User Research – The Beginner’s Guide

Why should I conduct user research?

As designers, if we fail to understand how potential users expect to interact with a product, we will fail to create satisfying, productive and enjoyable experiences for them. Carrying out user research will allow you to explore, throughout the design process, what your users’ perceptions, expectations and aspirations might be in relation to using your product – be that a website, native app or other kind of user interface.

User research prevents our own assumptions from taking over and instead keeps our focus on the actual user.

When should I do user research?

User research can be applied throughout the UX design process, from the initial idea to launching the product and beyond. At every step we are trying to understand what users need, how to find solutions to their problems, how to create an exceptional experience for them and how all of these factors can meet the goals of the business. Including stakeholders in your research, as well as users, may give you valuable insights into where they see current problems or what their priorities are in terms of business goals.

Points in the design process where user research can be applied:

Initial Explorations

  • Discovering users’ current problems and needs
  • Exploring the context of the product’s use
  • Defining who the users of the product will be

Building Ideas & Concepts

  • Identifying business and user goals
  • Defining core product features
  • Visualise (sketch, wireframe etc.) initial design ideas

First Iterations

  • Creation and testing of low fidelity mockups
  • Creation and testing of more detailed prototypes

Refining & Revising

  • Finding solutions to usability and UX issues identified in the testing of different iterations

Launch and beyond

  • Launching the product
  • Analysing success against business goals
  • Gaining customer feedback


There are lots of different methods that can be employed to conduct user research. This article does not have the scope to cover all of the methods available so I have chosen a selection to give you an introduction.

Method Description Qualitative / Quantitative  Best Time to Use
Survey A set of closed or open ended questions asked to multiple participants Quantitative and/or Qualitative Initial Exploration

Building Ideas & Concepts

Interview One to one in-depth discussion Qualitative Initial Exploration

Building Ideas & Concepts

Focus Group Guided small group discussion Qualitative Initial Exploration
Card Sorting Participants are given a set of cards to sort into groups – demonstrates how a user expects information to be structured and grouped Both First Iterations
Usability Testing Testing of a prototype/mockup.

Can be done:

Face to face

Remotely with a moderator

Remotely without a moderator

Qualitative First Iterations

Refining & Revising

Analytics Various methods available – collection of data related to usage of a website or app Quantitative Launch and beyond


AnalyticsA quick note on quantitative vs. qualitative data. Quantitative data is numeric and is analysed using mathematical methods. Qualitative data is non-numeric, descriptive in nature and is analysed using themes or categories. In the context of design research, quantitative data is considered to answer “how many” and “how much” questions, whereas qualitative data answers “why” or “how” questions (Rohrer 2014).

Which methods should I choose?

By using a combination of research methods you are more likely to get a complete picture of who your users are and how you can help them. For example, an online survey may help you to answer a question such as “how many people currently use a fitness app”? But this does not tell you why they use a fitness app. Conducting an in-depth interview could then reveal what motivates people to use a fitness app.

There are several factors that can influence your choice of research methods:

Time frame

Are you working on a longer term project or do you have a tight deadline to meet? Consider how much time you will need to allocate for your chosen research methods in the context of your project’s time frame.

Budget and resources

User research budgetSome methods are more costly and resource intensive than others. Choosing the most appropriate research methods for your project needs to be balanced out with the project’s budget and available resources.

Try to use the method which will give you the maximum amount of insight for the minimum outlay if costs are restrictive.

What you want to find out

Do you want to find out people’s opinions? (i.e. their attitudes) Or are you interested in what tasks they would like to complete? (i.e. their behaviours). Do you need qualitative or quantitative data? Setting clear objectives for your research is crucial in deciding which is the most appropriate method to use.

The makeup of your participants

Your participants are there to represent your target users and you need to consider the most effective way to engage with your participants. You would need to take a different approach to children than you would with adults, for example.

Think about your users with disabilities too – how will you ensure that you are creating an accessible design?

Use a structured approach

Following a structured approach to user research ensures consistency, clearly defines objectives and allows for effective use of research findings.

  • Set clear objectives for your research
  • Devise a hypothesis based on your objectives
  • Conduct your research
  • Analyse the findings in relation to your hypothesis
  • Implement changes

Finally, remember to repeat the process. Once you have tested one iteration of a design and made changes to it, test it again to see if you have addressed the issues highlighted by participants during the initial testing.


Selecting the optimal research methods for each project takes some consideration and you may need to adjust the different methods to suit a specific project. However, taking the time to really understand your users gives you valuable information with which to implement design decisions. Without user research, you are unlikely to create a design that truly meets the needs of the intended users.  Remember, you are not the user!


Christian Rohrer 2014, When to Use Which User-Experience Research Methods, Nielsen Norman Group

Images courtesy Samuel MannManop401(K) 2012