Making the Case for UX — User Research

The most valuable user research insights often occur when actual users are involved. Stakeholder engagement and analytics research are valuable and effective elements of the discovery phase of a project, but these measures alone are often unable to answer all questions around user needs.

This is the third of a series of five articles that explores the business benefits of UX research techniques that can take place during the digital product design process.

In this post, I look at a few research methods that involve representative users. Specifically, research that happens early in projects, before the target audience has been fully defined or prototypes have been created.

User research methodologies

There are various types of user research that involve engaging directly with users. They all generally follow similar patterns. These include observing users, gaining an understanding of their beliefs, assumptions and goals (in the context of the product that’s being designed). Finally, they all involve analysis of combined findings that should identify patterns and come up with feasible solutions. Here are a few common methods.

User interviews

One-to-one interviews allow researchers to examine users’ attitudes, beliefs, desires, and expectations. This helps them gain a deeper understanding of a product’s user base. These interviews can take place face-to-face, by phone or video conference, or via instant messaging.

User interviews allow researchers to explore attitudes towards a product and uncover user expectations of what a product should do. They should be used to build on the insights gained from stakeholders and gather information on users’ goals, motivations and frustrations.

Individual interviews can also be a good opportunity to incorporate other UX research methods. These can include card sorting and tree testing, which are used to validate information architecture concepts.

Since individual interviews do not involve watching a user work, they are different from interviewing users in a usability test or conducting contextual interviews.

Contextual interviews

Researchers conduct contextual interviews to understand how users interact with a product in the exact setting it is normally used.

As this type of study involves interviewing and observing people performing tasks in their natural environment, contextual inquiries tend to be more natural and sometimes more realistic as a result. They are also usually less formal than lab tests and don’t use tasks or scripts.

Settings for contextual interviews would typically be in the participant’s home or place or work. However in the mobile age, the range of settings and scenarios has become much wider.

Contextual interviewing can have many advantages. Because it involves observing users in their natural environment, it can reveal highly detailed and nuanced behaviours that users may not be aware of themselves, offering deep insight into how people actually use a product.

Focus groups

Focus groups can be a good way to get feedback quickly and efficiently from a sizable group of people.

This approach can uncover how they use a product and to uncover where frustrations or other difficulties arise.

Using a story-based approach can be useful in getting an understanding of people’s past experiences with a product. This involves the moderator inviting participants to recall particular interactions with a product, perhaps when it didn’t work as expected. Using this approach across the group can help to identify common pitfalls in a product design and identify areas for improvement.


After any of the above exercises, UX researchers will collate all findings and look for patterns in user responses and reactions. This can lead to the creation of personas (below) and scenarios around how the product will be used.

Creating personas

One of the key outcomes from this research and analysis, along with insights gained from stakeholder engagement will be personas. These are realistic representations of key audience segments, which provide insights into specific goals, attitudes and behaviours.

With the right research, this allows UX designers to accurately identify the key audiences and find out:

  • the context in which they will use the product
  • what their expectations are
  • their key goals and also the motivations behind these goals
  • attitudinal details, such as their mental model, their feelings about tasks they need to complete or the frustrations that they may experience
  • behavioural details, for example how they might act when using the product

When the above work is done, it becomes easier to map out user flows and prioritise product features that will create the best possible experience for users.


This iterative process of information gathering and analysis, beginning with the insights gained and consensus built during stakeholder workshops, will provide a solid basis for the product design.

The feedback gained through the methods described here will help to strengthen this consensus and support UX decisions made subsequently in the project. This will help move the project forward and keep project timelines on track.

Usability testing is another valuable type of UX research. However as it typically involves tasks analysis with prototypes, it has its own post later in this series.

The next post looks at the benefits of usability reviews, where we examine a user interface (or a competitor’s) and compare its usability against best practice UX guidelines.

Other posts in this series, “Making the Case for UX”

If you’d like to know more about any of our UX services, please feel free to contact us here or have a look at our sister company, X Communications.

Originally published at on November 7, 2017, and written by Padraic McElroy Arekibo’s UX Design Lead.

Ireland’s largest independent digital agency dedicated to connecting your business to your customers. Passionate about all things digital!