Literature Reviews

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Note to the reader:

This part of the field guide comes from our 2019 version of the UX Research Field Guide. Updated content for this chapter is coming soon!

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If you thought you left literature reviews behind in academia, think again. 

Although UX researchers tend to focus heavily on primary research methods, secondary methods like literature reviews can reveal fundamental insights that ground our decision-making in established theory and real-life context. 

Like user insights leader Xenia Avezov says in “Secondary research is chronically underused in UX research”:

“Research that is not grounded in the systemic, environmental, and psychological nature of human problems is often incomplete. Secondary research empowers us to incorporate these perspectives and reframe problems in a holistic way.”

More pragmatically: Why waste your limited resources on rediscovering info that other researchers have already found? Literature reviews allow you to reduce, reuse, and recycle insights, minimizing your research footprint and maximizing your impact-to-effort ratio. 

In this chapter:

  • Literature review definition, structure, and types
  • Benefits of literature reviews for UX research
  • Examples of literature reviews
  • When to use literature reviews for UX research
  • How to write an effective literature review
  • Literature reviews for mixed methods research

What is a research literature review? 

A literature review (also called a ‘lit review’ or ‘desk research’) is a type of secondary research in which researchers collect, analyze, and synthesize published data—including articles, websites, videos, research journals, and existing research repositories—on a topic, in order to identify patterns and trends. 

Unlike primary research, which you conduct to answer the research question at hand, secondary research was conducted by other researchers. (The exception to this would be if you were using research that you previously conducted (after all, you were a different person back then). Most of the secondary research you’ll find was likely conducted for purposes unrelated to your project or product, but a thorough and focused literature review can help you consolidate relevant data and boost your confidence in your own research questions. 

Literature reviews are commonly associated with university theses—sometimes taking months or years to complete in an academic setting—and some researchers leave this method behind when they move onto a business environment. But lit reviews deserve a place in any UX research toolkit, whether you’re working on a post-doctorate or a food delivery app. 

⏰ To maximize the value gained for the time spent, UX researchers will probably want to limit the scope of their literature reviews to 5 hours or less, but it really depends on the topic and the resources available.

Literature reviews help with visionary or strategic decisions; their output is a written report; they take roughly 5 hours or less
Outputs, time required, and decisions made with literature reviews

What kind of decisions do literature reviews help with? 

Literature reviews are typically used to inform visionary or strategic decisions related to a product or service. 

For example, you might conduct a literature review to answer user research questions like:

  • What is our competitive advantage with our newest product line?
  • How are our target customers managing their challenges without our product or service?

What should you include in a literature review? 

Literature reviews require lots of reading, so researchers often use spreadsheets or documents to keep track of their sources and make note of key insights. 

The output of a literature review is a written report that is structured to include:

  • An overview of the project, including the research questions and goals
  • A summary of each of the sources included
  • An evaluation or critique of each source, comparing and contrasting key insights
  • A discussion of biases or weaknesses
  • Suggestions for future research or decision-making

What are the different types of literature reviews (and how do you know which one to use)?

There are several types of literature reviews, and each one requires a different amount of time, effort, and resources: 

  • Systematic literature reviews are the most rigorous form of literature review, aiming to summarize as much of the relevant research as possible with little to no bias. They can take anywhere from 8 months to 2 years, requiring 2 or more researchers to complete. (You may sometimes hear systematic reviews confused with meta-analyses. You’d only conduct a meta-analysis in the context of a systematic review, but they’re not exactly synonymous. Here’s a quick overview of the difference.)
  • Rapid literature reviews aim to provide robust and reliable information, while omitting or streamlining certain components of the review to save time. They typically take 2 to 6 months to complete with 2 researchers reviewing materials. 
  • Scoping literature reviews assess the scope and nature of existing research prior to a more rigorous review or study. They can take anywhere from 2 to 8 weeks with 1 or 2 researchers working on the review. Scoping reviews are often used to map the available evidence as preparation for a more extensive review. 
  • Traditional (narrative) literature reviews are a focused and objective analysis of the existing evidence, usually narrower in scope than a systematic review. Often, narrative reviews include commentary from the researcher, expressing their opinion about the topic. This kind of lit review can take 1 to 4 weeks to complete and usually only require a single researcher. 

Types of literature reviews

💡 In the context of UX research—where time and resources are often limited—you’ll typically conduct scoping or traditional literature reviews. 

What’s the purpose of a literature review, anyway? 

Literature reviews are extensive audits of the existing research on a particular topic—but why are literature reviews important?

As Samantha Silver says in her article for Key Lime Interactive:

“Many folks want to roll their eyes at the idea of having to do a ‘large book report,’ but this discredits the powerful research methodology that is the literature review. Spending 6 years in academia prior to my time in UX research, I have been able to see a tremendous amount of value (and critical need) for the application of literature reviews in modern UX research.”

The key benefits of lit reviews for UX research include:

  • Minimizing research costs
  • Saving time compared to a form study
  • Quickly getting you up to speed on a particular topic
  • Helping you avoid “rookie mistakes” in follow-up research
  • Showcasing context or highlights gaps in knowledge
  • Justifying or revealing the need for more involved research
  • Improving the overall credibility of future research findings

In other words, literature reviews help you avoid “reinventing the wheel” when conducting research with limited time and resources, allowing you to strategically refine, narrow, and kick-start future projects by building off of what’s already known. 

🙇 Some researchers also value lit reviews as a show of respect for the researchers who came before them. Unless you’re truly blazing a new, never-before-explored path, any research you conduct will be informed (and ultimately improved) by drawing on the hard work of others in the field.

Examples of literature reviews: What does an effective lit review look like?

Quality standards for lit reviews might vary depending on the type and context of the review, but in general, a good lit review will be:

  • Well-structured (we’ll teach you how to structure a lit review later in the chapter)
  • Well-written (use clear and concise language)
  • Unbiased (as much as possible, by calling out areas of controversy)
  • Conducted with reliable and relevant sources

Here are some examples of good literature reviews, both from User Interviews’s internal research team and external researchers. 

User Interviews’s Monthly Insights Review

Here at User Interviews, the User Research team does a monthly review of our research repository in EnjoyHQ and puts together a report to identify key trends and insights. 

It includes insights like where the majority of our user feedback comes from:

may 2022 user feedback report: a graph showing that the majority of our user feedback comes from Zendesk, the rest from Slack and email

… the customer segments who provide us with the most feedback:

may user feedback report showing which customer segments provided us with the most feedback

… as well as an overview of themes and patterns in user feedback from the past month:

graph showing the themes and patterns in customer feedback

The insights from this monthly review are based on our yearly goals and used to inform team decisions. 

More literature review examples:

Should you conduct lit reviews before or after a primary research study?

Mostly before—but you might choose to do both, if you’re doing research regularly. 

Literature reviews can be performed any time you want to quickly get up to speed on a particular topic, and many researchers use lit reviews as a first step in developing their overall UX research strategy. As more research is added to the literature over time, you might want to conduct follow-up lit reviews to stay up to date. 

Sometimes, they’re included as part of a larger research paper, such as ethnographies. They’re ideal for those times when you: 

  • Aren’t sure which questions you need to ask
  • Don’t know if your questions warrant a full study 
  • Want to gain a better understanding of the ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’ before you dig deeper

Here’s a helpful graphic demonstrating where lit reviews fit into the user research process, created by UX Researcher Emile Natasha:

workflow of ux research process, showing that lit reviews fall under the planning stage and inform your hypothesis
Lit Reviews in the UX Research Process, by Emile Natasha

Regardless of the circumstances, a lit review will illuminate gaps in existing knowledge about a topic. Expect a lit review to inspire more questions than answers, and to bring your needs for future research into focus. 

How to conduct (and write) a good literature review 

1. Choose the topic and research question. 

If you’ve been reading this Field Guide from the beginning, you’re already familiar with the process of planning for UX research

Just like every other research method (and really, most big decisions in life—like buying a car, getting your master’s degree, or taking a vacation), literature reviews benefit from having a focused and intentional plan

Before you start your lit review, identify:

  • The topic you’re going to focus on (e.g. Managerial habits in enterprise companies)
  • The research questions you’re hoping to answer (e.g. How do managers in enterprise companies currently approach their roles and responsibilities? What are their primary goals and challenges? Which managerial techniques are most effective? What tools do they use to do their jobs?)

Try to keep your topic and research question broad enough to allow for a thorough, discovery-based review of the available resources, but narrow enough that you aren’t overwhelmed by the size and scope of the literature. 

2. Determine the type and scope of the review.

As we mentioned earlier, UX researchers will typically focus on scoping or traditional literature reviews—but you might consider other types of lit reviews depending on your research questions and goals. 

No matter what type of review you choose, it’s important to clearly delineate the scope before you begin researching: What is the maximum or minimum number of sources that your review should include? What is the maximum or minimum amount of time you should spend on collecting and analyzing those sources?

Defining your scope ahead of time will help you avoid going down a rabbit hole and wasting time and effort that would be better spent elsewhere. 

How long should a literature review be? 

As long as it needs to be, and no longer. The exact length will depend on your topic, audience, and goals—but in the context of UX research, you probably won’t need to write more than a few pages, if that. 

3. Find internal and external sources. 

Once you’ve set a topic and scope, it’s time to search the literature. 

Your sources will vary depending on what you’re researching, but you may want to look at:

  • Internal sources like customer feedback and user interviews, research repositories, Slack channels, or other company databases. 
  • External sources like books, social media, customer reviews on third-party websites, Google Scholar, JSTOR, Proquest, etc.
  • Topic-specific sources. For example, because most of User Interviews’s work is in the UX space, our VP of User Research, Roberta Dombrowski, often refers to blogs like Nielsen Norman Group, dscout’s People Nerds, Mind the Product, or UX Booth

Use a spreadsheet to keep track of your sources and make note of important sections and terms that you want to come back to during the analysis stage. 

Be sure to record:

  • The author, date, and type of study
  • The research questions
  • The methods used (including mixed methods, qualitative, or quantitative)
  • The results and conclusions made by the authors
  • Any weaknesses or areas of controversy

Julie Dobre, UX Researcher and Strategist at ICF, recommends keeping track of sources you choose not to use as well, in her article for UXBooth

“If a source lacks valuable information, copy the URL to the bottom of your table and provide a short sentence to summarize the article for yourself and why you did not extract information from it. Provide a code like ‘No Info’ so you can sort them out. This will allow you to capture the full breadth of your research effort. It may also prove useful if, as your research develops, you realize that you may have overlooked something valuable and you want to reread a source, or if a source has very basic information that you later realize may be valuable to junior team members. It is also a useful way to keep yourself on task.”

💡 Pro tip: When you find a high-quality source, look through its cited references for additional relevant sources.  

4. Record and analyze the data from all sources.

Once you’ve collected a healthy body of literature on your chosen topic, you can begin exploring the relationships between each source and identifying key insights and conclusions.

Look for:

  • Trends and patterns in the methods used, conclusions drawn, recency of sources, or other key components of each study.
  • Themes in the types of questions or ideas that crop up throughout the literature.
  • Debates, conflicts, or disagreements between sources. 
  • Gaps, weaknesses, or surprises that need to be addressed. 

For more helpful information and tips about analysis, head to the Analysis and Synthesis module of this Field Guide.  

5. Write a summary of your findings.

With your sources collected, cited, and scoured for insights, you’re ready to write up your report. The process for writing literature reviews is similar to that of writing reports for any kind of study. 

Here’s how to write a literature review:

The typical literature review outline includes an introduction, a summary of the sources and insights, a discussion of weaknesses, and recommendations for next steps. 

  • Introduce the topic and provide context: Why did you conduct this review? What were you hoping to learn? What is and isn’t included in the review?
  • Summarize the sources and present common themes: These themes and insights can be organized chronologically, thematically, methodologically, or theoretically—however you think makes the most sense for your topic and the insights you found.
  • Identify important gaps or biases: What are the main limitations with the research you reviewed? What questions do you still have?
  • Outline new questions or areas for future research: Now that you’ve completed your literature review, what’s next? How does the information you found influence future decisions?

Looking for a refresher on writing research reports and deliverables? Check out the Field Guide Chapter: How to Write Effective Reports and Presentations

Literature reviews for mixed methods and hybrid research

As we mentioned earlier, it’s not advisable to use lit reviews as a substitute for primary research. Although lit reviews are typically quicker and cheaper than primary research studies, the insights (and the quality of those insights) are limited to whatever can be found in your sources. 

Instead, we recommend using lit reviews to help you narrow down your questions for primary research. By understanding which questions have already been answered and what’s still uncertain, you can focus your resources on more impactful research

In a nutshell

Literature reviews are not just for academic research—they’re useful and valid for research in a business context, too. 

The research community is releasing interesting, relevant, and sometimes groundbreaking information on a daily basis. You can maximize the impact of your work by paying attention to and building off the work of your peers. 

So before you dive into a month-long diary study, A/B test, or continuous feedback survey, start with a literature review. You just might discover something that surprises you. 

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