what is UX research

What is UX research | User experience strategies explained

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What is user experience (UX) research, and why should you care about it or invest in it? The short answer is that it’ll save you money and time, which is also money. That seems like a good start.

Working in usability testing and user experience research, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve mentioned my work and heard in response, “Oh, that sounds terrible!” I try to keep the “Tell me how you really feel” look off my face, but am not sure I’ve succeeded yet.

This puzzles me, because UX research is quite rewarding – for both researcher and business. But I understand; it’s not everyone’s idea of fun. On the bright side, just talking about it seems to release uninhibited visceral honesty, which is great – that’s exactly what you’re after when conducting UX research.

Cultivating a rhetoric of advocacy: UX research is about people and empathy

UX research (usability studies, user-centered design) combines design thinking, psychology, philosophy and rhetorical theory, marketing, and other disciplines to gain deeper insight into users’ needs, behaviors, motivations, and expectations.

User experience researchers have in mind stakeholder interests and specific goals for budget and time constraints as well as ROI, of course.

They’re also in a unique position to advocate for user needs, especially users whose voices often go unheard and underrepresented. As much as possible, UX researchers ensure that diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility are designed into each product and experience. Representation matters. And unintentional biases shape designs all the time.

Why is user experience research important? Because: people.

Improve customer experience with user experience research

User experience research strategies aim to gather data and insight from the users of a product, website, or other designed customer interaction with your company. This is accomplished through a variety of methods, the best choices depending on what phase of the process you’re in, and what you’re testing.

Some of the most commonly used methods include:

  • Field studies
  • User interviews
  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Requirements and constraints gathering
  • Persona building
  • Design review
  • Task analysis
  • Prototype feedback and testing
  • Qualitative usability testing
  • Benchmark evaluation
  • Accessibility evaluation
  • Surveys

Although some tests are more suitable to certain phases of a project, there’s no rigid order or limit to what can be used and when.

Part of user experience research is having best practices in mind, but always being open to change and adaptable to fluid contexts and new insights. The goal is to understand your customers on a deeper, more comprehensive level, thereby improving the design and creating better customer experiences.

When should UX research be done?

Research and test as early in the process as possible. This will save money and the headaches of trying to fix problems after going to market.

While some see the tradeoff as costly delays and slower time to market, even quick and simple testing can catch many glaring weaknesses in a design that get missed by those too close to the project. The earlier, the better, and cheaper.

Waiting until the product is almost ready to go to market before doing any user testing might have seemed like keeping the process moving, but discovering major problems that could have been fixed quickly at earlier stages of development is likely to cost a lot of time and money in one way or another. Essentially, at that point you have a few important choices to make.

Scenario A:

Shrug your shoulders and say, “Too bad, we have deadlines and a market waiting to buy this” and take this little piggy to market anyway.

Best case, the major problems only moderately impact sales (pretty unlikely a mediocre product performs as well as the best version of itself).

Worst case, your widget is an abject failure that loses customers and hurts your reputation, on top of rendering all of the time and money already invested into design, development, production, marketing, support, etc., an utter waste.

Scenario B:

Take your widget back and fix the problems found in testing, spend more money, and maybe suffer some bad press for a minute because of a delayed release, but you send a better product into the world. And you’ve likely saved cost and gotten more ROI than if you’d knowingly sold a worse product.

Scenario C:

Involve UX researchers as early in the design and development process as possible. Seek guidance on best practices. Conduct tests with Lo-Fi prototypes to keep time and spend at a minimum while eliminating the most glaring errors and misses.

Repeat testing in an iterative process throughout design and development. Build the time and cost of testing into the project management strategy so UX research isn’t seen as a burdensome add-on to what would otherwise be imagined as a swift and effective process.

That is, until the previous scenarios arise and suddenly you’re looking at your very own trolley problem. Except the one on the tracks is your widget, into which you’ve invested so much time and money.

Choose your own UX adventure

User experience research comes in many variations and several levels of sophistication (and cost). Usability pioneers Jakob Nielsen and Donald Norman have encouraged people to conduct their own user experience testing if possible. This can most often be done at the very early stages, as mentioned, by using simple Lo-Fi materials such as paper, markers, cardboard, and other easily accessible materials to create prototypes or have user test participants sort cards and show you what they consider intuitive information design. These tests will tell you a lot for low cost.

Moving to the more sophisticated digital usability research tools, we come to different prototyping apps for use on mobile devices and computers as well as programs designed specifically for conducting usability testing of websites by using eye tracking technology as well as audio and video to record participant interaction with the design being tested. The data gathered can then be reviewed later for interpretation and developing recommendations for design revisions.

There are, of course, professional consulting firms specializing in user experience research. The cost varies but is obviously the highest cost compared to the previous options. These firms usually offer to handle the entire testing process from sourcing participants to conducting thorough testing to preparing and presenting detailed reports with recommendations for improving the product being tested. Ultimately, it depends on what best suits your organization, budget, and product.

UX, reimagined.
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Josh Maday
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Josh Maday

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