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5 tips for successful UX research and testing

UX and UI designers discuss UX research at a table
(Image credit: Weedezign via Getty)

UX research and testing is hugely important for anyone wanting to create successful, engaging user experiences, but it isn't an exact science. Some approaches to UX research work for some companies, while others will swear that the opposite approach is the way to go. So amid conflicting views, how should you approach user research and testing?

Well, we asked seven UX pros to talk us through how they do it, and, based on what they said, we've compiled this list of tips to keep in mind. Of course, we're not say ing the way you do it is wrong, but these pointers can serve as a good guide. If you have any doubt about why UX is important see our guide to UX theory – and also see our picks of the worst UI fails for some examples of when things go wrong. You might also want to see our choices of the best UI design tools and our guide to the key UX and UI trends in 2022.

5 tips for UX research and testing

01. Start with your goals

UX research: an image of a UX research book by Erika Hall

(Image credit: Erika Hall)

One key piece of advice is to start by setting out what you want to achieve with the research. "We always start with the goals of the project and of our client's business in general," says Mule Design Studio's Erika Hall. "This allows us to identify the most relevant research questions and focus our efforts. Then we work as collaboratively as possible so everyone working on the project has a hand in generating the insights. 

"It's easy to focus on specific methods and tools and forget why you're doing the research in the first place. Always referring to the higher goals keeps the mind sharp, so you don't just fall into habits."

We often think of UX research as a scientific discipline, and to an extent it is, testing a hypothesis, uncovering the truth or finding evidence. But Monotype's research director Emma Boulton also sees it as storytelling. "It can be all of those things," she tells us, "but I believe research is simply about seeking information and piecing it together in a coherent narrative. It's about telling a story so that it provides insights and a clear path to take."

02. Choose the right approach

Are you doing UX research or UX testing? The terms 'user research' and 'user testing' are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings and objectives and the approach you use and the questions you ask should be different for each. Chui Chui Tan, formerly of cxpartners and now at Beyo Global, says: "Both are about getting insights from people who are using, or are likely to use, a product. However, there's a slight distinction.

"Usability testing is about identifying issues users might experience with a product, either via the product itself or a prototype. User research is about focusing on understanding users' behaviours, needs, expectations and pain points. You don't necessarily need material to test on."

03. Research less, but more often

It can be tempting to research and test to death, but it's usually better to focus on what you really need to research and to do that more frequently. Quietstars' co-founder Adrian Howard has even turned that into a mantra for testing: 'Do less more often together to do more'. 

He explains: "'Do less' because the point is not research for the sake of it, but to help us deliver the right products and services at the right time. 'More often' because ongoing research helps us discover and refine markets and customer needs. Ongoing testing helps us ensure our products meet those needs. 'Together' because the simplest way to make sure everybody understands the research is for everybody to be involved in doing the work and owning the results."

On the other hand, the reality is that some don't test at all. UX designer Irene Pereyra from Anton & Irene says: "Testing your own work is a bit like grading your own homework and a lot of user research is conducted like a pseudo-science. I've been in one too many subjective testing environments that would surely make real scientists scream in horror. 

"If our clients want user research we quote Dieter Rams, who when asked about doing consumer research during his time at Braun simply said, 'Never. We wanted to change the world.'"

04. Observe and iterate

A diagram showing a UX research process

(Image credit: Robert Hoekman Jr)

Perhaps the biggest key to successful UX research is observation. "When you research users and usage, always remember: there is more truth in data than in conversation, and more understanding yet in observation," suggests UX designer and author, Robert Hoekman Jr

"Listen to what they say, then ignore it and watch the stats to see what they do. Then ignore both and watch them in person to find the truth. When drawing up a new design, try iterative usability testing. 

"Leave time between sessions to revise, then show the new version to the next tester. Don't change everything. Use good judgment. Do this well and the problems you hear about in the morning will be gone by the afternoon."

05. Have a conversation

One way to conduct observation is to go to where people are doing their thing and engage them in a direct but open-ended conversation about what they're doing and what they'd like to be doing. 

"Most importantly, I listen for 'why'," user researcher Steve Portigal says. If you seek to understand usage without uncovering meaning, you leave so much insight on the cutting-room floor. I use insights as seeds for the extended team to gather, and think divergently and how we might respond to what we've learned. Research always feeds action."

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Joe is a regular freelance journalist and editor at Creative Bloq. He's in charge of getting our product reviews up onto the website and keeps track of the best equipment for creatives, from monitors to office supplies. A writer, translator, he also works as a project manager at a design and branding agency based in London and Buenos Aires.