Beginner’s Guide to UX Research: Definitions, Research Methods, and Jobs

UX research, not design. Yes, there’s a difference! Start here.

We talk A LOT about user experience (UX) here at Skillcrush and for a good reason!

Phenomenal UX improves the accessibility, usability, and overall interaction users have with a product or service. If the UX designer is the Batman of the design world, the UX researcher is certainly a cross between the ever-present and knowledgable Alfred and perennial gadget tester Lucious Fox. 🦸🏾

User experience research, or UX research, has existed just as long as UX design. The disciplines go hand in hand on a grand mission to improve user interfaces and user experiences, but if you haven’t heard the term “UX research,” we wouldn’t be surprised. We often only see the result and not the hours of usability testing and user testing.

If this is your first time dipping your toes into user experience research, this complete beginner’s guide is for you. We’ll start with basic definitions, through common research methods, and end with how you can start your career as a UX researcher.

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What is UX Research?

Before jumping into the nitty-gritty, let’s establish our foundation — the user research definition.

In UX design, user research is defined as “the methodic study of target users — including their need and pain points — so designers have the sharpest possible insights to work with to make the best designs,” according to Interaction Design Foundation.

In other words, UX research is the process of acquiring data to improve UX.

Okay, so UX research is a step in the UX design process. But can user research be bypassed to get to the exciting part, um, designing?

No. 🙅🏾‍♀️

Why is user research so important?

The primary goal of UX designers is to solve problems with human-centered solutions.

This is all fine and dandy until you consider the varied backgrounds, experiences, values, and beliefs. Take a look around your workplace or grocery store, and you’ll begin to understand.

Maybe one coworker prefers a Mac while another uses a PC. Why? Or one shopper opts for frozen waffles, and another chooses waffle ingredients. Why?

Sure, you can guess that your coworker uses a PC because it resembles their childhood desktop. You may even surmise that the dad carting two kids needs a quick and easy breakfast for the kiddos. But those would all be guesses.

UX research takes the guesswork out of ALL design — visual design, UX design, UI design — and delivers proven quantitative and qualitative data through structured interviews, surveys, focus groups, usability tests, analytics data, and more!

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UX Research Methods

Run the tape back. Remember when we guessed a coworker might feel sentimental toward PCs or that dad just needed a quick breakfast? These are the hypotheses and the starting points for all UX research.

Researchers use roughly two research methods to validate, invalidate, and expand upon the original hypothesis: quantitative and qualitative research.

Quantitative data tells the “what” and can be measured. For example, how many people visited a landing page or how many users clicked on a button. Qualitative data explains the “why” and is difficult to measure, as it’s based on a user’s opinions and motivations. These two data points work in tandem to complete the full picture.

Quantitative Data

Quantitative research typically produces numerical data that can be measured, analyzed, and answer the questions:

  • How many?
  • How often?
  • How much?

Data points a researcher may consider tracking on a digital product like a website include click rates, bounce rates, time on page, and conversion rates. Just as there are an infinite amount of data points, researchers have a great number of data-gathering methods at their disposal. For example, a researcher may use analytics software to A/B test a mock-up of a website and track how long it takes a user to complete an action like clicking a link.

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Qualitative Data

Qualitative data produces descriptive, non-numerical data like a user’s feelings and thoughts. UX researchers are many things, but mind readers, they are not.

Instead of hoping for an X-men-level miracle, designers gather qualitative data through online surveys, in-person surveys, user interviews, and usability testing. These UX research methods are valid, but let’s take a closer look at some of these qualitative methods in action.

As a follow-up to a quantitative data-gathering session, like a real-time A/B test, a researcher may conduct a user interview to understand why the user took the action they did. User interviews probe individuals with open-ended questions that prompt the user to speak authentically. For example, instead of asking, “Was the experience good?” an interviewer might say, “Tell me about the experience.” This type of open-ended questioning allows interviewees to fill in the blanks and offer insight that interviewers may not have gathered otherwise.

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Data Gathering

Researchers are NOT done when they complete their last survey or interview. Far from it, actually.

Researchers analyze and interpret their data findings, creating customer journey maps and user personas to present to the rest of their design team. Based on the findings, the team will create a product based on the research findings. This design goes through further accessibility and usability testing to assess its UX. Researchers may support this activity, collecting UX data for further iterations of the design until a design that meets the project’s goals is reached.

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Careers in UX Research

You may have heard of UX designers; well, today we’re bringing you UX researchers. The UX community does NOT stop at user experience designers. In fact, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

UX teams are built of:

  • UX managers
  • UX designers
  • UI designers
  • UX writers
  • Visual designers
  • Interaction designers
  • Information architects

…and, yes, UX researchers. These roles can be combined or broken down by a company based on project scope and resources; nonetheless, UX researchers are often vital assets to the design process. Why?

UX research is not a one-and-done task. UX research is an ongoing endeavor that seeks to continuously improve UX. And UX research is not limited to user testing.

Consider this 2023 Google job description for a UX designer:

  • Create a results-oriented roadmap at the product level in partnership with Product Management and Engineering leads
  • Align the UX and cross-functional teams on a long-term project roadmap through workshops, sprints, customer meetings, etc.
  • Lead UX projects from the initial concept through execution and landing
  • Collaborate with product, engineering, and research partners to explore and evaluate concepts, support implementation, and independently move projects forward
  • Communicate progress and design rationale and align on design decisions with stakeholders

UX researchers have a wealth of UX design skills and interpersonal skills that inform not only their research but team communication, dynamics, and overall productivity. That said, if you are a curious individual who wants to break into the tech industry, UX research could be a good fit.

The average salary for user experience researchers is $85,629, according to Glassdoor, with senior UX researchers making as much as $120,319. UX researchers have the option to work full time, part time, contract, or in house. Likewise, many user researchers have the option to work remote jobs. And because any good product or service should begin with UX research to understand the validity and effectiveness of the solution, UX researchers are needed EVERYWHERE, from Google to small businesses.

Even better, you DO NOT need a computer science degree to become a UX researcher! Employers are far more concerned with your ability to perform the job responsibilities than your alma mater. For this reason, you can acquire the needed UX skills needed to thrive through a UX design course. Reputable UX design courses like the Skillcrush Break Into Tech UI/UX program 👀 offer high-quality curriculum, project-based assignments that form a portfolio, one-on-one mentor support, career counseling, and a job guarantee to ensure you are prepared for the UX world.

UX research is a vital and exciting field, BUT if you aren’t quite sure if a career in UX is right for you — dip your toes into the tech with Camp Skillcrush. The online free coding and design camp teaches you the basics and lets you trial run the Skillcrush learning platform — no commitment, no credit card needed. We’ll see you there! 👋🏾

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Desiree Cunningham

Desiree Cunningham is an impassioned writer and editor and the Senior Content Marketing Manager at Skillcrush. She has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications and a MA in English, both from Arizona State University. When she's not working with words, you can find her caring for her house plants, reading, or practicing Pilates.