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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Whether you’re an experienced UX researcher, a product manager who plays researcher from time to time, or someone new to the field entirely, we hope this guide has a little something for everyone.
In this chapter, we’ll focus on the UX research process as we’ll describe it throughout the Field Guide. Think of it as a framework for infusing research throughout the product development cycle. Your product development cycle might look a bit different—but no matter. Details aren’t critical here and the framework is flexible.
Here it is, the UX research process in 7(ish) steps:
This is the first and most important step in any user research study. Without clear goals and objectives, you’re just fumbling in the dark. And that’s no way to conduct user research.
When launching a research project or sprint, work backwards. Why are we doing this research? What do the internal stakeholders need to learn to move the product forward? What information would be actionable?
Your stakeholders are people who have a vested interest in the outcomes of your research. There are external stakeholders (your users, customers) and internal stakeholders (your boss, the product design team, clients if you work at agency).
When we talk about stakeholder research, we’re talking about internal stakeholders. These are the people within your organization (or client’s organization) who:
People don’t have to tick every one of those boxes to be considered a stakeholder—not at all, in fact. Any one of those criteria makes someone a qualified candidate for stakeholder interviews (though in many cases you’ll need to narrow the list down to someone who does, indeed tick multiple boxes on that list).
Once you’ve identified the people you need to talk to, you’re going to want to put together a plan for interviewing them. This doesn’t need to be intricate.
Start with your research question. In the case of stakeholder interviews, the key question to ask yourself will be:
What do I need to learn in order to move forward with this research project?
Your answers to that question—i.e., the things you don’t yet know and need to learn—can then be spun up into a loose moderator guide.
Here’s an example of a stakeholder interview moderator guide:
And here's a template for you to adapt!
We use the term ‘guide’ rather than ‘script’ intentionally—remember to leave time for asking follow-up questions and room in the conversation for it to flow naturally. Refer back to your guide if things start going off-track, but don’t let sticking to your list of questions keep you from hearing the really interesting answers!
Your research questions should stem from the goals you identified in the previous steps. What is it that you’re trying to learn?
Good research questions are:
Each of these questions could be answered through targeted research, and each would require different kinds of research and scopes of work.
A note on why we start with a question instead of a statement or hypothesis: Starting with a question ensures that you are focused on investigating (exploring and searching for an answer) rather than validating your ideas (working to prove that the solution you created is the right one).
There are a lot of different user research methods out there. If you haven’t already taken time to familiarize yourself with them, we recommend reading the chapters on Types of User Research Methods and Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research.
A solid understanding of which methods to use for any given study is one of the most powerful strategic skills a user researcher can develop. But you don’t have to rely on your memory alone to figure out which method you choose—that’s what UX research frameworks are for.
For now, what you need to know is that some UX research methods are better suited than others to the:
We’ll go over all that in depth in the UX Research Methodologies module, by the end of which you’ll feel like a seasoned pro when it comes to choosing the right method for any research study.
Once you’ve figured out your methodology, you can start assembling your toolkit.
You will need a way to recruit good participants, talk with them and/or conduct tests, record and take notes, run your analysis, and present your research at the end of it all.
Our most recommended toolset for most people starting out is: User Interviews + Zoom + Google Docs + Google Sheets (or the Microsoft Office equivalent) + Google Drive or your internal wiki.
That toolkit will enable you to conduct interviews and other moderated studies effectively, cheaply, and without the need to adopt new software. Because chances are, you already use most of these in your day to day.
From there, you can layer in tools made especially for user testing, surveys, card sorting, and so on as you need them.
There are a lot (like, a lot a lot) of user research tools out there, so once again, we won’t be covering the full list in this chapter. You can read more about user research tools in the Appendix. And do check out the UX Research Tools Map for a visual overview of the current UXR tools landscape.
A research plan creates alignments, prevents careless slip ups, and helps keep your research focused on its goals.
Put it all together in a document (feel free to borrow our UX research plan template) and share with your stakeholders and other members of your team.
Research recruiting is something we know a lot about here at User Interviews. We exist to help user researchers find, recruit, and manage participants for their studies.
The module on recruiting for UX research includes everything you need to know about:
As you can tell from that list, there’s a lot to teach and a lot to learn about this critical step in the research process!
Here’s what you need to know about UX research recruiting in the smallest of nutshells:
Think about the person(s) who would be able to answer the specific, practical, and actionable research questions you defined in step 1. Write down a list of criteria that come to mind.
Be critical of any demographic or geographic criteria you’ve listed out. Unless someone’s gender, race, religion, marital status, or zip code are truly relevant to your inquiry, don’t include those details in your ideal participant profile—you’ll only end up biasing your research and limiting the number of people you can recruit.
A screener survey is a brief questionnaire that people take to determine whether or not they qualify for your study.
Take your list of participant criteria and reverse engineer it into a series of questions. Looking to recruit people who have purchased olive oil in the last 6 months? Ask questions that will allow you to filter out anyone who hasn’t made that kind of purchase—without hinting at the correct answer.
For example, don’t come straight out and ask: “Have you purchased olive oil in the last 6 months?”
Instead, offer survey takers a list of options. For example:
Which of these pantry items have you purchased in the last 6 months:
Now that you know who you’re going to recruit, ask yourself what kind of reward these participants would consider fair compensation for their time.
Consumers typically go in for cash-equivalent or gift card incentives. Government employees, meanwhile, can’t touch those with a ten-foot pole. Diehard fans of your product (your happiest customers) might be thrilled to receive swag in exchange for their time. Or you might offer account credits or product discounts instead.
The right incentive depends on the nature of your study, the type of users you’re recruiting, and (of course) your budget. You can read more about our incentive recommendations in the chapter User Research Incentives. (Clever title, we know.)
Okay, so this is where we come in.
User Interviews is a one-stop shop for participant recruitment—whether you want to recruit from your current customer list or from our audience of over 700,000 ready, willing, and vetted research participants.
(You can also target over 140 different industries, job titles, demographics, and custom screener criteria. If you incentivize your participants with Amazon gift cards, we’ll manage the incentives for you.)
Prefer to go the DIY route? The chapter on how to recruit participants for user research studies includes advice on recruiting people via social media, forums, Slack, email, and in-app messaging.
This is the really fun part.
A good rule of thumb is to research as early and as often as possible. (This will save you from wasting time going in the wrong directions, building prototypes for solutions no one needs.) That means there’ll be plenty of opportunities for you to practice and hone your moderating skills. And it does take some practice!
If you’re new to research or are here to dust off your skills, we recommend warming up your moderating muscles with a few members of your team first.
Here are some rules of thumb for conducting moderated user research:
Raw research data is no use to anyone.
User research analysis and synthesis are the processes by which data is transformed into insights. This is the step that gives meaning to all the steps before it.
How you analyze your data will depend on the methods you used to collect it. The biggest variable here is whether the data is qualitative or quantitative.
Quantitative data analysis is about crunching numbers to identify patterns. Qualitative data analysis is equal part art and science—it requires interpretation by the researcher.
When analyzing qualitative data, ask questions like:
Hopefully you don’t need any encouragement to share your research findings—if all went well, you’re probably feeling excited about the insights you uncovered and are eager to share them with your team.
But you may be wondering: How? What’s the best way to communicate user research results to stakeholders?
First of all, you should know that there is no single best way to report on user research. The best format for sharing UX research is the format that is most relevant, useful, and interesting to your audience.
Unlike academic researchers who are expected to write up formal research reports, UX researchers have a lot of options when it comes to reporting on their findings.
UX research reports can be communicated as:
It’s also a good idea to include research artifacts and deliverables like:
Once again, the right one for any given study depends on your stakeholders, as well as the type of data you’ve collected.
And the truth is most people only need a high-level summary that highlights key insights and takeaways (luckily, you should have a good sense of which insights stakeholders will care about from the stakeholder interviews you conducted in step 1).
And that’s it! The UX research process in 7(ish) steps.
Of course, knowing what to do and how to technically do it is a huge part of the user research battle. But actually making things happen in a real organization can yield a whole new set of challenges.
Your job here is to continually sell and prove the idea that research is indispensable to the product development process at every stage. Begin by finding someone willing to listen to you, start small, do your homework, share your insights widely.
In addition to highlighting the value research has added—creating or tweaking the perfect prototype, building the right product in the first place—make sure to highlight the mistakes that would have been made without research.
Without this step, research can be ignored, be taken as unseen and hence an unimportant aspect of product development. Often its value is in avoiding disaster (or at least unnecessary missteps). Share these moments too.
Once you start building the story that research is imperative within and outside product teams, start doing more of it, sharing it more widely, perhaps even training other teams to do it.
You’ve got this!