The User Research Process

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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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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:

Step 1. Identify your research goals

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? 

To identify your research goals, consider:

  • What do I want to know? This is the core question, and will be further refined into  specific, actionable, and practical research questions. 
  • What don’t I know? Identify knowledge gaps and limitations early, so you can aim to correct for them.
  • How will I know when I’ve learned it? What must be true in order for this research to be considered “done”?
  • What company goals will this work support? It’s always a good idea to be familiar with your organization’s business model and key performance metrics. 
  • Where am I in the product development process? Your research goals will look different depending on whether you’re in the discovery, validation and testing, launch, or ongoing listening phase. 
  • What decision will this research enable? How will stakeholders act on the information you learn through your research? 
  • What are the anticipated outcomes of this research? What would success look like for you? 

Pro tip: Once I determine research is, in fact, needed around a particular area, I’ll involve my team by hosting a brainstorm session where we start to tease apart facts, opinions & guesses related to the research area. This helps us to think holistically about any existing research we can use and gives us a chance to think broadly about the problem space before jumping into a specific method. – Roberta Dombrowski, VP of User Research at User Interviews

Conduct stakeholder interviews

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:

  • Have influence within their company and department
  • Make decisions about time, money, and resources
  • Are involved in the UX and product design process
  • Have information relevant to your project
  • Will be expected to act on research insights

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:

  • Introductions (state your purpose)
  • Why is this project important? 
  • What does success look like for this project? How does it fit into the broader context of the business?
  • What is your role in this project? What would you like it to be?
  • How will this project impact your day-to-day and your overall job?
  • What challenges do you foresee this project possibly running into?
  • What questions do you have for me?
  • Wrap it up (thank people for their time)

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!

Develop the right research questions

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:

  • Specific—so you’ll know when you have found an answer. 
  • Practical—i.e. they can realistically be answered by your research project 
  • Actionable—so your team can act on the results.

For example:

  • Are our customers able to successfully navigate to the support page on our site?
  • Which websites do people over the age of 55 use to look up information about health?
  • Do people understand our blog categories and what content might belong in them?
  • What tools do college students use to keep track of their schedules?
  • Which CTA has a higher conversion rate?

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). 

📖 Read more about Planning UX Research

Step 2: Choose your research methods

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:

  • Stage of product development you’re at (discovery, concept validation and testing, launch, and post-launch)
  • Research questions you’re trying to answer (what?, why?, how?)
  • Type of data you need to round out your inquiry (qualitative or quantitative, attitudinal or behavioral)
  • Decisions you want to enable (how are people going to act on your findings?)

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.

📖 Read more about UX Research Methodologies

Assemble your research toolkit

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.

Step 3. Create a user research plan

A research plan creates alignments, prevents careless slip ups, and helps keep your research focused on its goals.

  • Title (descriptive, clear)
  • Team (author/research runner, other stakeholders)
  • Goals (that whole start with why thing)
  • Methodology (which research method and evaluation criteria will you use?)
  • Participants (who do you need to survey, test, talk to to reach your research goals?)
  • Schedule (the when and where).
  • Budget (how tight are those purse strings?)
  • Next steps (what happens when this study is over)

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.

Step 4. Recruit participants 

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:

  • Identifying your ideal participants
  • Crafting screener surveys 
  • Sampling for different research methods
  • Finding prospective participants
  • Calculating research incentives
  • Scheduling and communicating with participants
  • And doing it all like a pro.

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:

Be crystal clear about who you’re trying to recruit

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. 

Create a screener survey

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:

  • Balsamic vinegar - reject
  • Soy sauce - reject
  • Fish sauce - reject
  • Olive oil - accept
  • Canola oil - reject
  • None of the above  - reject

Choose the right incentives for your audience

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.)

Find and attract participants 

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.

📖 Read more about Recruiting for UX Research

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Step 5. Conduct some research!  

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:

  • Be authentic, be kind. You’re a human, they’re a human. Treat participants with warmth, respect, and sensitivity (especially if you’re asking about personal topics).
  • Get comfortable with the awkward silences. Listen, let people pause for thought, give them space to expand on their responses. And watch what people do—observe behaviors and non-verbal cues.
  • Give context and set expectations about the outcomes of your research. But don’t share your assumptions or hypotheses—that’s a surefire way to bias participant responses.
  • Take notes. Ask a colleague to be a notetaker and/or use a transcription tool to transcribe your sessions. This will allow you to be really present and attentive to all the interesting micro-moments that might occur.

Step 6. Analyze and synthesize results 

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:

  1. What are the major patterns and common themes in users’ responses?
  2. In what context did users express the greatest emotional response to questions?
  3. What interesting user stories emerged from the responses?
  4. What features were most important to these users?
  5. How are these users different from other users?
  6. Are there any use-cases not adequately supported by the current interface?

Remember: You don’t have to wait until a study is over to start analyzing the data—doing periodic analysis can save you loads of time at the end of a project. Roberta Dombrowski, our VP of User Research, recommends analyzing, synthesizing, and sharing highlights of each session as you go. 

📖 Read more about UX Research Analysis and Synthesis

Step 7. Share your research findings

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).

📖 Read more about UX Research Reports and Deliverables

Finally, a word on demonstrating value

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!


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