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An overview of user research techniques and when you should use them

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Darren Wilson

User research is a crucial part of Human Centred Design. It helps you to identify customer needs & problems, which help to define the correct user requirements.

There are lots of techniques available, each with their own pros and cons, which are suited to different needs.

This piece is an overview of what is out there, what to consider and where and when you apply them. 

Your first task however is to identify what questions you are trying to answer. For example:

  • Who are your users?

  • What are their behaviours, goals, motivations, pain points, barriers and needs?

  • What assumptions have you made about them and are they correct?

  • How do they currently use your product and in what context?

  • What key things do they use your product for?

  • What don’t they use your product for and why?

  • What other products do they use?

  • Where do they have problems with their workflow?

  • What issues do they have with your product?

  • Then apply the best technique(s) to answer those questions.

1:1 Interviews

Usually in the form of meetings, 1:1 interviews can be extremely useful in obtaining lots of relevant data, so long as the questions are asked in the correct manner. Interviews are also good at being able to probe responses for more detail. 

As well as knowing what questions to ask and how to articulate them, being a good listener also helps. You need to be aware that people say may not be wholly representative of what they do.


  • Rich data source

  • Can be organic - interviewer can adapt with follow-up questions

  • Good for determining attitude & emotion


  • Analysis can take a long time, especially for qualitative data

  • Can be leading if handled incorrectly 

  • What users say and do may not be the same thing…

When to use 1:1 Interviews

  • Verifying user requirements or product goals, and to gather detailed information on a specific topic.

Focus Groups

Focus groups, when run correctly, can yield lots of information and opinions relatively quickly. By having multiple people involved, it can help to bounce ideas and refresh memories to move the discussion along at a pace.

However, they do come with risk. Certain personality traits can be very influential and it requires skill to manage the situation successfully.


  • Brings people with common need and/or problem together in one place 

  • Can provide clear direction

  • Faster than 1:1 sessions

  • Discussion can trigger new thoughts and ideas


  • Group can be dominated by 1 or more individuals

  • Opinions can be influenced by others, introducing bias

  • What people say and do may not be the same thing…

When to use Focus Groups

  • Verifying user requirements or product goals, and to gather detailed information on a specific topic. Understand how users may engage with your product. Gather thoughts on a new idea to see if it resonates with more people.

Card Sorting & Tree Testing

Typically carried out 1:1, though can be done in groups too, card sorting (open or closed) is the organisation and categorisation to information, to provide order and structure to match users expectations. 

Tree testing is typically used alongside card sorting. Users follow an already established structure to clarify what path they expect to use to complete a given task.


  • Simple, quick & inexpensive

  • Don’t need huge numbers, and 10-12 typically gives good results

  • Well established 

  • Provides insights into how users organise information

  • Informs information architecture / layout


  • Analysis can be time-consuming

  • Results can lack consistency

  • Card sort is not task-driven, can lack context

  • May not be deep enough

When to use Card Sorting and Tree Testing

  • Developing an information architecture, commonly used in web design for menu labelling and hierarchy.

Diary Study

Diary studies are great at collecting data over a longer term period. They provide rich information on what users get up to and how they interact with your product. 

They can be as detailed as you prescribe and can also include other stimulus such as photos in addition to the standard written detail. 

A good tip is to select engaged people, as they are more likely to remain committed to keep writing their diaries.

Source Credit -


  • Natural environment

  • Responses more ‘in the moment’

  • Sampling over longer duration 

  • More time for detailed, well-considered responses


  • Reliant on accuracy/detail of self-report

  • More opportunity for inconsistent responses

  • Recruitment can be difficult

  • Can have high drop-off rates

When to use Diary Studies

  • Following up to a prior piece of research such as interviews to gather more detailed and contextual information. 

Controlled User Observation

Normally taking place in lab conditions, controlled user observation can yield both qualitative and quantitative data. Sit, watch and record users in action with very little input. 

Users are given direction on why the research is taking place, which sets the expectation but may impact on natural behaviour.


  • Easy to reproduce

  • Goal based, contextual responses

  • Quantitative & rich, qualitative data

  • Quick to conduct 

  • Reveals usability issues

  • Can use eye tracker to measure what attracts / doesn’t attract attention


  • Controlled environment can make recruitment more difficult

  • Hawthorne effect - Being observed can impact natural behaviour

When to use Controlled User Observation

  • Observing someone perform their tasks or interact with a product, but need to do that in specific conditions, to test with specific variables or in specific conditions.

Natural User Observation

In comparison, observation with this technique takes place in situ and is much more relaxed and unstructured. As a result, it tends to be more reliable.

However, it is less repeatable for the same reasons since variables such as weather and lighting are not within our control. 


  • More realistic than controlled study

  • Can reveal unanticipated, context-specific use cases and issues

  • Especially useful with follow up interview session

  • Can apply more contextual enquiries into discussion


  • More expensive and time consuming

  • Lack of experimental control makes analysis more complex

When to use Natural User Observation

Observe someone perform their tasks or interact with a product, when you need to see them using it in anger in their own environment.

Behaviour Tracking (Analytics)

There are many tools now that track people’s behaviour when using a website i.e. Google Analytics.

They can inform you how people act think and make decisions. And once it’s set up, it’s all done for you! 

Your data is only as good as what you ask for though and there is no opportunity to ask the person themselves.


  • Data is collected automatically

  • Captures lots of data

  • Large sample size

  • Can be analysed quickly


  • Can be considered invasive

  • May dissuade participants and/or change their behaviour

  • No opportunity for discussion 

  • Only tracks what users do, not why they do it

When to use Behaviour Tracking (Analytics)

  • Conducting digital and online research so you can better understand what your users are doing, or not doing, so you can improve their experience.

Surveys & Questionnaires

These are like interviews, but without the need to actually be there! In that sense you can send out and get large volumes of data for quantitative analysis. 

Unfortunately, as you’re not present, they don’t give you scope to probe previous responses to dig into the details.


  • Simple, quick & inexpensive

  • Large sample size

  • Can gather detail in addition to quantitative data 

  • More time for participants to consider responses


  • Users don’t always remember/know what they do

  • Response rates drop off as number of questions or level of detail increases

When to use Surveys & Questionnaires

  • Getting data for questions you need quickly and cheaply, and when you are not too concerned about the details.


There are lots of research techniques out there to try. The trick is to know which one is best for you and what you are trying to achieve.

Ask yourself the right questions to define the problem statement, then identify what data you need to find a solution.

Choose a technique that helps you retrieve that data easily and will be reliable, taking into account any constraints that you have such as time and budget.

If you're still not sure, speak to a UX person like me to help you out or maybe even do the work for you.

Good luck!

Get in touch with with the author

Darren Wilson

Managing Director at UXcentric

07854 781 908

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