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Chapter 2
Mastering the 7-Step UX Research Process
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Chapter 2

Mastering the 7-Step UX Research Process

UX design is all about what the end user needs. As such, you need to know what user needs are, and how to implement them in your product development process. This is where UX research comes in. It helps UX designers determine what their design process needs to include, and what elements need to be excluded or improved.

The importance of UX research cannot be understated. Staples, the U.S. - based retail company, saw an 80% increase in site visitors following a research-based redesign, along with 67% more repeat customers. Such stats show that conducting user research is indeed a valuable undertaking for businesses.


The Value of a Structured UX Research

The best way to design a product or service is to get input from the people who will be using it. That is what the user research process is all about. However, whether you're collecting qualitative data or using quantitative methods, your research project requires some structure.

The research process consists of several steps, and structuring it helps you conduct the research and organize research data in an effective way. Conducting user research in a structured way helps you in a number of ways:

Making data-driven decisions

A structured research process is simply easier to assimilate once the research is done. The data you gather needs to be organized for it to make sense, and allow you to use it in your product development cycle. No amount of user feedback is going to be useful if you don't have a way to make sense of the data.

Eliminate researcher bias

To conduct user research that is both effective and reliable, you have to exclude the possibility of bias. This means that the personal views of the researcher should not, in any way, influence the research questions or the user behaviors during the study. This is more easily done when there is a structure to your market research.

Validation and reliability

When conducting research, a single study does not provide many significant insights. In fact, understanding research participants' behaviors requires repeated studies to ensure that a single result was not obtained by chance. Whatever UX research methods you use, without structure, it can become hard to replicate the study or its results, which means your efforts and research expenses would go to waste.

A structured UX research process simply makes your job that much easier. Research is only useful- and effective- when you can quickly make sense of the data and implement research findings in your design.

“It’s the process of UX research that matters, not the beauty of the final artifact.”
David Travis, Managing Director of Userfocus in Think Like a UX Researcher

When Will The UX Research Process Be Conducted?

The UX design process takes a whiteboard idea and turns it into a great user interface. However, it's not as simple as just taking any idea and bringing it to life. The process has a number of steps involved, and one of these steps is user research. The UX design process typically follows a chronological order, involving these steps:

  • Define your idea: This is where you answer which user need your research fulfills, and who you are creating it for, that is, who your target audience is.
  • Conduct UX research: This is the part where you conduct market and user research.
  • Data analysis and planning: This is where you determine what next steps you need to take, how you should design your product, and pinpoint what technologies and resources will help you achieve your goal.
  • Designing your prototype: A prototype gives you a working model of the real thing. This can help you test out if it meets your goals, or if it needs a little tweaking before you create the final design.
  • Usability testing: A usability test helps determine if everything is in the right working order and if the product is well-received by users.
  • Launch: Following successful testing, you are ready to make your product- be it a website or an app- live.

You may develop and launch the product without research, but it will leave you hopelessly lost in terms of knowing what your users want. In that case, you run a major risk of your product failing, because it did not respond to user demands.

7 Practical Steps of the UX Research Process

The UX research method is not quite as straightforward as one would hope. As with any other kind of research project, there are a number of steps involved in conducting a user research project. However, many tools have been developed that outline the most effective ways to conduct research sessions. These include the research learning spiral, which outlines the steps in the UX research process. These include:

1. Set Specific Goals

The research goals you set aren't just a bunch of guidelines on a piece of paper. They determine the direction of your entire research including the type of research, and help you answer essential questions about your study. Your research goals should consider the purpose of your study, what you hope to achieve from it, and how you wish to do so.

The goals you set should attempt to answer these questions:

  • What information are you looking for through this research?
  • What is your area or topic of interest?
  • Who does this research target?
  • What kind of questions do you need to ask to achieve your research goals?
  • What organizational goals do you hope to achieve with this research?

Answering these questions helps you set your goals in user experience research.

2. Identify Available Resources

Not every research methodology is going to be the right fit for your study goals and the kind of data you are hoping to collect. That does not necessarily mean your options are limited, or that you can only implement one specific methodology. However, you need to look into what kind of resources- including methodologies, tools, and applications, are available to you to conduct your research.

Most likely, not every tool will work for your research aims. Identifying available resources also means assessing what will work for you, and what isn't an option at all.

3. Select a Methodology

Selecting a methodology is all about aligning your data collection technique with the goals of your research. The user research methods you end up going with will depend on a number of factors, which also include time constraints and cost.

Understanding Different Research Methods

In the broadest categories, user research methods consist of qualitative and quantitative methods. Under these subgroups, there are a number of options from which you choose the most appropriate research method for you. These include:

-User interviews: A method where you can ask target users questions, and analyze their responses. The questions can be all predetermined to follow a script, follow a loose structure, or be based on simple guidelines, but led by the candidate's responses.

-Focus groups: These are qualitative methods where a group of people is interviewed in a discussion setting, to gauge their reactions and opinions regarding the product, as well as their general needs and behavior patterns.

-Diary studies: This is a longitudinal study method, where users keep diary records of their experience and behavior over a significant period of time. This helps track behavior patterns through user stories over time and provides insights into thought processes and motivations from self-reported data behind particular behaviors.

-Surveys: While these can also be used to collect qualitative data, surveys are often used to collect large amounts of quantitative data through close-ended questionnaires.

-Card sorting: This involves asking users to sort topics into categories based on their understanding. The purpose is to help you determine how users understand and interact with an interface.

-Usability testing: Involves testing out your service or product by having participants complete a task checklist. Observing their behavior and interactions as they do offers insights into the effectiveness of the product.

Quantitative studies can help you identify patterns in user behavior, from which you can base many of your design decisions. Qualitative research, on the other hand, helps you establish the causes behind those patterns and is generally more insightful. There is no one "best" type of research methodology- what works for you for one type of study may not work for someone else or even for a different study.

“No matter how much research we do, no matter how much time we spend with our customers, we can’t completely know them. And I feel like the goal of user research should be to find those moments.”
Teresa Torres, Founder of Producttalk.org

Selecting the Appropriate Methodologies

When trying to determine what methodology you should use, consider the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose or goal of your research, and which method best helps fulfill it?
  2. Are there any time or cost constraints that make certain methods unsuitable (for example, a diary study would not work if you need immediate results)
  3. Do available resources limit the kind of methodologies you can implement?

Considering Constraints and Feasibility

The most significant constraints for any user researcher are usually time and money. The amount of funding you have will largely determine the kind of methodology you are able to implement. For example, a longitudinal study, especially one where you are paying the respondents to participate, will likely become very expensive.S

imilarly, depending on the time frame you have to complete the study, qualitative research may not be your best option. Not only does it take longer to collect such data, analyzing it is also not as simple as categorizing answers. As such, if you're just looking to establish a behavior pattern, a quantitative survey may work just as well.

4. Create a Research Plan

Once you've set out your aims and goals, it's time to create a research plan. This is the roadmap you will follow that will dictate your research objectives, as well as all the logistical aspects of conducting the study. This is an important step in the UX research process, as it helps you navigate your study.

Research plans are discussed in detail in a later chapter. To provide an overview, here are some of the things that make up a UX research plan:

  1. Research purpose, goals, and aims
  2. Research hypothesis
  3. Expected outcome
  4. Research design, methodology, and participants
  5. Research timeline

Research plans tend to be a lot more comprehensive, and we will discuss them in greater detail later.

5. Recruit Participants

Your UX research process would be rather incomplete without participants- and even without the right participants. To gather data about user problems and conduct user testing, you have to choose the right research subject.

Determining Participant Criteria

When recruiting participants, you have to determine what criteria this selection should be based on. Your participants may come from your user groups, part of the existing system of product consumption, or they can be people who have not previously engaged with your service. The participants you choose depend on your research goals, as well as the availability of time and funds. The questions you should aim to answer to establish the participant selection criteria include:

  • The number of participants you need to recruit, for example, you may recruit fewer participants in a qualitative study, than in a quantitative study
  • The demographic qualities of your participants: relevant age group, geographical location, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, or particular habits or interests
  • The presence of individual attributes, interests or activities, that relate to your study

Based on your answers to these questions, you can determine what criteria participant selection should be based on.

Recruiting Participants

The next step is to actually recruit participants. There are a number of ways you can get participants for your study, including advertisements on:

  • newspapers
  • social media sites
  • advertising across your outlets and sign-up sheets
  • website ads
  • email invites
  • getting participants to recruit other participants (snowball sampling)

Various outlets like these can be used to advertise for and recruit participants. Once people start responding to your ads, you need to screen them to determine if they fit your selection criteria or not.

“If you want to create a great product, you have to start by understanding the people who will use it.”
Don Norman, Co-founder and Principal of Nielson Norman Group

Screening and Selecting Participants

Once the applications start rolling in, you will need to go through all of them to find the right fit. Typically quantitative studies gather large amounts of data, meaning you will be recruiting a huge number of respondents. As such, if you try to conduct interviews with all of them as a way to screen them for eligibility, that method won't get you very far.

Instead, a simple questionnaire that ensures your participants fulfill your selection criteria, such as being involved with a particular interest or belonging to a certain area might be more suitable. Where you are recruiting fewer participants for in-depth studies, interviews may be a good screening tool.

Ensuring Diversity and Representativeness

A good sample is one that is representative of your target user group. For example, if your users include people from nearly all age groups, but you only study the 25-35 age group, your sample is biased and your results will be unrepresentative of the population. To create an unbiased study, your sample should be diverse.

This means that all the user groups that are involved with your product should be included in your study. In fact, you can also use the study to determine if various groups, based on socioeconomic class for example, use your product differently, or expect different things from it. In any case, do not restrict yourself to a niche group- it will likely produce unreliable results with little application value.

6. Collect Data

The next research phase is data collection. You have your research plan and your participants. Now all that's left to do is to start implementing your data collection technique and gather data. Depending on your research design, you might be collecting data in one or more of the following ways:

-Conduct interviews: in-depth user interviews and contextual inquiries can point to a deeper understanding of user behaviors.

-Usability testing: Set up usability testing sessions where determine the usefulness and effectiveness of your product from a user's point of view.

-Surveys and questionnaires: These can be used for self-reported data, which can be both quantitative or qualitative, with closed or open-ended questions.

-Observation: participants interacting with and using your product can be observed and their behavior recorded on a checklist

-Behavioral research: Involves tracking behavior and recording when and as changes occur, in regards to participant's interaction with your product.

All the data you gather needs to be structured and organized, so that the final stage of the research can be carried out efficiently. This means keeping detailed notes, organizing responses, and using checklists for observational or recorded data.

“User research is actually the way by which designer is able to step into the shoes of the user and go along his or her path feeling all the stones on the way.”
Tubik Studio, Digital Studio

7. Analyze Your Finding

Once your data collection process is complete, it's time to review the data you have to make informed, data-driven conclusive decisions. This involves:

Extracting Key Insights and Patterns

Review the data to identify patterns in user's behaviors that can be observed across participants. You might also want to note the major insights- such as common preferences, that users report.

Formulating Actionable Recommendations

Based on the patterns you observe and user needs you identify, you should make recommendations regarding UX design. Such ideas and recommendations should be based on the data you collected, and should be actually possible to implement within the product design.

Prioritizing Design Iterations and Improvements

Your final step should be to incorporate user demands, assessed from your research into the design. Anything you're looking to implement should come secondary- your top priority should be to include user suggestions into product development.

How Personas Fit into the Design Process

User personas are one of the most valuable UX design tools at your disposal. The UX research methods we have discussed above provide you with the right kind of insights into understanding the needs and behaviors of users. Using a UX persona morphs that understanding into a workable model, that helps you create user-specific designs that boost user satisfaction.

UX personas are useful as they help you better understand your target market, and help determine how they would respond to a particular feature or the product as a whole. As such, they help you make design decisions and implement changes based on what your users will find most helpful.

Tying it all Together

UX research is an important and useful tool for any designer out there. With it, you can gain helpful insights into user habits and behaviors, and use this information to develop products that align with those interests and patterns. However, conducting research the right way is just as important. Plan out your research, set your aims and goals, define your methodology, choose a representative sample, and collect your data. Make sure to implement insights from your research into your design process.

For beginners and first-timers, UX research can be a complicated topic. You can learn more about it through other chapters in our guide, which discuss many research factors in more detail.

Use this as the conclusion paragraph. You should also let the users know they can learn more about UX research from our various other guide chapters.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the steps of UX research?
What are the five steps of UX research?
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