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User research is at the core of the user-centered design process. Without it, you’re flying completely blind in your product development, or as Bruce Tognazzini once put it: you’re “throwing buckets of money down the drain.” But knowing which research method to use isn’t always easy. There are so many different ways to gather feedback from users to uncover unmet needs and opportunities for product improvements. In this article I’d like to explore some of those methods with the hope of making the decision-making process a little bit easier.

Let’s start by clarifying the difference between needs and features.

If you’ve ever used a household appliance you’ll know that this isn’t the case. Have you ever used more than one or two of the preset cycles on your washing machine? And how many different ways do you need to toast your bread? The evolution of household appliances is a perfect example of what happens when features are equated with value. We don’t need more ways to wash our clothes. We might need faster or quieter ways, sure. But as we know, more isn’t necessarily better. And that’s when users sometimes take matters into their own hands.

user-research-remotes-600x800Source: Reddit “My buddy dad-proofing his remotes

When the first reviews and usage statistics for Facebook Home started appearing, John Gruber used a phrase that stuck with me: “It’s a well-designed implementation of an idea no one wants.” Hyperbole aside, this is what happens when features (cover feed, friends filling the screen, chat heads, app launcher…) are mistaken for user needs (why would people want to replace their phone’s operating system with an app?).

Research methods for gathering user needs are powerful because they rely more on observation and deduction than gathering answers to a bunch of predetermined questions. But before we get into the different methods we can use to make better products, we need to take a little detour to define some basic research terms.

Qualitative Research and Quantitative Research

First, we need to distinguish between quantitative research and qualitative research. With quantitative approaches, data tends to be collected indirectly from respondents, through methods like surveys and web analytics. Quantitative research allows you to understand what is happening, or how much of it is happening. With qualitative approaches, data is collected directly from participants in the form of interviews or usability tests. Qualitative research helps you understand how or why certain behaviors occur.

Market Research and User Research

We also need to make a distinction between market research and user research. Both are important, but they serve different purposes. Market research seeks to understand the needs of a market in general. It is concerned with things like brand equity and market positioning. Attitudinal surveys and focus groups are the bread-and-butter tools for market researchers. They are tasked to figure out how to position a product in the market. Surveys and focus groups are very useful to understand market trends and needs, but they won’t help you very much when it comes to the design of your product.

User research, on the other hand, focuses on users’ interactions with a product. It is concerned with how people interact with technology, and what we can learn from their wants, needs, and frustrations. Those are the methods we’ll focus on in this section.

There are many ways to classify different research methodologies, but my preference is for a classification that lines up the different methods with the outcomes required by different phases of the product development process.  In that approach, there are three classes:

User Research Methods: Which to Use When

1. Exploratory Research

Exploratory research is most useful when the goal is to discover the most important (and often unmet) needs that users have with the products and services around them. The goal here is to find out where there are gaps in the way existing products solve users’ problems. New product or feature ideas often develop out of these sessions.

Here are some of the methods that fall into this class:


2. Design research

Design research helps to develop and refine product ideas that come out of the user needs analysis. Some of the methods include:

3. Assessment research

Assessment research helps us figure out if the changes we’ve made really improve the product, or if we’re just spinning our wheels for nothing. This class of research is often overlooked, but it’s a crucial part of the product development cycle. This requires larger sample sizes to ensure the ability to compare before/after metrics with statistical significance, so these methods are mainly quantitative in nature.  Methods include:

So that’s an overview of user research methods—there are many more, but I wanted to focus on the ones I’ve found especially useful in my own work.

The real power of user research starts to happen when you combine methods and triangulate results to come up with a product strategy that takes a variety of quantitative and qualitative insights into consideration. If you’re interested to learn more about this, Catriona Cornett’s Using Multiple Data Sources and Insights to Aid Design and Bill Sellman’s Why Do We Conduct Qualitative User Research? are good posts on the topic.

And with that, please go forth and research!

Rian van der Merwe

About Rian van der Merwe

Rian van der Merwe designs and builds high quality software that people love to use. He also wrote a book about it called Making It Right: Product Management For A Startup World. After spending several years working in Silicon Valley and Cape Town, South Africa, he is currently Product Design Director at Jive Software in Portland, OR and blogs and tweets regularly about design, technology, and software development.