What Is User Research?

The discipline of user research has evolved alongside the rapidly-evolving dependence on digital technologies for professional and personal use. User research aims to answer questions around how people will interact with digital experiences, and centering the decision-making process around real feedback. This ensures that the user’s experience will match up with people’s real-life needs and behaviors.

User research asserts that in order to build great software, websites, and mobile apps, the designers of those experiences must understand the people that they are looking to serve.

The terms “user research” and “user experience” are frequently used interchangeably and are often merged into the phrase “user experience research.” A quick search for user research methods reveals a heavy focus on testing and measuring people’s interactions with digital experiences, referred to as “usability testing.” 

User Research and Usability Testing

As the name suggests, usability testing refers to the methods used to track, measure, and quantify people’s interactions with digital products. Some common usability testing techniques include:

  • Moderated usability testing: A moderator observes a test participant interacting with a digital experience, asking questions and providing guidance along the way.
  • Unmoderated usability testing: A test participant is presented with a digital experience, and the session is recorded for later observation and analysis.
  • Card sorting: Test participants are presented with a variety of cards displaying different possible concepts and are asked to organize them into categories. These people are then asked to explain the rationale behind their choices.
  • Eye-tracking: The eye movements of test participants are recorded and analyzed to see what part of a digital experience captures a person’s attention.
  • Heat-mapping: The cursor movements and activities of groups of test participants are recorded and portions of the digital experience are overlaid with relative “heat” grades based on how many people go to a specific section, how long they spend there, and where they click.
  • Recorded user sessions: Software runs in the background and records screen footage of people interacting with the digital experience.

Usability Testing: Only Part of the Picture

Usability testing techniques like the ones described above are terrific ways to understand behavior once a digital experience is either close to release or has already been released. Many of these data-gathering methods are rapid and cost-effective. In the case of heat-mapping and recorded user sessions, they simply run in the background, gathering data that can be used at the researcher’s convenience.

However, none of these methods will ensure that the digital products that have been built will serve people’s needs in the first place. Let’s use Quibi, 2020’s mobile-first streaming platform, as an example. Based on usability testing and metrics, Quibi should have been a success. An ever-increasing percentage of people use their smartphones to consume media, so meeting these potential viewers where they already existed would seem to make sense. Reviews of its user interface noted its clever reformatting of video for both portrait and landscape viewing. The problem with Quibi was one of desirability and timing. With so many subscription streaming services available, did they ever stop to ask if this mobile-first, bite-sized niche truly existed? And once the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the ensuing stay-at-home orders hit people, the timing of Quibi’s release led to its rapid demise.

If the goal of user research is to provide data about how people will interact with a website, app, or software, it’s important to understand whether or not they want that website, app, or software in the first place. This is where agile research can help. Agile research is designed to provide feedback from real people early and often to inform the earliest phases of product decision-making.

Agile Research Methods for User Research

The broad definition of user research encompasses several methods in addition to usability testing. These methods include interviews, surveys, and focus groups. Not only do these methods help user researchers to understand people’s responses to new technologies, they can be used to build an understanding of underlying needs that might change the course of developing these technologies. Product managers, UX designers, and developers need this information to make sure they’re actually solving people’s problems.

Depending on the purpose of the study, some user research is truly expert-driven and must be carefully designed and executed. This type of research must be done slowly and carefully. For example, to get the most out of a focus group, the participants must be selected and vetted, the moderator must be trained, and the setting, questions, and format must all be designed for maximum effectiveness.

To learn where agile research fits in your research toolkit download our Quick-Start Guide to Agile Research.