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UX Research Methods and Practices

A/B testing is a research method that allows you to evaluate two alternatives of a design to determine which of them is more effective. A/B testing, sometimes referred to a split-tests, divides users into two groups and each of them is presented a different variant. Results and analysis can provide insight into user behavior and peculiarities of the target users and can assist in validating design decisions. Additional Resources:
Accessibility analysis is the process of measuring and documenting the usability and inclusion of a website, app or other design projects, regardless of a user’s special needs. Common concerns could include visual, motor, auditory, speech, or cognitive disabilities. Specifically, ISO defines usability as the “extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals effectively, efficiently and with satisfaction in a specified context of use.” Additional Resources:
Affinity diagrams are a UX method to help you make sense of large amounts of information. It is a versatile practice that assists in clustering information based on relationships, connections, or common themes. Post-it notes or index cards are typically used and can be grouped and reorganized as teams analyze the information. This transforms analysis into a tangible visualization and synthesis for design teams. Additional Resources:
Brainstorming is the most common and frequent practiced form of idea generation and project initiation. It represents the root of creativity and alternative thinking. Groups or teams typical isolate themselves and collectively presents proposed ideas to a specific problem. When ideas are tossed out for all to hear, this often triggers additional and alternative ideas from other participants. The objective is to leverage the collective creativity and problem-solving abilities of a group. Additional Resources:
Card sorting is a method used to assist in the organization and understanding of a website, app or project. Topics are written on index cards. Users then organize these topics into categories or groups that make sense to them. This UX activity helps design teams understand user expectations. Upon analysis, it can aid in the content organization and information architecture that best matches a user’s mental model. Additional Resources:
A competitive analysis involves assessing your project’s competitors and can help you know your market, products, and goals better. It involves analyzing your competitor’s market position, patterns, features, content, and performance as a base for which you can differentiate your design solution. A competitive analysis can present current user expectations, expose challenges, and reveal risks based on what others are doing.
Low-fidelity comps are usually synonymous with sketches or thumbnails. This is usually the first stage of visualization for concepts, layouts, user-interfaces and more. After discovery and initial research, designers will create a list of expectations, requirements or features that must be represented in the final design solution. Through a series of rapid sketches, designers can begin to layout and design these in a tangible visual form. It is often understood that these will need modification as development evolves. Low-fidelity sketches can be used for low-fidelity prototyping (i.e. rapid paper prototyping or imported into a UX prototyping tool) for initial review and user flow testing.
Medium-fidelity comps are an intermediate representation of a proposed design solution. These could be digitally created wireframes that represent concepts, layouts or user-interfaces of apps, websites, and other design solutions. Even printed designs can include a medium fidelity stage. Medium-fidelity comps are usually in black and white (or grayscale) but can include minimal color. These can also be used for rapid paper prototyping or more highly developed in a UX prototyping tool for user-testing. The purpose of medium-fidelity comps is to identify user pain points and correct users issues. The goal is to develop a close representation of the final solution before committing the time and financial resources for the final leg of graphics and technical development.
High-fidelity comps are a latter-stage development that aims to represent the final solution as close as possible. These highly polished visual representations can be placed in a UX prototyping tool and closely mimic an actual app, website or other proposed solution. Final design construction and technical development (i.e. programming) follow the high-fidelity comp stage. Whereas low and medium-fidelity comps focus on feature inclusion, task procedures, basic layout, and usability, the high-fidelity comps are more concerned with visceral qualities, aesthetics and the graphic representation of your final product.
A content audit is a process of listing a clear and tangible description of all the content in a website, mobile or desktop application, or other design projects. This could include text, images, links, documents, and current taxonomy. It is usually undertaken in the early stages of the UX process and presented in a detailed spreadsheet. A content audit provides an understanding of scope and content and is considered a grand overview of the current state.
An interview and observation session in which a subject is first asked a standard set of questions and then observed in their native work environment. Contextual inquiry is a more accurate form of interviewing as it allows the researcher to understand not only the subject’s environment, but get actual behavior as they perform tasks. The researcher’s objective is to allow the users to drive the sessions with their normal process but inquire as to how and why they are doing what they do.
An empathy map is a simple visualization tool that provides designers a deeper understanding of their users and their user’s needs. A traditional empathy map is divided into four quadrants with the user (or persona) placed in the center. The quadrants are labeled clockwise (from the top-left) Says, Thinks, Does and Feels and populated with insights from user research. It reveals an understanding regarding the user’s beliefs and attitudes and provides design teams a common understanding of how the user thinks and feels.
Ethnography is the parent of contextual inquiry, and much more in-depth. True ethnography is derived from anthropology in which researchers study cultures by directly immersing themselves for extended periods of time. Ethnography as related to UX can be less taxing but a researcher might profile the subject’s life through an entire day, and it could extend outside of just the work environment. The objective is to observe and document the actual actions of the participant in an attempt to reveal true habits and more complete behavior patterns.
A journey map is a diagram or visualization that represents the steps taken by a user to accomplish specific goals in a linear timeline fashion. They typically depict the stages a user must go through when interacting with a product, service, or customer experience. Journey maps force designers to systematically think about each detailed step of a user’s personal experience. It is a tool that provides insight to a user’s behavior, problems encountered, frustrations and successes and typically documents the user’s thoughts and emotional status through the process.
A mental model is a preconceived perception of how something is expected to be, look, act or perform. The goal of the UX designer is to align the user’s mental model (how a user thinks it works) to the implementation model (how it actually works). People encounter frustration and make mistakes when interacting with​ ​a product, service, or experience because their mental model is different or conflicts with the designer’s implementation model. People form individual mental models based on their unique personal experiences and the world around them.
Mood boards are used primarily for visual direction and inspiration. They can include anything that a design team deems important but typically include photographs, illustrations, logos, colors, fonts, brands, taglines, etc. The goal of a mood board is to set the tone or “feel” that a design team is striving for and eventually influence the final style guide. They are typically presented in the form of a pin-board or collection. Mood boards provide a cohesive and shared vision that everyone can understand.
Paper prototyping is a method that allows designers to create and test design ideas and user interfaces quickly and cheaply. It helps designers visualize and test concepts in the very early stage of a project. Paper prototypes are typically constructed from sketches or medium-fidelity comps that have been printed.
A persona is a fictional, yet realistic profile of your user. Typically, personas could include basic demographics such as age, gender, and occupation but focus more on goals, frustrations, attitudes, and behaviors. Personas should be based on initial research and created as early as possible in the UX design process. It is an aid that allows design teams to focus and empathize on a targeted user and avoid the attempt to design a solution for everyone.
A prototype is a working representation of your proposed design. Prototypes can be created at any stage of the design process to gather research and user insights. Low-fidelity paper prototypes are created early in the process using sketches. Medium-fidelity prototypes are commonly created by adding clickable functionality to wireframes which allow users to navigate and explore. And high-fidelity prototypes are used to mimic a design’s appearance and functionality as close to the final version as possible. Prototyping helps identify user confusion and pain points. It is a common UX method for getting valuable feedback and addressing usability issues before advancing a project into final development. Prototyping takes time and adds to the cost of design projects. Designers may use only one or all three prototype fidelity levels in their design process.
Low-fidelity prototypes are created early in the design process using sketches. Designers use paper prototypes or import images of the sketches into a UX prototyping app. Paper prototypes allow designers a no-nonsense method for getting rapid user feedback with minimal investment in time or expense. Importing the sketches into a UX app take more time but can add a minimal level of clickable functionality in a low-entry digital format. Low-fidelity prototypes are used to identify user assumptions and reveal issues that users find confusing and obviously troublesome.
Medium-fidelity prototypes are created in the early to mid stages of the design process. These are created once the most obvious issues are resolved and you are looking for a more refined representation of the design. A common practice for designers is to add detailed and clickable functionality to wireframes, transforming them into a medium-fidelity prototype. This provides a real-world sense of navigation and exploration when performing user tests. Medium-fidelity prototypes help uncover usability issues and offer insights that help refine the execution and overall user experience.
High-fidelity prototypes are used to provide users the closest representation of the final design. These are usually done late in the design process after the low and medium-fidelity user testing has been performed and the vast majority of usability issues have been addressed. High-fidelity prototypes present a highly polished visual design and a deeper level of functionality. This is the final stage of testing before sending the design into final development and implementation.
UX requirements are what is needed for a product or service to be successful and can include: business requirements, user requirements and system requirements. The process of gathering feature and functionality requirements often involve input from both stakeholders and users and can be obtained through the use of interviews, surveys, and contextual inquiry. But only after a detailed analysis of the input gathered, should requirements be defined.
Stakeholder interviews are the most effective way to get valuable information such as business goals, story background, challenges, project parameters, and result expectations. These are usually held at the start of the project. Interviews can provide you a better understanding of the stakeholder’s issues and ultimately the problem you are addressing. Stakeholders could, but are not limited to people such as executives, managers, marketing and sales personnel, engineering, and other members of the product or service team.
Storyboards are simply a linear sequence of illustrated panels that tell a story over time. Designers may add captions to help communicate the action or engagement. In the realm of UX, storyboards are used to capture and explore experiences in the design process. It is a story-telling method that visualizes the user narrative. Storyboards help us relate to people on a more humane level and assist designers in the understanding of a user’s experience and human interaction.
At its core, a survey is simply a tool for gathering information. Surveys can be a fast and easy way to get data about your users and potential users. They can provide information on who your users are, how they think, and what they expect. Surveys typically come in two styles: Closed Question Surveys and Open Question Surveys. Closed question surveys are simple and straightforward and usually offer restricted answers in the form of multiple choice, radio buttons or checkboxes. Closed question surveys can be easily quantified since you are worked with a fixed-answer data set. Open question surveys are open-ended and allow users to express their thoughts and elaborate without limited and directed answers. This style of the survey is qualitative and more effort is required to organize and analyze the variety of responses. Survey results can provide valuable insights into the design decisions for your proposed solution.
Task analysis is the process of learning about how users accomplish tasks and activities. It can assist in identifying opportunities to improve the user experience. It provides insight into the physical actions and cognitive processes required for a user to complete the desired goal, which is usually comprised of many smaller sub-tasks. Task analysis provides an understanding in detail on how users master complex behaviors and also reveal user frustration and pain points.
Taxonomy is the practice and science for classifying things or concepts. In UX, this could include the classification of content, hierarchical organization and even vernacular or labeling. This assists in determining the information architecture of a design solution. Affinity diagrams and card sorting are techniques that can provide direction for taxonomy, and can lay the foundation for the overall structure and user flow of your design.
User interviews are one-on-one question and answer sessions that are usually implemented in the early stages of exploration or ideation. The objective is to gather information regarding specific topics in a design context. This information includes user perception, expectations, feelings, motivations, behaviors, habits, and more. Users interviews provide insight into how and why users think the way they do. Interviews follow a structured method of targeted questions regarding specific topics. A record of the interview is documented and analyzed.
Moderated user testing is conducted by a design team representative who is present to guide, explain the process, provide support and monitor and/or document the test. User testing is the process of having your users actually engage with your design. User testing reveals patterns of behavior, preferences, expectations, opinions, and problems.
Unmoderated user testing removes guided intervention and support. This forces users to be more self-reliant and inquisitive. Unmoderated user testing can be documented by video recording, digital tools (heat maps, eye-tracking, screen recording, etc.) and other means. Many experts feel this provides more genuine results since users can’t rely on a test facilitator for questions or assistance. Analyzing results from user-testing help guide the refinement and improves usability for a more successful design solution.
A wireframe is a visual representation of an app, website or design concept. It typically represents the overall user interface, void of any visual graphic design or branding. Wireframes are used by UX designers to display and define the hierarchy, navigation and designated content areas of a proposed design. Many times wireframes are created in (or imported into) a UX prototyping application to create medium-fidelity prototypes for user testing.