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March 18, 2021

Product Managers: 4 UX Research Methods Are All You'll Ever Need

Even the best analytics tools in the world can’t get you inside your user’s head. But if you want to deliver a great UX, inside the user’s head you must go.

To get there, you’ll need to leverage qualitative UX research methods. But if you Google “UX research methods,” what you find is mostly useless to you as a product manager—dozens of articles with dozens of research options that are academically interesting but less than practical.

It’s easy to see, then, why PMs too often skip user research. Even if you had the time to study all of those methods, how would you know which to use for your situation?

Spoiler alert: You don’t need to learn 20+ research methods to run A-grade user research. In fact, there are only four qualitative UX research methods you absolutely need to know to build a great user experience.

Let’s take a look at how each of these UX research methods plays into each phase of the UX lifecycle. For context, this is how we’re defining each UX phase:

  • Discovery is where you gather insights and brainstorm ideas, either for a new product or when prioritizing what features to build or improve.
  • Definition is the stage where you take your insights, ideas, and data and form them into a plan for your product, feature, or improvement.
  • Build is the process of developing, testing, and refining the product, feature, or improvement.
  • Launch is the stage where you release your product, feature, or improvement, and end users begin to interact with it.

User interviews

User interviews are a heavy-lift but valuable way to understand the attitudes, behaviors, and context of your users. Leverage user interviews when you want to uncover unexpected insights, and get to the bottom of a user’s needs, goals, motivations, and pain points.

User interviews are generally 1-1 and have a fairly loose structure with open-ended questions—the goal here is to peek into the minds of your users, not go fishing for simple answers. You want to learn the why behind a user’s wants, needs, and opinions on your product.

This kind of qualitative UX research is essential for creating a customer-led product team that addresses the root causes of bad UX instead of slapping band-aids on something that doesn’t meet the user’s fundamental needs.

“At Amplitude,” writes Mike Ottavi-Brannon, principal product manager at Amplitude, “we use customerinterviews to understand how our customers gain value from Amplitude and to help our product managers develop critical intuition around customer needs. We can rely on that personal expertise for everyday decisions without needing to conduct endless customer surveys.”

Employ User Interviews at these phases

User interviews are most useful in the Discovery and Definition phases. Good UX design is driven by that all-important “why,” so it’s useful to check in with users at these stages.

Discovery phase: Invite users to speak freely about their goals, their general frustrations, and their experience with your product (or similar products). Leave it open ended—but make sure to probe for deeper insight when you hear something unexpected or particularly important. What you want here is real-world context to inform your ideation.

Definition phase: Hold slightly more structured user interviews that allow for a candid discussion of your top ideas from the Discovery stage. The goal here is to gather additional context as it relates to your proposed direction—before investing too much in an idea that may not satisfy users’ needs. It’s good to get feedback on your ideas, but be wary of confirmation bias, and be willing to accept that your idea may not be quite right yet.

When considering this UX research method, it’s important to remember that you're dealing with small samples, so if you learn something super unexpected it could still be useful to validate with a survey or in-product survey. User interviews can also be time-consuming and you may find it difficult to recruit participants for your interviews, especially at early stages.

Services like User Interviews can help you find participants, while tools like Sprig enable you to recruit participants while they’re using your product. It’s also helpful in the long run to build out a UX research panel of customers willing to help you improve your product.

User surveys

User surveys are a good way to get input from a broad base of users on a set of detailed questions. They’re essentially the opposite of user interviews—surveys need a well-defined goal and should be crafted to solicit specific feedback. Use surveys when you have a specific idea or question that you need to validate at scale.

Many tools and platforms exist to help you run and incentivize surveys, but your format isn’t nearly as important as your survey design. An engaging customer survey targets the most relevant users with a short list of questions. Writing effective survey questions comes down to deciding what kind of feedback you need and crafting unambiguous questions to solicit that feedback.

Learn more about the common mistakes that are ruining your surveys.

Employ User Surveys at these phases

Surveys are a good way to gather qualitative UX research at the Definition and Launch phases. (While there may be cases where a survey is useful in the Build phase, in-product surveys and usability testing are the preferred UX research methods there.) Just make sure you tailor your questions to the specific goals of each phase:

Definition phase: Test a working hypothesis—ask questions geared around the ideas you’re pursuing to get a sense of whether or not these ideas are worth pursuing in your users’ eyes.

Launch phase: Leverage qualitative user surveys to get feedback on your new product or feature. At this stage, it can be useful to include both closed-ended and open-ended questions. Closed questions help you measure performance of your new feature against goals, while open questions surface issues and opportunities to improve.

When writing your user survey, it’s important to avoid bias, which will hurt the accuracy of your results. The participants you choose can also affect your results. Make sure your sample is made up of the most relevant users for the particular issue you’re trying to solve. Otherwise their answers can be misleading.

Last but not least, bear in mind that with a user survey, you can't probe deeper into a participant's answers. If you want to dig deeper into the “why” behind the results, consider asking participants upfront if they're willing to let you reach out with an interview or follow-up questions.

In-product surveys

In-product surveys are surveys that pop up in an app or on a web page and ask for feedback targeted to the user’s current interactions. While these surveys can be sent by email, they’re usually integrated directly into the UX via a tool like Sprig. These surveys are quick, low-effort, and provide both quantitative and qualitative research. Of all the UX research methods we cover, this one is the most flexible and user-friendly.

Best of all, in-product surveys capture insights on a very specific experience or action—no more asking a user about their onboarding experience a month after they set up their account. The integrated nature of in-product surveys also allows you to get feedback from a much wider set of users and for a longer window of time.

Employ in-product surveys at these phases

In-product surveys can be leveraged at any stage of the UX lifecycle, although they work best if you at least have some kind of existing product or prototype to work with.

Discovery phase: Target users within your app to ask them how well the product currently meets their needs and how you can improve their experience. This will help you identify your customers’ highest feature priorities when you’re brainstorming what you should build next.

Definition phase: Launch an in-product survey for users after they interact with the feature or user interface you plan to improve. This will help you identify the specific frustrations and challenges surrounding that feature, so you can plan a solution accordingly.

Build phase: Set up in-product surveys within a prototype, alpha, or beta version of your project. This isn’t as robust as usability testing but can help you quickly gather qualitative feedback to help inform improvements and prepare your researchers for more productive usability testing.

Launch phase: Place in-product surveys strategically to gather continual UX feedback on live products. Continuous research allows you to quickly address user issues, improve experiences, and plan future projects.

To paraphrase the Bard, “though it be but little, it is fierce.” In-product surveys make it easy for users to provide answers to open-ended questions in a way that is easy and natural for them—and immediate and actionable for you.

Usability testing

Usability testing is the process of watching users complete tasks in your product to observe how their behavior aligns with your expectations. It’s essential for finding problems and discovering opportunities in the user experience because it gives you real-time insight into real human interactions. There are two kinds of usability testing: moderated and unmoderated.

Moderated usability testing is when a UX researcher or other team member sets up a live screen-share call with a user. (Pre-COVID, this also sometimes took place in person.) They create a list of tasks for the user to complete designed around specific features, interfaces, or actions they want to test.

Moderated testing delivers better insights than unmoderated, since it gives you the ability to jump in with questions when a tester does something unexpected or gets stuck. It’s the preferred method of usability testing, assuming you have the time to invest in it.

A moderated usability test can also have some of the benefits of a user interview, since you can probe for deeper insights as you walk through the test. Moderated tests are the best way to get insights about the usability of a specific product or feature.

Unmoderated usability testing is a test run via a third-party usability testing tool. As the name suggests, the researcher is not directly involved. Tasks are given to a participant who completes them in a tool that records their screen as they work. Testers are usually encouraged to think aloud as they complete tasks, to provide insight into why they do what they do (which is especially helpful if they do something unexpected).

In some ways, you might consider it more like a user survey than an interview—participants complete their tasks, and you’re left to sift through the data to find meaning.

Unmoderated usability testing is an easier, cheaper, and faster UX research method. However, it leaves less room for deeper qualitative insights. And if a user gets stuck on a particular task, you have no way to set them back on the right path, which can result in “wasted” sessions. Plan your tests carefully and put effort into unbiased interpretations of your observations.

Employ usability testing at these phases

User behavior heavily influences both ideation and development, so focus on usability testing during the Discovery and Build phases.

Discovery phase: Run usability tests to gather information on how users currently interact with your product. Set up tasks that help you identify points of friction and frustration. Moderated testing is ideal here. You want to understand why a user behaves and feels a certain way about their experience.

Build phase: Plan a number of usability tests throughout this phase. Good UX research is never “one and done.” Unmoderated usability tests are far more useful here as they allow you to test your design choices with real users. The goal is to know if your product or feature works as intended before you launch or commit to the next stage of building.

The goal here is to collective qualitative, unbiased data on real user interactions so that you can create a product that fits naturally into the end user’s workflows. We recommend using it in tandem with in-product surveys to gather deeper insights into the drivers of behavior.

That’s it. Those are all the UX research methods you need to know.

Don’t overcomplicate UX research. That only leads to procrastination or complete avoidance. You don’t need complex software; you don’t need to know 20+ UX research methods; you don’t even need your own UX team. You need well-designed research goals and a few simple, manageable methods and tools to help you meet those goals.

Still worried qualitative UX research is too much for your team to handle? Let us show you how easy it actually is to scale qualitative research.

About the author

Ryan Glasgow

Product guy. Early team member at Weebly (acquired by Square) & Vurb (acquired by Snapchat); UCSD alum. I founded Sprig to help others build the best products possible.

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