UX research is a relatively new and rapidly growing field and you can find countless articles online about how to conduct UX research. Sometimes, I read these articles and hear echoes of my academic past in their advice and wonder if the author knows the origin story of their particular words of wisdom.
As a UX researcher with an academic background, I think it’s time we do more to build a bridge between the two traditions.
UX researchers hail from all different educational and professional circumstances, so it makes sense that we all have a different perception of what the art of research is, and where its origins lie.
At the same time, most of us have obtained at least a bachelor’s degree. As students, we were acquainted with academic research, often from a wide variety of fields.
What separates academia and UX?
Academic researchers conduct research mainly for the sake of advancing scientific knowledge. They do research to gain insights on a topic or particular group of people, and they share this primarily with their academic community, through papers, conferences and online communities.
Applied research, on the other hand, uses research as a tool to improve a product or service. Gaining insight about a particular user population is an important step along the way, with the end goal to create something of value for those individuals—which, in turn, will grow the success of a company.
These very different aims and approaches don’t mean that we can’t learn from each other. As a former academic researcher, I’d like to offer some suggestions as to how we can utilize academic research in our UX research practice. Let’s start by reading!
Getting back to the books
Let’s go back to those university days, when you had to read a selection of academic articles as part of your assigned coursework. The department hosting your study created a curriculum for you to follow in order to legitimize your expertise. If you were in a theoretical course, you probably focused on the findings of an academic study, or read textbooks that summarized these insights into the latest knowledge in the field.
Methodological courses helped you refine your ability to conduct original research. The most practical use you had for these articles was probably in researching and writing a thesis project.
If you haven’t thought to revisit the literature from your university days, you’re far from unusual—it’s unlikely that it was presented as useful in the corporate world. However, consulting academic articles as UX researchers can be useful on several fronts:
- Theory can help us better understand the psychology of our target user groups.
- Research insights based on original data might give us clues about how our design solutions may be perceived.
- Examining a study’s methodology helps us consider how to put our research projects together, and ensures that our research objectives are adequately addressed through our study design.
- Looking closely at how researchers utilize various methods gives us more practical tips into best practices when conducting original research.
- Academic work can help us understand various ways to measure research quality, for example through concepts like validity and reliability in both qualitative and quantitative research.
Where to find resources
I’ve compiled an example article for each of the areas above:
Does your work involve understanding how people present themselves in a technological setting? In this chapter called Self-Presentation, the author summarizes the literature on self-presentation.
He talks about how self-presentation involves conscious and unconscious behaviors, and he explains how people want to make a good impression on those immediately present and on imagined others.
Let’s say an underlying theme in your stakeholder research requests points to a need to understand how people make choices. What factors result in people choosing one thing over another, or choosing nothing at all?
Rather than deep diving into individual studies on this topic, you could find a quality example like Choice overload: A conceptual review and meta-analysis. The authors conducted a meta-analysis of 99 observations (N = 7202), and provide a solid theoretical understanding of the psychology of choice overload.
The insights here are useful to any researcher studying how people make choices, no matter what type of digital product or service they are focusing on.
It is soundly discussed in an article called Measuring Patient Experience: Concepts and Methods. Is a patient's self-reported experience enough to fully understand their total experience?
These authors raise the point that we also need to take into account a patient’s expectations, and these expectations can differ by population group. Such an article is useful for any UX researcher wanting to understand more about how to measure experience, particularly when looking at multiple populations.
In the article Making Sense of Teen Life: Strategies for Capturing Ethnographic Data in a Networked Era, the author describes her “multi-sited fieldwork,” which includes culture immersion, participant-observation, content analysis of teens’ online social media use, ethnographic research in physical spaces where teens gather, and semi- structured face-to-face ethnographic interviews.
That’s a lot of methods! Beyond providing inspiration for practically any kind of ethnographic study into technological contexts, she does a phenomenal job of describing her research process.
There is a lot to learn about measuring the quality of our research. In an article called Determining Validity in Qualitative Inquiry, the authors define validity as “how accurately the account represents participants’ realities of the social phenomena and is credible to them.”
Then, they propose a framework to help researchers select appropriate validity procedures for their studies, taking into account whether a study is credible and the researcher’s own philosophical positions.
Although this article is quite a deep dive into the concept, establishing validity in our work is crucial if we want to ensure the quality of our UX research studies, especially in the long term.
Widening your range is key
A few additional things to notice about the articles linked above: First, they represent a broad spectrum of academic inquiry. The authors range from psychologists to methodology experts to health researchers to an expert on technology and social media.
There’s no limit to where you can find inspiration—an article written by health researchers may raise key considerations for a UX researcher active in fintech. Second, it’s possible to view the content of each article in multiple ways. A theoretical article links empirical research—follow the trail and you might find a brilliant approach to your next study’s methodology.
A methodological article mentions theoretical arguments to justify certain aspects of their study’s set-up, offering more inspiration for a UX researcher.
Keep in mind
I am well aware that academic articles have their challenges, accessibility being a major one. Accessibility rears its ugly head in both incomprehensible language but also via digital paywalls that block our access without affiliation to an academic institution.
But there’s plenty of research out there that is open access, and this trend is growing (I have only linked to open access articles here). As for the language—sometimes it’s worth it to grit your teeth and get through it.
Academic research: It’s this whole parallel world out there, dealing with similar challenges that UX researchers have, just in a different context. The next time you’re setting up a UX research study, punch some keywords into google.scholar.com. You might be surprised by what you find.
Janelle Ward has led experience research at digital product companies, both as a founding lead and as a manager, upskilling and growing research teams. Before moving to industry, she spent 15 years in academia, teaching and conducting research in the field of digital communication. You can find her on LinkedIn, and read more of her work on Medium.