iPod, the MiniDisc, and the CD Player there was the humble boombox.

Scratch that. There was nothing humble about the boombox.

It was big, heavy, and LOUD with the unique characteristic of being able to annoy anyone within 100 yards.

If you think people playing music out loud on their phones on public transport today is annoying, just be thankful you weren’t around when it was cool to walk around with a boombox on your shoulder.

The boombox is an excellent illustration of why it is better to observe than listen to your users.

The story goes that when Sony were close to releasing their first line of boomboxes they were running a focus group to determine which colour would be best: black or white. It didn’t take long for the participants to decide that they preferred white.

After the session, the facilitator thanked the participants, and as a gesture of appreciation said that they could take a boombox home with them on their way out. As they left the room, walked down the corridor and approached the door, there were two stacks of boomboxes to choose from: black and white.

Guess which colour everyone chose?

Black.

The point of this story isn’t that users may be dishonest, it’s that they can be unreliable.

When conducting user research, the best indicator of what people will do is to observe rather than listen to them.

Actions speak louder than words.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words in User Research
Which color would you choose?

The Different Types of User Research

User research can be split into two categories: qualitative and quantitative.

Qualitative Research: This type of research can provide deep insights, is subjective and interpretive, uses smaller sample sizes, and produces unmeasurable and unstructured data.

Usability tests, interviews, open-ended survey questions and focus groups are some of the more popular techniques that fall under this category.

Quantitative Research: This type of research provides broad insights, is objective and statistical, uses larger sample sizes, and produces measurable and structured data that is numerical in nature. This is called quantitative data.

Analytics, AB testing, and multiple-choice survey questions all fall under this category.

An easy way to remember the difference is to ask the question: can this data be displayed in a nice bar graph or pie chart?

If yes, you’re dealing with quantitative data.

In UX we use both, with each playing an important role in the research stage of the UX process.

User Research Techniques

Listed are the most common user research methods. Click on any one to read more.