User Research Methods: 13 Expert Tips to Master the Process

user research methods

Understanding your client’s customers is crucial for running a successful business. User research, therefore, should be an essential part of the design process, but it needs to be planned carefully. Not only are there are a ton of different user research methods to choose from, but recruiting participants for user interviews and learning how to ask the right questions to get to the information you need isn’t quite as straightforward as it might seem.

That doesn’t mean it has to be expensive. In fact, user research can be done on a shoestring budget, and a lot of the best techniques are simple to implement. 

For this article, we invited leading experts to suggest their favorite practical tips and tools to help you get the most out of UX research. Keep their advice at the back of your mind, select the user research methods that are best suited to your next project, and you’ll be able to gather valuable information about your audience. You can then use this information to validate product ideas and improve on existing sites or apps.

Let’s dive in!

1. Understand that user research methods are not just limited to usability testing

Usability tests are great for finding problems with digital products, and giving you insights into how to fix those problems. Freelance user experience consultant Jesmond Allen recommends also conducting generative user research, as it helps you avoid those problems in the first place.

“Generative—or ‘discovery’—user research happens before you embark on design work,” she explains. “It’s brilliant for ensuring you make decisions based on facts rather than assumptions. It’s about really understanding your users’ needs and thought processes before you start designing for them. [This is] vital if you’re trying to innovate or provide a world-class ecommerce offering.”

There are lots of generative user research methods to choose from, depending on what you’re designing. Example techniques range from card sorting to help you understand how to structure a website, to diary studies to paint a vivid picture of how your product might intersect with your users’ lives over time.

Task models: Ground digital design in user needs

Jesmond’s favorite technique to inform ecommerce design is task modelling. A task model ensures you really understand what your customers are trying to do. 

“That might sound simple,” she acknowledges. “You know they want to buy one of your widgets, of course. But how, exactly, do your customers narrow down their options from your wide range of excellent widgets? If you run research to discover this, you can prioritize your designs, showcasing the different widget features in your users’ journeys at the point at which they are most helpful.”

Carry out generative research, Jesmond advises, and you’ll spend more time making design decisions that genuinely help your users choose the right widget for them, and less time fixing problems after you’ve got things wrong.

user research methods: task model diagram
The steps you would go through to create a task model diagram.

2. Know what you need to know first

Before you make an observation based on your research results, you need to understand that what you want to know about your customers and what you can ask them directly are two totally different things. According to Erika Hall, co-founder and director of strategy at Mule Design and author of Just Enough Research, this is a huge source of confusion in research, which leads to bad business decisions and a loss of faith in the research process. 

“Your research question is what you want to know overall, sometimes called a research objective,” Erika explains. “A good research question is specific, actionable, and practical. This means that it’s within your means to answer the question well enough to base decisions on what you’ve learned.”

"A good research question is specific, actionable, and practical. This means that it’s within your means to answer the question well enough to base decisions on what you’ve learned."

Your interview questions should help indirectly answer your research questions and to collect user feedback. So, for example:

  • Research question: Why do our customers shop online?
  • Interview question: Tell me about the last thing you bought online.

Furthermore, your research question will help you identify how to approach the entire research process. Erika recommends identifying your questions before you select the best research method to use. 

“If you want to know how many of your customers have children living at home, a survey might be good. But if you want to know the top three barriers to purchasing your products, interviews are a better choice,” she suggests. 

Some research questions are completely unanswerable if you pose them directly, especially if they are about health, money, or motivation. 

“You won’t get a good answer if you ask someone directly why they do things,” Erika cautions. “To get at the why, just ask about the chain of events. ‘Walk me through your day yesterday’ is often a good starting point.”

You might also like: Research 101: How to Conduct Market Research for Your App.

3. Start with your support team

Every product or business decision should be informed by research, but not every decision warrants a full-blown research project. You might not realize it, but helpful information might already be within your reach.

“If your team makes a product, you have users, leads, or prospects,” points out user and product research leader Gregg Bernstein. “Let’s assume they have questions, complaints, and suggestions. And assume these questions, complaints, and suggestions are going somewhere—perhaps an inbox. A help desk. A social channel. A support team. And a support team is, without fail, the best place to start any research project. Cultivate a relationship with support, and you’ll have easy access to the voice of the customer.”

"Cultivate a relationship with support, and you’ll have easy access to the voice of the customer.”

Going further, Gregg recommends talking to your sales team, which can probably tell you the product questions they receive the most. Your marketing team, meanwhile, probably has Net Promoter Scores and market segmentation data. 

“All of this is readily accessible data that’s waiting to be put to good use,” Gregg suggests. “Instead of making decisions in the absence of information, develop internal partnerships and form data sharing relationships that give you ready access to helpful information.”

4. Get participant recruiting right

A rookie mistake in research is not to take participant recruiting seriously,market and UX research consultant Lauren Isaacson has found. 

user research methods: open computer with infographics

“Getting the wrong people in the room for your study will punch your research in the face and leave it for dead,” she warns.

"Getting the wrong people in the room for your study will punch your research in the face and leave it for dead."

Here are a few tips she recommends for making sure a bad participant recruit doesn't ruin your research:

  • Have explicit criteria of whom you want to recruit, and make a list of their ideal characteristics. For example: age, gender, education level, job type, family status, things they buy, services they use, customer or non-customer, etc.
  • Craft your questions to the participant list, but be tricky about it. You want to make sure that the questions will cover the traits you want the participant to possess without tipping them off as to what you want. For example, are you looking for people who buy bananas? Ask the question in this way: In the last month, which of these grocery items have you purchased:
      • Apples
      • Bananas (must select to qualify)
      • Celery
      • Potatoes
      • Kale
If they choose all of the answer options, then it would be wise to dismiss them from the study to avoid the chance that they might be trying to outsmart the system to get the incentive.
    • Do you expect these participants to be vocal and express themselves well? Have a question that requires them to write a few sentences. For example, ‘Name a person, alive or dead, you would like to have dinner with and explain why’.

    5. Use your imagination when offering incentives 

    Andrew Rajaram, senior UX researcher at Shopify, agrees that user research recruitment can be quite stressful, and has found that incentives are an important part of the process. 

    “Once you’ve identified potential participants, incentives help when trying to convince them to take time out of their busy day to participate in a session,” he explains. 

    For most typical research initiatives, it’s often common practice to offer financial incentives, such as gift cards to popular retailers. 

    “These work well because they are easily transferred, and you can adjust the amount offered to suit your specific study. The only issue with this is that it can be very expensive to offer financial incentives, especially if you are looking for certain types of merchants who might be really busy trying to manage their businesses.”

    When working within the app space, Andrew has seen a few partners offering interesting incentives directly tied to their app as a way of saving money.

    “If it’s an app that offers a paid subscription plan [or pricing model], an incentive might be to offer three to six months for free,” he suggests. “Another option might be early access to upcoming features or participation in a beta program.”

    Try to consider what might be useful or of value to your target audience and experiment with different options to see which ones help with recruitment the most. 

    You might also like: 3 Strategies for Collecting User Feedback Onsite.

    6. Know how to recruit participants when you don’t have any customers

    When an organization sells a product to a customer, the transaction typically yields more than revenue. The organization also receives customer data—contact information, purchase history, and perhaps some demographic information. While this is helpful to all parts of an organization, the information is especially beneficial to teams focused on user research methods, providing a steady stream of potential research participants.

    As Gregg Bernstein points out, for organizations that don’t have traditional “customers” or don’t collect user data (for example, ad-supported media, non-profits, and brand new startups), the absence of this pipeline of potential participants makes research a logistical and creative challenge. 

    He suggests the following pathways for recruiting research participants when you don’t have direct access or budget:

    • Recruit site visitors by placing a signup form on your website
    • Use your social media accounts to post a call to action
    • Include a participant signup link in any outgoing newsletters or emails your org sends
    • Work with your support team, if you have one, to identify prospective research participants
    • If you have a forum (or know of other places where potential participants congregate, like Reddit or an industry association), post a call to action there if it’s within the community guidelines

    If you have a bit of research budget, your avenues to reach participants expand:

    • Hire a professional recruiter to find the specific people you want to hear from
    • Use a web-based service (for example, UserTesting, User Interviews, or dscout) to connect you to interview or usability testing participants
    • Pay for a panel of survey participants (SurveyMonkey)
    • Pay to promote your social media calls to action to your desired audience

    Shopify’s Andrew Rajaram agrees and advises that when you work on a project that requires really specific users that are not available through any of the more conventional channels, you need to get a bit more resourceful. 

    “Online communities can be a great source for remote research participants,” he suggests. “Don’t be afraid to post in online communities asking for participants. You can create a screener to ensure the users satisfy the criteria of the profile you have built, and be sure to emphasize the incentive you are offering. If there is a Reddit forum or Facebook group, it never hurts to create a post and see what types of responses you get back.”

    If you have the time and budget, then you might want to consider attending a few in-person events such as meetups or conferences that your target users might attend. “While you will likely not be able to actually execute on any research at the event, you should be able to build a list of contacts that you could potentially reach out to after the event,” Rajaram explains. “And because you’ve met them in person and built a connection, they will be less likely to ignore your request outright when they see it.”

    user research methods: dscout user interface for mobile
    Dscout enables fast and easy recruiting for remote qualitative research. 

    7. Learn what people are willing to pay

    The number displayed next to a product’s “Buy” button represents more than just the amount of money changing hands. Erika Hall says it’s a signal to your client’s customers about quality, intended use, and intended audience. 

    “This is why one brand of dental floss is $9.00 on a luxury wellness website and another is $1.79 at a chain drugstore,” she explains. “The price, along with the packaging and description, indicates one is meant to sit unused on display in the homes of influencers, and the other unused in a common drawer. We are all irrational, emotional buyers who want to think of ourselves as logical decision makers. Identifying and understanding your client’s target customers, their mindsets, and their habits is critical to successful pricing. Perceived value depends on context.” 

    "We are all irrational, emotional buyers who want to think of ourselves as logical decision makers. Identifying and understanding your client’s target customers, their mindsets, and their habits is critical to successful pricing."

    As a good way to find out what your client’s target customers may be willing to pay in the future, Erika recommends interviewing them about how they’ve actually spent money in the recent past. 

    “No one can predict their own behavior,” she cautions. “So, never ask ‘How much are you willing to pay for floss?’ unless you want to hear some dental hygiene fanfiction. You’ll get better results starting with a broad prompt like ‘Walk me through how shopping happens for the things you use around your house’. This will tell you what triggers purchase behaviors and how decisions are made in general.”

    While it’s easy to narrow the subsequent questions and answers to specific items or categories, Erika advises against starting narrow as you’ll miss what you didn’t think to ask about. 

    “Once you learn what prices your customers are exposed to on a regular basis, and what your customers value, you’ll have a better sense of how to fit what you offer into their world.” 

    8. Show stimuli to users 

    When it comes to showing prototypes to test participants, user research consultant Steve Portigal finds a lot of teams default to taking artifacts that have come out of the current design process. But, by only user testing their design solutions, they are missing the opportunity to show new things in the field. 

    “I mean something that is not an example of what they’re planning to build,” he explains. “Maybe it’s something that can’t even be built. But instead, these new things are tangible, experiential, visible artifacts, that people can play with or react to as a way to provoke a deeper reflection on the underlying issues that you want to understand.”

    “You might paper-prototype a checkout flow that provides barely any information, as well as another that resembles the information overload of a CVS checkout receipt. Neither are good or likely implementations. The point is to elevate the research from ‘Here’s our best guess at a solution, do you like it? Why or why not?’, to, ‘Let’s talk about these examples. What does this reveal about the issues we are grappling with in our design efforts?’”

    9. Build rapport in interviews

    Steve Portigal defines “rapport” as the energy that crackles between the researcher and their participant. 

    “It’s why research participants thank the researcher after the interview when we might think it should be the other way around,” he points out. “It’s the researcher’s job, however, to build that rapport.”

    Assuming that you can connect with someone by telling them the ways that you are just like them would be naive, Steve warns. When someone reveals a preference or details an experience, blurting out ‘oh my god, I’m the same!’ would take focus away from the participant. 

    “The best practice is to hold off on that reaction,” Steve recommends, “and keep asking them questions about themselves. That focus on them is what builds rapport. The researcher can very occasionally and calmly reveal their own perspective or experience only to normalize something the participant is uncomfortable about, saying briefly, ‘Yes, I understand. That happened to me as well’.” 

    10. Don't lose the language

    Understanding the languages that your client’s customers use is an incredibly important part of designing great services. However, when we interview customers for user research, the most common way of capturing the discussion is to take a trusty notebook (or laptop) and make notes as we chat. According to independent design consultant Donna Spencer, however, this is the worst way to capture what customers have to say, particularly around the nuances of language they use.

    “When we make notes, we take shortcuts,” she cautions. “We write down key points, losing a lot of detail. We use our own lingo and jargon, and the actual words that people use get lost. But as researchers, we need to know what they call a product, and whether it’s the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ name. We need to know how they think about groups and categories, and what they call them.”

    So, the next time you are examining different user research methods and choose to conduct an interview, Donna suggests that you record the audio and make a detailed transcript. That way you won’t lose the richness and nuance of real language. A service like Rev can help you with transcription.

    You might also like: How to Learn More About Your Users with a Contextual Inquiry.

    11. Design inclusive surveys and questionnaires

    When designing surveys, market and UX research consultant Lauren Isaacson acknowledges, it's tempting to use all of the fancy features a platform makes available—such as sliders, drag and drops, and animations. After all, they can make the study more engaging and fun for the respondents. 

    However, Lauren suggests considering how someone who is blind or navigates the web with a keyboard would have difficulty using those features. 

    “You could be alienating six percent or more of your potential respondent pool by being fancy when you don't need to be,” she warns. “Simplicity is best when designing a survey. Try to stick to basic multiple-choice questions whenever possible. Use uncomplicated and jargon-free language to accommodate people with cognitive disabilities or [who] aren't fluent in your native language. And keep the question and answer options short to help retain the attention of people with any form of ADD.”

    "You could be alienating six percent or more of your potential respondent pool by being fancy when you don't need to be."

    For more on survey design, check out Lauren’s article, 11 ways to improve the UX of online surveys.

    user research methods: short multiple choice questions
    To make surveys more inclusive, Lauren Isaacson recommends short multiple-choice questions. 

    12. Write a use case

    A use case is a written description of how someone uses a particular feature of a website or app—outlining, from the point of view of the user, how a system responds to a request. It starts with the user’s goal, and concludes when the user has fulfilled that goal.

    Gary Carruthers, managing director of Shopify Plus Experts Underwaterpistol, points out that, in ecommerce site design and development, use cases help to explain how a system should behave. They also determine what could go wrong when someone is using your client’s site or app.

    “It’s straightforward enough to write a use case,” Gary advises. “In essence, all you have to do is identify a typical type of user for the site, define what they want to do on the site, and then describe what the user actually does on the site.”

    Once you have described the basic course of events for a particular action (or use case), Gary suggests considering alternative courses of events and adding these to ‘extend’ the use case, which will further assist you in teasing out potential usability issues and how they could be addressed.

    user research methods: participants in board meeting
    Discussing and planning use cases can help you explore what actually happens when someone uses your service.

    13. Carry out a heuristic analysis

    A heuristic analysis can help remove any elements from a site or app that hamper the ease and intuitiveness of the overall UX design

    To get started, Gary Carruthers suggests you ask yourself a few questions: 

    • Is a user able to navigate your client’s site or app and find what they want with minimal time, hassle, and effort? 
    • Does the site look clear and relevant to the user within five seconds of them seeing it?
    • Is there a clear call to action, and can the user buy a product or service from the site without encountering any barriers that needlessly slow them down, such as multiple unnecessary steps, or overly long forms? 
    • How are user errors processed and reported?

    This evaluation method will help determine if your site or app is simple, organized, functional, and consistent. If it’s not, you have a much better idea of what you need to fix. 

    "This evaluation method will help determine if your site or app is simple, organized, functional, and consistent. If it’s not, you have a much better idea of what you need to fix."

    Better user research = better products

    Good product design is all about understanding the user, and so it may come as no surprise that a lot of the techniques to improve user research that we covered here revolve around communication and language. 

    Don’t be afraid to tap into user data that already exists before inviting real users, dedicate some time to crafting your research questions (before you select from our list of user research methods), and prepare user interviews with care. Offer enticing incentives when you recruit test participants, and get a bit resourceful when searching for users of more niche products/markets.

    In the interview itself, keep your questions broad to start with, and be creative in what you’re presenting to test participants. Build rapport with them, and make sure you don’t lose the exact language they use. If you conduct remote usability testing, try and put yourself in the shoes of the person on the other end to make the experience as inclusive as possible. 

    Even if you only implement a couple of the above tips, the payback of the time invested in reading this article will be immense. User research exists to improve the experience, which will result in better products. Do it upfront—and throughout the project—and you’ll spend more time designing, and less time fighting fires. 

    What are your favorite user reasearch methods? Let us know below!

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