15 Guiding Principles for UX Researchers

When entering a new field, it's helpful to find resources that further your knowledge on the subject. A book titled Universal Principles of Design offers the best overview of the key concepts and techniques related to UX design, but with 125 principles, it's a long read.

In accordance with the “less is more” approach that many UX designers take, we won't list all of them here. On top of that, some of the principles won't approach the topic of research, although it's always good to read through the book to get a grasp on what you're researching and why.

Instead, this article will zone in on the most essential principles for UX researchers. Following these tips will help UX designers develop better websites and landing pages for their clients.

What Is UX Research?

User experience research is a critical step of UX design, so much so that user testing should inform every design decision. UX research improves the UX design process by finding and drafting data the designer could use to enhance a client's website, system, or app. 

There is a long, comprehensive list of UX research methods employed by user experience design companies, but at the center is the user and how they think and behave. A UX designer narrows down a user's needs through observation techniques and task analysis.

UX researchers typically use quantitative or qualitative research methods:

  • Quantitative: Statistical Analysis. Researchers will use a quantitative approach with tasks that can produce numerical data or data that can be transformed into statistics. Paper surveys, website interceptors, polls, and longitudinal studies are examples of quantitative research. Quantitative data often piggybacks off of qualitative research.
  • Qualitative: Insight Analysis. Researchers will use qualitative data if they need to observe behavior and need to understand it through physical movement or speech. Contextual observation, field studies, interviews, moderated usability testing, and ethnographic studies are examples of qualitative research.

The type of research a researcher performs is dependent on what the designer wants to develop. Some examples of UX research methods include card sorting, focus groups, prototyping, and use cases. There are hundreds of UX research methods one could use.

The 15 Most Important UX Research Principles'

Out of the long list of UX research methods, these 15 guiding principles will help you through the majority of your projects. To get a clear picture of what your users think and feel, it is essential that user experience designs conduct user research regularly to stay current.

1. Mix up your research tools

UX researchers should use every tool in their toolbox when conducting research for their clients. That doesn't mean you should use them all at once, but if you find that one method produces better results and you're thinking of settling, don't. Another tool may work better, and without experimentation, you'll never find it. Mix it up regularly to improve your results.

2. Grow your toolkit daily

The UX researcher you are today wasn't the same person last year. As you became more knowledgeable on UX design and its various research methodologies, you improved the way you presented this data to your clients. Never stop learning, growing, and picking up new tools for your toolbelt. New research methods come out all the time, so don't dismiss them.

3. Find “what's wrong” before “what's right”

Humans are hardwired to react to negativity first and positivity second. As a researcher, you can use that methodology to your advantage. Your research participants won't notice the things they love about the websites, but they will comment on what they despise. Keep in mind that thousands of people can use something, never comment on it, and it still may not work.

4. Avoid standardizing sample sizes

Not all tests are created equally, and you may not need a large sample size for all aspects of your research. Sample size can't be found by drawing numbers from a hat. Instead, calculate your sample size by the risks you're willing to assume and the type of research you're carrying out. Standardized sample sizes will produce flawed results, making you repeat the test.

5. One user can make a difference

Some problems are so obvious or universal that it takes one person to point them out. Other times, a 1000-participant sample-sized group can't locate the same obscure issue that a single person had in the past. Don't underestimate the power of a very observant user. It won't matter how many users go through the research simulation. If a process is broken, it's broken.

6. Increase sample size for accuracy

If you're getting different results from a research trial, you'll need to increase the sample size for better accuracy. Similarly, some tests are too close to determine an outcome. For example, 55% of users have an easier time finding the checkout button if it's red, and the other 45% find it faster when it's blue. Hire more research participants to skew the results more in one direction.

7. Randomize to overcome design flaws

Once you find a healthy amount of research participants, they'll likely stick with you for the lifecycle of the website. If that's the case, you may notice your participants get sluggish with the type of questions related to your process flow. Randomize the question and answer sheet regularly to ensure that doesn't happen because it will greatly reduce experimental design flaws.  

8. No one owns your research results

Design is a team sport, and companies often fail from a communication breakdown. A collaborative design process helps everyone, even yourself. If you're afraid that someone will steal your idea, take a step back and think of your clients. The free flow of ideas can make user needs and their experience a priority, and that mindset will improve customer satisfaction rates.

9. Recruit based on the user persona

It may go without saying, but you need to recruit the right people. Your clients should know the audience they want to sell to; if not, you may need to research their prime demographic. Either way, recruit based on user persona, and you'll have the best chance at getting the results of your client's target users. Don't try to please everyone. It's impossible and a waste of time.

10. Pick a scale and stick with it

Never use more than one method to scale ratings because you and your clients will quickly get confused. At the same time, don't waste time arguing about the correct way to scale. Does it really matter if you use a star, number, or neutral rating system? As long as the way to present the data is accurate and easy-to-read your research findings will make sense to your clients.

11. Research saying and doing

UX researchers will debate if observing what the participants say is less important than what they do. I would argue that both are important, even if what they do doesn't match up with what they say. If there's a disconnect, it's a good sign that the participant doesn't know what they want or they want something different, which will help you find out what they actually want.

12. Stop trying to find and rate usability

Comparisons are a great tool to use for clients, and our clients typically want them. When it comes to usability, a number rating isn't helpful because we can't know for sure how usable something actually is. However, we can figure out if something isn't usable, which is more valuable. If you just measured usability, you wouldn't know where or how to improve it.

13. Short reports will trump long essays

Your clients likely don't care about your research methods or your books-length worth of findings. That's not to say they don't want in on your process, but keep it brief. UX research reports look their best when they're filled with colorful charts and minimal text that explains what each part of the document means for the client. Only expand if you're writing a paper or manual.

14. People are untrustworthy observers

We're often untrustworthy when it comes to our observations. It's no coincidence that eyewitness testimony in court is taken with a grain of salt. In UX research, keep this in mind, but don't rush to fire these participants. If you choose your sample group correctly, then the data they produce could uncover previously unknown problems or solutions, which is better for the user.

15. There's no right or wrong way

The tech industry is filled with gurus who develop trendy research methods that “guarantee” your success. In any creative industry, there are no right or wrong methods as long as you reach an answer. UX design is no different. While it's in your best interest to explore other research methods, always focus on the underlying ideas and not the name attached to them.


User research is at the core of every great website or application. Since every person's experience is subjective, UX research seeks to find answers to the questions users won't be able to produce themselves. Not because they don't know what they want, but it's hard for users unfamiliar with design to state why something is broken or why they hate a design decision.

A UX researcher's job is to use research methods until they find the problem and its solution. What results is a product design that serves the business and its customers more effectively.

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