Instead of assuming what is best for their website visitors, companies around the world are adopting a user-led approach through User Experience research methods (UX research).
As difficult as it may be, these organizations are putting aside their previous beliefs around how visitors come to, navigate through, and ultimately complete an action on their site. Instead, they’re employing UX research and letting their users provide direction on how a site should be designed (in terms of layout, usability, navigation, ease of task completion, etc.). Note: UX research feeds into UX design.
In this article, we’ll cover why UX research is important, and how and where to begin. We’ll also illuminate useful UX research methods for those of all knowledge levels – from beginners to beyond!
The Importance of Using UX Research Methods
Businesses are so close to their own websites that the online experience can seem clear and straightforward – even when it isn’t. Sometimes, first time visitors may have different thoughts, such as, ‘Where am I supposed to go to find X?’ ‘How do I do Y?’ ‘I don’t get what this webpage is about,’ and so on.
Without UX research, these kinds of questions and statements would go unheard and unaddressed in future iterations of a website’s design, leaving companies vulnerable to lower website conversion rates than they’re ultimately capable of. This can be true no matter what kind of conversion you’re trying to achieve – from encouraging online purchases, service registrations, newsletter or blog subscriptions or downloads of gated assets (like a PDF report), etc.
However, it’s not just conversion rates that are at risk of suffering: smaller website tasks such as finding a company’s contact information, navigating to an ‘About Us’ page, or being able to find information in general, are all vitally important.
Plus, there are grander implications to not conducting UX research as well. Confusing designs also tell users that the business doesn’t have their ear to the ground, and has difficulty keeping up-to-date on what’s expected of an online environment in today’s digital age. Users can read into these design ‘fails’ and consider a company to be out of touch, uncaring, having low-quality standards, and more. These perceptions are difficult to break, especially without the use of UX research to correct them.
To make the most of your website’s potential, we’ll walk you through what you can do to gather user experience data.
The UX Research Process
Similar to market research, there are many methods to collecting, analyzing, and incorporating user experience insights into your web design processes.
To bring forward as many methods as possible, we interviewed our very own UX researcher, Stefanie Farrant. She broke down a four-step process to collecting those invaluable insights.
Step 1 – Understanding Your Audience
Stefanie says, “The goal is to make sure that you understand your audience, and that you’re able to take that understanding and share it with your internal teams. If you have the luxury of being able to ‘meet’ your users, then that would be the easiest way to gain a greater understanding of them.”
Meeting your users can consist of setting up interviews in-person, over the phone, or on a video call. Not only are these interviews intended to help you gather insights from your users, they also give you a chance to get to know them on a personal level, too.
That being said, it’s nearly impossible to interview everyone (of course). This is why another method for getting to know your audience is to create a panel of users who you can consistently tap for testing and feedback. In order to create such a panel, the relationships you build and the care you put into getting to know these people needs to be genuine. It all plays into understanding the different kinds of users who interact with your site.
People love getting involved when they know that their feedback is being taken seriously and they’re contributing to the improvement of something they like using. Going through this process also helps you to create more accurate profiles on the different segments of your audience. Though each user is unique, the feelings they have around your website’s usability and the way they want their needs met aren’t unique to just them. Chances are good that if they’re feeling a certain way, there are many others feeling the same way too.
In getting to know your users and what they want from your online environment, you’ll want to ensure that you’re asking them questions, such as:
- Why do you use our site?
- When do you use our site?
- What are you looking for on our site most often?
- How do you feel when you use our site?
- What brought you to our site the first time?
- Who are you (in terms of position, education, workload and projects types, work schedule, etc.)?
The answers to these questions will help you build a sense of user empathy. User empathy is key in UX research as it brings you closer to understanding the true wants, needs, and feelings of your users. When done correctly, you begin to see your online environment through the eyes of your audience rather than your own!
“There’s so much that goes into understanding your users,” says Stefanie. “It’s not only identifying them, but recognizing that these people have lives and experiences that impact how they’re going to use a site.”
Tapping into External Audiences
Speaking with your existing user base is a great way to get qualitative input on the experience your online environment provides. But sometimes, UX research needs to go beyond existing customers to understand how newcomers might interact with your site for the first time.
There are online user testing platforms such as UseabilityHub and Optimal Workshop that allow companies to access online user groups who are available to interact with your website in a number of ways (which we’ll get into shortly). Not only do user research platforms like these give you access to a user base of people who’ve never experienced your website before, but in many instances they’re able to do so en masse to give you a more quantitative analysis of user experience.
Step 2 – Using UX Research Methods to Set Goals
It’s so much easier to identify your users’ pain points when you understand who they are, and their motivations around finding and using your website. But, there’s more to it than you might think. Now that you understand your users, and are able to look at your website through their eyes, here are five UX research methods you can use to gather user experience research.
Tree tests allow you to test the existing navigation of a website, even though the website itself isn’t a part of the test. Rather, the topics and sub-topics of the website that are found in the navigation are provided to your user test group in a simplified text format. This helps to eliminate any bias that the website’s aesthetics might have on the user.
Users are then prompted to locate different pages of a site. How they interact with the simplified version of the navigation will help you determine what pages of your site are difficult to find.
When done en masse, tree tests can generate quantitative data to give you a percentages and statistics around the website’s navigation. But, they can also provide qualitative feedback when you pair the test with follow up questions like, “Where do think X page belongs?” “Why did you think X page would be found under X heading?” etc.
First Click Tests
First click tests provide a quantitative approach to seeing what website element users click on first when tasked with completing a specific objective on the site.
For instance, you could ask users to go to your blog, and then use a first click test to track what they clicked on first in their attempt to complete the task.
In this example, if the majority of users clicked on your ‘Resources’ tab from the main navigation, you could hypothesize that the blog would receive more visits if it were moved under the ‘Resources’ tab, rather than its current home at the bottom of the page, in the website footer.
Surveys and Interviews
A great approach to gathering both qualitative and quantitative data is through the use of surveys and interviews.
Surveys can be easily distributed to existing users and new audiences alike, so you can get a sense for how behaviors differ between these two groups. You can also include questions to get a sense of their attitudes as well. For instance, you may want to know what percentage of users are more inclined to call your customer service team rather than attempt to find help on their own through your website. And from there, why they decided to call (i.e. what was their issue?).
Though surveys often provide the hard data (the quantitative measures) that UX researchers are looking for, when the right questions are asked, these surveys can return the qualitative feedback needed as well.
Because interviews are typically conducted on a smaller scale, and tend to take longer, UX researchers don’t aim to gather quantitative data from them. Rather, interviews are the perfect opportunity to ask in-depth questions where the participants have the freedom to express themselves conversationally. Interviews bring forward the nitty gritty details that help UX researchers think more creatively about in-the-moment follow up questions.
Card sorting is an interesting test where the participants are asked to group, or ‘sort,’ a variety of topics to provide their thoughts on how content on a website should be grouped or otherwise categorized. Also, this test can be considered the opposite of the tree test.
Card sorting can be done in an ‘open’ or ‘closed’ fashion.
An open card sort refers to allowing the users to create their own buckets or groups, and then place the options you’ve provided into the buckets they’ve defined. A benefit to an open card sort is that it can help you gather naming convention options for your website’s navigation. Seeing what verbiage your audience uses to group your website content could help you and your team to select better terms for your website’s navigation.
A ‘closed card sort’ refers to when the UX researcher provides high-level categorization options for the users. By doing so, users are confined to those predetermined buckets when they’re sorting through the remainder of the website content.
Either option for the card sort test really lends itself to the understanding of where your users instinctively want to look for pages of your website. And knowing where they would look for it, compared to where you thought they would, is a great place to start with your website improvements!
Heat mapping is a research method that allows you to visually see which areas of a webpage were clicked on most through the use of thermal coloring, like this:
Heat mapping is often used as an initial test to bring to light an area of website or webpage that needs redesign considerations.
Most of the UX research methods discussed so far require the user base to receive a prompt of some sort. The prompts are usually goal-oriented because they make the user attempt to complete a goal or task. But a heat map, especially when used as a test to help determine a starting point, is a broad reflection of how users interacted with the site in general.
Stefanie gives an example of a usability issue that can be surfaced with the use of a heat map:
“It lets us see if 40% of users are clicking on a picture rather than a link. [This tells us that maybe] we should make the photo clickable as well.”
Setting Your Goals
From all of this research, you will know what areas of the site are causing the greatest user experience issues and can then set goals around correcting them. Stefanie recommends using an exercise called ‘How might we…?’ to assist in setting goals around the problem areas you discovered during your research.
“You can do an exercise called ‘How might we…?’. [For instance], you could say, ‘How might we make it easier for someone to achieve X?’”
After your goals have been defined by the research collected, and you’ve created a hypothesis around what improvements can be made to achieve that goal, it’s onto step 3 – creating a prototype that encompasses that hypothesis.
Step 3 – Prototyping a New Design That Incorporates Your Findings
In this phase of the UX research process, all of the findings that came from the tests will be passed onto a UX design team. They’re tasked with creating a mockup of a new design that features the hypothesized improvements. These improvements are the suggestions that came straight from the qualitative and quantitative data, and that plan to achieve the goal set at the end of those research tests conducted in step 2. Stefanie explains that this is where UX researchers get to work closely with UX designers.
“It brings up a lot of questions, especially when designers are on board with the UX research process,” Stefanie says. “Designers will often ask, ‘If we put this element here, what will the result be?’ And as a UX researcher, I don’t give my own opinion, I say, ‘Let me go find out.’”
Creating Multiple Prototypes
It’s common for the designers to perform some competitive analysis to bring forward examples of designs that are already in use, and the functionality they provide. UX researchers will often request that multiple prototypes be built based off of these competitive findings, as well as the findings of the UX research.
In creating multiple prototypes, UX designers are given the space to provide a variety of iterations that ultimately better their chances of developing an option that will perform best.
Once those prototypes have been developed, the UX researchers are tasked with testing out the effectiveness of the prototypes. They’ll validate that the hypothesized improvements that were incorporated into the prototypes will positively improve the user experience of the business’s website.
Speaking of validation…
Step 4 – Validating the Proposed Changes Using UX Research Methods
Validation is intended to make sure that what was designed in the prototype phase (step 3) reflects the research findings that helped you determine the goal of the project (step 2).
Validation is an important phase of the UX research process because it gives UX research teams a chance to conduct a ‘pulse check’ on a new design. Even though the initial research suggested change was needed, sometimes the direction shifts. If a company skipped validation and went straight to implementation, it could be a costly misstep.
“[Through validation] if it turns out that a design you thought was going to be great, based off the research, ends up not delivering as expected, then you have the luxury of being able to pivot and redesign that element,” Stefanie clarifies.
Validation can take place with prototypes in high-fidelity or low-fidelity formats. Fidelity, in this case, refers to the quality or completeness of the prototype. For instance, a low-fidelity prototype can be as simple as a wireframe of a website printed out on a piece of paper and used for in-person interviews, where participants can be asked questions like, “Where would you go to find X?”
A high-fidelity prototype would be a bit more complex, like a realized digital environment. It can be used in the same manner to suss out the usability of the new design.
To conduct validation, depending on the level of fidelity of the prototype, the same tests that were done initially to determine the problem areas (in step 2) can be done again. Some tests, like card sorts, A/B tests, tree test, and surveys can be conducted on any prototype. But tests like first clicks, heat mapping, or moderated/unmoderated user testing sessions require a more complete prototype (a high-fidelity prototype).
One test that can be done no matter the fidelity level is a chalk mark test. A chalk mark test is like a first click test, but conducted on a prototype rather than the existing product. Chalk mark tests provide UX researchers with quantitative data on the useability of their prototypes. Coupled with the qualitative feedback from one-on-one interviews, focus groups, etc. the data completes the picture for the UX researchers. They’ll know if their prototype will perform as expected and bring the business closer to achieving the goal that was defined.
Getting Started with UX Research
The process explained above assumes that you’ve already received the ‘go-ahead’ from upper management to conduct UX research. But in reality, if the ‘go-ahead’ has yet to be granted, that’s really where you need to start.
Generating internal buy-in for UX Research
Knowing that you would benefit from UX research, while also knowing that you need to build a case to get support from leadership and upper management, can make you feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Without the internal resources available to conduct moderated or unmoderated sessions, cognitive analysis, card sorting, and every other UX research method mentioned above, how can you prove that enhancements to the site could increase business conversion rates overall? And to that end, which enhancements specifically?
According to Stefanie, a great way to begin is to simply start having conversations with customers about their experiences, especially if you’re in a role that has you in contact with customers already.
Collecting notes from those conversations will give you the foundation of your pitch for UX research. Specifically, these conversations will help answer the ‘Why does this matter to us?’ element needed to convince upper management. How great would it be to approach your management team to tell them that not only is UX research a good idea, but that you’ve identified a starting point from the preliminary conversations you’ve been having.