What is UX research?
UX (user experience) research is the study of learning what end users of a system or product need and want, then employing those insights to enhance the design process for products, services or software. UX research can take different forms depending on the area of focus. For example, for product teams, UX research could mean validating concepts and prototypes; while for marketing teams, it might mean testing brand designs and messaging before launching products.
When they conduct UX research, UX researchers uncover the motivations, behaviors and needs of users via observations, analyzing how they perform certain tasks. UX research can also involve working directly with users via UX testing sessions, remotely observing users using digital tools, surveys to collect user feedback and other methods.
Because individuals perceive the world in their own way, all users generate individual mental models, which is why developers must keep users' actions in mind when they build their products.
UX research methods and approaches
There are two main types of UX research methods: quantitative and qualitative.
With this research method, UX researchers test theories about people's behaviors and attitudes based on numerical and statistical evidence. The goal is to quantify the experience of a user, generally by measuring one metric. Quantitative methods answer such questions as, "What percentage of people can find the call to action?" or "How many users clicked on a particular link?" This method is key to understanding statistical possibilities and what is happening in an application or website.
Qualitative research focuses on understanding the why, as in, why users behave the way they do or why they need or want a certain product to work in a particular way. Qualitative research can be done via observations, field studies, moderated usability tests and user interviews. This research aims to understand the human side of data by trying to understand the underlying reasons and motivations that cause consumers to act the way they do.
UX researchers use a number of user research methods to conduct UX research, including the following:
- Card sorting. This study assesses and designs the navigation and structure of an application or website. In card sorting, individuals are given a list of items, such as all the products featured in an online supermarket, and are asked to group these items in a way that makes the most logical sense to them.
- Contextual interviews. This research method enables UX researchers to observe users in their natural environments so researchers can better understand the way users work.
- Focus groups. These are discussions with a group of users that are moderated. Focus groups provide UX researchers insight into the attitudes, ideas and wants of the users.
- Expert reviews. Usability experts evaluate a website against a list of established guidelines.
- Interviews. These one-on-one user discussions show researchers how a particular individual works to get detailed information about a user's desires, experiences and attitudes.
- Surveys. These are a series of questions posed to a number of users that help researchers learn about the individuals who use the end product.
- Usability testing. This uncovers the problems and frustrations users have with a site through one-on-one sessions where users perform tasks on the websites the researchers are studying.
- A/B testing. Testing randomly shows users different versions of a website to track the effectiveness of the design of the site on behavior and conversion.
What are the benefits of UX research?
UX research helps organizations:
- understand how users really experience websites, mobile applications, products and prototypes;
- evaluate and improve ideas and prototypes based on the findings of the UX research, enabling organizations to make the right design decisions early in the development process;
- discover new customer needs and business opportunities;
- find and fix flaws in products and services;
- provide better user experiences than competitors;
- understand every user interaction across the entire customer journey; and
- develop a more useful picture of the target audience for better advertising and marketing.
UX researcher role and responsibilities
The role of a UX researcher is to uncover user behaviors, needs and motivations to make products, services and websites more intuitive and enjoyable for users. Using qualitative and quantitative methods, they conduct comprehensive research and share the insights from research with the UX designers. The goal of the UX researcher is to make the overall design process smoother and more productive.
Some typical responsibilities of the UX researcher include:
- creating a well-crafted research plan with clear objectives;
- building a picture of the target users based on their needs, wants, motivations and challenges;
- writing usability research screener questionnaires and discussion guides;
- recruiting targeted users for specific research studies;
- moderating one-on-one usability sessions;
- helping develop and implement quantitative surveys;
- conducting client and stakeholder interviews;
- providing actionable and meaningful recommendations for the product team;
- presenting findings of the design research to a larger team clearly and in an organized manner;
- working closely with the product team to identify research goals; and
- establishing and implementing an overall research strategy.
Best practices to conduct UX research
The following are some best practices to use when conducting UX research:
- Understand the needs and behaviors of users. This is key to building a product people want to use. Employ qualitative research, including studies and one-on-one interviews, to understand users' behaviors and desires.
- Pay attention to the differences in user behavior. After moving to the quantitative stage of measuring user behavior, don't just focus on the behaviors of the majority -- because not every user behaves the same way. Ask what you can learn from the behavior of the minority. Be open to every possibility, even if the findings don't align with the initial assumptions.
- Do UX research at every stage of a project. Although it may be best to conduct most research at the beginning to ensure the project is on track, it's also important to save some resources and budget to also conduct research later in the project.
- During the refinement and iteration phase, conduct usability testing to help determine what features should be added and what needs to be fixed. Understanding how users interact with a product enables UX researchers to make it better.
- Communicate the findings of usability tests, studies, quantitative and qualitative research, and user interviews with the developers working on the product. UX researchers should translate their users' needs into the technical language that the developers and the product team will understand.
How to become a UX researcher
To become a UX researcher, individuals should have:
- BA/BS degree;
- experience conducting user research;
- in-depth understanding of user interface design;
- experience with qualitative and user-centered design methodologies;
- working knowledge of behavioral analysis, quantitative methodology and statistics;
- problem-solving skills;
- critical-thinking skills;
- teamwork and collaboration skills;
- good time-management skills; and
- great communication and interpersonal skills.
UX researcher salary and job demand
According to PayScale, the average salary for a UX researcher is $87,609. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't provide statistics specifically for UX researchers, it does for computer and information research scientists. That field, which does include UX researchers, is expected to grow by 15% between 2019 and 2029.
UX researcher vs. UX designer
The primary objective of a UX researcher is understanding what motivates the user. A UX designer's main objective is designing a product that consumers will want to use based on the insights the UX researcher provides. Both positions will work closely with one another, as the UX designer will use the insights the UX researcher provides.