What is UX research, and what is the job of a UX researcher?
Coming up with products that sell isn't down to luck or some hit-or-miss tactic; no, it takes deliberate strategizing.
In recent years, there has been a heavy emphasis on creating user-centric products, and at the heart of this trend is the UX researcher.
What is UX research?
User experience research is the practice of observing user behaviour to understand their motivations and needs through feedback.
UX researchers conduct research in various phases of the product design cycle. Using the results of this research, they obtain vital insights for the continuous improvement of the design.
UX design is an iterative process. And quality insights from users should ideally fuel every phase.
Why? You may wonder
According to one study by Forrester.com, every $1 invested in UX yields a return of $100 i.e the ROI = 9,900%.
That stat might look less surprising when you consider this:
- 88% of users are unlikely to revisit a website after just one bad user experience.
- A PWC study found that about 32% of customers would abandon a brand they loved after one bad experience.
How do you ensure the user has a good experience? Through user experience research.
Therefore, a core member of every product team is a UX researcher.
Functions of a UX researcher
UX researchers attempt to understand user motivations by asking questions like
- What does the user need?
- Further down the cycle, they ask how should we build what the user needs?
- And finally, they ascertain the impact of their products. What does our user think of the finished product? Did we succeed in eliminating their problems?
Answers to these questions determine the next step taken in the product design journey.
Notably, many UX design frameworks make user research and feedback a priority e.g. the design thinking framework popularly used by UX teams relies heavily on research at different points to make sure the product meets the user's needs and expectations.
If you are still wondering why the emphasis is on the user, simply put, it is a successful approach as seen in the well-tailored products available today.
Now that we have much of the foundational stuff out of the way, you hopefully have a firm grasp of the gist; let's go a bit deeper by discussing the different kinds of UX research popularly used in UX design.
Classification of UX research
We can group UX research based on several factors:
- When research takes place
- Type of data the researcher obtains
- How the research takes place
Let us consider them closely while examining the UX researcher's role in each.
When research takes place
For instance, if a company decides that they want to launch an app X for users in a location, what would be the best way to start?
As easy as this might appear to some, it's not unheard of for companies to skip the entire user research process and jump straight into building products because the CEO or some top-shot stakeholder thinks it's okay.
In several cases, they end up with a product that flops hard—yes, that is what products that do not solve any problems or are unusable do.
However, the beginning of the design is just one point of application; there are others. Research can occur before, during design and after the launch of a product.
1. Foundational research
Back to our software company, we can conclude they failed in their strategy by not trying to understand what the user wants or the competition their product might face.
These are valid insights to worry about at the start of product design before anything else. Not after going halfway, or worse, months after launch when the cheques aren't rolling in. Or users are dropping bad reviews.
That would be quite a waste of resources.
For this reason, research done before the design is known as foundational or strategic research. And the goal of the UX researcher here is to generate ideas and strategies that will ensure a good user experience.
Among other factors, the UX researcher's role is to understand
- The potential users or the target market.
- The problems these users have and how their product can solve them.
- The existing competition with similar products and how to stand out.
These insights lay the foundation for the design process.
2. Design research
This type of research takes place during the design cycle.
Here, the UX researcher attempts to get answers that can enhance the design.
How do you want us to build this product?
Back to our software company, let us assume instead that they began to design the app after successful foundational research.
Say they include a new feature as dictated by their research. But they aren't so sure about what users might think of the design. A feature might not really be as easy as the designers play it out in their heads.
Therefore, to ensure a smooth and intuitive interface that users with no background knowledge — or time to waste— can easily access, it is necessary to obtain feedback from users.
This is where the UX researcher comes in again.
The UX researcher conducts a study where they observe users' interaction with the product to understand how usable it is.
This type of research is popularly known as usability testing.
Assuming that after recruiting participants and observing their interaction with the app, the researcher discovers that the new feature isn't easy to find or use. The next step is to go into another round of design to modify it.
3. Post launch research
f you think the UX researcher's work ends at the product launch, think again. Even after the launch, some research still needs to take place.
In this part, the UX researcher is tasked with finding the answer to the question— was our product a hit or miss? Where did we fail or succeed?
And most importantly,
How can we improve this product in the next update?
Most popular brands today continually update their products, because user needs evolve. Sometimes there are miscalculations in earlier research or an urgent need for improvement of a feature.
Hence the UX researcher has to save the day.
Classification of UX research based on the type of data obtained
Sometimes it's important to group UX research by the data the researcher obtains. Under this consideration, there are two major kinds:
1. Qualitative research
This type of research involves in-depth data and can provide rich insights. This research entails obtaining quality responses to what and why questions from a relatively small group of participants.
By using open-ended questions instead of questions that require just yes/no answers, the UX researcher can gain deeper insights.
Examples of qualitative research are interviews. In most interviews, it is necessary to make enough room for users to express their opinions.
Qualitative research can take place at any phase of the design cycle. But it is an expensive UX research method.
2. Quantitative research
When the researcher needs lots of data but isn't particularly bothered by the quality, then this type of research is appropriate.
The goal of qualitative research is to obtain insights by considering a large audience.
As you must have guessed, it is less costly than quantitative research due to ease of setup e.g. a simple online survey can suffice.
This kind of survey is popular among designers for the reasons I already mentioned and usually involves more questions than quantitative research but is less deep.
Classification of UX research based on how research takes place
The researcher doesn't always have to conduct research. There can be instances where data is already available.
1. Primary research
This kind of research is original research by the user researcher to obtain information that isn't available. It is a firsthand approach.
The researcher conducts the research, analyses the data for insights and passes this to the team.
2. Secondary research
There is no point in reinventing the wheel, this popular saying is true even in design. Sometimes, the insight you need is already available thanks to another person's research.
It would be a waste of resources to do yours from scratch. Locating existing research for your project is known as secondary research.
That said, both kinds of research have their place, and a UX researcher should be skilled enough to use each appropriately.
Qualities of a UX researcher
To excel at the role, some qualities are necessary. Conducting user research, obtaining and interpreting valid data into insights requires a lot, here are some of the top areas a user experience researcher needs solid skills:
- Empathising with the user:
A UX researcher needs to empathise with the users. Empathy means putting yourself in the position of the user.
This is vital because to understand what the user needs, you have to think like them. Only then can you help in building products that are perfect for them.
- Being objective in your research
While empathy is encouraged, letting sentiments and biases into your research can greatly skew your efforts. It's very important to maintain high levels of objectivity when interacting with users.
Unfortunately, even experts are subject to some form of bias. And the topic of bias is a very broad one.
One recommended way to reduce bias is by opting for open-ended questions in your interviews and surveys.
Another way is to ensure consistency in your questions.
- Collaborating with others
The importance of teamwork can not be overemphasized for a UX researcher, occasionally, the progress of their career will depend on how much of a team player they are.
In very big companies, the UX team consists of researchers, writers and designers. And they all have to work with other teams of developers and marketers.
The data the researchers obtain need to be passed on to others and they have to be involved from start to finish of the product development cycle.
Knowing how to communicate your ideas and receive feedback is extremely important.
Recruiting participants for user research
A major hurdle faced by UX researchers is how to recruit participants for their research. Depending on the goal of the research, there are several ways to go about recruitment:
Family and friends: the easiest way is to ask people in your personal circle to take part in your research; and while there could be some bias in this, it's most likely going to be free.
Professional circle: if you want more genuine feedback then maybe your colleagues at work can offer a better option, however, professionals are busy people.
Social networks: this guarantees the widest reach. You can conduct research with participants all over the globe.
Hallway testing: as the name suggests, this method involves standing in hallways and streets asking strangers you meet if they cared for an interview.
Recruiting agencies: if you are looking for a special kind of audience beyond your reach or a huge number of participants, you can pay agencies to recruit them for your interviews.
What is UX research salary?
An average UX researcher in the US earns an estimated salary of $89,000 according to Payscale.
As you can see, UX researchers earn a lucrative salary. This shows how their input is valued by most employers. The demand for UX researchers is also on the positive side.
Does UX research require coding?
No. There is no need to learn to code for UX research. The major skills UX researchers use from day to day are interpersonal skills like communication, teamwork and analysis. UX researchers can use technology tools to help improve their interviews, surveys, etc., or to organise their results for insight, for instance, Maze is a popular research tool.
Can I teach myself UX research?
Yes. A lot of UX researchers and designers are self-taught. There are a lot of books, courses and boot camps that you can take in your free time.
Even though they will not have you conducting research like an expert in no time. All you require is time, dedication and self-discipline.
Popular learning platforms where you can learn UX research include Coursera, the Interaction Design Foundation, CareerFoundry, etc.
UX designer vs UX researcher
Many experts and notable brands like Google classify UX research as a branch of UX design. Other fields of UX design include UX writers, visual designers, and interaction designers.
Good UX designers are usually skilled enough to conduct research as well. And it is very common to see UX generalists perform all four roles, especially in small and medium size companies. However, as is the case with other jobs, there are big brands that prefer specialists who are experts in a field and have enough capital to hire different individuals to work as a UX team.
UX research is an integral part of UX design. While there are cases where the researcher doubles as a designer, some brands need specialists; and researchers spend their time doing work that is vital for product success.
To excel at the role you need to cultivate interpersonal skills.