UX Research the Biggest Bang for the Buck


UX Research is the Biggest Bang for the Buck Most Companies Fail to Invest in

ux research biggest bang buck usefulusabilityUX Research is the biggest bang for the buck most companies fail to invest in because often research becomes just one of the many functions a UX Designer is required to do.

This means many companies do not invest in a full-time UX Researcher. Today’s special-guest author, Codrin Arsene, explains why this is a mistake that may be costing firms customers and lost revenue.

UX Research is the Bastard of the UX Discipline

Let’s pretend for a second that User Experience is a discipline recognized across the board, from one company to another, as a legitimate, mission-critical component of the overall success of every digital product. UX actually is all of that, except for being recognized as such.

Then there’s User Research, which is seen by many – including companies that actually believe in the power of UX as a discipline – as the bastard child of UX. It’s often thought of as the role you aspire to one day to establish at your company if all other problems are solved.

Of course, that day never comes, and UX research gets swept under the carpet, encroached, brushed off or filed under “the User Designer will do that too.” And sure, some UX designers may have an idea of what UX research is, may even have done a little of it, but often not, and the role of UX research is perpetually put on hold.

The question at the end of the day is, should we care about this at all? Yes, you should care about it. You should care deeply. In this article, I will show you why.

We will examine what UX designers do; we will talk about psychology and usability, about reporting and analysis, and about audiences and surveys. UX research, in many ways, is the most scientific part of UX as a discipline. It requires continuous training, a huge amount of knowledge, patience and the ability to interview users without leading them in one direction or another.

At the end of the day, without knowing, companies waste money, resources and effort by not having a UX researcher on board. The rest of the article will try to show why that’s the case.

UX Researcher vs UX Designer – What’s the Big Difference?

UX refers to the overall process of creating and enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility and pleasure provided through the interaction between the user and the product.

In this world, there are many different roles a person can have. For purposes of this discussion we will quickly highlight the difference between UX designers and UX researchers.

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As we wrote in a different article, User Experience designers define the end-to-end experience users engage in when using an application or a website. The output of UX designers is, simply put, how the information is laid out on the screen and how people interact with it. This is the result of UX designers spending countless hours working closely with internal stakeholders to define and implement the business goals in a way that makes the most sense for the person who will end up using a specific feature. User Experience designers are responsible for making sure that the entire UX of the system works and behaves as expected. That covers content, structure, technology and visual design. This means that UX designers are responsible for the usability, accessibility, sustainability and scalability of a site or mobile app.

In contrast, UX researchers are responsible for understanding users’ needs, expectations and motivations through surveys, in-person interviews, usability tests or user tests. They are often trained in human-computer interfaces and cognitive psychology. Through their work, they synthesize the goals and motivations of the consumers and align those with the goals of the business and products. They are well versed in usability testing methodologies, statistics, analysis and reporting. But most importantly, UX Researchers are the watchdog inside the UX group. Their job is to constantly monitor the overall performance of the digital product they are assigned to and report any issues with the implementation. They are the ones constantly talking to and working with the end user to ensure that the customers’ needs are always satisfied.

In order to see the benefits of having a UX researcher on the team, we will quickly go over what people in these roles do for their organizations. Ask yourself: from this list, how many of these tasks are currently being completed on a regular basis in your UX group? Our bet is no more than two or three of these things are ever part of your company’s regular UX deliverables.

Creating, Performing, and Analyzing Usability Tests

The single biggest deliverable UX researchers are responsible for is creating and executing usability tests. These tests can include;

  • Moderated in person
  • Moderated remote
  • Un-moderated remote (think UserTesting.com or UserZoom)

As you’re reading this you may think: oh, my company does user tests already. Check!

Don’t hold your breath just yet.

According to Jeff Sauro of Measuring U, in UX there are five distinct types of usability tests that can – and should – be done on a regular basis. Here are the cliff notes on the different tests:

Problem Discovery This is the most common test UX practitioners do. You have a new flow built out. You want to see if people can use it. You give users a set of scenarios to go through and you measure the results. The User Researcher administers the test, centralizes the results and makes recommendations based on the findings.

Benchmark test As Ki Arnould, writing for UserTesting, succinctly put it: “Benchmarking is the process of testing a site or app’s progress over time. This can be progress through different iterations of a prototype. This can be progress across different versions of an application. This can even be progress across different sites: yours and your competitors.”

Competitive tests One of the best ways to get a sanity check on how you’re delivering value to your customers is by comparing your digital presence with your competitors. This is what product managers do all the time. In the UX field, a competitive usability test refers to asking users to complete a set of tasks both on your company’s site and on your competitor’s site.

Eye Tracking tests These tests are important when the UX team needs to figure out where users look and where they click/tap/press. These usability tests are often carried out on medical devices to ensure that the design of a product is in line with how people expect it to work. Because of the big liability of designing a device or interface where users can mix up tasks and cause harm to themselves, eye tracking tests are critical to double checking everyone’s assumptions and validating the feasibility of a product.

Learnability tests These tests are set up to gauge the learning curve of the users by asking them to do the same task again and again. The goal is to measure the learnability of a new product/service by quantifying the learning curve.

We wanted to give you a little background on these different types of usability testing practices to demonstrate that carrying out usability tests and reporting on the findings is its own full-time job.

But wait – there’s more!

Creating and Maintaining User Personas

Another critical task that a User Researcher is responsible for is creating user personas. Developing for user personas is vital to the success of a product because it drives design decisions by taking common user needs into consideration before designing a user interface. User personas work by creating a reliable and realistic representation of the common user groups that are using your digital product.

User personas are valuable to a wide variety of internal resources working on a digital project. Product owners use personas to make decisions about features that are being prioritized based on the needs of the specific user groups identified as the main personas of a site. Information Architects can develop more informed wireframes based on the different needs of the various personas. Copywriters create digital copy that is tailored to the appropriate audiences based on the personas identified.

In addition, using personas to walk stakeholders through common interactions is critical to clarifying actual user priorities over the stakeholder’s personal feelings about a specific UX decision.

Another critical thing to consider is that personas are not a “one-and-done deal.” They need to be updated to adapt to technology and business changes as well as changes in user demographics and interaction patterns. And that’s where having a full-time User Researcher comes into play.

Creating and Maintaining Journey Maps

User Researchers are also responsible for creating customer journey maps (also called user journey maps). Customer journey maps teach organizations and stakeholders about their users by telling the story of the customer’s experience: from initial contact, through the process of engagement, until the time a customer ends their relationship with a company. It is a live document that talks about the user’s needs, feelings, motivations and questions for each of these touchpoints.

The primary reason why user journey maps are important is because for most companies, the digital channel is just one way for the customer to interact with a business. The UX needs to have the bird’s-eye view of the various interaction points in order to determine how the digital world plays into the overall user experience and how the digital can fix or attend to issues that happen completely outside the online world.

For example, there can be user issues that happen between devices – when a user moves from a site to a mobile app and vice versa. Or there can be issues that happen during/between tasks when a user might get frustrated.

User journeys are important for UX designers because they allow them to understand the context of where the users come from, what they are trying to achieve and where they are going once a task is complete online – and every point in between. It can also help them understand and address the points in the customer experience that are disjointed or painful.

Conducting User Interviews

A user interview is a research technique used to get qualitative information from either existing or potential users. It is typically performed by one or two UX researchers (one to interview and one to take notes) and can cover any range of topics. User interviews can tell UX teams how using a website over time builds users’ impressions and expectations of that site and how users think about the tasks they are completing online.

Done either with the help of power users or new users, these interviews are really great at determining the overall satisfaction users have with a business – and what areas need improvements.

Most companies rarely, if ever, invest the time in setting up user interviews either by phone or in person, and as a result they miss out on a lot of useful information that could help them streamline the overall user experience.

Designing A/B tests with Analytics and Analyzing Results

A/B tests are some of the most common usability techniques currently used by digital companies all over the world. They are also the simplest to administer, given the fact that it requires little more than one trained resource to simply configure a test on an A/B test platform.

Basically, A/B testing is when users are shown two versions of a design: The A version(a control) and a B version (with a changed element or elements). The goal is to route enough traffic to each version to measure the conversion rates across the two variants in an effort to decide which one the company should choose.

A/B tests have become popular because oftentimes there are multiple ways a UX designer can implement a given task, and there’s no easy way to determine which will perform better.

Some A/B tests are very obvious. But oftentimes there are so many different things being built out and released at the same time that UX teams don’t have the luxury of time to stop, assess and propose A/B tests. This, once again, falls on the User Researcher. For more about A/B testing in UX research, read Why A/B Testing Needs Usability Testing.

Conducting and Analyzing Outcomes of User Studies

Last, but not least, is the issue of analyzing the outcomes of all the different user studies we briefly covered in this article. From the five different usability tests, to persona development, user journey creation, user interviews and A/B tests, someone needs to actually take the time to analyze the results and create actionable reporting out of this work.  To give you a ballpark estimate, each user test we covered in this article would reasonably take 2-3 weeks to prepare, execute, analyze and summarize. Each of them. Without working on anything else. And that is why this is a full-time job that unfortunately few companies ever choose to invest in.

Why UX Research is the Biggest Bang for the Buck

UX Research is the biggest bang for the buck that most companies fail to invest in. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that companies who choose not to invest in User Research are flying in the dark. Not completely in the dark, of course, if they have a UX team on board. But they’re certainly flying in the… twilight.

The problem I see with having a UX Designer without a UX Researcher is that as a company, you develop the illusion that you are doing enough to comprehensively assess and change the user experience in a way to get the optimal results out of your investment.

And, truth be told, many UX designers do a little bit of everything highlighted in this article. But they don’t do enough. They can’t. There simply isn’t enough time in a day to both create the user experience and validate its effectiveness. Moreover, as we saw above, there’s a wide variety of techniques through which User Researchers monitor, analyze and report on user experience developments.

From usability tests to persona development, user journeys, user tests and A/B testing, there’s enough work for an army of researchers to bring value and return on investment for any company, big and small. Why don’t you start by hiring at least one on your team?

codrin arsene usefulusability 390x480About the Author: Codrin Arsene is a technology writer and a senior product manager. His areas of expertise include digital marketing strategies, UX and UX Design and bottom-of-funnel conversion and optimizations. He is also a Content Writer with Y Media Labs, where he writes on mobile app strategy, analytics, marketing strategies and online business development.