UX research is a foundational component of every UX design process. Blending cognitive science, data analysis, and yes — research, UX researchers provide crucial insights into user psychology and behavior. How does this work in practice — and how does this role integrate into the complex landscape of UX design?
The primary goal of the user experience or UX design process is to create a product or service that is an easy, efficient, and satisfying experience for the user. Easy right?
To uncover what a user will respond positively to requires some digging — and that’s where a UX researcher comes in. Take an anthropologist, sociologist, and marketing specialist, shake them together, and boom — you get a UX researcher. These creative professionals are tasked with figuring out what motivates someone to buy a product and want to use it. To figure that out, they design, conduct, and analyze user design research and usability testing and then collaborate with designers so that the final product can deliver an optimized experience. Let’s take a deeper dive into the differences between the roles of UX researcher and UX designer.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN UX RESEARCH + UX DESIGN
UX design refers to any interaction a person has with a product or service; it considers each component that shapes a person’s interaction with a product or service. This encompasses a wide array of experiences: how it makes a user feel to how simple it is for a user to accomplish their desired task to how the product feels in their hands, to how easy it is to complete a transaction (particularly online).
To avoid assumptions and make information-driven design decisions, a UX researcher will come in to speak to real users within the target market about the service or product. Day-to-day, UX researchers plan and conduct discovery interviews, concept and usability testing, contextual inquiry, and more. They set the scope of each study, along with research objectives, and recruit appropriate participants. Following a user research session, the data is analyzed and translated into actionable insights and product recommendations. UX researchers paint a picture of how people feel when using a particular iteration of a service or product with their work.
WHAT DOES A UX RESEARCHER DO?
UX researchers contribute to many stages across the development process to build a successful, intuitive, user-centered design.
The research process begins with both market and customer feedback. Market research can reveal what potential competitors are doing that is successful and where there might be space for a new offering.
When gathering customer feedback, UX researchers utilize different methods to get a comprehensive understanding of how consumers interact with a product or service. Methodologies can include questionnaires, online surveys, focus group discussions, and more. In addition to choosing the right method, UX researchers need to ask the right kinds of questions based on the specific problem or challenge relevant to the product they are working to develop.
Data analysis transforms the information gathered during the research phase into usable, actionable insights, and recommendations to inform future design decisions. Analysis methodologies look different depending on the types of research conducted. Some types of analysis are quantitative, while others are more qualitative. One popular method of analyzing user data is building personas or profiles of theoretical customers based on the target user base, to better understand their personalities, behaviors, and motivations.
To transform the research and analysis into a usable product, the UX researcher works with the UX design team and client to cover all the project’s bases. The UX researcher often works most closely with the UI designer. The research they’ve conducted most directly informs how the UI designer creates users’ direct interactions with the product or service. A great working relationship between a UI designer and a UX researcher allows the team to zero in on what the user finds essential, minimizing the effort that a person has to put into interacting with a product and facilitating their ability to accomplish their aims with ease.
Testing ensures that the choices made during the design phase stand up to scrutiny; it’s the time when user difficulties that were not discernible during design have a chance to be nixed. Other details have an opportunity to be refined. There are numerous testing methods commonly used, including A/B testing, usability testing, and remote user testing.
Testing occurs during both the prototype phase and once the product/service is available to consumers. The end product, over time, will be evaluated and re-evaluated using the same criteria to ensure that what the business is offering provides the desired experience and solution that the end user wants. This continued testing ensures that the design stays relevant, adjusts to changes in the market and user patterns, and connects more meaningfully to your audience.
In short, UX researchers act as a translator between consumers and the design team — providing a map that is informed by, and best caters to, its user base. Simply put: Without understanding what the consumer wants, UX designers would be flying blind.
UX RESEARCH METHODS
UX researchers use various methods to gather information about how consumers feel about and interact with different types of designs. These are the main four research context categories:
Natural Use of Product
Exactly what it sounds like — customers engage the product as they usually would in their regular lives — allowing researchers to understand behavior and opinions as close to reality as possible via methods like data mining and ethnographic field studies.
Scripted Use of Product
Often taking place in a lab, scripted use can reveal insights on specific usage aspects, like asking participants to complete a particular task. These studies provide more specific usability metrics, but don’t necessarily offer a complete picture of overall usage patterns.
De-contextualized studies offer information about broader cultural behaviors and opinions, including research that doesn’t necessarily have a user engaging the product — such as focus groups and email surveys.
Some creative methods combine aspects of more than one of the above, such as having customers work with theoretical designs or testing broader concepts.
YOU NEED THESE ATTRIBUTES AND CHARACTERISTICS TO SUCCEED AT BEING A UX RESEARCHER
Unsurprisingly, research skills, like data collection and analysis, are necessary to thrive as a UX researcher — as is the ability to craft research plans and individually-targeted questions, identify problems and potential solutions, and translate data into a format usable for the design process.
Most UX teams approach projects via the Design Thinking process, which includes starting any design process from a place of empathy for the consumer. A desire to learn about and understand people, their behaviors, and what makes them tick, along with wanting to optimize their experiences, drives most UX research — so approaching a role with that perspective will prime you for success. Familiarity with this process and creative problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, and curiosity are also vital to supplementing any set of hard skills and qualifications. Additionally, strong collaborative and communication skills will make you a valuable contributor to any UX development team.
The career path of a UX researcher isn’t necessarily the most straightforward. While a background in research provides the most robust foundation to a job in UX research, people have made their way successfully into the field from the worlds of neuroscience, marketing, and communications, anthropology, and many other areas. There may not be a traditional educational pathway that will guide you to UX research, but there are plenty of opportunities and strategies to start learning about the space.
The average salary for a UX researcher varies across the United States; in NYC, according to data gathered by Creative Circle, it ranges from $65,065 on the low end to $180,180 on the high end. According to our data in Minneapolis, Minnesota, salaries range from $59,769 to $165,514.
About the author.
An award-winning creator and digital health, wellness, and lifestyle content strategist — Karina writes, edits, and produces compelling content across multiple platforms — including articles, video, interactive tools, and documentary film. Her work has been featured on MSN Lifestyle, Apartment Therapy, Goop, Psycom, Pregnancy & Newborn, Eat This Not That, thirdAGE, and Remedy Health Media digital properties.