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The User Research Primer

Thoughtful answers to the internet’s 9 most frequent questions about UX research.

Carrie Boyd

Hello! Welcome to our User Research Primer. We’re happy you’re here. We created this primer to help answer some of the most frequently asked questions about user research and get you started on your UXR journey. We took inspiration from popular search terms, questions we’ve been asked here at User Interviews, and UXR communities across the internet. In the end, we came up with 9 of the most frequently asked questions about user research, and have built this primer to offer thoughtful answers. A special shoutout to the people who provided questions in Slack communities—Roxi Nicolussi, Mary Hightower, Jennifer Trich Kremer, and Paulo Azevedo. To gather questions for this collection, I scoured all the most inquisitive UXR communities I know. In the interest of connecting people to those communities, here’s a list of some of my favorites for conversation and advice.

Mixed Methods (Slack Community)

ReOps (Slack Community)

User Research Collective (Facebook Group)

UXPA (Facebook Group)

Now, on to the questions!

The best stories about user research

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Table of Contents

The Basics

1. What is user research?

2. Why is user research important?

Starting a Career in User Research

3. How do I start my career in user research?

4. Why do people love user research?

Recruiting Participants

5. How do I recruit participants?

6. How many participants do you need to get good results?

7. What incentives do I offer?

Conducting User Research Sessions

8. How do you choose research questions?

9. How do you choose research methods?

The Basics

In this first section we’ll cover the basics of user research. First off, what is user research anyway? Why do we need it? We’ll talk about different methods of user research, and when each of them can help you. We’ll also talk about how to convince stakeholders user research is really worth the time, effort, and money it takes. 

FAQ 1. What is user research?

User research is the practice of researching users. Pretty straightforward right? Eh, yes and no. At its core, user research should help teams build empathy for and understanding of users to  create products and solutions users actually want. Most people think of user research as interviewing customers or conducting usability studies. In reality, user research covers both qualitative and quantitative methods, and combines data from both to help teams understand and empathize with customers. Since successful user research depends highly on your context and what you’re trying to learn, there are many different ways to go about it. 

If you’re starting early in a product development cycle, you usually start off with some discovery research, which helps teams understand the lay of the land and user context. This can include stakeholder interviews, which involve talking to any stakeholders in the research, like company leaders, managers, and other teams research may affect. It can also include generative interviews, which are user interviews conducted with the intent to generate ideas. These interviews help you understand the problem you’re trying to solve, refine your understanding of a problem you already know exists, or even find problems you weren’t aware of before in a given space. There are also more involved methods, like field studies and ethnography, which involve integrating yourself in your user’s environment and learning about the behaviors they wouldn’t think to tell you about. 

Then, once you have something to test, you can move on to evaluative research. This kind of research evaluates what you’ve created, whether it’s a product or a signup flow. The most common evaluative research is usability testing. Usability testing is what it sounds like, it tests whether or not the thing you made is usable and just how usable it is or isn’t. You can conduct this kind of testing many different ways, moderated or unmoderated (with or without someone to guide a user through the task), remote or in-person, qualitative or quantitative (words or numbers). 

There are also research methods you can use to test specific parts of your product, most of which can be done online, in unmoderated environments. Tree testing tests the architecture of your site or product, by showing users the architecture of your product and asking them to navigate to a certain point. First click testing allows you to see where users first click. If users get the first click in a scenario “wrong” their likelihood to get the scenario “right” is only 50%. There’s card sorting, which gives users a list of things and asks them to sort them into categories. There’s also task analysis, which analyzes the tasks a user needs to complete. Then there’s A/B testing, which tests one scenario against another. 


User research doesn’t stop once you’ve built a thing and evaluated its performance, it continues throughout you user’s journey with your product. This means that things like continuous user feedback surveys (think NPS scores and site intercept surveys), user analytics (churn, retention, time spent engaging with your product, etc.), and feedback gathered from other departments (like sales, marketing, and support) also make up user research. 

Want to study up on user research methods and a full walkthrough of how to get started? Check out our Field Guide, which has modules dedicated to getting started, discovery methods, validation and testing methods, and ongoing listening methods. You can also sign up to get the full guide emailed to you, piece by piece.

FAQ 2. Why is user research important? 

This is the first question most of your stakeholders will ask about user research. Since user research takes time and a budget to complete, if you’re an early champion for UXR you’ll likely have to justify its worthiness to others in your organization. In my mind, there are two very simple arguments for user research. 

You can’t know what your users want unless you talk to them. You can’t build what they want if you don’t know what they want.

There’s a tried and true saying in the startup world—in order to build something great, you have to get out of the building. In other words, no matter how smart your people are, no matter how much they all personally use your product, no matter how long they’ve all worked on this project, you need to talk to the people outside of your organization who will eventually buy or use your product. This ensures you’re building something that works for them, not just for you.  



As people, we’re prone to a number of fatally human flaws. In fact, user researchers often use a huge cognitive bias map to keep track of the various ways our brain can trick us into making decisions without enough information. One of these cognitive biases is called false consensus. TL;DR, false consensus is that little voice in your head that says “it’s ok, everyone will interact with this thing the same way I do.” 

We at User Interviews know all about how hard it is to fight that little voice. Our whole mission is to help teams discover and embrace user insights, and it’s not an easy task. Our company was originally born as MobileSuites, an app that helped people staying in hotels check in and access amenities straight from their phone. Our founders thought it was a really cool idea and they started building. The only problem? Once it actually made it out into the world, it wasn’t as valuable to customers as they thought it would be. So, with 100k left in the bank, they pivoted

Dennis, Basel, and Bob  started testing new product ideas and realized that trying to find people to talk to about product ideas was pretty difficult. So they went out and talked to people about their struggles with recruiting for user research, and set a benchmark to prove that this problem actually existed and people would pay them to solve it. If more than 50% of the people they talked to brought up “participant recruitment” or “scheduling” naturally as one of their top 3 pain points, our founders would be in business. The key to this methodology was waiting for the participants to bring up these problems on their own. Instead of prompting them by saying, “Isn’t participant recruitment a big problem for you?” we asked what their biggest problems were, based on real life past experience, and let them tell us what they needed. 

Turns out, participant recruitment and logistics was a huge problem for researchers, and now, 3.5 years later, we’ve built a product that helps thousands of researchers connect with participants. Investors seem to love it too, earlier this year we raised 5 million dollars to help us build an even better product. 

User research can help save wasted time (and therefore money!) in the product development cycle. 

Conducting research at the beginning of a project can help ensure you’re not wasting time building the wrong thing. Imagine spending a month building an app for aquarium lovers to measure salinity in their tanks, only to find out that they prefer a more manual solution and are hesitant to use an app for that task in the first place. If you’ve already spent a month building a solution, you’ve wasted your team’s time and your money on something users don’t really want and aren’t going to pay for. What’s worse, given sunk cost fallacy, many are inclined to keep going down the wrong path once they’ve started, so you could be wasting tons of time even once you start to realize you’re building the wrong thing. 

The same goes for making changes to an existing product. Doing research at the beginning of a project and at key points throughout the process can help reduce wasted time and save your stakeholders money. 

Need something a little more concrete? Dr. Susan Weinschenk, in partnership with Human Factors International, has conducted research that showed that the cost of fixing a problem post-development was 100x that of fixing it beforehand, and developers spent 50% of their time on rework that could have been avoided.


With all the resources it takes to get a project up and running, fixing a problem post-development at 100x cost is a big deal. It could even mean the problem doesn’t get fixed at all, if there’s no time or budget left to devote to that project. Even though user research can have a modest up-front cost, it’s much better (and cheaper!) than spending more time and money later on a problem that could have been fixed at the very beginning.

Starting A Career in User Research

User research is an exciting field and questions about how to get started as a user researcher were by far the most popular in most of the UXR communities I looked at for this primer. The good news is, there are a lot of great resources out there to help people learn more about user research and many communities dedicated to user researchers supporting each other. I’ve found each and every user research community I’ve joined to be full of overly helpful, empathetic, and curious people. They come from varied backgrounds, like academia, writing, product management, operations, and teaching

FAQ 3. How do I start my career in user research?

Starting a career in any field can be intimidating and it’s hard to know where to start. There aren’t any colleges (that I know of!) that offer undergraduate degrees in User Research, though there are a few graduate programs that offer something close, like the HCI program at Carnegie Mellon. In our State of User Research Report, we found that people who do UX research come from a variety of academic backgrounds. They majored in things like English, Political Science, Graphic Design, and Anthropology. 


The respondents who held graduate degrees (62% of UX/User Researchers) showed a similar variety of subjects. They studied things like Psychology, Human Centered Computing, Behavioral Science, and even Library Sciences. The common thread between all of these subjects, both in undergraduate and graduate studies, is an interest in people and the things that make them tick.

I saw this question brought up many times in my research, and the resounding answer from the community is that there are many ways to start a user research career. There are great courses and content out there that can help you learn basics and advanced strategies of ux research and everything in between. We recommend combining some basic book/online learning with hands-on experience.

So how do you get the hands-on experience? We recently chatted with a trio of UX researchers at MailChimp (Awkward Silences episode dropping soon!) who had great advice on the topic. They suggest taking on a side project, volunteering to help with user research that is happening in your organization, joining a user centric organization that will provide opportunities to cross-over, or even starting as an intern in a company with a well established ux research function. Whatever works best for you to get hands-on experience, start by doing some foundational learning, and then you’ll learn more as you go, as you can apply the learning to real life projects. And it’s never a bad idea to find a mentor, join communities, or attend industry events. We’re providing resources for content, courses and communities below.

Courses on user research

Taking a course, whether it’s online or in a traditional school, can help you learn more about user research and show employers that you’ve taken the time to learn about the subject. We’ve heard mixed things about whether or not you need an advanced degree, so it’s really up to you how you pursue a user research education.

Degree Programs

A comprehensive list of UX degrees, by UXMastery 

Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon

User Centered Design Certificate at the University of Washington

UX Certificate Program at Bentley University

Non-Degree Courses

The Ultimate Guide to Usability and UX, course on Udemy by David Travis

d.school at Stanford, online resources and in-person workshops

UX Certification by NNg

User Experience Design Immersive at General Assembly, both in-person and online options

Usability Analyst Certification by Human Factors International

How to get hands-on experience

Many UX Researchers are of the opinion that the work you do is more important than the degree you hold or the courses you take. If you’re not working in UXR, getting that experience can be difficult. In our recent webinar, Zack Naylor, CEO and Co-Founder at Aurelius, recommended volunteering some of your time with a local charity or non-profit. It allows you to get experience conducting and managing research, while giving back something valuable to a good cause. You can also offer your services to a small local business for a discounted rate while you’re learning, or conduct a speculative study on an existing product. 


Doing a study on an existing product, with the sole purpose of practicing your research skills, can be the easiest thing to do, since you can complete it entirely on your own. Choose a few different studies to complete using different methodologies (generative interviews, card sorts, diary studies, etc.). This allows you to build up experience with different topics and methodologies, showing that you can work well in the context of a real company doing lots of different research. Start with user/product questions you want to answer, then choose methods that will help you answer them.

How to learn from the community and demonstrate your interest

If this is a lot to take in, don’t worry. There are many resources and communities out there dedicated to user researchers. In my experience, these communities have been exceptionally compassionate, ready to answer questions, and eager to connect. I highly recommend joining them and connecting with people through them. 

There are also many resources out there—books, blogs, and podcasts—to help you  learn more about user research. Choosing a few books to read, blogs to follow, or podcasts to listen to can help you learn more about the UXR space and connect you to new ideas. Choose a few that grab your attention and start there.

Communities

Mixed Methods (Slack Community)

ReOps (Slack Community)

User Research Collective (Facebook Group)

UXPA (Facebook Group)

Ethnography Hangout (Slack)

UX Mastery (Slack Group)

UXR Collective (Slack Group) 

Books

Just Enough Research, Erika Hall

Handbook of Usability Testing, Jeffery Rubin

Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug

Rocket Surgery Made Easy, Steve Krug

Podcasts

Awkward Silences (a User Interviews podcast!)

Mixed Methods

What is Wrong With UX

User Defenders

Blogs

Views by User Interviews

UX Collective

The Octopus by IDEO

Inside Design by InVision

UX Planet

People Nerds by dscout

NNg

We put together a complete list of resources, communities, courses, and people to follow in UXR if you want to dive even deeper into the user research world. 

FAQ 4. Why do people love user research?

Starting a career in user research can be daunting, but it’s a wonderful career to have! The same goes for starting a research practice, or even conducting a research study. This wasn’t exactly a frequently asked question, but we thought it was a pretty good one. We’ve recently started asking guests on our podcast, Awkward Silences, what their favorite thing about user research is. So, when we were putting together this primer, we also asked some of the members of the UXR community what they loved about user research. We heard wonderful things. 

When we do a lot of user research, it's easy to feel confident, be like, "Oh, I know my customers. I'm learning what they need." But if you do user research well, and you always cultivate this mindset of what is surprising me in this interview, you will always find something that is surprising, that no matter how much research we do, no matter how much time we spend with our customers, we can't completely know them. And I feel like the goal of user research should be to find those moments. And so I love them because it's just a good indicator that you're doing your research well.

Teresa Torres, Product Discovery Coach and Founder of Producttalk.org

At the end of the day I feel like we're really just lucky to be in this field. It's fun, it's dynamic, you get to work with people and really learn all the time, every day. You just can't ever assume you know all the things because you just never do. That's just the human factor, it’s real. Learning from our customers and be able to serve them, it really is meaningful, so I love being in this industry.

Susan Rice, Head of Product Design and Research at Toast  

That there is always an opportunity to learn about something new. I get so much from exploring new topics, with new people and coming to a subject totally fresh. It keeps things interesting!

Nicola Hancock, User Researcher, Scottish Government. 

Those little moments, when participants express a sense of relief, joy and even excitement. There is nothing more rewarding in our field than seeing work improve the lives of others.

Lo Wheelwright, Sr Product Designer, Carbon Five

Getting insights about worlds I know nothing about. The best part is seeing how people engage and are passionate to share their stories. I also love making sense of the data, finding patterns that surprise me. Basically - the unexpected about qualitative user research.

Pernille Holm Rasmussen, EasySize.me

I love being able to help people by ensuring that the products and services we build are meeting their everyday needs. User research allows us to delve deep into those nuances of people's needs and turn that understanding into actionable insights. The impact you can have with high-quality research is incredible.

LaiYee Ho, Co-Founder of Delve 

Above all it facilitates my design decisions! But it’s also so fascinating to understand how people think and try to adapt design to their thinking.

Monica Guerrero, UX UI Designer at Juvo

I get to discover what no one else in the company knows. I get to learn something new every day and build something to help them achieve their goals.

Grant Baker, UX Designer at Paycom

Human beings are a complicated species. We have oceans of professionals who claim to understand who we are, how we think, and our behavior patterns. But honestly, I believe it’s all rooted in assumptions. I believe the complex blend of our brains and our energy/soul/spirt/essence creates an endless array of possibilities with deep mystery. Research enables me to tap into these corners and learn more about what it means to be human. The answers that surface never cease to mesmerize me in astounding ways.

Mark Wyner, UX Designer/Researcher

User research gets us so much rich qualitative information, which is great to validate designs. Sometimes, this information is so rich and dense, it's important to jump in as Aladdin in the cave of riches and start really looking for the magic oil lamp.

Akshar Patel, Product Designer at Gojek

Gaining valuable insights that you usually don't get via other methodology.

Wes, User Researcher, Red Hat

I love giving people the opportunity to share their life story, especially in a process in which their story can make a real difference.

Marielle Velander, Research Manager at Reboot. 

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 to the center of attention where they’ve always belonged.

Randolph Duke II, Experience Strategist at Cantina

Listening to people talk about super techie stuff that we build in such simple everyday language. Very humbling. Puts things in perspective and keeps you grounded.

Archana Vaidyanathan, User Researcher at HOVER Inc.

Research helps the design and development teams to make well informed decisions.

Bindu Upadhyay, UX Researcher at wearereasonablepeople.com

Recruiting Participants

Once you’ve decided to make user research a part of your team’s routine, you’ll need to find participants to give you feedback on your ideas. Finding great participants is key to getting useful feedback to build amazing products. 

The key to recruiting the right participants is being clear about what you want to know and who can best answer that question. For example “young adults in the US” can’t tell you as much about how they would use your new dog-walking startup as “young professionals with dogs in New York.” In this section, we’ll answer the three most frequently asked questions about recruiting participants and walk you through how to find the right ones. 

FAQ 5. How do I recruit participants?

There are many ways to recruit participants, but how you go about it will depend on the research question you’re trying to answer. If you’re doing discovery research, you’ll probably need to recruit from outside of your user base, or you may not have a user base to recruit from yet. If you’re trying to test a new feature or doing evaluative research, you may be able to recruit from your existing users

Recruiting people who don’t use your product

Sometimes you need to recruit people who don’t use your product. These people could represent potential customers (especially if you don’t have a product yet), customers of competitors, or a new market. Recruiting these people may be more difficult than recruiting existing customers, since you have to go out and find them instead of using an email list you already have. Getting feedback from non-users can help your team understand how people think about your product outside of the ecosystem you’ve set up, if you’ve set one up. It can help you gain new perspectives, get creative with your solutions, and learn more about your market. It’s essential early in a product’s lifecycle.


If you need to talk to people who don’t use your product already, there are a few ways to recruit them. You can recruit them through your social media pages, in social media communities that cater to your target audience, by running ads for your study, or through more old-school methods, like putting up a flyer in a coffee shop, or even guerilla-style approaching people personally in a coffee shop. There are also many companies that offer recruitment services to help you find participants. User Interviews is one of those companies, and our current median time to match researchers to their first qualified participant is just 3.5 hours. Since you’re reading this primer and we’re friends now, I’ll even throw you a promo code to get you your first three participants free

Recruiting people who do use your product

If you’re updating an existing product, doing research that requires a lot of knowledge about your product, or testing for usability, chances are you’re talking to people who use your product. The good news is, these people should be the easiest to find and talk to. If your company allows for the use of customer lists for user research, you can simply use your existing customer list. Hint hint, User Interviews offers a super awesome panel management tool called Research Hub Unlimited. It allows you to keep track of any participants you recruit through us, as well as any from your own customer list. You can schedule participants for sessions, distribute incentives, and build superpowered screeners to make sure you’re getting the right participants every time. 

Be sure to check with your company’s legal department though; some companies don’t allow research departments to contact customers for research sessions. If you can’t use an existing list, things get a little trickier. You can use all of the methods I mentioned above—reaching out to customers through your company's social media presence,  reaching out to communities your users may be a part of, or running ads that target potential participants. You may also need to go through a third party recruitment software, like User Interviews. In that case, here’s that promo code for three free participants on your first project again. 

Ensuring you’re recruiting the right participants

Recruiting participants is a big effort, so you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the right people to your study. Your screener survey can help sort out who is right for your study, but it’s best to target as much as you can in your recruiting as well. This means narrowing your recruitment efforts to the people who will be most able to help you answer your research question

Typically, you can narrow down participants by demographic, geographic, psychographic, and behavioral information. Demographic information is the type of thing you would see on a census—age, gender, occupation, income, marital status, ethnicity, etc. Geographic information can tell you about a participants location or type of location (San Francisco vs. an urban area). Psychographic information tells you about their activities, interests, or opinions. Behavioral information involves if, how, and why this person would use your product. 

Here’s an example of how these types of information could work together to tell you about what kinds of participants you’re looking for—

Demographic

  • Men and Women
  • Aged 25-65

Geographic

  • Lives in New York City

Psychographic

  • Smartphone user
  • Dog owner

Behavioral

  • Works outside of their home, often has to leave their dog at home for long periods of time

Together, these factors help you decide who can help you learn more about your product, in this case, a new dog walking startup that will launch in New York City. Narrowing it down this way, even though this still leaves you with a large pool of potential participants, will help you spend your time wisely. 

FAQ 6. How many participants do you need to get good results?

The answer to this can change depending on what type of research you’re doing, but according to Nielsen Norman Group, one of the leading UX/UXR resources, 5 users is typically enough. If you’re doing qualitative interviews, typically you will start hearing the same things after you’ve talked to five people. Of course, you may need to talk to more, and some people have even said you can talk to fewer, it all depends on what you’re trying to learn and who you’re talking to. If you are starting a new company, please talk to more than 5 people before you launch. You probably don’t know who your ideal customer is yet, so it’ll be incredibly hard to talk to 5 of them out of the gate. 

For quantitative studies and unmoderated tasks, you’ll need more than 5 people to get a good sense of patterns and trends. The good news is that, typically, it’s easier and cheaper to recruit people for unmoderated tasks. The tasks usually don’t take much time, so it’s easier to recruit more people to complete them.

FAQ 7. What incentives do I offer participants?

This depends heavily on who you’re trying to recruit and what level of expertise you need them to have to complete your research. If you simply need women in their 30s in Chicago, your incentive can be lower than if you need radiologists who work in public hospitals in Macon, GA. 

Your incentives can also change depending on the type of study you’re running. A remote study, since it can be completed from anywhere and doesn’t require travel time, can offer a lower incentive. An in-person study has to account for travel time, parking, and the extra effort it takes for the participants to participate in the study. Here are our recommendations for incentive payments, based on how long your study will take, the level of expertise your participants need to have, and whether your study is in-person or remote.

General Consumers

For studies that require specific behaviors or demographics but do not require expertise in specific industries

In-Person / In-Home

  • 30 Minutes: $60
  • 60 Minutes: $100
  • 90 Minutes: $140

Online / Phone

  • 30 Minutes: $40
  • 60 Minutes: $60
  • 90 Minutes: $80

Professional Tiers

For studies that require experts in specific fields or with specific job titles

High Earners (e.g. Doctors, Dentists, Lawyers, etc.)

In-Person / In-Home

  • 30 Minutes: $125-150
  • 60 Minutes: $200-300
  • 90 Minutes: $275-450

Online / Phone

  • 30 Minutes: $75-125
  • 60 Minutes: $150-225
  • 90 Minutes: $225-350

Note: highly specialized professions (e.g. Oncologists, Surgeons, Orthodontists, etc.) may require even higher incentives or non-monetary incentives 

Mid-Level Earners (e.g. IT Managers, Developers, etc.)

In-Person / In-Home

  • 30 Minutes: $75-100
  • 60 Minutes: $150-175
  • 90 Minutes: $225-250

Online / Phone

  • 30 Minutes: $60-75
  • 60 Minutes: $100-150
  • 90 Minutes: $150-200

Lower Wage Earners (e.g. Retail Workers, Students etc.)

In-Person / In-Home

  • 30 Minutes: $40-60
  • 60 Minutes: $60-100
  • 90 Minutes: $90-150

Online / Phone

  • 30 Minutes: $30-50
  • 60 Minutes: $60-80
  • 90 Minutes: $90-120

Offering the right incentive matters because you’re trying to attract the highest quality participants to your study. You need to offer them an incentive that makes it worth their time and effort. When it comes right down to it, this is important because their time and input is valuable. Everyone’s is. Offering a good incentive helps protect you and your team’s time too, as it can help prevent things like no shows and last minute rescheduling. 


You can offer your incentives in a variety of ways. If you want to offer a cash value, you can use things like PayPal, Amazon gift cards, Visa gift cards, or just cold hard cash itself. However, your participants may not always want cash. In these cases  there may be something else valuable you can provide for them, like free services from your company, a charitable donation on their behalf, or allowing advanced access to something you’re working on. This absolutely depends on the participants you are recruiting, and most participants prefer some kind of cash-like incentive. 

Conducting User Research Sessions

When it comes to actually conducting user research, maybe the most important thing to keep in mind is to start with a good research question. A good research question is specific, actionable, and practical. Then, after you’ve chosen a good research question, you’ll need to choose which method will help you best answer that question. This process is one that many user researchers take years to hone and develop, since your process will depend heavily on the context you’re doing research in. 

FAQ 8. How do you choose research questions?

Research questions are the starting point for any research project. It’s the thing you hope to answer by conducting research, and starting with a question is the best way to ensure you’re using your research to investigate rather than to validate. Investigating means you’re digging deeper into a problem, or searching for an answer, whereas validating means you’re working to say the solution you’ve created is the right one. 

While research can validate your solution, it’s primary goal should be to investigate what’s going right and what’s going wrong. Going into research with this mindset leaves you more open to new solutions and ideas that may arise in the course of your research. It also leaves room for the solution you originally envisioned to be the wrong one, which is ok. The goal of research is to learn, grow, and make better decisions. 

Choosing the right research question is the thing that ensures your research is truly useful to your team and your organization. The key to a good research question is choosing something that is specific, actionable, and practical. Your question should be specific enough that you’ll know when you’ve found an answer. It should be actionable in that, if you answer the question, your team will be able to make changes based on what you learn. It should be practical in that you can realistically answer the question within the scope of your research. 

Examples of specific, actionable, and practical research questions.

Do our support pages accurately answer our user’s questions about adding a new credit card to their account?

How do 25-35 year olds who are single choose where to go out on a Friday night? 

Do people understand our blog categories and what content might belong in them?

Each of these questions could be answered through targeted research, and each would require different kinds of research and scopes of work. We’ll go over how you can choose to answer your research questions in the next section. 

FAQ 9. How do you choose research methods?

Choosing research methods can be difficult, especially for beginners. It’s tempting, especially for people new to research, to start with the method they would like to use and then think about what the research will accomplish. Do your best to stifle that urge and start with a research question, then move to methodologies. So let’s take the research questions from the last section and explore what methodologies we could use to answer them. 

Do our support pages accurately answer our user’s questions about adding a new credit card to their account?

To answer this question, you would most likely run a qualitative usability test. This could  take the form of ~5 interviews with current users who are already familiar with your product, but haven’t had to add a new credit card to their account. The usability test would ask participants to navigate through your company’s support pages to try to understand how to add a new credit card to their account, then ask users to actually complete that flow within their own accounts. If you were actually completing this study, it would be good to offer some fake credit card information for each participant to use, since they may not feel comfortable entering their real information in a recorded session with a stranger.

You can conduct qualitative usability tests that are moderated or unmoderated, and it’s at your discretion which to use. A moderated test means someone from your team is there to walk the participant through the process and ask probing questions about what they’re doing. It allows for more targeted and reactionary information gathering, but can also take more of your team’s time, since you have to schedule sessions with participants. An unmoderated test allows the participant to navigate through the flow themselves, talking through their process as they go and answering questions at predetermined points within the flow. This can be less time consuming, since you just sit back and wait for the results to come in. 

There’s probably an analytics component here. Like, why did I want to ask this question in the first place? Do we have some evidence or a hypothesis people can’t do this because we can see in our product analytics they are not doing it or we’re seeing support complaints about it or similar? Can we use hotjar/analytics to see what people are doing on the support pages en masse then use the usability test to figure out WHY that's happening? 

How do 25-35 year olds who are single choose where to go out on a Friday night? 

This question is a bit more nebulous than our other two. It will probably take a bit more research to figure out the answer. This is the kind of research question you may ask when building a new product, maybe a new app to help people find bars or events in their area. This question lends itself to generative research, like interviews, diary studies, field studies, or ethnography. Many teams would choose generative interviews or diary studies, since field studies and ethnography research require a lot of time, effort, and budget to complete well. 

Field studies and ethnography research require a researcher to truly integrate with their subjects, observing them in their own environment for long periods of time. These kinds of studies are also difficult to recruit for, and I can’t imagine many 25-35 year olds who would jump at the chance to have a researcher tag along taking notes while they choose a Friday night activity. So I’ll focus on how you could answer this question with generative interviews or a diary study


First up, generative interviews. In order to conduct good generative interviews, you’ll need to talk to at least 5 people who are 25-35, single, and go out regularly. Your interviews may  take around 30-60 minutes to complete, and they could be done remotely or in-person. 

You’ll need to put together an interview guide that asks your participants questions about how they choose where to go and what activities they like to do. The key to creating good interview questions is to leave them open ended and to create questions that build on each other. Ask questions that leave room for your participant to tell their own stories, like “Walk me through how you plan your weekends,” or “How did you choose to do X activity?” Then, build on the questions you’ve already asked by continuing to ask why they chose a certain thing and how they reached the conclusions they did. 

If you want to get a better idea of how people choose activities over time, you can choose to do a diary study. A diary study asks participants to keep track of their activities over a certain period of time. It’s a great way to keep track of the real-life context your product will be used in without investing in a costly field study or ethnography project. In this case, a researcher may ask participants to keep a diary about their weekend plans, asking them to write down what comes up throughout the week that may affect their planning for the weekend. 

Participants would then be asked to reflect on what actually happened over the weekend—did they actually make it to that cool new bar? What happened to make those plans happen or get in the way of them? In this case, researchers could ask participants to keep a diary for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month, though a few weeks of data would probably be enough to draw a conclusion. Diary studies require a lot of setup beforehand, so it’s important to run your study design by a colleague or to run a quick pilot study to make sure your wording is clear and the participants are able to complete the tasks. 

Do people understand our blog categories and what content might belong in them?

We actually recently answered this question when we were redesigning our blog. We had a list of potential categories for our 100+ blog posts, but needed to confirm that the way we were thinking about our posts was the same way our readers would think about them. We decided the best way to answer this question was to run a closed card sort. We took our categories and 20 blog posts that fit into those categories and asked user researchers to sort the blog posts into the right categories. Most users were able to sort the blog posts into the same categories we had, and to do it quickly, so we were able to determine that our categorization was largely on point. We made a few tweaks where we found overlap in categories or underused categories.

Tying it all together

Customer centricity is quickly becoming “cool”, Jeff Bezos even leaves an empty chair in meetings to represent the customer. Since 86% of companies expect to compete largely on the basis of customer experience, the voice of the customer has never been more important. User research is a huge piece of that puzzle, bringing the (sometimes literal) voice of the customer to the table. 

Research allows teams to learn about what users actually want, and build products that work better for them the first time around. Recruiting the right participants, who fit your specific audience targets, can help make research even more valuable. Combine that with asking the right research questions and choosing the right methods to answer them, and you’ve got some stellar information to build products and make decisions around. 

If you’d like to become a user researcher yourself, you’ll be in great company. User researchers come from a variety of backgrounds and are naturally curious, empathetic, and endlessly interested in people. They’ve created many communities and resources to help budding user researchers and people interested in research. 

I hope this primer has helped answer some of your questions about user research. If you have more (which I’m sure you do!), feel free to check out our Field Guide and our blog. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, I’m sure some of the communities I’ve listed in this primer would be great resources.

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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