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BlogResearch Methods & Deliverables
  • Last Updated:

September 30, 2020

How Do I Choose The Right UX Research Method?

Our quiz can help you get a research method recommendation in under five clicks.

Carrie Boyd

Getting started with user research can be intimidating. Even for experienced pros, there are so many available methods to answer research questions, it can be hard to know which UX research method to use for different research questions, budgets, time frames, and more. In this article, we’ll help you learn how to choose the right UX research method and give a brief overview of some of the methods you can use. To caveat, there’s a lot of nuance when choosing your methods, so our hope here is to present a starting point you can build on, adding your own experience and intuition.

How do I choose the right UX research method? Start with a research question

Choosing the right research method for the job starts with choosing the right research question. Where are you in the product development process? What do you hope to learn in your research? How will you know when you’ve learned it? What will you use the feedback you gain from research to build? 

All of these questions can help you zero in on your main research question. The key to a good research question is choosing something specific, actionable, and practical. It should be specific enough that you will know when you have found an answer, practical in that you could reasonably find answers to it in the scope of a research project (that scope could be large or small depending on your question), and actionable, so you can act on the answer that you find.

Here are some examples of specific, actionable, and practical research questions: 

“Does our pricing page accurately address our customer's questions about our pricing?”
“How do 40-50 year olds choose vacation destinations?”
“What tools do millenials use to learn how to manage their finances?”

The key to doing great research is taking the time at the beginning to choose the right research question. Once you’re clear on what you need to learn from research and have taken the time to ensure the question you’re asking is specific, actionable, and practical, you’ve set yourself up for a successful study. 

Choosing the right research method is then a balance of how you can best answer your research question with the budget, time, and resources you have available. For example, if you want to learn about the way marketing professionals buy new analytics software, you have a few options available. You can do an ethnographic study to learn about how marketing professionals operate in their everyday lives and the constraints they face. You can do a diary study and ask marketing professionals to document their process over a few weeks. You can do user interviews and ask specific questions about the last time marketing professionals purchased analytics software. 

All of these will help you answer your research question, but which one you choose likely comes down to how big your budget, timeframe, and team is. An ethnographic study takes a month or more to organize and execute, can be expensive to recruit for, and involves your team spending weeks embedded with your participants. A diary study also takes a few weeks to organize and execute, depending on how long you want to track your participants. Diary studies also leave you with tons of raw data to analyze. User interviews are the quickest way to get an answer, but won’t give you the same depth as in-context insights like ethnographic studies or diary studies can provide.

UX research method quiz

Want to get some recommended methods fast? Our method picker quiz is here to help! It asks a few questions and can give you a recommended method in under five clicks. Of course we can’t guarantee the results will be a perfect match for your needs in four clicks, but hopefully we can point you in the right direction. 

The method picker will either provide form information for you in the form of Launch Kits, Field Guide chapters, or resources from our blog. Launch Kits come complete with education on the method, a recruiting project to quickly launch a study on User Interviews, and a bundle of templates to make using the method as streamlined as possible. Field Guide chapters are full of all the information you need to know to hit the ground running with a method you are new to or need to brush up on. 

UX research methods

There are many UX research methods you can use to get feedback from your users. We’ll outline a few of the most common here, though there are always new methods and specific tests to try; maybe you’ll even invent your own mixed method!

What are user interviews?

In user interviews, you take the time to chat one on one with a user or a potential user. Typically, they take 30 minutes to an hour and follow a loose interview guide. User interviews are a popular method for product teams and researchers alike. They’re fairly straightforward to conduct and can be done more quickly and inexpensively than methods like field studies.

When should I conduct user interviews?

User interviews can happen at any point in the product development process. You can use generative interviews to learn more about your users or potential users before designing a new product or feature. You can also conduct continuous user interviews, which involves talking to users regularly to keep a finger on the pulse of your users. You can even conduct user interviews after a project is launched, to understand more about how your users use your product or feature in real life, for future iterations of your product over time.

User interviews are one of the most ubiquitous methods a researcher can use. They can help you answer qualitative questions quickly and can be used throughout the research process. The important thing to remember is to take the time to craft great user interview questions, not the same as research questions, so you get great feedback from every session.

How do I conduct user interviews?

Logistics-wise, all you have to do to conduct a user interview is schedule some time with a user and use that time to talk to them. You can do user interviews in person, online, or even over the phone. They can be as short or as long as you like. User interviews are incredibly flexible, so it’s really up to you how you want to do them.

We crafted a user interview launch kit to help researchers, PMs, and UXers of all kinds quickly and easily launch a user interview research project. It walks you through all the nitty gritty of user interviews and provides a template to help you get started right away.

Show me how to do user interviews 🙋‍♀️

What are field studies?

Field Studies are an in-depth research method designed to help you learn about how users interact with your product in the real world. They’re great for learning about all the nuances of how people interact with your product, and can be especially useful for testing physical products that are impacted by specific environmental factors.

For Susan Rice, Head of Product Design at Toast, she uses field studies to test Toast’s POS and handheld systems. Understanding how a POS system works in a busy restaurant during the dinner rush is something really only a field study can help you with. You get to see how the product works in a real-life situation, which is very different from usability testing it in a lab.

When should I conduct field studies?

Field Studies are most useful early on in the product development process, to help you identify issues with the solution users are currently using or learn more about what the actual in-context application looks like. They can also be used at the very end of the product development cycle, to understand how your newly-developed product works in real life and make final changes before shipping it.

How do I conduct field studies?

Field Studies are one of the more time-consuming methods researchers can use. They require lots of preparation, to ask the right questions, place yourself in the right environment, and find users who are willing to let you observe them in-context. Because of this, it is also a fairly expensive method to use.

In order to conduct a field study, you’ll need to start with some serious planning. Think about how many stakeholders need to be present for the research session, whether or not you will ask users to complete a specific task or just observe them, if you need to travel to complete your study, and what questions you want to ask your users. Once you’ve nailed down your plan, you can conduct your field study by completing the actual sessions.

Show me how to do field studies 🗺️

What is ethnography?

Ethnography is actually a broad category of research that involves observing your users in-context. It involves in-depth observation over a long period of time, during which a researcher is truly embedded with their research participants. Because of this, it’s a fairly time-consuming and expensive research method, and is typically only used for large-scale research initiatives.

When should I conduct an ethnographic study?

Ethnography is best used at the beginning of the product development process. Since it involves getting to know users and observe them in-context, it’s most helpful when you’re trying to explore the best way to solve a problem.

For example, Ellen Isaacs and her team from the Palo Alto Research Center used ethnography to learn more about how they could improve parking systems. They studied how people searched for parking, how clear signs were or were not, how easy signage was to read as you drive past at rush hour in traffic. They studied what currently worked in the world of parking, what infrastructure currently existed, and what might make parking better. At the end of the study, they used what they learned to start shaping a better parking system for cities.

How do I conduct an ethnographic study?

Conducting an ethnographic study starts with identifying the problem you want to solve and what context will help you best learn about it. Once you do that, you’ll need to recruit participants that are willing to allow you to observe them in-context for an extended period of time.

Then you’ll need to scout out the right location for your study, determine who you need to bring with you from your research team, and set the date for the study. On the day of the study, you’ll want to bring something to take notes with and remember to observe your participants with as much impartiality as possible.

Show me how to do an ethnographic study 🔍

What are diary studies?

Diary studies are a popular way to gain in-context feedback without actually going into the field, like in ethnography or a field study. They involve participants recording “diary” entries as they move through a process. These entries can be written in a journal, recorded on their phones or computers, or logged in a research tool made specifically for diary studies.

Diary studies help researchers understand how a participant feels at different parts of a process over time. They can be especially useful for understanding your customer journey, check out our conversation with Tony Turner, Lead UX Researcher at Progressive to learn more.

When should I conduct a diary study?

Diary studies can be useful at any stage of the product development cycle. You can use them any time you want to observe users in-context, over time.

You can use diary studies at the beginning of the product cycle to understand how users move through the process you’re trying to improve. For example, you could observe the way high schoolers evaluate and compare colleges to create a new product to help them choose a school.

Diary studies can also be useful when testing something you’ve just launched to ensure it works as intended. Conducting diary studies at this stage can also help you sort out any kinks, bugs, or issues with your brand-new product or feature early, instead of learning about them later on.

Lastly, you can use diary studies to evaluate an existing product or feature you want to make sure is working as intended. Even if your product or feature has been around for a while, conducting a diary study can help you understand more fully how people use it. You can use your findings to make improvements or apply your knowledge to developing something new.

How do I conduct a diary study?

Diary studies are conducted by providing participants with a “diary” to record their thoughts and some prompts to complete at specific times. The diary can be a series of Google Forms, a dedicated online platform that provides users with prompts, or even a physical book with prompts included.

Before you start your diary study, you’ll need to test your diary with a friend or colleague. Make sure your prompts make sense and participants can understand them without your direct input. Once you’re ready, you’ll need to recruit some participants, typically 5-10, and distribute your diary study.

We crafted a diary study launch kit to help researchers, PMs, and UXers of all kinds quickly and easily launch a diary study research project. It walks you through all the nitty gritty of diary studies and provides a template to help you get started right away.

Show me how to do a diary study 📖

What are focus groups?

A focus group is a discussion among a group of participants with a specific focus in mind. Focus groups can be a group of moms discussing their feelings about a new stroller, plumbers talking about how to best install a new shower, vacationers chatting about how they choose the best destination, etc.

The value of focus groups lies in observing the discussion that takes place between multiple people. Group banter will help you learn things you may not in a one on one interview. For researchers this can be most helpful when investigating a broad question, like understanding how people perceive your product.

When should I run focus groups?

Focus groups can be paired with more in-depth research at any stage of the product development cycle, but they’re especially useful during the discovery phase. They can help you answer broad questions and identify where to dig deeper. They can also be used at the end of product development to test marketing and branding for something new.

How do I conduct a focus group?

Once you identify what you want to focus on for your conversation, you can start to put together your plan for your session. Decide whether to conduct your focus group in-person or online, how many participants you need to include (between 3-12), and what your talking points for the group will be.

When the focus group actually starts, do your best to sit back and observe the conversation. Use your talking points and questions as ways to enrich the conversation, rather than concrete things that need to be answered definitively.

Show me how to conduct a focus group 👫

What is usability testing?

Usability testing is simply the process of observing users interact with your product and assessing its usability. Usability tests are most often conducted by a moderator and involve a user completing predetermined tasks and providing feedback on a product or prototype.

Usability tests can be conducted in-person or online, and can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour or so.

When should I conduct usability testing?

Usability testing happens once you have a prototype of the product or feature you want to build. This means usability testing isn’t really appropriate during the discovery phase of your product development cycle, but you can use it at almost every other stage.

If you’re trying to learn something specific, you can use quantitative usability testing, like a first click testfirst click test. If you’re trying to understand how your user thinks through a process, or why they do certain things, you can use qualitative usability testing.

How do I conduct usability testing?

Usability testing can be conducted in-person or online, in moderated or unmoderated sessions. Once you decide what kind of usability test is best for you, you can get started. Recruit your participants with a rigorous screener survey so you identify people who can give the most accurate feedback. Then, either schedule your moderated usability test or send out your unmoderated task.

Once you’ve completed your testing, you can identify trends among users and analyze your data.

We crafted a usability test launch kit to help researchers, PMs, and UXers of all kinds quickly and easily launch a qualitative usability test. It walks you through all the nitty gritty of diary studies and provides a template to help you get started right away.

Show me how to conduct a usability test 💻

What is tree testing?

Tree testing is a type of usability test that tests the architecture of your website. In tree testing, you show a user the architecture of your website and ask them what they would click on to accomplish a certain task, like finding the store hours. Tree testing only shows users the structure of your website, not the content or the layout. It’s an essential part of building a new website or checking for confusion in the way your current site is laid out.

When should I use tree testing?

Tree testing is most useful when you’re building a new website or need to restructure an existing site that has spiraled out of control. It helps you understand if you’re on the right track with how you’re building things out. Tree testing very early in the product development cycle can help you avoid reworking the structure later, once you have actual pages developed.

How do I conduct a tree test?

Tree testing is fairly simple to conduct. You can set up an unmoderated tree test online that asks users to complete a task. You can test your entire site’s tree, or just a part of it, depending on what your tree looks like. For a quick, unmoderated test like a tree test, you’ll want to have at least 50 people complete the test. That way, you have enough data to determine the significance of your findings.

Show me how to conduct a tree test 🌳

What is first click testing?

First click testing is pretty simple, it’s a usability test that measures what a user’s first click is. Studies have shown that when a user is asked to complete a task, if they fail to click the correct thing first they only have a 50/50 chance of successfully completing the task. That’s a lot of pressure on the first click!

When should I use first click testing?

First click testing is useful at almost any stage of product development, because it’s so simple and easy to conduct. You can use it at the beginning of your development cycle when you’re just testing a wireframe, or after a product has launched when you want to know if users are clicking the right thing first.

How do I conduct a first click test?

First click tests can be moderated or unmoderated, though they are typically unmoderated. You typically want to have at least 20 people complete each first click test scenario, though you can have multiple scenarios in a first click test.

When you’re writing scenarios for your first click tests, try to avoid simply saying “find the bank’s hours.” Instead, give the user a scenario they may reasonably find themselves in, like, “You need to go to the bank after work to open a checking account, which must be done in person. How would you find out if the bank will still be open when you get off work?”

This avoids biasing the user by using language that may already be present in your site’s structure, like an “hours” button at the top of a page.

Show me how to conduct a first click test 🖱️

What is a card sort?

A card sort is a test that asks users to sort cards into categories. These cards can be images, words, or even ideas. Card sorts can be either open or closed. An open card sort allows participants to sort cards into categories they create. A closed card sort asks participants to sort cards into categories you define.

When should I use card sorting?

Card sorts are most helpful when you’re trying to create a more usable sitemap. They’re useful at the beginning of the Build phase of your product development process, when you’re working on creating the new site map. They can be a follow-up to tree tests that have uncovered issues in your site map, or you can start with an open card sort to see how users naturally categorize things.

While reorganizing a site map is the most common way researchers use card sorts, we’ve used them in the past to improve the categories on our blog, and even to build our UX Research Field Guide. Card sorts are useful whenever you’re trying to learn how people organize data on their own.

How do I conduct a card sort?

First, you’ll need to decide whether an open or closed card sort is more useful to you. Do you have defined categories you need to stick to? Do you need participants to be able to provide you with some guidance of their own? Only you know what’s best for your project.

Once you decide which type of card sort to do, you can use a user research tool to build your card sort. You can conduct your card sort entirely unmoderated, which means the participant completes the task on their own. If you think you’d benefit from being able to ask follow-up questions as your participant is completing the task or afterwards, you may need to set up a moderated card sort.

Show me how to conduct a card sort 🗃️

What is a task analysis?

Task analysis is a research method that involves looking at how users accomplish a specific task. The task could be as simple as “slice an onion” or as complicated as “make green curry for dinner”. It’s important to identify when the task begins and ends, what the user will need to complete the task, and what subtasks may be a part of the larger task.

When should I use task analysis?

Task analysisshould be done at the very beginning of your design process. The goal of a task analysis is to understand how your users complete a specific task, which is information you can make better use of early in the product development process.

How do I conduct a task analysis?

Once you’ve identified the task you want to analyze, you can recruit participants to help you understand the task. They will need to walk you through how they complete the task at hand, and what subtasks are involved. Start by drawing a diagram of the task they will need to complete, then watch your user complete the task to see if they go about it in the way you expected. Be on the lookout for common mistakes or blockers, since these will help you make meaningful changes to your product.

Show me how to conduct a task analysis ✅

What is A/B testing?

A/B testing is a type of multivariate test that tests one version of something against another. A/B testing is a quick way to determine which version of something is more successful. You can conduct A/B testing with almost anything on your site, what’s important is that you only test one variable at a time and you clearly define what success looks like before the test is launched. For example, you can test whether a static picture or a GIF gets more people to sign up for an account on your landing page.

When should I use A/B testing?

A/B testing is typically done once a product is live as a way to make improvements. It can also be used to test marketing and promotional strategies. It should be used in conjunction with other research methods, and should be a way to fine-tune rather than put off deeper research.

How do I conduct a task analysis?

The first step in conducting an A/B test is to identify your problem and where the problem occurs. Then you and your team create another version that you think may fix the problem. Next, you can use a research tool to test each version, reach statistical significance, and determine a winner.

Show me how to conduct an A/B test ⚖️

In conclusion

So there you have it! A quiz to help you get started on your path to pick a research method, some tips to pick the best research question, and a short run down of some of the most popular methods you can use. 


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Carrie Boyd

Content Creator

Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.

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