User Research

User research focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies. This field of research aims at improving the usability of products by incorporating experimental and observational research methods to guide the design, development, and refinement of a product. User researchers often work alongside designers, engineers, and programmers in all stages of product creation and idealization.

User research is an iterative, cyclical process in which observation identifies a problem space for which solutions are proposed. From these proposals, design solutions are prototyped and then tested with the target user group. This process is repeated as many times as necessary.

Mike Kuniavsky further notes that it is “the process of understanding the impact of design on an audience.” The types of user research you can or should perform will depend on the type of site, system or app you are developing, your timeline, and your environment.

User research is interrelated with the field of design. In many cases, someone working in the field can take on both roles of researcher and designer. Alternatively, these roles my also be separated and teams of designers and researchers must collaborate through their projects.

A wide range of research methods are available in the field of user research. To better understand when to use which method, it is helpful to view them along a 3-dimensional framework with the following axes:

Attitudinal vs. Behavioral
Qualitative vs. Quantitative

Context of use

With respect to user research in the field of design, research is typically approached with an empathetic perspective in order to humanize data collected about people. This method can also be referred to a human-centred approach to problem solving. User researcher aims to uncover the barriers or frustrations users face as they interact with products, services, or systems. A unique facet of user research is the brand of user experience (UX) research which focuses on the feelings, thoughts, and situations users go through as they interact with products, services, and systems. Professionals that work to understand these obstacles are referred to as UX researchers.

Qualitative Methods

Ethnographic studies
Guerrilla testing
Expert review
Focus groups
Card sorting
Contextual design
Parallel design
Task analysis
Content analysis

Quantitative Methods

First click testing
Eye tracking
Web analytics
A/B testing

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