A Beginner’s Guide to User Research

Continuing the multi part series on “Intro to User Experience Design” by ello

Image courtesy of Designmodo Inc.

User Experience Design is facing a wave of interest from the public. In response to the increased interest, we have developed a multi part series to provide an overview to User Experience Design. This article will provide an overview of User Research, a key component throughout the UX Design process. It effects the entire strategy and is key to developing a solution that meets user needs. As a UX Designer, you serve your user and User Research helps you understand what to serve them.

What is User Research?

At its core, User Research develops an understanding of the user through investigative methods. User Research stems from existing research techniques which have been adjusted specially to align to User Experience goals. It identifies user needs, motivations and attitudes that inform the development of a solution. From the insights you can understand why and how a user would interact with your solution. Researchers have two primary tasks: to gather insights and synthesize the information.

Image courtesy of Sergey Valiukh

User Research Methods

A variety of User Research methods which can be used throughout UX process. They serve different purposes and the benefits range. The following provides an overview of popular user research methods: interviews, questionnaires, card sorting, usability testing, and A/B testing.


One-on-one interviews are a familiar research technique that provide key qualitative insights on the user. Although the term can conjure up images of Barbara Walters grilling the latest celebrity, user research interviews are much less intense. This user experience research technique identifies the perspectives, beliefs, and experiences of users and is typically conducted at the beginning of the user experience process.

Structured interviews are formal with specific list of questions for the user. Discussion guides are developed for interviews which clearly define questions and provide context to each question’s purpose. Structured interviews are useful when conducting qualitative interviews and comparing answers across large groups.

Interviews can also be unstructured to allow for an open conversation. This is beneficial when the topic is sensitive or difficult to talk about. The researcher will gently guide the interview while letting the user lead the conversation. The researcher will only interject to clarify or expand on ideas when needed.


Questionnaires are a useful research technique to gather data from a large sample size. They require limited time and resources to set up, circulate and analyze responses. There are many survey platforms such as SurveyMonkey, Typeform and Google Forms that easily develop surveys and provide a clean data export to analyze the data. A unique aspect of surveys is the option to receive anonymous responses. Often interviews can be conducted initially to refine questions and content for surveys. It is important for questionnaires to follow a logical order and be easy to understand.

Card Sorting

Card sorting is a research method where the user is provided a set of cards and asked to organize them. Categories can be provided to the user or the user can create their own categories. UX Booth states “the goal of a card sort is to explore relationships between content, and better understand the hierarchies that a user perceives.”

While card sorting is primarily used to help design site architecture, it is a technique that can be leveraged to understand user terminology at the beginning of the user experience process.

Usability Testing

Usability testing analyses how a user will actually interact with a product. It is considered one of the most effective methods to test a product’s usability. For this method, the user performs a set of tasks while the researcher observes and records. Usability testing can be conducted with a fully developed product, a prototype, or even pencil-sketched wire-frame.

This method identifies the time it takes for a user to complete a task, their satisfaction with the experience and potential areas of improvement. It is beneficial because it identifies any key errors in the interaction flow before the product is fully developed. By identifying changes early, it can save a significant amount of time and money in the long run.

A/B Testing

A/B testing is technique that compares two versions of a screen in order to determine the better option. Typically, this is conducted when the product is live. Users are randomly assigned to view one version of the screen and analysis is conducted to determine which screen has a better conversion rate. Success metrics for A/B Testing need to be identified prior to the test to ensure accurate reporting.

Why do you need User Research?

Some would argue that the primary reason to conduct User Research is simply because

You are not the User.

As a UX Designer, it is easy to fall into the trap to think you are an Ultimate UX Buddha. This pitfall causes UX Designers to make decisions that reflects their personal opinions instead of the user. By conducting research, facts are clearly defined. Any major decisions should be based off of user research findings.

Good user research is key to designing a great user experience. Designing without good user research is like building a house without solid foundations — your design will soon start to crumble and eventually fall apart.
Neil Turner, founder of UX for the Masses

User Research Tips and Tricks

Develop empathy

As a UX Designer empathy is a core skill. Value your user’s voice and truly listen to their perspective without your mental input.

Ask good questions

The phrasing and structure of a question can drastically change the response. Ensure that you focus your questions to one purpose, use neutral words and relate to your listeners frame of reference.

Do it early, do it often, do it now

As we have shown, a variety of methods can provide different insights over the course of product development. Plan out your research and incorporate it into the timeline. User Research is key to the development cycle and will save time, money and stress in the long run.

This article was written by Kathryn Laventure for ello

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