What Is UX Research (And How Can It Save You From Your Own Website)?


If you have a company that has employees, chances are you’ve given them some form of training.

If they are customer-facing employees, then I’m sure you have tirelessly gone over what they can do to make clients happier and drive home your company values.

You need to think of your website as the biggest and brightest customer service manager you have, one that is at work 24/7, offering advice, setting appointments, and ringing up customers nonstop.

Now imagine if your star employee were slacking off, showing up to work wearing dirty clothes, carelessly sending your customers to the wrong aisles, denying payments, speaking to clients rudely and not writing down questions or customer’s information. This employee would probably be fired – yet if you are just getting by with your abandoned, poorly designed website then you are letting this bad behavior continue right in front of your customers’ faces.

I know the reality of this problem all too well – after all, it’s what user experience, or UX, researchers like me are hired to pinpoint and fix. Websites can be overwhelming because they are multifaceted, they serve anyone and everyone, and have unlimited possibilities. These things may seem daunting to a business owner with little web experience, but they are a vital part of your business in the digital age, not to mention an exciting frontier full of possibilities.

And this is where UX research comes in. It’s a method of bridging the gap between you and your online customers, discovering opportunities, and delivering on them in the best ways possible.

What is UX Research?

UX research stems from UX design, or user experience design.

In the past, the UX designer would be responsible for how the site should work: what happens when you click here, which elements should be shown first, etc.

Although they are typically very talented individuals, UX designers are not mind readers. UX designers would implement designs that, in theory, would be solutions to a problem, but in actuality, they did not measure up to the true needs of the website’s users.

That missing piece is the result of the biggest problem that comes from having an online business as opposed to a physical one: not being able to speak directly to customers.

This is the problem that UX research is working to solve. By interviewing real people, the researcher can discover problems and make recommendations based on honest thoughts, feelings, and actions of users.

How is UX research conducted?

UX research is done through a variety of methods, but today I will focus on moderated interviews.

This is a method that allows researchers to dive deep and ask real users about why something is or isn’t working for them. Discovering users’ intentions and expectations are the first step in figuring out how to exceed them.

When I’m setting up a test using moderated interviews as my method, there are a few things I need to plan before I’m ready to jump into the interviews.

First, I need to know who to talk to. This is how I know I’m gaining the most relevant insights from the right people.

Then I craft a script that speaks the language of the target users. These steps take preparation and research. Ensuring that I know who I need to speak to and how I need to talk to them is the key to starting off my interviews on the right foot.

To learn who I need to talk to, I look at the problem I am trying to solve.

For some challenges it is best to talk to power users, people who are on your site very often, but other times it is beneficial to have fresh eyes from targeted new users.

It is also essential to know which demographics and other traits are important for the users you are interviewing. This is why users typically have to complete a screener before they are selected for the interview.

With everyone being online these days, users come from all walks of life. I’ve interviewed professional athletes, plus-sized models, sneaker enthusiasts and everyone in between. Creating screeners to find the right people is an art in itself; typically, I go through many iterations of my screener before I am satisfied with the caliber of participants being recruited.

Conducting the interviews

I typically interview 5 to 8 people, as this is the number at which I start to hear a lot of repeated feedback. UX researchers do not need to have a large number of participants to gain the most value. The value is gained by talking to the right people – not the most people.

How do you speak to an avid collector of thousands of sneakers? Or to a woman about her bra size?

I want to feel informed, confident, and open when I go into a conversation with my users. Getting there requires that I spend a lot of time researching the group of people I am talking to.

I enjoy the process of deep diving into a niche that I have never experienced before, finding out what gets them excited, and learning the terms that they use when talking to their friends. I don’t need to act like I am a part of their culture, but I do need to understand where they are coming from. This preparation includes poring over blogs, social media posts and watching videos that are relevant to the target users. By doing my research before the conversations, I can avoid awkward moments and keep those conversations flowing naturally.

The effort I put into finding out more about participants ensures I go into the interview as prepared as possible.

Once I’m actually in the interview, there are a few things I try to pay attention to. One way to know the conversation is going well is that the person being interviewed is speaking more than I am. It’s their insights I’m looking for, so keeping them talking is fundamental. To accomplish this I look to my prepared script, but I also know when to ask “Why?” and dig deeper into vague statements.

Having a good script is just as important as knowing when to go off of it.  During the interview I try not to mine for answers – instead, I simply want to listen to what users have to say. Afterward, I transcribe my interviews and start looking for the key points that appear across my conversations with users for analysis.

Analysis: Distilling the information into actionable insight

The analysis is the research phase that I feel is the most organic. When I begin, my head is swirling full of conversations; by the time I’m finished, I have a structured set of insights that I can turn into action.

How to get from A to B is a process that includes a lot of sticky notes on a wall, (sometimes) heated discussions, and comparing interview recordings to always be sure that users are driving the outcome.

These analysis sessions can be just a few hours or they can be days, depending on the scale of the project. Getting to that endpoint when you know you have something valuable to deliver back to your stakeholders is the best feeling, and knowing that your discoveries will help to better serve the people that you interviewed is the cherry on top.

Conducting UX research is a way to put a human face on the digital interactions we encounter every day. I take pride in the opportunity I have to connect business owners with their online consumers.

To do this, I aim to make the outcomes of my research clear and usable. Taking a no-so-great interaction and turning it into something that delights and excites users is what I hope to achieve with every project. No two days are the same as a UX researcher and I love adapting to new challenges brought on by the limitless possibilities we have in this digital age.

Ready to delve into your company’s user experience? Contact us to discuss our services today!

Jacqualyn Mangels is Zen Media’s Senior Marketing Strategist.   After spending time in the Netherlands earning her masters degree in Design and Culture studies and researching users of one of the world’s biggest sports brands, Jacqualyn has come to Zen Media with new ideas on how to gather and utilize insights across a digital landscape.


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