UX Research Methods and When To Use Them

The idea behind UX design is to give priority to the user’s experience, to consciously design in a way that evokes the kind of emotions and attitudes we want our client to have.
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Humans are creatures of experience. As we move through the world we react to stimuli: we are surprised by a sudden change, we feel an instinctive fear of things we don’t understand, we are awed in the face of magnificence, we laugh, we cry, we feel, we mourn. The human condition is indistinguishable from the interaction with the world, and the personal change it involves.

User Experience (UX) is a term popularized in the 1990s by Don Horman, author of the bestseller “The Design of Everyday Things”. From his perspective, design is a form of communication between the developer and the user. Thus, how we present our product shapes the user’s perception and, in turn, their experience.

The idea behind UX design is to give priority to the user’s experience, to consciously design in a way that evokes the kind of emotions and attitudes we want our client to have. UX design sits in stark contrast to approaches that prioritize functionality and performance over everything else.

Take smartphones, for example. Android and iOS are very similar in terms of functionality, especially from the perspective of an average user. But it’s undeniable that each ecosystem has a different feel to it, a quality that isn’t easily defined by words.

We could carelessly assume that UX is about the aesthetics of a product, its beauty, or its ease of use. And while that’s true to a certain extent, UX is about much more. It’s about figuring out what we want our users to feel, and how to consciously design towards that experience.

Take a horror game, for example. The developers want the user to feel fear, and the user is open to the experience (that’s why they acquired the product). With that in mind, the developer can create a confusing interface, provide vague information, use poor lighting, and other techniques to psychologically push the user into a state of stress and anxiety 

Having said that, if the game menu is cumbersome to use, has performance issues, or bugs that destroy the illusion of the world, the user may instead experience anger and frustration, which is not quite what the developer intended. That’s what Horman points to: user-centered design is about aligning our intentions with the user’s experience via our product.

What do people want?

The horror game example is a corner case at best. As Steven Krug puts it in his book Don’t Make Me Think, users are prone to satisficing. In other words, we have a cognitive bias to find appeal in the things that please us or that reduce suffering. 

We don’t like difficult choices in our day-to-day routine, so, unless we are motivated by challenges (like those in a game) we tend to go for whatever makes our life easier, and then we retroactively assign positive attributes to justify our selection.

The evolution of operating systems is a great example. With each iteration both Windows and iOS have become leaner, simplifying the experience of using a computer. The “inner workings” of the system are hidden behind a friendly UI and automated solutions.

That’s why UX has become synonymous with ease of use, accessibility, simplicity, directness, and noise reduction since it weighs so much on the decision-making process of human beings. The question is then, how do we know which design choices bring us closer to those goals?

How do we know what people feel?

While we may have a general idea of what people want to feel, how they react to a stimulus is another matter entirely. Trying to measure people’s behaviors and attitudes has been a constant struggle of scientists throughout the 20th century.

Many designers act on intuition and trial and error, they design expecting a response from people and then adapt depending on the user’s reaction. This kind of approach has 2 problems:

People don’t like change and are reactionary. As such, first impressions can be misleading when gathering feedback after implementing a change. You have to wait until the dust settles to see if the users adapted to the change, or if they didn’t like it at all.

On the other hand, going back on a design choice can be costly in terms of time and investment. This leaves the designer in an unfortunate place: they either have to push forward or backtrack and incur further costs. 

Ingenuity and trial will always be a part of the process, but preparation and data gathering can help guide the design team. Much like how initial interviews help the designers get a clear picture of the requirements from the client, UX research methods can help them understand the best approach to UX design.

Quantitative methods

In general, we can divide UX research methods into 2 broad categories depending on the kind of data gathered and the analysis process that comes after. The first kind is quantitative methods. In this approach, we measure user behavior with numeric indicators to try to infer what they are experiencing.

An example of quantitative methods is the survey, where we ask the user to score how they feel about different aspects of our product. This kind of approach is called self-report since people are interpreting how they feel and assigning a number.

One of the big limitations of self-reports is that they are liable to cognitive bias. For example, it’s a well-known fact that participants are susceptible to social pressure, the desire to help, the fear of judging unfairly, among other variables, which can skew their responses.

An alternative to self-report is direct observation of behavior. The digital fingerprint of the user is a great way to assess how they are feeling about a product. You can pretty much measure everything from the number of new users, time, number of visits per day, and so on, comparing between different designs to see which one shows the best indicators. 

A great example of this approach is engagement. Users tend to spend more time with applications and services that they enjoy using, so you could develop 2 or 3 different UIs and run a test and measure the amount of time invested per user with each condition.

Qualitative methods

While quantitative methods are great for gathering massive amounts of data in very little time, they are often limited by the depth of the information. Yes, we may know that users are spending more time with condition A rather than condition B, but why?

For those kinds of questions, we need a methodology that lets us explore in-depth why people feel the way they do. And as philosophers have been telling us for the last 200 hundred years, feelings and experience are very hard to grasp in mathematical terms.

Instead, you can opt for a qualitative approach. You can gather qualitative data such as interviews and written feedback (natural language) to get a more comprehensive look at why people like or dislike certain choices.

The 3 most common qualitative methods are:

Qualitative surveys: in which you ask people to fill a form with their comments and ideas. 

Personal interviews: where you sit down with the user and have an interview, asking them questions that help you understand why they feel the way they do.

Focus group: Similar to personal interviews, but instead you gather a group of people and have an open conversation. The interviewer in this case is a moderator, asking questions that prompt discussion among the users while registering what they talk about.

While qualitative methods are very handy to get a better picture of a user’s experience, they do have their own set of problems. First, qualitative methods are better suited for smaller samples since they take longer and the information is harder to process.

On the other hand, it’s a lot harder to analyze since the process involves our intuition. We sit down, read the transcripts and discuss how to approach the design based on these testimonies.

Qualitative data can be analyzed with quantitative methods like Natural Language Processing, but the outcome is quantitative in scope.

An integrated approach

While these approaches are different, they aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, for many years researchers have been mixing quantitative and qualitative approaches since the outcome is a more comprehensive understanding of the user than sticking to just scores or testimonies.

UX design is a powerful tool that creates a better experience for the user, and research methods are a great way to create a roadmap to guide the process.

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