Types of UX research , Approaches to UX research

The Different Approaches To UX Research


In an industry where the user is key to the brand’s success, research is of immeasurable importance. UX research envelops an assortment of analytical techniques used to add context and build understanding around users and their experiences with products. To design experiences with users in mind, we need to conduct research that tells us who the person is, in what context they would use a product or a service, and what they need from a product or a service.

To help you understand the different types of research approaches we will take the help of a fictional scenario and use it as an example. Let’s look at the scenario below.  

Mr. X is a chef, who is looking to expand the menu at his cafe, Burger Base, located near the Winderberg University campus in Pune. He has been serving the University students for a decade now but has not been making profits like he used to. Despite the business being the same, his accountant is unable to justify why the losses are increasing exponentially. He resorts to spending some time to understand his customers and tries taking up different approaches to get answers to his questions.

Before beginning with deciding what approach you should take with the UX research, you need to understand the direction that you are headed in. To understand this, you need to be clear of the constraints and your resources; The first three questions explained below are the formative questions. Once you have understood what they are and what you require, the next set of questions will help you ponder on the application of the data obtained.


Let’s explain each question that you would ask yourselves:

What is the Duration of the Research?

The duration of the research, along with an understanding of what the business aims to achieve, helps pick between a longitudinal or a cross-sectional study.

Longitudinal Research:

A longitudinal study involves the repeated observations or examination of a group of users over time, at regular intervals. Longitudinal studies are mainly done in order to follow changes in perception, behaviors, attitudes, and motivation of use. One of the important aspects here is that longitudinal study extends beyond a single frame in time. As a result, they can establish a proper sequence of the events occurred.

Longitudinal studies can employ a range of methods including diaries, participant observation, and repeated interviews/surveys.

Taking the above scenario into consideration, Mr. X wants to understand the satisfaction level of his customers for the new burger he has introduced. He decides to request his customers to fill feedback forms after every meal, and review them monthly. The insights he gathers over this period could help him identify the motivation or USP of his Burger, and channelize that when marketing it next.

Cross-sectional Research:

Cross-sectional research is an approach where data is collected as a whole to study a population under study at a single point in time. It involves assessing people with differences in one key factor, at the specified point in time. Participants are usually categorized into groups called cohorts. Cross-sectional studies help in determining if differences between people can be attributed to the group they are a part of or not. So if two groups of people were separated on the basis of their age groups, characteristics observed uniformly within a group of 20-year-olds, and those observed uniformly within a group of 30-year-olds would mean that there is a higher likelihood of a 20-year-old individual being different from a 30-year-old, purely because of the age.

In this case, Mr. X from BurgerBase wants to understand how his newly added vegetarian burger is perceived by teenagers who flock to his cafe every evening. To understand this, he sends out a flyer and invites 30 students from a nearby college to attend a free tasting session. He also invites a group of corporates for the same. He asks the diners to fill in a questionnaire before and after eating the burger and analyses the feedback he gets on that day. He collates the feedback that was listed by the tasters and tweaks his recipe accordingly the next day, to suit the preference of the teenagers.

What is the Nature of the Data?

It is important to ascertain if you require numbers and statistical data, or opinions, thoughts, and other subjective data. This helps you choose between quantitative and qualitative research.

Quantitative Research:

Quantitative research in UX typically includes anything that you can count: time on page, percent of users engagement, page views, user flows, time to task completion. Beyond analytics methods such as surveys, polls and A/B testing also generate quantitative insights. A point to note is that quantitative research thrives with large data sets, and therefore is more often used in Market research studies.

Mr. X has already created the new vegetarian burger, now. If he wishes to know how many customers prefer mustard sauce over tomato sauce, or a definite number on how many orders are placed per day, he needs to employ quantitative research.

Qualitative Research:

Qualitative methods are typically anything that falls on the other side of the fence. This involves researchers engaging users and digging into their behaviors, feelings, attitudes, and emotions. The insights gathered can be observations, thoughts, ‘user quotes’ and other aspects that are cannot be justified or captured in numbers alone. Because UX research primarily focuses on gathering insights from the users directly, qualitative research fits best as an approach.
If Mr. X from our previous example wants to know about what people like or dislike about the new burger, he would conduct qualitative research to understand what are the factors that influence a customers’ decision to order the burger, the experience of eating it and the impacts it creates - by either speaking to them in person or asking them to complete a descriptive questionnaire.

What is the Source of Data?

Primary Research:

Primary research is research that involves the gathering of fresh data. It utilizes experiments, interviews, or testing carried out to acquire data first-hand, rather than being gathered from published sources. Since it involves direct interaction with the users, often spread across segments, locations and geographies, primary research is both time and resource consuming.

Mr. X wants to come up with a vegetarian burger recipe but does not have any expertise in cooking. He decides to conduct some primary research with a set of chefs who specialize in vegetarian food. He conducts interviews with 5 of them, so understand in detail the ways the experts have curated their dishes.

Secondary Research:

Secondary research involves understanding, analyzing and synthesizing insights from pre-existing sources like - research papers, journals, blogs, articles, etc. and helps align the focus of primary research in a larger scale and can also help to identify the answer at times. Secondary research is a good way of starting out, especially when the focus of your research is new or unexplored and takes relatively less time, as the entire research happens at the desk, which can be an advantage for when there are limited resources available. However, the insights gathered are subject to the data you have access to and is often limited, in terms of the insights, viability and is often difficult to authenticate.
Mr. X wants to know what versions of vegetarian burgers chefs around the world have come up with. He decides to conduct secondary research and reads through recipe books and blogs online for understanding the various varieties of burgers being offered in his area.

What is the Objective of the Research?

Generative or Exploratory Research:

It is used to investigate a problem which is not clearly defined. This kind of research acts as the formative reference point for new products, or when we don't have an understanding of the problem areas a user might face while interacting with a product. Generative research thus includes observing people in their natural environments, conducting interviews and focus group discussions with users or subject matter experts as per the requirement, all with the single goal of understanding and identifying the grey area in the user experience of a product. It is usually carried out when the problem is at a preliminary stage. It helps answer questions like what, why and how. UX researchers seek to thoroughly understand the ecosystem in which users use their products, the social or environmental dynamics in which they function and how that impacts the interaction between products and users.

In our example, Mr. X feels that serving a larger variety of burgers will increase the number of his customers. However he is not sure if his assumption is true, so he needs more information. The owner intends to carry out exploratory research to find out what new varieties of the burger are his customers looking to munch on and would this enable him to get more customers or if there is a better idea.

Descriptive and Informative Research:

Descriptive research begins with a problem statement in mind and is used to gain a detailed understanding of the context of the problem. It seeks to give more specific answers. This approach is utilized to have a good understanding of the context we are trying to solve for through our design and is imperative to fill the knowledge gaps of the solution environment by what other people know. This brings with it the challenge of doing away with predisposed notions and being open to what research informs us of.

Mr. X discovers that there is a need for more vegetarian burgers on his menu, from the previous exploratory research he undertook. To be able to take the right decision on the kind of vegetarian burger he needs to serve, he intends to carry on informative research on the different vegetarian burgers that are available in the market, what ingredients people commonly like and what could help him stand out with his competitors.

Evaluative Research:

After having identified and understood a problem, understanding its context and the people around it, we can now approach users or probable users and try to find out what works and what does not. Evaluations could be done either by users: existing or new or by involving expert evaluators, who are not the users themselves. With this kind of research, the goal is to critically assess if the product has indeed solved the problem that was initially intended to be solved. Essentially, this phase validates or negates our findings from the Exploratory and/or Informative Research.

Mr. X has now invented a new vegetarian burger, after incorporating his findings from the interviews he conducted with his users and the expertise of his chef. He decides to offer free samples of the burgers to a group college students who regularly visit the Burger Base and gathers their feedback. He incorporates a few changes in the recipe and finally introduces in on his menu.

What is the Outcome of the Research?

Pure Research:  

Pure research, also known as fundamental or basic research, is conducted without any specific goal in mind. The main aim of pure research is to advance knowledge and to identify or explain the relationship between variables. Thus, it advances fundamental knowledge about the world, and introduce new theories, ideas, and principals as well as new ways of thinking. Pure research generally does not produce marketable results but may be used for later research into more specific and profitable applications. Pure research is driven by curiosity, intuition, and interest, and is more exploratory in nature than applied research. Sometimes, pure research can act as a foundation for applied research.
Mr. X wants to understand the entire ecosystem in which cafes in Pune operate, and where Burger Base fits in. He decides to conduct pure research and comes up with a theory on the ‘effect of westernization on the culinary habits of Indian consumers’, that he and a scholarly friend hypothesize.

Applied Research:

Applied research is conducted in order to solve a specific and practical problem. However, applied research is often based on basic research or pure research. Moreover, the results of applied research are usually intended for present use, not for the future. UX research generally falls into this category as it focuses on understanding the users, their interaction and experience with products and eliminates any assumptions bound to a product.

Mr. X now wants to understand how westernization has affected the culinary habits of his customers and what he must do to accommodate for the changing times. He decides to conduct applied research focused on identifying the items from his current menu that do well and those that do not. He identifies opportunity areas by conducting interviews with his customers.

It is evident that there are various approaches to conducting research and may be taken in isolation, or as pairings, or even as a group of sequential approaches. The differences in these approaches make it easier for them to exist as conceptual pairings, instead of as opposing ideas. The way to ascertain what approach or approaches to take is by asking the right set of questions. It is also vital to understand the exact depth of answers needed, the limitations one has while conducting the research, and the willingness and ability to consume the insights gathered. Once these specifications have been defined for a product, for the brand and its stakeholders, it becomes marginally easy to choose what approach to take.

Loved this? Then you must check out this blog on Demystifying UX Research and the Science of Design

We would like to thank Anubha Bisht for contributing immensely in shaping this article. 


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