I find it amazing how, often, problems which at first glance appear very similar to each other in nature end up requiring notably different approaches to be solved successfully.

So far I’ve found this holds true for just about anything in life and, by extension, usability research as well.

Usability research is all about observing and understanding user behaviors, needs, and methodologies. Mike Kuniaysky says it is “The process of understanding the impact of design on an audience.”

It follows that Usability specialists are problem solvers with various tools (research techniques) at their disposal.

If you have just begun to realize the importance of usability and user research, with this article, I aim to help you learn a bit about the most commonly used user research techniques.

Usability Testing

This one is my favorite, and a technique you can apply to nearly any project.

Usability Testing is a technique which helps us evaluate a product or service by testing it on its representative users.

In order to eliminate outside disturbances and allow the researcher to better take notes of the entire process, it is best to conduct it in a controlled environment such as a lab, but can also be done remotely or in a room where we can ensure no disturbances or distractions.

It is a good practice to film and screen-capture the Usability Testing sessions, but doing so is not a requirement as long as someone is carefully observing the user and taking notes.

Even if you are not videotaping, you should be recording audio – and you should work with a partner whose job will be to pay attention to the user and take notes.

The goal of Usability Testing is to identify any usability problems, collect qualitative and quantitative data and to determine the participants’ satisfaction level with the product or service we are testing.

To achieve that, we measure various factors such as time needed to perform tasks, error and success rates, preference for alternative solutions and, of course, users’ subjective level of satisfaction.

A/B Testing

Sometimes also called “Multivariate Testing,” “Live Testing,” or “Bucket Testing,” it is perhaps the most straightforward form of testing.

A/B Testing is merely comparing the effectiveness of two different versions of the same design or product by launching them both under similar circumstances.

In the context of web pages, A/B Testing would mean launching two different versions of the same website at the same time. The goal here is to see which version of the web page (A or B, with A being the control version and B being the variation) ends up giving us a higher conversion rate.

Quantitative Survey

A Quantitative Survey is a survey or a questionnaire distributed to a large number of participants; usually, a representative sample of our target market, to hear their opinions strictly on a subject we are testing and need input on.

It is essential that the questions in this type of a survey are closed, meaning that the respondents are choosing from a specific selection of answers and are not given an opportunity to expand or elaborate on their responses.

Quantitative Surveys are very useful if you already have a large base of users, such as subscribers to a newsletter, but can just as well be conducted if you don’t have any userbase to speak of by carefully targeting the participants.

Web Analytics

Used as tools for business and market research, web analytics help us assess and improve the effectiveness of a website.

Web analytics are done by collecting, measuring, analyzing and reporting on various web data obtained by web servers, tracking cookies and so on.

By obtaining data from a large number of users, we can highlight patterns in navigation and user types as well as focus on answering specific questions such as “How many people visited the site?”, “How many of these visits were unique visitors?”, “How did they come to the site?”, “How long did they stay and how much time did they spend on each particular part of our site?”, “Which keywords did they use in their search which brought them to the site?”, “What keywords did they search with on the sites’ search engine?”, “How does the day of the week or a time of a day affect user habits?” and many, many more.

When performing web analytics we use various software to collect large amounts of data, but it is up to a Usability Specialist to interpret the data and come to concrete conclusions and ideas on how to utilize the data we’ve collected to improve the UX.

The web analytics tool you are probably most familiar with is Google Analytics. Google Analytics collect and deliver a massive amount of data and can help you optimize your website through various reports and analytics.

Focus Groups

A focus group is a gathering of deliberately selected candidates who will participate in a planned discussion with a goal of eliciting consumer perceptions about a particular area of interest.

Using a Focus Group, a Usability Specialist will lead a moderated discussion with 4 to 12 participants. This discussion must be conducted in a controlled environment – just like a Usability Testing session.

The goal of a Focus Group is to gain verbal and written feedback through discussion and exercises and to explore preferences (and reasons for those preferences) among different solutions.

It is important to note that focus groups are not debates, or problem-solving sessions and the questions for the group are posed to reflect that. The usability expert leading the group has a task of preventing the group from diverting into a debate.

To maximize disclosure in a focus group, we must ensure homogeneity. This is in order to create an environment in which none of the participants feel unimportant or an odd man out. If they do, these individuals will usually quiet down and refrain from sharing their thoughts and opinions.

Although Focus Groups are a powerful tool when it comes to system development, they are never used as an only source of usability data.

Hence, we do not use Focus Groups to assess interaction styles or design usability, but to discover what the users want from the system they are using.

Sometimes what we, the developers, want to give the users isn’t what the users need from our websites and apps, and this is why Focus Groups are a valuable source of information; they help us align our views with the views and needs of our average user.

Central Location Test

A Central Location Test (or interview) employs both quantitative and qualitative research techniques, as well as visual techniques such as monitoring the respondents’ eye movements and testing for degree of recall of particular elements of a website, app or a product.

In a controlled environment, groups of 15 to 50 people are shown demos or allowed to use products before being interviewed or taking a survey to measure their grasp of the concept, the appeal of various features and the desirability of the product.

CLT is the most suitable method for testing concepts, new or modified products or packaging, advertising effectiveness and sensory research.

These are only some of the research techniques we use when conducting usability studies.

I hope this overview has cleared out any confusion you might have had about various research techniques, and that it inspires you to dig deeper into the world of usability!

If it does, definitely take a look at my other articles, and feel free to connect with me on social media if you have any questions. I’d love to hear from you!