It’s no secret that the best way to understand your users is of course through research.

But the term research can sound intimidating.

It can conjure up images of scientists with lab coats and microscopes, professors with PhDs and long-term studies that generate reports the length of a novel to read.

Research can be understood in much simpler terms, though. It is merely gathering information to understand a problem.

And the best way of obtaining this information is through something you likely do every day. You’re probably already quite good at it too – what with all the years of experience under your belt.

It’s about meeting and talking to people.

Before we dive into the many user research techniques we use in UX, it’s a good idea to be aware of why understanding your users is so important, as well as a few important concepts that will set you on the right track for better research.

Why You Need to Understand Your Users

If you hire an interior designer, it’s likely that before they go to the trouble of producing beautiful 3D renderings of their designs a meeting would take place.

They would want to learn about your likes and dislikes and have a better understanding of what you are looking for to better meet your goals.

It’s no different with software development.

Learning about your users means you can better understand what they’re trying to do. You are then in a better position to decide what should and shouldn’t be included in your software to meet their goals.

If you want to develop a new product, without this knowledge, you’re just guessing and are at risk of creating a product that is unfit for purpose.

If you’re looking to improve a product, you can use this knowledge to obtain those small gains that can make all the difference to the UX.

1. Design Target vs. Target Audience

Let’s say that you’re hired to design a mobile banking app. You’ve been reading up a bit on UX, so decide that it’s probably a good idea to find out who you’re designing for.

That’s easy, right?

You’re designing for practically anyone aged over 18. After all, almost everyone has a bank account and mobile phone.

Next question.

But this is a mistake – and it’s all too common.

Your target audience may very well be as broad as anyone aged over 18. But designing a product that tries to be all things to all people and for all possible scenarios can result in a product that pleases nobody.

Even if your target audience is as broad as anyone over 18, your users are still using the app with specific goals in mind, in a specific context and through a specific set of behaviors.

It is these goals, contexts and behaviors that make up the design target.

Understanding the difference between a design target and target audience is therefore critical when it comes to understanding your users.

2. Goals, Behaviors and Context

When developing a product, you can learn a lot about your users in the research stage. You can learn about their age, gender, income, marital status, political party and so on. Most of this information, however, won’t serve you well when it comes to designing software and creating a better user experience.

What you really need to focus on are users’ goals, behaviors and contexts.

To illustrate let’s consider the process of booking a flight online.


The overarching goal when visiting a flight booking website is to book a flight. However, there are also secondary goals like booking a flight that is within budget and at dates and times that work for them.

Goals can therefore be split into two groups: primary and secondary.


Users typically compare and select various prices, dates, times and fare options.

Behaviors are therefore the things users do when they use a website. The best way you can make sure your users’ goals are taken care of is through understanding these behaviors.


A user is likely to book a flight at home or at work, days to months before traveling and either for themselves or others too.

The context is therefore the social and physical environment where the product is used.

As you can tell from this example, potentially anyone who is looking to travel is the target audience. But the design target is a lot smaller and a lot more specific.

Herein lies a paradox.

3. The Paradox of Specificity

There are many paradoxes in life and business.

The only certainty is uncertainty.

The only constant is change.

The more you fail, the more likely you are to succeed.

You get the picture.

In UX design, we’re mostly concerned with the Paradox of Specificity.

As with any paradox, these statements at first sound counterintuitive but are ultimately true.

  1. The more specific you can get about your users’ goals, behaviors and context, the better your product will be.
  2. Products that are good at doing a small number of things tend to be more popular than products that those that try to do multiple things. Ironically Paradoxically, this can result in the product being more likely to be adopted by a wider audience.

The lesson here is that if you narrow your focus and design a product to do a small number of things exceptionally well, you may just end up with a very popular product with an unrivaled user experience.

4. Mental Model vs. Design Model

Going back to the flight booking website, you likely have an idea of how you think the site works.

This is called a mental model. You expect to be able to choose your origin and destination airports by typing in a few characters to see a list appear, select your dates by typing in or choosing from a calendar dropdown, select how many passengers you are booking for and so on.

How did you come to this conclusion?

It wasn’t by using every single flight booking website on the internet. It came from using a few of them and forming assumptions about how they all work.

This is how your mental model is formed.

Understanding Your Users - Mental Model vs. Design Model
No matter the flight booking website, you know exactly what to do

Mental models are very useful because even though you may never have visited or used a specific website or app before, you instinctively know how it works.

If the next flight booking website you visit diverges from the model you have in your head – i.e. how it actually works compared to how you think it will work – this causes friction.

Get the mental model wrong and you’re fighting an uphill battle. At best you’ll frustrate users; at worst users will give up soon after they begin.

The best way to make sure your mental model and design model match is to simply sit down and observe people using your product. This is known as a usability test – and is arguably the greatest research method a UX designer has in their arsenal.

User Research Techniques: