What Is User Research?

What Is User Research? was originally published on Forage.

User research and user experience research

User research, often called user experience research, is a type of research that aims to understand what users want and need and how consumers interact with a product or service. Researchers use interviews, surveys, web analytics, and A/B testing to gather data from users and consumers. This feedback then informs product design and improvements.  

But what is user experience research? In this guide, we’ll go over: 

User Research Definition

User research analyzes customer and client needs, wants, and behaviors to inform business decisions and product design. 

A business performs user research “to understand if its vision for the product matches that of the end user,” says Vanessa Terry, anthropologist and principal investigator at VST Research & Strategies.

Analysts employ qualitative research methods like surveys and interviews and quantitative methods, like A/B testing, to gather user feedback on products and services. 

“Building a truly useful, meaningful product needs researchers and teams to empathise and understand their users’/customers’ needs,” says Zohrane Dyer, senior user experience consultant at UX Connections.”The only way to do that is through user research on how the product should be designed and not built blind.”

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Who Uses User Research?

User research is common in software and application development, and it’s often called user experience research instead (like user experience (UX) design and UX designers). But, marketing analysts utilize user feedback when testing the efficacy of campaigns, and product managers and designers often rely on insights from users to inform decisions.   

“Any industry that provides a service or product others use or engage with can benefit from user research,” adds Terry.

>>MORE: Hear how professional UX designers navigate the industry with our UX Design Careers Roundtable.

User Research Methods

Researchers use various methods and approaches when testing how consumers respond to products and services. 

Ultimately, when choosing a method or multiple methods, a researcher must take into account “budget, timelines (roadmap and milestones) and, most important, what research insights will have the most significant impact,” says Dyer. 

Explorative and Generative Methods

Explorative methods, or generative research, seek to define the root of the problem. This method is called generative because it often generates new questions to study. Researchers typically apply explorative and generative methods to existing products and services to find improvements or enhancements. 

Evaluative Methods

Evaluative research methods test if the product is working as intended or if the product provides the right solution. Remember: Most products and services are created to solve very specific issues. If a product can’t fix the problem it was made to resolve, it needs to be reimagined. Through evaluative methods, researchers can see if prototypes are on the right track and measure how well new features work. 

Contextual Methods

Researchers use contextual research approaches on users to see “how they use products and services in real-world situations,” says Terry.

Contextual research data is in context, meaning researchers can better understand how, where, and why people interact with their products. 

Behavioral Methods

Behavioral research methods aim to understand users’ behaviors when using a product or how users behave without the product. These observations can be useful in evaluative and explorative research methods to understand if customers are satisfied when using a product or to see how the product improves consumers’ lives. Additionally, many contextual observations include data about users’ behaviors. 

Market Research

Market research is a slightly different type of research than user research. However, user researchers often employ market research methods to understand how economic trends and consumer purchasing behavior affect their products. 

Using user research in conjunction with market research can provide powerful insights that may be missed by relying on one method or the other. 

“These projects allow us to go into the attitudes and behaviors of the client’s target market and not just the demographic and economic trends,” says Terry.


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Data Collection Methods

How researchers collect data, regardless of the type or method of research, depends on the nature of the product or service and external constraints like time frames and budgets. 

“As a UX researcher, I aim to use the most appropriate data collection method for each research project and ensure that our data is accurate, relevant, and helpful in making informed design decisions,” says Dyer. 

Researchers also want to collect meaningful data that can uncover new information. One commonly employed data collection method is observations. Analysts use observations in practically every type of research but especially when performing behavioral and contextual analysis. 

“Observations are telling as people tend to stop thinking about trying to frame their responses to their perceived idea of a ‘right’ answer and show you how they engage with the product in a way that is right for them,” says Terry.

Other ways researchers collect user feedback include:

  • Interviews
  • Focus groups
  • Group interviews
  • Usability studies
  • Surveys
  • Eye tracking tests (to see where users’ eyes spend the most time on an application or website)
  • Web analytics
  • A/B testing

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Advantages and Drawbacks of User Research 

One key advantage of user research is something common to all types of research. 

“Research provides evidence that can be used to make informed decisions,” says Dyer. “It helps to identify the best course of action based on data rather than assumptions.”

Businesses can improve their products and decision-making by performing any type of research. 

But, user research is especially beneficial because it allows for “real-world feedback outside the silo of a company’s research and development department,” says Terry. “This third-party outlook provides fresh perspectives and helps eliminate research bias.”

However, user research can be costly in terms of time and money. Running interviews and focus groups takes a lot of time, and transforming qualitative information into something that can be easily measured and studied is incredibly difficult. 

Additionally, research can be biased. A user’s responses are only as good as the questions asked. It’s easy for researchers to accidentally sway the results by not allowing for a full range of user responses or feedback. Researchers likely want their products to succeed, and that desire can taint the research. 

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Showing User Experience Skills on Resumes

You can highlight your experience with user research in the skills section of your resume by listing it on its own or listing specific types of user research you’ve performed. For example, you can mention if you are skilled at running focus groups or performing A/B testing. 

The description of previous jobs and internships is another excellent place to mention any user research skills you have. For example, you can discuss if you had a summer internship that involved a lot of observational and behavioral research. Remember to give specifics, though, like explaining how your research impacted a product or benefitted the company. 

You can also use your cover letter to explain in more detail how you’ve used your research skills. For instance, you could talk about a school project centered on usability testing or a time you gathered user feedback from surveys for a new app. 

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Is user research the same as UX?

Kind of! UX is user experience — how users interact with and feel about a website or software. User research is a core component of UX design, which is why it is often called user experience research. However, user research is also useful in other areas and industries besides UX design.

What are the three purposes of user research?

The three primary purposes of user research are to 1.) create relevant products that address real problems, 2.) create products users enjoy using, and 3.) understand how the product benefits both users and the company.

What is user research in Agile?

Agile is a method of breaking down challenges into iterative steps, making them easier to tackle. So, performing user research in Agile methodology means breaking down the study and data analysis into smaller pieces, often with a clearly laid out roadmap that aligns with the roadmap for other areas of the company, like product design or development teams.

What is the difference between user research and design?

User research informs design decisions. For example, a UX designer building a food delivery app will rely on information gathered through user research to determine what features to include, the app’s layout, and the visual design.

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