This guide covers UX research methods and their importance to design success. We discuss the various types of research, shedding light on the dimensions of qualitative vs. quantitative, attitudinal vs. behavioral, generative vs. evaluative, and moderated vs. unmoderated research.
Following this, we'll explore the ten of the most common UX research methods: user interviews, focus groups, surveys, diary studies, field studies, card sorting, tree testing, usability testing, prototype testing, and A/B testing. You'll learn definitions, best practices, and use cases for each.
Lastly, we'll help you get started on your next project, considering your research needs and constraints. The goal is to equip you with a solid understanding of the various UX research methods you have to choose from, and empower you to build exceptional, user-centric products.
Whether you're a seasoned UX researcher, a designer looking to broaden your understanding, or a beginner eager to learn, this guide offers valuable insights to enhance your UX research toolkit.
UX research methods are a diverse set of analytical procedures that aim to add context and insight to designing intuitive, user-friendly products and services. By exploring how consumers interact with a product, UX research allows designers to create solutions that effectively meet user needs and expectations, promoting satisfaction and usability.
UX research methods typically fall broadly into two categories: qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative, exploratory research seeks to understand users' behaviors, motivations, and needs. It offers insights into the 'why' behind user actions. Methods used in this category include user interviews, focus groups, and diary studies.
On the other hand, quantitative research is used to measure and analyze user behavior across large sample sizes, giving statistically significant data. This category includes methods such as surveys, analytics, and A/B testing.
The terms 'research methods' and 'research methodologies' are often used interchangeably, but it's crucial to differentiate between them.
Research methods are the techniques used for data collection, such as surveys, interviews, or usability tests. In contrast, research methodologies guide the research process, determining which methods are used and how data is analyzed. They encompass the overall strategy, design, and execution of a research project.
Mixed methods research is a methodology that combines qualitative and quantitative research methods. It allows UX researchers to enjoy the benefits of both processes, providing a well-rounded understanding of user behavior.
For example, qualitative methods might be used to explore user attitudes and motivations, while quantitative methods could provide data-driven insights into how many users share these attitudes.
The use of UX research methods is indispensable. They enable the creation of user-centered designs, improving the overall user experience and fostering product success. Understanding users' needs and behaviors can lead to innovative solutions and even define the future of a product or service.
UX research employs a range of methods to capture different kinds of data. These research types cater to various stages of the product development lifecycle and serve other research objectives.
Qualitative and quantitative research methods each offer advantages, with the most effective strategy often employing a blend of the two with mixed methods research.
Qualitative UX research is exploratory. It focuses on understanding the reasons behind user behavior and prioritizes depth over breadth, seeking to answer the 'why' and 'how' of user interactions. Common qualitative research methods include user interviews, focus groups, usability testing, ethnographic field studies, and diary studies.
These methods allow researchers to gain deep insights into user feelings, motivations, frustrations, and values, providing the context that quantitative data often lacks.
Conversely, qualitative research typically involves smaller sample sizes, making it harder to generalize findings across a larger user population. Researchers' subjective interpretations can also influence results.
Quantitative UX research seeks to quantify user behavior through numerical data. It answers 'what', 'where', and 'when' type questions, focusing on metrics like conversion rates, task completion times, or bounce rates.
Surveys, analytics, A/B testing, and eye-tracking studies are typical quantitative methods. Quantitative research's strength is its ability to provide measurable, statistically significant data. It allows results to be generalized to a larger population, offering broad insights into user behavior.
However, it often fails to explain the reasons behind these behaviors and lacks the rich insights that qualitative research provides.
Qualitative research is best for uncovering user motivations and experiences in-depth, while quantitative analysis excels in measuring user behaviors and testing hypotheses across large user bases.
A balanced mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods can offer a comprehensive, holistic understanding of user needs and behaviors for an effective, user-centered design process.
UX research can be classified not only by the nature of the data (qualitative vs. quantitative) but also by what it investigates: attitudinal or behavioral aspects of user experience.
Attitudinal research is the study of users' stated beliefs, opinions, and intentions. This kind of research is typically gathered directly from users through interviews, surveys, and focus groups. For example, a researcher might ask users how they feel about a product or what they think about a particular feature.
Attitudinal research can provide valuable insights into users' thought processes, preferences, and expectations. It can help identify what users believe they want or need from a product.
However, attitudinal data has limitations. People cannot always accurately express their needs or predict their behavior. This means that stated intentions don't always match actual behavior.
On the other hand, behavioral research observes and analyzes users' behavior when interacting with a product. Common behavioral research methods include usability testing, A/B testing, heat maps, clickstream analysis, and eye-tracking studies.
Behavioral research can provide objective data about how users interact with a product by focusing on what they do rather than what they say. This can help identify usability issues that users may not be consciously aware of or able to articulate.
However, behavioral data alone may not provide the full context. Without understanding the motivations behind user actions (which attitudinal research can provide), it may be challenging to interpret the data effectively.
While attitudinal research offers valuable insights into users' self-reported feelings and intentions, it may not always align with actual user behavior. On the other hand, behavioral research provides concrete data on user actions but may need more insight into users' motivations.
Employing a balanced mix of attitudinal and behavioral research methods can offer a holistic view of the user experience, driving informed design decisions.
Generative and evaluative research are complementary approaches used at different stages of the product development process.
Generative research is often employed in the early stages of product development when teams need to identify new opportunities, understand user needs, or define problems. This type of research aims to generate ideas and insights for the design process. It's predominantly qualitative and uses methods like interviews, observations, contextual inquiry, and diary studies.
Generative research is excellent for uncovering user needs, understanding their context, and identifying new opportunities. It can lead to innovative solutions and ensure that a product is user-centered from the beginning. However, the insights generated are typically broad and require synthesis and interpretation, which can be time-consuming and challenging.
Evaluative research, on the other hand, is used later in the product development process. It aims to evaluate a product or service and find potential improvements or usability issues. Common methods include usability testing, heuristic evaluations, A/B testing, and surveys.
This type of research can be either qualitative or quantitative. Evaluative research can help pinpoint usability issues and inform iterative improvements to a product. It gives designers specific, actionable feedback that can be used to refine and optimize a product.
However, its scope is often limited to existing features or designs. It can show where a product fails but doesn't always help identify what could be done.
Generative research is ideal for understanding users' needs and defining the direction of a project, while evaluative research is best suited to refine and perfect a design.
The best research strategy employs both types: generative research to ensure that a product is user-centered from its inception, and evaluative research to iteratively refine and optimize the product.
UX research can also be categorized into moderated and unmoderated studies, each with its advantages and specific use cases.
In moderated research, the UX researcher is present during the study, interacting with the participants in real time. This interaction can happen in person or remotely via video or phone call. Standard methods include in-depth interviews, focus groups, and moderated usability tests.
The advantage of moderated research is that it allows for immediate clarification of tasks or questions and enables the researcher to probe deeper into participants' thoughts or behaviors. It’s beneficial when conducting complex studies requiring guidance or when a study's objectives require understanding participants' thought processes.
However, moderated research can be time-consuming and more expensive due to the need for scheduling, coordinating with participants, and extended analysis time.
On the other hand, unmoderated research is where participants complete the study independently, without real-time interaction with the researcher. Unmoderated studies often utilize online platforms where participants can complete tasks at their own pace. Examples include online surveys, card sorting, tree testing, and unmoderated usability tests.
Unmoderated research is typically faster, more scalable, and less expensive than moderated research. It allows for a larger sample size and can lead to more natural behavior since participants aren’t influenced by the presence of a researcher.
However, the lack of researcher presence means there isn’t the opportunity for immediate clarification or to probe deeper into participant thoughts or actions. If a participant misunderstands a task, the resulting data could be compromised.
The choice between moderated and unmoderated research depends on the research objectives, available resources, and the tasks' complexity. An effective research plan often involves a combination of both moderated and unmoderated methods to balance the depth of insights with scalability and cost efficiency.
The choice between remote and in-person UX research is another key decision researchers make. Each approach has its strengths and limitations.
Remote research is conducted when participants and researchers aren’t in the same physical location. It can be either synchronous, with participants and researchers interacting in real-time (like remote interviews or moderated usability tests), or asynchronous, where participants complete tasks at their convenience (like online surveys or unmoderated usability tests).
Remote research is cost-effective and efficient, removing travel time and expenses. It allows for a broader geographic range and diversity of participants and may result in more natural user behavior since participants are in their own environment.
However, it can be challenging to build rapport with participants, and technical issues may arise. In addition, non-verbal cues can be harder to interpret, particularly in asynchronous studies.
In-person research requires the researcher and participants to be in the same location. This could include face-to-face interviews, focus groups, or lab-based usability tests.
In-person research may allow for deeper engagement and a more nuanced understanding of user behavior, as researchers can observe non-verbal cues and the context in which interaction occurs. It can also be more flexible, as researchers can adapt the session as it progresses.
However, in-person research can be more time-consuming, costly, and geographically limiting.
Remote research is a versatile, cost-effective way to gain insights from a wide range of participants, though without the right tools, it may lack some depth of understanding and face potential technical challenges.
(This underscores the value of using an all-in-one UX research platform like Great Question.)
In contrast, in-person research offers richer, more contextual insights but can be costlier and less flexible geographically. An optimal research strategy may involve a mix of both, depending on the project needs, participant availability, and budget.
UX research encompasses a variety of methods, each of which provides unique insights and fits different stages of the product development lifecycle. Like the various type of research discussed above, the methods we'll discuss below are often at their most powerful when they are used together with a mixed methods approach.
User interviews are a fundamental method in UX research, offering direct communication with users to gain insights into their needs, motivations, and experiences. A user interview is a one-on-one conversation between a researcher and a user during which the researcher asks questions about the user's experiences, behavior, attitudes, and perceptions about a product, service, or a particular topic.
User interviews typically fall under qualitative, attitudinal, and generative research. They’re often conducted in both moderated and unmoderated settings, in-person or remotely. User interviews can be structured, semi-structured, or unstructured.
Structured interviews follow a predetermined set of questions, ensuring all participants are asked the same questions in the same order. Unstructured interviews are more like a guided conversation, allowing the conversation to flow naturally. Semi-structured interviews strike a balance, having a loose structure with the flexibility to probe deeper or explore new paths based on the participant's responses.
Best practices for user interviews include:
User interviews are beneficial in the early stages of product development to understand users' needs, expectations, and pain points. They’re also helpful when you need to explore a topic deeply or when you need qualitative data to complement quantitative findings.
However, they may not be suitable when you need statistical data, have a large sample size, or have limited time and resources. Despite these constraints, user interviews remain invaluable in any UX researcher's toolkit due to their versatility and depth of insight.
Ready to run your own user interviews? Get started for free with Great Question.
Focus groups are a powerful UX research method that enables the collection of insights from multiple users simultaneously. A focus group is a moderated discussion typically involving 5-10 participants. Participants are encouraged to interact with each other and discuss their experiences, perceptions, ideas, and opinions about a product, service, or topic.
This method generally fits into qualitative, attitudinal, and generative research conducted in a moderated, in-person setting. However, remote focus groups have also become common.
Focus groups can provide a broad range of ideas and opinions in a short amount of time. They offer the added advantage of group dynamics, where participants can build upon each other's ideas and comments, potentially leading to new insights.
That said, focus groups can also be challenging to moderate and require careful recruitment to ensure productive group dynamics. Plus, findings may not be generalizable due to the small sample size.
Best practices for focus groups include:
Focus groups are particularly valuable in the early stages of product development when you need diverse opinions and ideas or to explore user attitudes and reactions. They can be beneficial to generate new ideas or concepts and understand user preferences.
However, focus groups aren’t recommended when dealing with sensitive topics, needing in-depth individual perspectives, or requiring statistical validity. Despite these limitations, focus groups remain a helpful method in UX research for their ability to spark dynamic discussions and capture a variety of user viewpoints.
Surveys are a staple in UX research, offering a method to collect data from many users quickly and relatively inexpensively. A survey is a method of gathering information from a sample of people. It typically involves using a predetermined set of questions, which can be open-ended (qualitative) or closed-ended (quantitative).
Surveys can fit into various types of research, depending on how they are designed. They are commonly used in quantitative, attitudinal, and evaluative research and can be conducted remotely in an unmoderated manner.
Surveys allow for data collection from a large sample size and can provide statistically significant results. They’re beneficial for gathering demographic information, gauging user satisfaction, or understanding user preferences.
However, surveys are self-reported and rely on users' memory and honesty. They also don't allow for probing deeper into users' responses or adapting the line of inquiry based on user responses.
Best practices for surveys include:
Surveys are helpful for those who gather data from many people, need statistically significant results, or want to understand user preferences or satisfaction levels. They’re less suitable when you need in-depth understanding, want to explore unexpected paths of inquiry or require immediate clarification or follow-up.
Despite these limitations, surveys are critical in the UX researcher's toolkit, providing scalable and quick data collection from a broad user base.
Need help getting started? Browse 24 free survey templates here.
Diary studies capture longitudinal insights into user behavior, emotions, and experiences. In a diary study, participants are asked to record their activities, thoughts, and experiences related to a specific topic over a certain period. The records, or 'diaries’, can include text entries, photos, screenshots, or even voice recordings.
This method typically falls into qualitative, behavioral, and generative research and is remotely unmoderated.
Diary studies provide insights into user behavior in their natural context over time. They allow for an understanding of complex processes or experiences that can’t be observed in a single session and can provide rich, detailed data about user habits and routines.
However, diary studies can be demanding for participants, leading to potential drop-offs or reduced engagement over time. They’re also time-consuming to analyze due to the volume and depth of data generated.
Best practices for diary studies include:
Diary studies are helpful when you need to understand behavior over time, capture experiences in a natural context, or understand complex or infrequent processes. They’re less suitable when you require quick insights, have a large sample size, or when the behavior of interest is frequent or mundane.
Field studies represent a holistic approach to UX research, offering in-depth insights into user behavior in their natural environment. A field study is a research method where the researcher observes users in their natural settings, conducting activities related to the product or service being studied. This method aligns with qualitative, behavioral, and generative research and is typically performed moderated, in-person.
Field studies provide a rich, contextual understanding of user behavior. By witnessing the environmental, social, and technical context in which interactions occur, researchers can uncover insights that might be missed in a lab setting.
However, coordinating field studies can be time-consuming, expensive, and complex. They may also be influenced by the Hawthorne effect, where people alter their behavior because they know they're being observed.
Best practices for field studies include:
Field studies are beneficial when you require a deep understanding of user behavior in context, want to uncover unmet needs, or study complex interactions. They’re less suitable when you require statistical validity, have limited time or budget, or when the behavior of interest can be easily studied in a controlled environment.
Despite these constraints, field studies are a crucial method in UX research due to their ability to capture a comprehensive picture of user interactions in real-world contexts.
Card sorting is a participatory UX research method used to inform or evaluate system information architecture, menu structure, or workflow. In a card sort, participants are given a set of labeled cards and asked to organize them into categories that make sense to them.
This method can be open (participants create their own categories), closed (participants sort cards into predefined categories), or hybrid (a mix of the two). Card sorting fits into qualitative, attitudinal, and evaluative research. It can be conducted remotely or in person, in moderated or unmoderated settings.
Card sorting helps to understand users' mental models, revealing how they perceive relationships between content or tasks. It can provide valuable insights for designing intuitive navigation and categorization, contributing to a better user experience.
However, card sorting might not provide insights into why participants grouped items in a certain way and may not accurately represent real-world behavior.
Best practices for card sorting include:
Card sorting is beneficial when you need to design or test the organization of content or tasks, want to understand users' mental models, or require feedback on a proposed structure. It's less suitable when you need to understand behavior in context, explore emotional responses, or gather detailed qualitative feedback.
Coming soon: Free card sorting template
Tree testing, also known as reverse card sorting, evaluates the findability and organization of topics in a website or app. In a tree test, participants are given a task and then asked to navigate a simplified version of a site or app structure (the 'tree') presented as a text-only hierarchy. The purpose is to assess if they can successfully locate the item or complete the task.
Tree testing fits into quantitative, behavioral, and evaluative research and can be conducted remotely in an unmoderated setting.
Tree testing allows you to assess the intuitiveness and efficiency of your information architecture without visual design elements influencing the user's navigation. It provides clear data on where users struggle to find information, helping improve navigation and overall usability.
However, tree testing only tests the structure, not the entirety of the user experience. It lacks the context of the whole design and should be complemented with other testing methods.
Best practices for tree testing include:
Tree testing is practical when you need to validate your site or app structure, understand how users navigate or want to identify areas of confusion or misinterpretation. It's less suitable when you want to test other elements of the user experience, like visual design or interactions, or when you want to understand user attitudes or motivations.
Despite these limitations, tree testing remains an effective UX research method for assessing the navigational effectiveness of your digital products.
Coming soon: Free tree testing template
Usability testing is a core UX research method used to evaluate a product or service by testing it with representative users. During a usability test, participants are asked to perform tasks while researchers observe, listen and take notes. The aim is to identify usability problems, collect qualitative and quantitative data, and understand the participants' satisfaction with the product.
Usability testing provides direct information about how people use a product and what problems they encounter, which aids in making design improvements.
However, it can be resource-intensive, requiring careful planning and participant recruitment, and does not provide information about users' attitudes or motivations.
Best practices for usability testing include:
Usability testing is useful when you need to evaluate a product's efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction, identify usability issues, or compare different designs. It's less suitable when you want to understand user needs and requirements, explore new ideas, or when the product is at a very early stage of development.
Prototype testing is a vital UX research method that assesses the viability and usability of a design concept before investing time and resources in development. A prototype is an early sample or model built to test an idea or process. During prototype testing, a version of the product (ranging from low-fidelity sketches to high-fidelity interactive models) is presented to users, who are then observed while interacting with it.
Prototype testing usually fits into qualitative and quantitative, behavioral, and evaluative research categories. It can be conducted both in-person and remotely in a moderated or unmoderated manner.
Prototype testing provides early feedback on a design concept, helping identify potential usability issues and user confusion before development. It helps save resources and reduces the risk of costly redesigns after launch.
However, the feedback quality can be affected by the reliability of the prototype, with lower-fidelity prototypes sometimes needing clarification or interpretation.
Best practices for prototype testing include:
Prototype testing is practical when you want to validate design concepts, identify usability issues early, or when you want to test multiple design options. It’s less suitable when you want to test fine details of interaction or performance or when the design is already well-established and hard to change.
Coming soon: Free prototype testing template
A/B testing, also known as split testing, is a UX research method used to compare two versions of a design to determine which performs better. During an A/B test, users are randomly presented with version A or version B of a plan, and their interactions are measured.
The goal is to identify which version leads to better user outcomes based on metrics like conversion rates, time spent on a page, or click-through rates. A/B testing fits into quantitative, behavioral, and evaluative research and is typically conducted remotely and unmoderated.
A/B testing provides precise, data-driven results, helping to eliminate guesswork in decision-making. It can lead to significant improvements in user engagement and business metrics.
However, A/B testing only compares existing options and doesn’t generate new design ideas. It requires a large sample size to be statistically valid, and changes should be isolated to ensure results are attributable to the modifications made.
Best practices for A/B testing include:
A/B testing is beneficial when you need to optimize an existing design, validate specific design decisions, or decide between two alternatives. It's less suitable when you want to explore new design ideas, need to understand user needs and motivations, or when the user base is small.
Selecting a suitable UX research method is crucial for effective design decisions and successful outcomes. The choice depends on multiple factors and involves careful consideration.
Are you trying to understand user needs and motivations? Or are you evaluating a design solution?
If you're looking to uncover emotions, attitudes, and reasons for behavior, qualitative methods like interviews or field studies might be most useful. On the other hand, if you're trying to evaluate usability, prototype testing or A/B testing might be more appropriate.
Early stages call for generative methods to understand user needs and identify opportunities for innovation, such as user interviews, field studies, or diary studies.
As you move towards design and development, evaluative methods become more important to test and refine solutions, like usability testing, prototype testing, or A/B testing.
Budget, time, and access to participants can significantly impact your choice of method. Surveys and remote unmoderated methods can provide broad, quick insights with less resource investment.
In contrast, field studies and in-person moderated methods can provide richer, deeper insights but require more planning and resources.
Quantitative methods like surveys or A/B testing can provide statistical evidence about what is happening, while qualitative methods like interviews or focus groups can provide insights into why it's happening.
Using multiple methods allows you to capitalize on the strengths of each and provide a more holistic view of the user experience. For example, you could complement quantitative data from a survey with qualitative insights from user interviews.
Choosing a suitable UX research method is a balancing act of addressing your research goals, fitting into the product development stage, respecting constraints, and providing the needed data. By considering these factors, you can select the most effective method for your UX research project.
Jack is the Content Marketing Lead at Great Question, the end-to-end UX research platform for customer-centric teams. Previously, he led content marketing and strategy as the first hire at two insurtech startups, Breeze and LeverageRx. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.