The Basic Idea
Imagine you’re designing a new project management tool for freelancers. You’ve been working on the application for months and you’re finally ready to release it to the world. As far as you can tell, everything is working as it should. You have no problem navigating the software or completing tasks, and you assume other users would have a similar experience.
However, after launching your software, you begin receiving complaints. Users find the interface overly complicated, they’re dissatisfied with the lack of customization options, and they wish the tool would integrate with other apps that are essential to their workflow. If you had done some user experience (UX) research, you could have identified and fixed these issues before launching your app.
UX research is the process of learning how end users interact with a product and how easily they can complete tasks. It involves checking if design solutions meet user needs based on real user behavior, rather than relying solely on assumptions.1
Importantly, UX research is a facet of the broader study of user research. While user research looks more broadly at needs and behaviors, UX research focuses on the user’s experience when interacting with a specific product or service. For example, user research might explore what customers think about a brand’s customer service strategy while UX research would focus on how smoothly customers can navigate the customer service page.
Designers turn to UX research to improve many types of products, from websites and mobile apps to banking solutions and government services. The value of UX research lies in the fresh perspective it brings to product design. Because it can be difficult for designers to experience their products through the eyes of their users, they often miss potential problems or frustrations. UX research reveals these valuable insights.
This form of research will highlight issues that might cause users to miss out on potential benefits, like a valuable app feature hidden so deep in the menu that users never find it. At the same time, UX research can pinpoint problems that frustrate users, like slow-loading web pages, complex navigation menus, or inadequate search functionality. Remember, users will only struggle with a product for so long before giving up and trying their luck with a competitor.
In a nutshell, UX research leads to user-centered design, which ensures products are designed to work for humans and meet our specific needs.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
User Personas: Fictional representations of your users, encompassing their characteristics, motivations, and needs. Teams develop user personas through UX research to create targeted solutions for specific audiences.2 For instance, in the context of a mobile fitness app, one user persona might be “Active Alex”, representing competitive fitness enthusiasts seeking advanced training programs and challenging workouts.
Qualitative Research: A form of research that generates data by asking users about their experiences through open-ended questions, typically via interviews, focus groups, surveys, and direct behavioral observations. This produces qualitative data, which shows what customers think about certain design features. For example, you might discover that customers find a certain feature attractive but difficult to use.3
Quantitative Research: Similar to qualitative research, but measures user behavior and feelings from an analytical standpoint, collecting data that can be analyzed mathematically. For example, quantitative data may show that only 30% of users were able to complete the desired task. Quantitative methods are typically used to compare different versions of a design, such as with A/B testing.
Exploratory Research: Also called generative research, this type of research aims to uncover problems that need solving. This is typically done using qualitative research, often by watching users interact with a product and interviewing them about their experience.
Explanatory Research: Following exploratory research, explanatory research is used to better understand a known problem. The goal is to identify the best way to solve a problem for users. To help generate potential solutions, design teams often call on experts such as psychologists, content strategists, marketers, and accessibility experts.
Evaluative Research: When a solution has been implemented, evaluative research is used to test the solution and ensure it adequately solves the targeted problem. This is commonly done through usability testing.
Usability Testing: A form of quantitative research in which users try to complete a task while being observed. The goal is to find out how satisfied users are with the process and whether they run into any problems.4
Card Sorting: A research method used to help designers decide how to best organize and structure information. In a card sorting test, users are given a set of cards containing topics or information and asked to organize these cards into categories. Observing how users group these cards can help designers decide where to place information on a website, how to structure help pages, or how to group topics in navigation menus.5
Don Norman, director of The Design Lab at the University of California, coined the term “user experience” in 1993 when he was working for Apple. However, the roots of UX research were established several decades before Norman gave it a name.6 Today, we think of UX as it relates to digital products, such as websites, apps, and software, but UX research is traced far back, long before the Internet.
Bell Labs conducted some of the first UX studies in the 1950s, establishing the company as a pioneer in user-based product design. They were developing the first push-button telephone system with touch-tone dialing (which would soon replace rotary phones). In their research, Bell Labs tested several different phone button layouts to determine which led to the fewest errors and shortest keying time.7 This research gave rise to the rectangular key layout we all know and use today.
The UX Research field grew rapidly from the 1980s onward. The first commercially available personal computer hit the market in 1984, putting pressure on the computer industry to improve usability.6 Up until then, companies were the sole purchasers, meaning those using the computers (the employees) were not the ones making the purchase decision. When personal computers came along, the user and buyer were the same, and usability directly impacted people’s decisions to purchase computers and software. Around the same time, trade publications like PC Magazine began publishing software reviews with a focus on usability. This further incentivized the computing industry to focus on UX.
Through the 1990s and 2000s, website usability became increasingly important. With more companies conducting UX research and refining the user experience, poor UX design stood out as a significant disadvantage. Customers who couldn’t find information or make purchases due to poor website design would turn to competitors offering better usability. As a result, more companies began hiring UX researchers to create systems that were intuitive and simple.
Today, UX research lies at the core of user-centered design. Designers and developers rely on UX research to create products that perfectly align with user needs and wants. As a result, companies enjoy higher conversion rates, better customer retention rates, and—subsequently—more revenue.8
UX research has made it possible for designers to address user frustrations and demands proactively, minimizing losses due to problems that turn users away. This effectively reduces the cost of development, as it limits the need for costly redesigns and post-launch fixes. The goal is to optimize UX design early in the design process, and UX research makes this possible.
As a parallel result, users are happier with the end product. Spending time on UX research directly contributes to the creation of intuitive and reliable customer experiences. This makes customers perceive brands more positively.
Neglecting UX research, on the other hand, has important ramifications. Today, users have more options than ever before. If a website or app causes any degree of frustration, people will quickly seek a solution from a competitor. With the growing number of options out there, users are less likely to tolerate confusing mobile apps, intrusive pop-ups, websites that are hard to navigate, and sign-up processes that take forever.
Not only that, but people are eager to share their frustrations with the world, jumping to social media to criticize designs that lack usability. This can damage a company’s reputation, sometimes irreversibly.
Skipping UX research could also mean wasted resources. If you don't understand how your customers use your product, you might spend a lot of time designing features they don’t need or want. This waste of resources can be avoided by taking the time to find out which elements will genuinely enhance the user experience.
The main criticisms surrounding UX research revolve around ethical considerations. Ethical standards differ significantly between academic research and private research. In academia, research is guided by clear ethics codes, requiring studies to go through rigorous reviews before approval.9 However, among private companies, there are no ethics committees or clear regulations for conducting user research. While companies still have a moral responsibility to protect users, many overlook the importance of ethics when conducting UX research.
For example, UX research is often criticized for lacking informed consent—the process of informing participants of their role in the research and obtaining their express agreement to participate. In many UX studies, people are completely unaware they’re participating in an experiment. You have likely participated in countless A/B tests when visiting websites, viewing marketing emails, or shopping online!
This was a serious point of criticism regarding a UX study conducted by Facebook in 2014. In their study, Facebook manipulated news feeds to show either positive or negative content and see if this would impact users’ emotional states.10 They found that users who saw more negative posts ended up posting more negative content. This research was technically legal, as Facebook users relinquish their data for analytics, testing, and research. Despite this, Facebook received several ethical criticisms surrounding the deliberate manipulation of users’ emotions without their consent.
Fortunately, many organizations do follow ethical guidelines when conducting UX research. Reputable UX researchers maintain respect for their users and uphold a responsibility to protect user interests.11 At the same time, UX researchers should avoid exposing participants to unnecessary psychological risks—like manipulating their emotions in a negative direction. If you cannot collect informed consent, consider how users might feel about being involved in the study. If it’s likely they would be unhappy about their involvement, you shouldn’t be conducting the study at all.
We can learn a lot from real-world examples of brands applying UX research. Check out the following case studies from Spotify and Airbnb to learn how observing user behavior can lead to the creation of exciting new product features.
Spotify’s Shortcuts feature—displayed at the top of the home page as six playable tiles reflecting a user’s recent listening habits—illustrates the value of UX research in developing user-centered features. To determine whether users wanted this feature, Spotify measured how often users listened to familiar content compared to new content.12 They found that users generally gravitated to the same playlists, albums, or podcasts again and again. This observation revealed that users needed a place on the home page where they could access their current favorites more easily.
Through subsequent A/B testing, Spotify discovered that users would listen to music at the top of the home page when this space contained their favorite content. While Spotify implemented a robust machine-learning algorithm to optimize the Shortcuts section, their initial UX tests were paramount for understanding the needs and wants of their users.
Airbnb Check-In Tool
Sometimes, UX research unfolds more organically, as a result of observing user behavior over time. This is how Airbnb came up with the idea for their global check-in tool, which allows hosts to create visual guides to help guests find and access their accommodations.13
Before developing this tool, Airbnb noticed that hosts were sending around 1.5 million photo messages to their guests every week, most of these illustrating how to find their accommodations and navigate the check-in process. By observing these behaviors, the Airbnb team identified an opportunity to make this process more efficient. As a result, they developed a seamless check-in tool that hosts can use to create simple visual guides for their guests.
Related TDL Content
Often relying on UX research, UX designers create digital products and services with the goal of meeting and exceeding user expectations. This article explores the work of UX designers and the important role they play in product development.
Machine learning can be a powerful tool in UX research, helping us identify user behavior patterns so we can better understand how they interact with a product or service. Take a look at this article to learn how machine learning makes it possible to extract meaning from large datasets, leading to incredible innovations in the world of technology.
- Veal, R., & Sanders, E. (2021, October 25). Conduct UX Research Like A Pro (How-To Guide). CareerFoundry. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://careerfoundry.com/en/blog/ux-design/how-to-conduct-user-experience-research-like-a-professional/
- Lee, R. (n.d.). User Personas for UX, Product and Design Teams. User Interviews. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.userinterviews.com/ux-research-field-guide-chapter/personas
- Budiu, R. (2017, October 1). Quantitative vs. Qualitative Usability Testing. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/quant-vs-qual/
- Benefits of Usability Testing. (n.d.). Usability.gov. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/usability-testing.html
- Benefits of Card Sorting. (n.d.). Usability.gov. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/card-sorting.html
- Nielsen, J. (2017, December 24). A 100-Year View of User Experience (by Jakob Nielsen). Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/100-years-ux/
- Deininger, R. L. (1960). Human factors engineering studies of the design and use of pushbutton telephone sets. The Bell System Technical Journal, 39(4), 995-1012. https://mrserge.lv/assets/human-factors-engeneering-studies-of-the-design-and-use-of-pushbutton-telephone-sets.pdf
- Bosco, C. (2020, November 5). 15 Ways User Experience Impacts Business Success. XWP. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://xwp.co/15-ways-user-experience-impacts-business-success/
- Bowman, N. (2014, August 26). The Ethics of UX Research. UX Booth. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://uxbooth.com/articles/ethics-ux-research/
- Selinger, E., & Hartzog, W. (2016). Facebook’s emotional contagion study and the ethical problem of co-opted identity in mediated environments where users lack control. Research Ethics, 12(1), 35-43. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016115579531
- Mortensen, D. H. (2020, December 23). Conducting Ethical User Research | IxDF. The Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/conducting-ethical-user-research
- Reach for the Top: How Spotify Built Shortcuts in Just Six Months - Spotify Engineering. (2020, April 15). Spotify Engineering. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://engineering.atspotify.com/2020/04/reach-for-the-top-how-spotify-built-shortcuts-in-just-six-months/
- Phan, J. (n.d.). Leveraging Creative Hacks – Airbnb Design. Airbnb.Design. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://airbnb.design/leveraging-creative-hacks/