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.
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 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:
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:
There are several types of literature reviews, and each one requires a different amount of time, effort, and resources:
💡 In the context of UX research—where time and resources are often limited—you’ll typically conduct scoping or traditional literature reviews.
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:
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.
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:
Here are some examples of good literature reviews, both from User Interviews’s internal research team and external researchers.
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:
… the customer segments who provide us with the most feedback:
… as well as an overview of themes and patterns in user feedback from the past month:
The insights from this monthly review are based on our yearly goals and used to inform team decisions.
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:
Here’s a helpful graphic demonstrating where lit reviews fit into the user research process, created by UX Researcher 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
For more helpful information and tips about analysis, head to the Analysis and Synthesis module of this Field Guide.
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.
The typical literature review outline includes an introduction, a summary of the sources and insights, a discussion of weaknesses, and recommendations for next steps.
Looking for a refresher on writing research reports and deliverables? Check out the Field Guide Chapter: How to Write Effective Reports and Presentations.
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.
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.