Research methodologies: learn to master them

Last Modified: Sep 25th, 2023 - Category: Theory, UX Research, UX Theory, UX Tutorials
Research methodologies: learn to master them Cover Image

Introduction: What is a research methodology?

Research methodologies are the ultimate tool for UX design in all its different aspects and varieties, from digital design to physical UX design, from service design to customer experience, and from usability to accessibility.

These research methodologies guide your research process and can vary significantly depending on your investigation’s nature. They hold pivotal roles across various academic, scientific, and business fields, not just in UX research. This exhaustive guide aims to give you an understanding of different research methodologies’ types and applications.

A Note on Theoretical Material

I’ve included a list of theoretical materials, papers, and books in this resource. Now, it’s important to note—this is purely my personal opinion—that the current state of scientific knowledge sharing is, unfortunately, quite exclusive and, in many ways, prohibitive for those eager to learn and contribute further to the field.

Due to legal constraints, I can’t distribute this material myself, even when I have access to it. The only thing I can do is make you aware of its existence. Be advised that much of the material I mention on this page and subsequent ones is often prohibitively expensive. However, whenever I find a legal avenue to share these valuable resources, I will certainly take it. Additionally, in some instances, you may be able to reach out directly to the authors who may be willing to share a copy with you.

These pages on UX research methodologies represent a significant effort on my part to share knowledge and provide you with a starting point. They aim to guide you on where to go and what to do next to deepen your understanding of UX and UI research.

List of UX research articles of this collection

  1. Stop Ignoring Qualitative Research. The definitive guide
  2. Quantitative methodology: 3 scales you should master
  3. How to Perform User Testing in 10 Easy Steps
  4. New UX User Categorizations to ease user research
  5. How to do scientific research correctly in UX? A simple 7 steps guide
  6. UX Personas: A simple method to identify our users accurately
  7. Factorial design: A powerful research tool (advanced)
  8. A / B and Multivariate Testing: Get True Results (Part 1)
  9. A / B and Multivariate Testing: Get True Results (Part 2)

Types of Research Methodologies

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research serves as a cornerstone in the realm of UX design and beyond, aiming to delve deeply into the complexities of human behavior. This form of research prioritizes observation, interpretation, and analysis over numerical measurements or statistical evaluations. The emphasis here is not on the “what” or “how much,” which are typically the focal points of quantitative research. Instead, qualitative research seeks to uncover the “why” behind behaviors, attitudes, and choices, offering invaluable insights into user needs, pain points, and motivations.

The objective is to gain a holistic view of the subject matter, capturing everything from emotional responses to social dynamics. This can be especially useful when looking to understand user behavior in a given context, or when trying to assess how individuals interact with products or services in real-world settings. Qualitative research often requires a more interpretive, nuanced approach, providing a lot of data that can offer initial hypotheses or insights for further, more targeted research.

Often applied in the early stages of product development or academic study, qualitative research helps to set the foundation for subsequent research phases. It frequently serves as a precursor to quantitative research, providing the contextual backdrop that numerical data may lack. By focusing on open-ended questions, and promoting free-form discussion, qualitative research allows for flexibility in the research design. This adaptability makes it particularly effective for exploring new or complex issues, where preset options or scales may not fully capture the breadth of human experience.

While the value of qualitative research is indisputable, it’s important to know its limitations. For instance, the findings generally aren’t generalizable to a larger population due to smaller sample sizes and the subjective nature of the data. Therefore, it often works best when used in conjunction with other research methodologies, like quantitative or mixed methods, to provide a more complete understanding of a research problem. This multifaceted approach ensures that the strengths of qualitative research can be fully leveraged, while also addressing its inherent limitations.

Research methodologies: Image of talk-aloud session performed at Dorve UX offices.
Research methodologies: Think-aloud is one of the most common qualitative methods. Image of talk-aloud session performed at Dorve UX offices.

Techniques and Methods

  • Interviews: Depending on the needed depth and range of information, these could be structured, semi-structured, or unstructured. Ethnographic interviews, for instance, allow for more open-ended questions and longer engagement.
  • Observations: Researchers study users in their natural habitat to understand behavior patterns and social structures deeply. The researcher may or may not participate in the group activities under observation.
  • Focus Groups: A mediator guides a group of participants through a set of topics to gather diverse viewpoints. Researchers often use this method to collect preliminary data for larger studies or to gain various perspectives on a subject.

Foundational Books and Thinkers

Quantitative Research

Quantitative research serves as a structured approach to problem-solving, commonly utilized in diverse fields ranging from marketing and SEO to psychology, marketing, and UX design. This method aims to quantify issues by generating numerical data or information that can be translated into statistics. Unlike qualitative research, which tries to understand underlying reasons and motivations, quantitative research often focuses on the empirical validation of theories or hypotheses. Particularly useful for making broad generalizations, it offers a valuable tool for marketers seeking to understand consumer behaviors, SEO specialists analyzing website performance, and UX designers refining interface elements.

One of the primary strengths of quantitative research lies in its objective nature, allowing researchers a degree of detachment that enhances result reliability. This objectivity lends itself well to various applications, including marketing campaigns and SEO strategies, as the data-driven insights can inform more effective targeting and optimization. Due to its scientific rigor, the findings of quantitative research are also more straightforward to replicate, making it beneficial for longitudinal studies and comparative analyses across different markets or user groups.

Image of Quantitative Methods book "Quantitative Research in Psychology"
A foundational Quantitative Methods book: Quantitative Research in Psychology (Spanish version)

However, it’s important to note that while quantitative research is invaluable for its ability to quantify and measure, it often lacks the depth and context that qualitative research can provide. For example, while quantitative data can tell you that 70% of users found a particular website feature confusing, it won’t provide the understanding of why they found it confusing. This limitation means that often, quantitative research is most effective when used in conjunction with other research methodologies, offering a more holistic understanding of the problem at hand.

In the realm of UX design, quantitative research finds its utility in various applications. Whether it’s measuring click-through rates, time spent on a webpage, or other forms of user engagement, the methods offer definitive answers to specific questions. By understanding the “what” and the “how much,” UX designers can make informed decisions that are backed by measurable data, thereby enhancing the user experience in a manner that can be precisely calibrated and improved over time.

Techniques and Methods

  • Surveys: Whether online or offline, these feature closed-ended questions designed to collect measurable data from a large sample size.
  • A/B Testing: This method compares two versions of a webpage or application to determine which performs better. Measurements often include variables like click-through rates or time spent on the page.
  • Analytics: Web analytics tools track user behaviors like clicks, time spent on a webpage, or user pathways to generate statistical data.

Foundational Books and Thinkers

Mixed Methods

Mixed methods research serves as a bridge between qualitative and quantitative approaches, aiming to capture the best of both worlds to offer a comprehensive understanding of the research problem at hand. This integrative approach allows for a richer and more nuanced exploration of complex issues that neither qualitative nor quantitative methods could fully address on their own.

One specific application of mixed methods in the field of UX is our unique framework, Quantum UX. This innovative framework leverages the power of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to seamlessly integrate both qualitative and quantitative data. The result is the creation of multiform experiences that adapt in real time, allowing for more personalized and effective user interactions.

By employing mixed methods, UX researchers and professionals can cultivate a deeper understanding of user behaviors, preferences, and needs. It enables more robust decision-making by presenting a multi-faceted view of the issues, thereby increasing the accuracy and reliability of the research outcomes.

Image of Heuristic Analysis, a methodology that uses both qualitative and quantitative methods
Heuristic Analysis is a methodology that uses both qualitative and quantitative methods, hence a great example of Mixed methods in UX research.

How It Works

  1. Exploratory Phase: Initial understanding of the research problem comes from qualitative methods such as interviews or observations.
  2. Validation Phase: Surveys or analytics, which are quantitative methods, validate or contradict the initial findings.
  3. Integration Phase: The synthesis of both qualitative and quantitative data leads to well-rounded conclusions.

Foundational Books and Thinkers

Differences and Similarities

  • Qualitative methods provide the context and depth to understand the ‘why’ behind a particular behavior.
  • Quantitative methods offer measurable and verifiable data on ‘what’ and ‘how much.’
  • Mixed methods provide a more rounded, comprehensive set of data, offering the best of both worlds.

Methodology vs. Method vs. Techniques

Methodology: The Big Picture

Methodology refers to the overarching strategy that shapes your research framework. It provides the philosophical underpinnings that guide your choices throughout the entire research process. This involves everything from your initial hypothesis or research question, the type of data you plan to collect, to the methods of data analysis. Simply put, your methodology serves as the blueprint for your research endeavor, ensuring that you maintain focus and coherence in your approach. It’s the ‘why’ behind the ‘how’ and is fundamental in lending credibility to your study.

Method: The Building Blocks

Once you have a methodology, the next layer is the specific methods that you’ll employ. Methods are the individual research activities that are nested within your broader methodology. If your methodology sets the stage, your methods are the actors playing their roles. This might include conducting interviews in a qualitative study or running statistical tests in a quantitative research project. Each method aligns with the higher-level strategy provided by your methodology and contributes to the overall objectives of your research.

Technique: The Tools of the Trade

Techniques are the practical, hands-on aspects of your research. They constitute the tools or procedures you use to carry out your methods. For example, if your method involves a survey, the technique might involve the specific type of questions you ask, such as multiple-choice or open-ended, or the platform you use for administering the survey. Techniques are thus the most granular level of the research process, making them the most hands-on and often the most variable part of your research.

The Symbiotic Relationship

Understanding the distinctions between methodology, method, and technique is very important for anyone involved in research, from academic scholars to UX professionals. These three components don’t exist in a vacuum; they are intrinsically related. Your methodology dictates which methods are appropriate, and your chosen methods will, in turn, determine the techniques that are suitable. Having a clear comprehension of how these elements interlink can add depth and rigor to your research, making your findings more robust and reliable.

UX research: example of Heatmap method, mostly used in UI research
Heatmaps provide valuable usability info. Would you classify it as a qualitative, quantitative or mixed method?

Historical Perspective

Research methodologies have undergone significant transformations over time, shaping and being shaped by diverse influences and necessities. Initially, the focus of these methodologies was firmly anchored in academic and scientific contexts, emphasizing rigorous data collection and analytical approaches. The primary goal was to achieve objective, replicable outcomes that could withstand the scrutiny of peer review. The methodologies were highly specialized, often conceived and applied within specific domains like psychology, sociology, or business research.

As technological advancements began to accelerate, research methodologies had to adapt to new realities. The advent of the digital age presented novel challenges and opportunities, requiring adjustments to both the scope and the depth of existing methodologies. For instance, the early internet era saw an increasing need for methods that could efficiently examine user interactions with web-based platforms. As technology started to pervade every aspect of life, from social interactions to business operations, research methodologies evolved to capture these complex dynamics.

The field of UX brought a transformative lens to traditional research methodologies. UX researchers started to integrate time-tested principles from academia but adapted them to suit the fast-paced, ever-changing landscape of technology and design. As a result, we now see a more dynamic, iterative approach to research, tailored for rapid cycles of product development and improvement. This integration signifies a broadening of horizons, with UX research methodologies serving not just the needs of interface optimization but also contributing valuable insights into human behavior and preferences.

In summary, the historical evolution of research methodologies has been a journey of adaptation and integration. They have moved from strict academic confines to become more flexible, without sacrificing rigor, to accommodate the multifaceted challenges of modern technology and design, including UX. This dynamic nature of research methodologies ensures their relevance across various fields, keeping pace with technological changes and shifting paradigms.

How to Learn Research Methodology

University courses in research methods offer a good starting point, as do online courses and bootcamps that offer real-world projects. Coupled with reading foundational texts, this structured learning approach can equip you with a comprehensive understanding of research methodologies.

Of course, you can always turn to resources like the Dorve UX blog, which provides in-depth expertise from professionals across various fields, completely free of charge and without ads.

Continue learning UX methodologies

Research methodologies serve as the backbone of any serious inquiry, regardless of the field. In the realm of UX research, mastering the nuances, pros, and cons of qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods is essential for obtaining meaningful insights.

Below, you’ll find in-depth resources that cover not just these methodologies but also the specific methods and techniques they involve. We plan to update this page periodically, so consider bookmarking it and checking back for new information. Sharing this page on your social media platforms or personal website or blog would greatly support our efforts to deliver more high-quality, free content.

List of UX research articles of this collection

  1. Stop Ignoring Qualitative Research. The definitive guide
  2. Quantitative methodology: 3 scales you should master
  3. How to Perform User Testing in 10 Easy Steps
  4. New UX User Categorizations to ease user research
  5. How to do scientific research correctly in UX? A simple 7 steps guide
  6. UX Personas: A simple method to identify our users accurately
  7. Factorial design: A powerful research tool (advanced)
  8. A / B and Multivariate Testing: Get True Results (Part 1)
  9. A / B and Multivariate Testing: Get True Results (Part 2)

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