Design

Types of UX Research Methods for Product Improvement

Understanding users is critical to improving a digital product. Learn the types of UX research methods and interview questions that will uncover key insights.

7 min
February 9, 2022
Billy Sweetman
Head of Design

Let’s face it: We don’t always know what we want, let alone what we need.

And that's why your customers need your help too.

To create better user experiences, you need to understand your customers better than they understand themselves. And to do that, you’ll have to conduct research.

But UX research isn’t as simple as asking current users or potential users a few quick questions. Instead, it’s a process — one that starts with putting yourself in the right mindset. Only then should you start planning your research.

Beyond assumptions: UX research mindset

It’s easy to get tunnel vision, only seeing the problems you perceive from within the product team. To form the most effective research questions, push yourself to think outside the box.

Examples

Onboarding and retention

Let’s say you’ve noticed a high percentage of new customers consistently fall off at the third screen of onboarding.

It’s logical to assume there’s something that needs improvement on screen three. What’s the problem with that statement? Well, you know what they say about assuming.

Take a step back

There might be a problem on screen three. But if you step back and ask questions that go beyond your assumptions, you may find there’s another culprit entirely.

Maybe something in your marketing copy or app store listing leads customers to expect something different than what they encounter in the first few steps of onboarding. Adjusting the marketing copy to manage expectations might lead to fewer users fall off on that third screen.

Free trials and paywalls

Or maybe, and this is a classic example, customers expected a free trial but are being asked to input their credit card information. Unexpected paywalls stymie intended users every day.

Don’t let yourself get caught up in your assumptions. You have to have a starting point for research, but remember to keep your mind open.

UX research strategy, timelines, and goals

Before you book interviews, ask yourself:

  • How much time do you have to conduct your research?
  • What information do you want to gather?

Timeline and capacity example

To select an appropriate time frame, look at the project the responses will affect.

Example

Let’s say you’re in a two-week sprint with a designer to deliver a design for a new product feature. With that timeline, you only have two or three days available to complete necessary research — and you don’t have time to speak to 1,000 users.

Instead, you might aim for ten interviews.If you have a month to finish the project and have access to more designers, you could speak with more users. You have an idea of your timeline.

What kind of information do you want to gather?

That answer will depend on your goals for the project. The more specific your questions, the better. Abstract questions are fine for the early days of product planning. If you’re fine-tuning a product that's already serving customers, you want to have specific goals for your UX research. Breaking down big questions into more manageable pieces makes them easier to digest.

Example

Focusing only on the onboarding flow is more useful than trying to overhaul the entire first-time user experience. Because users in different stages of product usage have different experiences. Narrowing your focus to a specific area will help you acquire both comprehensive and useful points of view.

ux designer interviewing a user for ux research in a conference room

Attitudes and behaviors: Qualitative and quantitative research to study users holistically

Once you know how much time you have to devote to research and what information you plan to collect, it’s time to decide what type of research is appropriate.

There are two key forms of research to consider.

Attitudinal - Qualitative Research

Attitudinal research is all about — you guessed it — attitude.

Often conducted in the form of interviews, attitudinal research is designed to get to the heart of how your users feel about your digital product. Ask questions about how they’re currently using the product or (in the case of a planned product) how they are solving the problem your product hopes to solve.

You could also ask about the types of problems potential users regularly face in the areas of their lives that relate to your product’s purpose. Attitudinal research is particularly helpful before you ship a product, though it’s useful in later stages as well.

Behavioral - Quantitative Research

Behavioral testing is much less subjective than attitudinal testing. Rather than discussing users’ feelings, you observe their behaviors.  You see an experience in action and glean insights about what they want and need from your product.

For example, that could mean asking testers to complete a particular task in your digital product prototype without your input. It could also mean watching how users interact with products they already use. Observational research helps shed light on what users really want or need in a way that self-reporting interviews can’t.

Examples include time-to-click, or how long it takes users on a screen to find the button they are looking for. Behavioral testing can analyze how long it takes a user to complete a task or job.

Leveraging each type of UX research

In an ideal world, you’ll do some combination of both kinds of UX research. There are times when it may make sense to do both at once.

Example

Let’s say you’re observing a user as they input data in a particular part of your product.

Suddenly, the user stops interacting with their screen. Go ahead and push a little to find out why they’ve paused. Your tester may tell you something that surprises you — for instance, maybe they are manually copying the same details into a notebook since they’re unsure they can find the data again within your interface.

By seamlessly transitioning from behavioral to attitudinal research, you learn a key detail that, without prompting, you wouldn’t have discovered. And you do that by being curious and keeping your blinders off.

Recruiting research participants: Users vs paid testers

You’ve got a couple of options for where to find participants.

Current users

If you’re testing a change to a product that’s already launched, or if you’re trying to gain insight into how users interact with various pieces of that product, current users are usually the way to go. If you ask them for their input, they’re often quite excited to give it.

Because it’s a product they regularly use, users are invested in its evolution.

Paid testers

If you don’t already have an established user base, or if you want to test your product on a new market you haven’t yet penetrated, your best bet is to gather a panel of paid users.

One caveat with paid users:

As a professional tester, they’ll be more attuned to possible UX problems. And, they’re invested in earning their compensation. How does that affect their feedback? They’ll often find “issues” that no user in the real world would fumble over. It’s important to be able to distinguish between overly persnickety issues and real-deal usability concerns.

If a paid tester finds a typo in the terms and conditions page that people rarely read, you know to assign it a vanishingly low priority relative to more pressing problems.

You may also bring in paid users when you want to take a look at an established product with a fresh set of eyes. For example, if you want to assess your onboarding sequence, you’re sure to get better feedback from “fresh” customers rather than established users who already know the drill.

ux research report at team meeting at headway

Prioritizing UX research findings

Research isn’t completed in a vacuum. The goal of your research is to discover insights about the product that inform your next steps. Once you identify those next steps, the product or design lead will need to validate your findings before giving the okay to act on indicated changes.

Keep your presentation simple and compelling

  • This is what we heard
  • This is what we saw
  • These are the problems or opportunities that seem most important
  • This is what we think we can do to address them
  • And here’s what we would like to study next

Presenting themes

How do you present the main themes that emerged from those discussions while at the same time keeping the users themselves in mind?

The answer lies in creating a handful of personas representing the key traits you found in your research. Out of fifty interviews, you might only have seven to nine personas. Select the three that make the strongest impact when you present your findings.

The same goes for any insights you’ve gleaned from your research. You likely have a lot, but you want to pick the most impactful for the presentation.

If you present thirty areas where changes and improvements can be made, your team will be overwhelmed.

Intentional focus and recommendations

Narrow your findings to a small handful of concise, targeted items you want to go after. Give recommendations for how to approach them and why they will make the greatest impact.

Do that, and you’ll make it a lot easier for your team to digest your findings — and more likely that you’ll get to make the changes you believe to be most critical.

You can also leverage the UX audit process to create an action plan for your team.

UX research is a continuous feedback loop

You’ve put yourself in the research mindset, figured out what you hope to learn, gathered participants, and determined what information to present to stakeholders.

As you finish an iteration of testing, remember that research is never really finished.

It should push your project forward, at which point you will be presented with the next research cycle.

UX research never ends — and that’s a good thing.

Related research resources

When Do Product Surveys Make Sense?

Rapid Prototyping - Faster Feedback Loops In Your Startup

Continuous Discovery Habits for Startups with Teresa Torres

Product-Led Onboarding: Critical Steps to Turn Users Into Lifelong Customers

Actionable UX audit kit

  • Guide with Checklist
  • UX Audit Template for Figma
  • UX Audit Report Template for Figma
  • Walkthrough Video
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