User experience (UX) is part of the bigger customer experience (CX) ecosystem. User experience focuses on user interactions with a product, whereas customer experience focuses on the customer (and the overall relationship), who might or might not be the end user.
Whereas CX professionals talk about listening to the voice of the customer across various touchpoints with the organization, UX professionals conduct research among users of their products, website, or app.
This guide addresses how to conduct user research and how to use it to design and deliver the best user experience.
Let’s start with a few definitions.
What is user-centered design?
According to Interaction Design Foundation, user-centered design (UCD) is defined as…
… an iterative design process in which designers and other stakeholders focus on the users and their needs in each phase of the design process. UCD calls for involving users throughout the design process via a variety of research and design techniques so as to create highly usable and accessible products for them.
This is a great definition, as it calls out the fact that it is an iterative process based on user needs and jobs to be done. The only way we can truly identify those needs are through conducting user research.
What is user research?
In its simplest terms, user research refers to the work that is done to understand users, as well as their needs, pain points, problems to solve, jobs to be done, preferences, behaviors, and motivations through surveys, observation, and other evaluation methods. We’ll delve deeper into these various methods within this guide.
Why is user research important?
At the heart of a great experience is the customer, or in this case, the user. Given that, it’s important for brands to listen to – and to understand – the user in order to design an experience that addresses her pain points, solves problems for her, and helps her do some job. The only way to truly understand the user and to design accordingly is to talk to her.
User research not only helps us understand the user but also how the user goes about performing tasks and solving problems – through using your products, websites, and apps – and where inefficiencies and break downs happen so that those aspects can be redesigned or improved.
Ultimately, what you learn from user research is used to design better products, websites, and apps that solve problems and deliver value for users. The research is the foundation of the design, adding context and insights to the design process.
What is the Job-To-Be-Done Theory?
We’ve now mentioned “job to be done” (JTBD) a couple times, so it’s important to define for you what that means before we continue.
In order to define jobs to be done, let’s go to the creator and pioneer of this concept, Tony Ulwick, who says:
A JOB-TO-BE-DONE is a statement that describes, with precision, what a group of people are trying to achieve or accomplish in a given situation. A job-to-be-done could be a task that people are trying to accomplish, a goal or objective they are trying to achieve, a problem they are trying to resolve, something they are trying to avoid, or anything else they are trying to accomplish.
It’s an important consideration and concept to use to ensure that designers focus on user outcomes, not just on features. Jobs to be done are uncovered through user research. When users achieve their jobs to be done, they have successfully used the product and have received value as a result of using the product for that job. Ultimately, that leads to satisfaction and repeat usage.
Who owns the user research process?
When folks ask the question about who owns the user research process, the answers are as varied as the respondents. Ideally, the UX designers and researchers will own it.
We know that product managers do market research, helping to answer the question, “What problems are customers having that we must help them solve?” Product designers take into account both the market research and the business needs. And UX designers conduct user research that informs the user experience, focusing mainly on users’ needs.
In reality, they all need to work together; it’s the only way the product or interface will not only deliver on the problem it is supposed to solve but also do so in an easy-to-use way and, therefore, actually be useful for the user.
Quantitative vs. qualitative user research
Not surprisingly, like any other research you can conduct, there are two over-arching types of user research: quantitative and qualitative. These two types of research can also be further broken down into attitudinal and behavioral research, where attitudinal is what people say, and behavioral is what people do.
Quantitative user research
Quantitative research speaks to forms of research that are quantifiable. We know the number (or percentage) of people who said or did something. This type of research is typically conducted using surveys or feedback buttons, as well as A/B testing, clickstream analysis, site analytics, user session data, app analytics, search logs, and bug tracking.
Qualitative user research
Qualitative research speaks to forms of research that are exploratory in nature. This type of research allows us to have conversations (e.g., interviews) and probe deeper into the “Why” of the finding. In addition to conversations, qualitative research is also conducted through observation.
Examples of qualitative user research include scripted and unscripted 1:1 interviews; ethnographic interviews and immersion programs, where users are observed in their homes or offices as they use the products; usability tests; focus groups; eye tracking; and card sorting, to name just a few.
Other user understanding methods
Listening via both quantitative and qualitative methods is important to understanding the user experience. There are a couple of important research methods that we wanted to call out that are standard fare – and must be in your toolbox – to understand users and the user experience.
Personas are descriptions that represent a behavioral grouping of like users, i.e., users with similar needs, pain points, problems to be solved, jobs to be done, and more. The persona descriptions include vivid narratives, images, and other items that help designers understand who their users are, understand the needs of the user (contextual insights), and outline motivations, goals, behaviors, challenges, likes, dislikes, objections, and interests that drive purchase or usage decisions.
Personas are derived through primary research (e.g., interviews, surveys, ethnographic research) and can also include existing behavioral data to develop a complete picture.
Empathy maps are not the same thing as a persona, and they are not journey maps. Here’s what empathy maps are, straight from the creator’s (Dave Gray, Founder, XPLANE) mouth:
Empathy maps “help teams develop deep, shared understanding and empathy for other people. People use it to help them improve customer experience, to navigate organizational politics, to design better work environments, and a host of other things. The empathy map was created with a pretty specific set of ideas and is designed as a framework to complement an exercise in developing empathy.”
Empathy maps visualize what you know about users, specifically what they are feeling, thinking, doing, seeing, and hearing, as well as their pain points and desired outcomes. They help us to create a shared understanding of the user so that you can better design for her needs.
Journey maps are visualizations of the steps users take as they complete some task or interaction. They include what the user is doing, thinking, and feeling at each step of the journey to complete the task using your product, website, or app. As with other user research methods, journey maps are created with the user, from the user’s viewpoint. The foundation of the journey map is the user persona; different personas have different experiences, so it’s important to look at and define the different journeys for each unique persona.
Research learning spiral
Erin Sanders, a senior interaction designer at Frog Design, created a research learning spiral that guides researchers on how to plan and conduct user research. The spiral has five steps that take you from plan to outcomes.
The five steps are as follows:
- Objectives: What questions are you trying to answer? Why are you doing this research?
- Hypotheses: What do you think you already know about your users, their behaviors, pain points, problems to solve, etc.?
- Methods: What research tool or method will you use to fulfill your objectives?
- Conduct: Use the chosen method to gather data and understand your users.
- Synthesize: Analyze and make sense of the data, and use your research findings to either prove or disprove your hypotheses.
User research turns a work problem into a personal problem. It’s one thing to think your work might make a difference, and it’s another to see the impact it can have on another person’s life. User research puts people at the center of attention where they’ve always belonged. ~ Randolph Duke II, Senior Research & Design Strategist at Cantina