Secrets to UX Research: Part 1 Types of Research

This article is for you if you’ve started with UX research, but keep coming up against walls in trying to understand why you’re doing things a certain way.

That’s because what you’re actually getting is various aspects of traditional research packaged and relabelled for the software industry.

For example, “contextual enquiry” in UX is “participant observation” from Ethnography, but without all the existing literature on the topic. (blogs don’t count, you can’t cite them)

This can be good: its simple to follow. But also complicated: you don’t have context into the history of the methods, what kind of problems you can solve, and how.

If you’re “usability testing”, “concept testing”, “prototype testing” “card sorting”, you’re doing Evaluative Research. This is what most people do when they do UX research. Evaluative research is research done during (formative) and after (summative) a process to know if it works as intended.

If you’re doing “heuristic analysis” and “UX audits” you’re doing Assessment Research. Assessments are predictions about whether a process will play out a certain way.

Most people know these methods from Neilsen Norman, but NN have taken out the broader context.

Another UX expert defines UX quite simply, with one end being usability testing and the other being field research.

These classifications, of course, hide the real complexity behind any research, which is how to make a research plan derived from a research question, not from methods. To be fair most research organisations aren’t at a level of maturity that needs all kinds of research, so perhaps everyone is justified in simplifying it. But what if you need to know more? Read on.

What are the other kinds of research? We will answer in this in a typical “researcher” way, i.e, using past literature. There are many classifications, in this article I’m be using the one by John Creswell, from his excellent book “Research Design”. In addition to “Evaluative” and “Assessment” he describes the following methods:

Descriptive/exploratory research is “what” questions. “What kind of people use our product?”, “ What problems are people having in using our product?” This is simplified as “field research”, but it doesn’t have to be.

Explanatory research is “why” questions. “Why do drug addicts drop out of treatment?” The difference is that “what” questions list down characteristics, while “why’ questions seek relationships between them. This is hard to do well using qualitative methods, as any PhD would tell you. In the tech industry this is usually handled by Quant experts.

Predictive research is “how” questions, such as “How might we reduce incidents of drug related crime in X city?”. This kind of research is usually done through quant methods in the tech industry. It can be done through qualitative methods, but is extremely hard to get right.

Why does this matter? Because every step in a research process is aligned. Starting projects with a method, or a random assortment of methods, leads to dodgy data. More in future articles.

Stay curious.

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Research Methods and other observations from a research career!

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