The UX Researcher: Methodologies, Process, and Tools

The UX Researcher: Methodologies, Process, and Tools

What is a UX Researcher? Research is an integral part of the UX stack, but it often leaves beginners and hopefuls mystified. In an effort to demystify the role, I will provide a brief overview of the methodologies, processes, and tools of the UX Researcher.

Luckily for you, I know my limitations. Since my specialization is in UX design and UI development, my research knowledge is reactionary and observational, rooted in analyzing trends and identifying pain points. For this post, I collaborated with an expert UX researcher to make sure I am covering all the usability testing bases.

Methodologies of the UX Researcher

Brigitte A. McKay is a Michigan State University Ph.D. candidate studying consumer engagement. She’s also had professional experience in a UX researcher role with a specialization in consumer behavior. Her guidance really led me in writing this section. Furthermore, she added some great tools into my process toolboxes.

Keep in mind, these are simplified overviews of commonly-used UX research methodologies. The best researchers always do their own research, so look into some of these for yourself!

Card Sort

In a card sort, your participants organize and group information in a way that makes the most sense to them. You can do a physical card sort using index cards or post-its or a digital one using applications like xSort (Mac) or UXSort (Windows). Additionally, the sort can be administered individually or in a group setting. In an open card sort, participants are free to name their topic groupings. In a closed card sort, they are given pre-defined categories, in which to group topics. As a result, you can logically find out the best way to lay out web pages, organize categories, and plan out your navigation architecture.

For more information, Usability.gov has a great article detailing card sorting procedures, best practices, and tips.

Card Sort Methodology - Animated GIF by Samantha Soper

Desirability Study

The desirability study was birthed from a brainstorm session between usability practitioners at Microsoft. This is a quick and qualitative method, administered in-person or digitally, to gauge a user’s reaction to a product. The faces questionnaire and product reaction cards are two tools employed in this method. The faces questionnaire shows 6 subtly positive, negative, and neutral expressions with a Likert scale, upon which the user rates their emotional relatability. Product reaction cards are a set of 118 reaction words, like accessible, time-consuming, predictable, or fun, from which the user selects to describe a product or their feelings. Afterward, the user picks their top 5 cards and explains their choices. As a result of both tests, you’ve quickly obtained candid and accurate feedback about how a user might react to your product’s experience.

For more information, I suggest downloading the research paper (.doc) from Microsoft’s website. At only 5 pages, it’s a pretty quick read and you can get a decent understanding of the tests performed.

Desirability Study Methodology - Animated GIF by Samantha Soper

Design Studio

Probably anyone who’s had experience working for an agency or in-house creative team is familiar with this method. The design studio is a truly collaborative and iterative approach to UX research. This method has a 5 step process of illuminate, sketch, present, critique, and iterate. First, illumination gets everyone on the same page regarding the scope of a project and available opportunities. Then, the sketch phase has the team quickly getting their good (and bad) ideas out of their head and onto paper. Next, presentation involves participants sharing and selling their ideas, negotiating, and accepting changes. The critique enables constructive feedback and improvements through evaluation of the who, how, what, and why of the design. Finally, iteration involves skimming the top ideas and running them back through the sketch, presentation, and critique processes. In conclusion, you’ll end up with a solid concept which the entire team can feel invested in.

To learn more, check out User Interface Engineering’s Introduction to Design Studio Methodology.

Design Studio Methodology - Animated GIF by Samantha Soper

Usability Study

Usability studies are incredibly practical when it comes to evaluating user interaction. In this test, participants are given a series of tasks to perform on a site or application. Additionally, the researcher observes and takes notes on usability issues and user satisfaction. Learning if tasks can be performed, how long they take, and how they can be improved are just a few benefits of usability testing. The studies can be done in-person or online, as you’ll see in the Observation tools below. Once completed, you’ll have both quantitative and qualitative data about the usability and experience of your site.

If this piques your interest, take a look at Usability.gov’s overview of usability testing for more in-depth information. The links to important testing topics in this article are especially relevant.

Usability Study Methodology - Animated GIF by Samantha Soper

Survey

We’re all familiar with surveys. Put simply, it’s a series of questions aimed at getting user feedback. Seems easy enough, right? Wrong. If you haven’t taken statistics, I’m going to warn you that writing and administering a good survey is deceptively difficult. While I won’t go into them here, you need to watch out for multiple sampling biases and errors that can throw off your results. Regardless, surveys are also one of the best ways to quickly collect large amounts of data about your users. Setting a clear objective, deciding on a tactical or strategic approach, and omitting what is already known are just a few steps in planning a great survey.

If you’d like to try it out for yourself, the InVision Blog has a detailed post on quickly creating powerful surveys. Using their Lean Survey Canvas, you can generate your most effective survey and raise your response rate.

Survey Methodology

The UX Researcher’s Process

Anticipation

First, research the market conditions and user behaviors.

First of all, you need to plan. The best UX researcher may seem clairvoyant when they are actually just perceptive with an arsenal of resources. They benefit from existing studies, trend data, and an eye for inspiration. Additionally, the card sort, desirability study, design studio and survey methodologies, listed above, can be used to anticipate the user’s experience.

A toolbox to help anticipate user behaviors

  • SWOT Analysis — This classic marketing tool helps define market conditions and project scope. You gain a better understanding and focus, through evaluation of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
  • Google Trends — Find out what are users searching for and what topics are trending. This comes in handy for content strategy, SEO, and anticipating user desires.
  • Media Kits — If you’re working on an integrated marketing campaign, learn how to read media kits. Most media kits contain demographic information about the traffic that will be directed to your experience. To find a media kit, just Google the publisher, blog, or interactive ad space vendors’ name followed by “media kit.”  For some examples, check out the media kits for BuzzFeed, TIME, Advertising Age, and Food Network.
  • UX/Design Best Practices — Due to the dynamic nature of the web, you should stay fresh on best practices. Google “UX best practices” and “[e-commerce, app, blog, etc.] design best practices” with the year when you start planning a new experience. In addition, yearly best practice infographics are all over Pinterest.
  • Competitive Analysis — Good thing you outlined your competitors (threats) in your SWOT analysis. Before you start, it’s always best to compare and evaluate what competitors are doing. From layouts to new features to differentiation, you can learn a lot from your competition’s experience.
  • Inspiration — Let the best of the best inspire your UX. Sites like Awwwards, Muzli, Creative Bloq, Webdesign Inspiration, and Collect UI are just a few of the plethora of inspiration sources on the web. You can also find inspiration browsing Reddit, Medium, Pinterest, and Tumblr.
  • White Papers — Bigger companies with bigger budgets are always doing big research. Primarily, white papers are published to help companies collect emails and sell their product. Consequently, you can also use this free research to support your UX strategy.

Reaction

Next, watch for red flags to make adjustments for the user.

Sometimes, even after all of your planning, your user can’t get to a page or isn’t using it as expected. Thankfully, there are a ton of tools out there that make reacting to your user quick and easy. You just need to know how to use them and what to look out for.

React to your user with these tools

  • Google Analytics — When you are reacting to traffic issues, you need to pay attention to bounce rates, exit rates, 404 pages, and referral errors. You can find issues with site speed, device rendering, cross-browser compatibility, dead links, and international laws. While it’s geared for e-comm, ConversionXL has a list of 10 reports that can help any site recognize and combat bugs and UX issues.
  • Google Search Console — Crawl errors can cause major search issues and potentially drive users away from your site. You can quickly find out anything from traffic-based server issues to users navigating to a page that should’ve been redirected. Google’s article on the different types of crawl errors is especially relevant.
  • SEOMoz — This suite of free and premium SEO tools monitors the value of your pages. The MozBar Chrome Extension delivers on-page metrics and SEO evaluation. With this tool, you can fix search result red flags and verify markup, like OpenGraph or Twitter Cards, for a more cohesive omnichannel experience. Open Site Explorer shows you inbound links, anchor text (keywords), and top pages for any URL. Because you find out which pages are getting the most traction from which sites, you can understand your user better and personalize those experiences.
  • Heat Maps — Discover how people are using your site. Heat maps tell you where they are clicking, how they are scrolling, and where their cursor moves. Is a button getting fewer clicks than expected? Heat Map apps, like HotJar and Gemius HeatMap, tell you where the user is distracted.

Observation

Finally, observe interactions to learn more about the user.

After you’ve reacted to your issues, it’s time to observe user interactions and try something new. Observation is the nitty-gritty of the UX researcher role. Watching users and running experiments teaches you so much. In addition, the last two UX research methodologies, usability studies and surveys, are a huge part of this stage.

Tools to observe your user’s behavior

  • Google Analytics — During the observation stage, this tool helps you answer a couple of age-old questions: “Where did they come from?” and “Where did they go?” Focus on traffic acquisition, user behavior, user flow, and exit pages and learn more about your user. Additionally, user demographics, interests, and cohorts are a few more incredibly useful metrics.
  • A/B Testing — One of the most conclusive UX experiment tools compares two variations of a user experience on your live audience. Try out different colors, designs, layouts, and much more. Since you’ll know exactly what has the best click-through, engagement, or conversion, data will drive your UX decisions. Optimizely, a leading A/B testing SaaS, has a wealth of e-books, white papers, and webinars to help you learn the best ways to plan and execute your A/B test.
  • Usability Testing — As discussed in the methodologies section, usability testing will give you qualitative and quantitative data about your user experience. Using remote applications, like User Testing and Loop11, is the easiest solution, because you don’t have to source a test audience. If you’re into DIY, screen capture applications like TechSmith’s Morae SuiteSnagIt and WebEx Recorder, can record on-screen interactions for in-house usability testing.

In conclusion, I hope I have given you a little insight into the world of the UX Researcher. Since this discipline is great for anyone with an exploratory mind, tell me what other tools you’ve discovered. Questions and comments are also welcome, same as always!

If you’re interested in more UX, maybe you’d like to check out my post on how to become a UX designer. I share some tips and insights from my experience in the field.


Samantha Soper

Creative and interactive force of nature. Innovative, hardworking, and adaptive. Currently manages web presence for Golf Town, serving Canada in English and French. Loves learning, creating, and producing positive results.

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