User Experience – Methods of UX Research

It's useful to think of really three basic methods or approaches that encompass pretty much everything that we do in UX Research. So, they're really three basic methods that we use in user experience research to guide a product towards a great user experience.

We can ask people what they do and what they think, we can observe what they do, and we can inspect prototypes and artifacts, to determine whether or not they're likely to deliver a good user experience.

The ASK method of UX research

When we talk about gaining insight through asking, there are a number of different specific methods that we use. By far, the most common are interviews and surveys. Interviews consist of conversations with stakeholders to understand aspects of their experience. And surveys consist of questions that are distributed to lots of people, to elicit information about their attitudes, behaviors, and characteristics.

The OBSERVE method of UX research

When we talk about gaining insights through observations, there are a number of different specific ways that we do that. One is through ethnographic observations, which basically consists of hanging around in particular environments, while people are performing activities. And watching people engage in those activities to understand how they go about them. We can also observe how people interact with prototypes and systems that we've developed, by asking them to perform scripted tasks, to see if a system supports them through user testing.

The INSPECT method of UX research

And finally, when we talk about using inspection methods to gain insight, there are a couple of different ways that we do that. We can perform guideline based inspections, where we compare a system design against known best practices, to find places where it probably breaks down, because it violates some principle of what we know is likely to work for people in a particular context. We can also perform walkthrough based inspections, where we step through an interaction sequence using specific techniques to take a users-eye view to find probable breakdowns. And we also can perform comparative analysis, where we systematically compare a design with similar designs to identify strengths and weaknesses, and we often combine these different approaches in specific methods.

Methods Interrelated

In user testing, we not only observe people performing tasks, but we usually accompany those observations with interviews, to get more information about people's reactions to the product and learn more about what works and why. We also combine watching and asking through contextual interviews, often in the early stages of a design project.

So, we might sort of watch over their shoulders as they perform tasks, using their current system, and ask them why they're doing things and what works and what doesn't. A question might be, when do you use which of these different techniques? Well, at a very high level, we probably use the asking techniques where we're interacting and having conversations or asking questions of members of our target population.

When observation is infeasible, maybe these are activities that are infrequent, or take a very long time to unfold. Or are private and not easily observed.

Use survey’s when you need to get large numbers of responses and a high degree of certainty where we can employ statistical methods to be able to make strong claims that particular characteristics are present in our user population.

Perhaps because of the frailty of human memory, or because there's tacit knowledge involved, that people will not be able to tell you about in an interview or survey. You must conduct observations, when process and communication are important. Inspections can be performed when, first of all, you have a product to inspect.

So, inspection methods don't work early in the stages of a design project, where you're understanding users and their current practices, and try to understand what the possible options for a solution are. But once you have a prototype, you can perform things like guideline based inspections and walkthroughs. Inspection methods are also useful, when interacting with users as too expensive or cumbersome.