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Not Sure Which User Research Methodology To Use? Start Here.

The amount of user research methods can feel overwhelming. Luckily, there are four steps you can take to choose the right one. 

There are so many user research methodologies out there to help us solve a variety of problems—so why is it that we get stuck in the dichotomous nature of choosing between usability testing and 1:1 interviews?

For a long time, I operated under the idea that these were two main ways to conduct user research.

Do I need to test a prototype? Usability testing.

Do I have to figure out how a user feels? 1x1 interviews.

Do I need to figure out the best content? Usability testing or 1x1 interviews (depending on my mood).

I didn’t have to concern myself thinking more about information architecture, long-term studies, testing concepts, surveys, benchmarking, A/B testing, and the list goes on.

It was a simpler time, but I was fortunate enough to hit a wall early in my career, which opened my eyes to the multitude of research methodologies. As I advanced in my career, research problems and goals became more complex, and my simplistic view of usability testing and 1x1 interviews no longer empowered my team with great insights. Instead, these methods fell short for what I wanted to accomplish.

With that, I faced my fears of the unknown, failure, and feeling like an imposter, and I dove into other user research methods.

Where to start

There are steps you can take to set your project up for success and inform you of the best methodologies.

Step 1: Define a research statement.

Research statements are what you are trying to learn or understand better about your users. An example you can use to model research statements is:

We want to better understand how users [think about/ make decisions on/interact with] [subject of research/ product] in order to [create/improve] [product/website/ app/service]

Step 2: Define the research goals.

Research goals are the different areas you seek to learn more about during our study. These directly relate to the research statement. Research goals are more in-depth areas we want to explore. They help you understand different aspects of your research statement better. There are five common research goals present in most user research studies:

  1. Discover people’s current processes/decision-making about [research subject], and how they feel about the overall experience
  2. Learn about people’s current pain points, frustrations, and barriers about [current process/current tools] and how they would improve it
  3. Uncover the current tools people are using to [achieve goal], and their experience with those tools. Uncover how they would improve those tools
  4. Understand what [research subject] means to people (how they define it) and why it is important to them
  5. Evaluate how people are using a [product/website/app/ service ] OR Evaluate how people are currently interacting with a [product/ website/app/service]

It is crucial to choose three goals that will help you answer the research question. These goals will then form the methodologies you will use.

Step 3: Pick a (primary) bucket

Now you must choose between generative or evaluative research by breaking these goals down. This doesn’t mean you can’t do both during the project. I encourage you to pick a primary bucket to start, and then you can complement the project with methods from the other bucket.

  • Generative research allows a deep understanding of who our users are (inside and outside of a product/service). We can learn what they experience in their everyday lives. It allows us to see users as human, beyond their interaction with a product/service.
    • Goal one
    • Goal two
    • Goal four
  • Evaluative research is about assessing how a product/service works when placed in front of a user. It isn’t merely about functionality, but also about findability, efficiency, and the emotions associated with using the product/service.
    • Goal two
    • Goal three
    • Goal five

As you can see, there is an overlap with goal number two. This goal, which is to learn about people’s current pain points, frustrations, and barriers about [current process/current tools] and how they would improve, could be either evaluative or generative research. It depends on how you want to approach it.

For example, you could do an evaluative research session (ex: usability testing) to find pain points. Or, you could run a generative research session (ex: interview) to discuss the frustrations in conversation. This situation is where your creativity and expertise come in.

Step 4: Choose a method/methodologies

Now that you have put your research project in a bucket, it becomes easier to choose a method.

At this point, you go back to the goals you set for your project, as this is the information you need at the end of your study. You need to answer these goals to help the team make decisions. The method(s) you choose have to get you the information you listed in your goals.

As you may have seen, you can choose multiple methodologies for one project. I recommend two to three methods per project. For example, your study’s primary approach may be generative research (ex: contextual inquiry), but you use an evaluative method (ex: survey) to back up qualitative findings. This common situation is why there is no straight-forward book on how to choose the best approach! However, you can use the following chart to match methods with goals.

Again, to get creative by mixing some of the different methodologies!

An example

I will now walk you through two different ways I would approach the same sample problem.

Imagine you are working at Google and are seeing little usage of their “Google Shopping” feature. The team on Google Shopping wants to increase its commission purchases. What methodologies would you choose?

Approach one:

Research statement:

We want to understand better how users think about shopping online to improve the Google Shopping experience and ensure we are building the right features.

Research goals:

  1. Discover people’s current processes/decision-making about online shopping, and how they feel about the overall experience
  2. Learn about people’s current pain points, frustrations, and barriers to online shopping and how they would improve it
  3. Understand what online shopping means to people (how they define it) and why it is important to them

Main bucket:

Generative research, with evaluative research follow-up

Methods:

Generative research: I could choose 1x1 interviews, mental model interviews, or customer journey interviews. In this case, I would default to 1x1 interviews to focus on people’s experiences with online shopping and their motivations. This information will help the team improve the experience and build features that will alleviate pain points/frustrations. A close second would be mental model interviews and would be just as sufficient for these goals.

Evaluative research: I would choose a survey to back-up the qualitative findings from the generative research.

Approach two:

Research statement:

We want to understand better how users interact with Google Shopping to improve the Google Shopping experience

Research goals:

  1. Learn about people’s current pain points, frustrations, and barriers about Google Shopping and how they would improve it
  2. Uncover the existing tools people are using to shop online and their experience with those tools. Uncover how they would enhance those tools
  3. Evaluate how people are currently interacting with Google Shopping

Main bucket:

Evaluative research to start. Potentially, I would follow up with generative research to get a better understanding of the holistic journey.

Methods:

Evaluative research: I could choose between usability testing, heuristic evaluation, or card sorting. If I couldn’t speak with users, I would conduct a heuristic evaluation, which can be done internally. If we wanted to understand the information architecture (how information is organized on a website), I would choose card sorting. Since we also want to learn current pain points with the page, I would choose usability testing.

Generative research: I would conduct customer journey map interviews after that to understand the entire journey, and find opportunities beyond the Google Shopping page.

Overall, start with a statement and goals, and you will be in great shape to choose the best methods for your study. Be creative and confident in your choices, and make sure they always tie back to your initial goals. There is no one way to do this!

Nikki Anderson

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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