Colorful, abstract faces in silhouette looking at one another. Artist: Jim Waddington
Colorful, abstract faces in silhouette looking at one another. Artist: Jim Waddington

User research and scientific research: what’s the difference?

Stacy Surla
Jul 31, 2019 · 4 min read

“You changed the research instrument in the middle of the study?” Dr. X was polite and gentle, but I sensed she viewed me as an idiot child. Dr. Y added, “And you’re proposing to… speak to no more than 9 respondents?” Our kick-off meeting about a transactional website for a government research organization was suddenly stalled. I could tell that these scientists’ suspended disbelief was about to float away. Our main problem was that we were using many of the same words, but we weren’t talking the same language.

Researching the user experience is practical, applied work. Its purpose is to help product and service designers make better decisions when they build things. While user research applies some of the same methods and utilizes much of the same terminology as scientific research, it has different goals. Conflating scientific research and user research can lead to serious misunderstandings when scientists and UX practitioners work on digital projects together. One way to get in front of this disconnect is to understand what scientists expect from research, demonstrate UX’s goals and processes, and make sure both the development team and the client are on the same page. We can talk about the differences in the two types of research along a number of dimensions, ranging from purpose to outcomes.

Purpose, approach, and timeframe

Scientific research endeavors to understand the nature of our physical universe. Its goals include corroborating or adding to existing bodies of knowledge, and being able to predict phenomena in order to develop new technologies or interventions. It uses controlled methods to understand causal processes, and seeks to produce statistically significant, generalizable results. Study design includes rigorous controls for sample selection and researcher bias. Pure research and applied research are carried out as standalone activities, often over the course of many years. Research must stand up to rigorous peer review, and findings must be replicable by other investigators before they can be accepted as adequately explaining some aspect of our world.

User research has quite a different set of objectives. In short, its practices have been developed to correct for biases that otherwise inevitably undermine IT development projects — the human tendency of clients and teams to design based on their own needs, preferences, and opinions, rather than those of their users.

To be effective in the high-speed and market-driven context of product and service design, user research must be narrowly focused on learning just enough of what we need to know in order to make better design decisions. Its core approaches are engagement with end users, rapid and frequent testing, and prioritizing whatever will help the product team move forward. For this reason, user researchers frequently do things scientific researchers would not — such as revise research instruments while a study is underway, based on emerging findings. And make changes to a product’s features after testing with only a handful of users. User research is rarely a stand-alone effort. It’s usually embedded in the product development process, and takes place rapidly, over days or weeks.

Table comparing characteristics of user research and scientific research. Repeats the text in the body of the article.
Table comparing characteristics of user research and scientific research. Repeats the text in the body of the article.
Comparison of User Research and Scientific Research Goals and Characteristics

Methods, actors, and outcomes

Scientific research employs rigorous processes. The goal of research is generally to publish manuscripts containing empirically testable findings. The work is conducted by highly trained scientists. Researchers typically have a Masters degree, medical degree, or PhD, and may work in a team, directed by a principal investigator.

User research takes the tools and methods of scientific inquiry and applies them in a narrowly focused way, to make websites work better or help teams solve customer service design problems. Common methods include usability testing, interviews, and field studies. User engagement activities that involve co-designing with representative end users, such as card sorting and brainstorming, are also used. The outcomes of user research are often lightweight documents or artifacts that are intended to produce just enough information, just-in-time, and are meant to be immediately actionable. Examples include usability reports with recommendations on design and functionality, data that will be used to develop personas, and navigation labels. User researchers typically have a BA or Masters degree in a relevant field, and are usually trained in user research methods while working on the job, perhaps when providing support as a junior researcher.

The methods and aims of scientific and user research come closest, perhaps, in the realm of qualitative research. Using methods such as grounded theory, scientists doing qualitative studies look at samples that are smaller, but are representative enough to lead to hypotheses. These can then be tested through quantitative research.

Better communication with science

Articulating these distinctions within the team was powerful. We discovered that, by understanding our own assumptions, and framing our explanations within our clients’ contexts, we were able to build trust and work more effectively with scientists— in this and in subsequent projects. The comparison chart became a handout for the team. We started acknowledging our UX goals and definitions up front during research planning sessions. And we referred back to these definitions again in research summary readouts. On several projects with a client who was very familiar with qualitative approaches, we were able to achieve a rapport between the design team and the scientists that was highly fruitful in developing digital interventions to support healthy behavior change.

Being prepared to speak to the assumptions and understandings of scientists AND the development team enables us to more successfully engage with our clients. And this helps us all design software that works better.

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