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13 UX research methods for an up-close understanding of your users

Product teams know extensive research is critical for building apps and websites—but it’s all too easy to get stuck in a rut and go through the motions, arbitrarily collecting data to tick boxes. 

How do you find the user-focused insights you need to make a tangible difference for your business? It starts with choosing the right user experience (UX) research methods.

Last updated

31 Aug 2023

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13 min

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Carefully selecting the most effective user research methods to answer specific questions about your users enables you to build better products and drive customer delight.

Keep reading for a deep dive into 13 popular user experience research methods, and learn how to choose the right ones to meet your research objectives.

TL;DR: 13 user-centric UX research methods

  1. Focus groups: get a broad picture of market opportunities and audience needs by hosting discussions with several participants

  2. User interviews: gain a deeper understanding of individual user perspectives and experiences with one-on-one conversations

  3. Surveys and questionnaires: understand user sentiment at scale, or get feedback related to specific ideas and business scenarios

  4. Diary studies: track how an individual’s experience evolves and changes over time

  5. Card sorting: understand how users naturally place different items (like web pages) into different categories

  6. Tree testing: assess whether users can easily navigate your menu layout to complete specific tasks

  7. Usability testing: observe how users navigate a live or prototype website to assess how usable it is

  8. Heuristic analysis: evaluate a digital product against UX principles to identify obvious issues or areas for improvement

  9. Five-second tests: assess whether users easily understand important parts of your website, like your homepage headline

  10. Heatmaps: get hidden insights into how users interact with a web page, including where they click, scroll, tap, or move their cursors to

  11. Eye tracking: record where participants gaze on your page to evaluate visual hierarchy

  12. A/B testing: find which of two or more page variants achieves the best results on a live website

  13. Feedback: invite users to share their thoughts on your site, so you can track how user sentiment changes over time or between pages

What type of UX research should you do?

Your team is probably already drawing data from multiple sources, like web analytics and product analytics platforms. But if you try and analyze every dataset you have, you’ll likely lose weeks’ worth of time—and end up more confused than you started.

Instead, put the user at the center of your UX research process

Decide what questions you most need to answer, then choose the methods that will help you answer them efficiently. Your UX methods will fall within three key categories:

The most appropriate methods will always depend on what you want to achieve with the insights you find. But as a rule of thumb, it’s good to get a blend of quantitative and qualitative data so you can understand user actions along with the motivations and desires behind them.

Take your research process to new heights 🚀

Hotjar brings you Heatmaps, Recordings, Surveys, Interviews and more, all from a single platform.

13 UX research methods for user-focused product development

We’ve listed the 13 research methods below in order of where they fit into the average product life cycle—from early research and product design to post-launch improvement. 

1. Focus groups

Focus groups are open discussions with small groups of participants from your target audiences. They’re ideal for exploring the market you’re hoping to build a product for, so you can learn more about what users need.

For example, you might use a focus group to research

  • What daily challenges and pain points a specific audience has (e.g. project managers in medium-sized organizations)

  • How an audience currently solves those challenges: are they using a software product or a people-driven service? Or are they leaving the challenge unsolved?

  • How the audience views the market and shops for solutions, including ones offered by your competitors

Focus groups aren’t ideal for ‘going deep’ on specific details of what users need from product features. But they will help you understand user needs, pain points, and desires your product solves.

📅 When to conduct focus groups

Focus groups are most helpful in the early stages of product development, when you’re trying to generate or validate product ideas. After running focus groups, you might use your learnings to inform other UX research—or simply conclude that there isn’t a need for your idea.

2. User interviews

User interviews are an effective method for getting focused, qualitative insights from individual users. By talking with interviewees one-on-one, you can dig deep into specific topics, like

  • What users need from your product (also known as their jobs to be done)

  • Questions, doubts, and objections at each stage of your users’ buying journey

  • Experiences with other available solutions and perspectives on their pricing, features, and customer support

3 tips for running user-centered interviews

  1. Recruit participants from your target audience. If you already have a specific audience in mind, try recruiting participants who match your profile closely—like job role, industry, or product usage habits.

  2. Use non-biased, open-ended questions. A question like, “Would you buy our product?” isn’t very helpful—it can only be answered with a yes or no, and users might feel obligated to say yes. Instead, use questions like, “What do you think of our product?” that allow the user to answer any way they like without leading them to a specific answer.

  3. Record and transcribe your session. As with focus groups, you’ll want to revisit your interviews later to analyze users’ comments. To speed up the process, use a user interview tool that creates automatic transcripts you can scan. When you find interesting moments—like a user talking about frustrations—revisit the interview recording for a closer analysis.

👉 Check out our complete guide to conducting user interviews that glean actionable insights every time.

📅 When to conduct user interviews

User interviews are helpful any time you want to enhance your understanding of the user’s perspective, allowing you to dig deeper into your learnings from focus groups or get clarity on what you learned from surveys, usability tests, and A/B testing projects.

These insights are incredibly advantageous when you’re in the early stages of product research—or, equally, when you’re trying to improve an established one.

Because activities like recruiting, screening, and paying participants can be time-consuming, it’s a good idea to use a remote user interview tool like Hotjar Engage that enables you to 

  • Recruit the right participants: tell Engage what (or who) you need, and let it recruit, screen, and schedule participants from our global network of 200,000+ people

  • Host interviews directly in Hotjar: chat with participants directly inside our platform and invite your teammates as ‘invisible spectators’ that participants won’t be aware of

  • Get an instant transcript: hit record in Engage for an automated, accurate transcript. From there, you can review the calls, comment with colleagues, and create highlight videos of key moments. 

#Hotjar Engage also lets the user screen share, helping you observe their website journeys
Hotjar Engage also lets the user screen share, helping you observe their website journeys

3. Surveys and questionnaires

Surveys are a versatile and helpful method for conducting both qualitative and quantitative user research. Depending on your goals, you might use a blend of survey question types, including

  • Open-ended questions: get new insights on user perspectives by asking questions participants can answer in any way they want—for example, “What brought you to our website today?”

  • Multiple-choice questions: allow participants to select from fixed answers, such as a simple ‘yes/no’ question, or multiple-choice questions

  • Scales and ratings: give users the option to submit ratings so you can analyze their data over time or between user groups. Popular scale-type surveys include customer satisfaction (CSAT) and Net Promoter Score® (NPS®).

👉 Want more tips? Check out our guide to writing UX research questions.

Use scale-based surveys to gather quantitative data like NPS scores

📅 When to use surveys

Surveys are super helpful whenever you want to measure user sentiment at scale. And because you can put them on individual pages, they’re great for asking questions at specific times and places. For example, you could launch them on your ‘thank you’ page to survey users who just made purchases.

Lastly, use surveys whenever you want quick feedback on design ideas (Hotjar’s concept tests are perfect for this).

🔥 If you’re using Hotjar

Set up targeted surveys using the Hotjar Surveys tool with a few clicks, and ask users any question you like. If you’re not sure what to ask, let Hotjar AI write your survey questions for you—just tell it your research goal and watch the magic happen. ✨

4. Diary studies

Diary studies gather qualitative data about users’ thoughts, behaviors, and experiences over time. They involve asking users to write diary entries about their experiences with a product or situation over days, weeks, or months.

Depending on the study’s goals, the user might write entries at set time intervals, or after specific events or behaviors (for example, after using an app). 

📅 When to use diary studies

Diary studies are helpful when you want to understand how a user’s journey with a product evolves. In addition, diary studies help you understand how users deal with ongoing, multi-step processes, like booking a holiday or managing finances.

5. Card sorting

Card sorting is a UX research method for determining how to organize information on a website. It involves writing concepts on cards and allowing participants to sort them into piles that fit together intuitively.

Depending on how you’re conducting your research, you can use physical ones or virtual cards from modern UX tools.

An example of physical card sorting from digital product agency Bit Zesty

Card sorting helps you identify the most intuitive way to structure website menus and navigation elements and organize your site into categories and sub-categories. Simply give participants cards representing different web pages, then ask them to sort them into groups. After the test, hold a debriefing session so participants can explain how and why they chose the different groups.

6. Tree testing

Tree testing is a method to determine how findable your website menu items are. It involves asking participants to find specific items within menus and then seeing which categories and sub-categories they navigate to.

This tree test invites users to mark which sub-category would best correspond with a specific task

Tree testing is an efficient way to evaluate your menu structures’ intuitiveness. To avoid bias in tree testing, use dedicated usability testing tools that show only the menus and nothing else, ensuring participants aren’t influenced by any other design elements.

7. Usability testing

Usability testing involves evaluating a digital product’s design by observing how users interact with it. Tests typically involve users trying to complete a task—like finding a specific page or completing a purchase. Observers then watch these journeys to find out where users get stuck and how they naturally navigate the site.

Researchers may also get additional insights by asking users to ‘think out loud’ during their journey, or by holding follow-up interviews. This type of qualitative data reveals why users behave a certain way and how they perceive the site’s design. 

📅 When to run usability tests

Usability tests are helpful across all stages of the product life cycle. You can run them on early website designs—even with basic website prototypes—or on live websites. 

Because they help you understand the user’s perspective, they’re also extremely helpful for solving common website problems or a sudden drop in conversions.

3 ways Hotjar helps with usability testing

  1. Hold testing sessions remotely. Use Engage to recruit testing participants from our pool of 200,000+ people. Next, host your testing sessions directly in Hotjar, with your team members as ‘invisible’ observers.

  2. Compare your test sessions with recordings. If you’re testing a live website, check your session recordings to see how users interacted with the same pages your test participants navigated. Do your ‘real’ users experience the same struggles?

  3. Cross-reference other Hotjar data. Hotjar’s multi-product platform makes it easy to access additional data related to any specific issue you find. For example, if recordings on your pricing page show that users frequently ‘rage click’ on non-clickable elements, zoom out and view Trends to check whether rage clicks on that page have increased over time.

8. Heuristic analysis

A heuristic analysis is the process of a researcher evaluating a product against UX best practices and principles. For example, a UX researcher might use their knowledge of website navigation UX to determine that a menu bar with ten links could be overwhelming for users.

📅 When to use a heuristic analysis 

Heuristic analyses are helpful when you want to evaluate an existing asset before launch, or after launch when the page isn’t performing well. These assessments aren’t meant to replace in-depth user research—but they’re a great starting point. 

When a web page isn’t performing to expectations, UX professionals might use their expertise to make an educated guess about the problem. The company can then implement a quick fix based on what they know works, or instead choose to gather more data.

👉 Not sure where to start with your heuristic analysis? Check out our guide to solving common UX problems.

9. Five-second tests

Five-second tests show users an image—like a website intro section—for just five seconds, before asking them questions about what they saw. 

This allows testers to accurately gauge users’ initial impressions of a site or design. Given that many users will decide whether to stay on a site in just a few seconds, five-second tests help to assess how intuitive your page design is.

Dedicated UX tools eliminate bias by ensuring all participants see the image for only five seconds

📅 When to use five-second tests

Five-second tests are most helpful when optimizing the hero section of your homepage (or any important page). They work well for investigating how clear your page headline and intro text are—if visitors don’t immediately understand what you do, it’s time to rethink your design and copy.

10. Heatmaps

Heatmaps are a form of quantitative data that visualize how groups of users behave on an individual page. Depending on which type of heatmap you choose, they show where users click, scroll, or move their mouses to.

📅 When to use heatmaps

Heatmaps are most helpful when you have a live website and need insights on how users behave on specific pages.

  • Click heatmaps show you which menu items get the most interaction and reveal when users try to click non-clickable page elements

  • Scroll heatmaps show what percentage of your users navigate to content that’s further down your page

  • Move heatmaps show you what parts of the page grab users’ attention most (users tend to hover their mouse over text they’re reading)

Mobile heatmaps show where users tap and pinch

🔥 If you’re using Hotjar

Hotjar’s Engagement Zones maps combine click, scroll, and move data in a single visualization to reveal the parts of your page that users interact with most—perfect for when you’re trying to understand what parts of the page interest (or distract) your users.

Above, red engagement zones indicate that users interact with the arrows to view more of the slider content

Heatmaps showed us that very few users scroll down beyond our hero, so when redesigning our landing pages, we used this information to redesign only that section. This reduced our costs in terms of design and engineering overhead whilst delivering a 15% increase in our conversion rate.

Simon Tinsley
Growth Manager, ClickMechanic

11. Eye tracking

Eye tracking is a qualitative research method that follows a user’s gaze to find out where they look on a page. 

Like heatmaps, eye tracking can be used to determine what grabs users’ attention on a website or digital product. However, this method provides different insights on how users tend to read certain types of materials: while heatmaps show you if users click on a page element, eye tracking reveals whether users actually saw it or not, getting you even closer to the user’s perspective.

The Nielsen Norman Group famously used eye tracking to determine that visitors tend to read websites in an F-shaped pattern

📅 When to use eye tracking

Eye tracking is a specialized research method, so it won’t be useful for every project. However, if you’re trying to optimize an important page, it helps you identify three important factors in the user experience, namely

  • Blind spots: what parts of the page do users simply not look at? This is a fantastic insight when optimizing your page’s visual hierarchy.

  • Stumbling points: when users keep re-reading the same page elements, it’s a strong indicator they’re confused by them

  • Reading patterns: understanding how users read different materials helps you optimize them for readability. For example, eye tracking studies have shown that when reading tables, users return to the top of the table and re-read the column headings. This suggests tables should be small enough for users to  see the headings.

12. A/B testing

A/B testing is a method to determine which of two (or more) variants of a page perform better. It involves randomly directing incoming traffic to the different variants, and seeing which variant gets more conversions.

For example, you might use A/B testing to determine whether a redesigned product page (the ‘Treatment’) gets better results than your original version (the ‘Control’).

#How random assignment works in A/B testing your product or website
How random assignment works in A/B testing your product or website

A/B testing allows you to directly measure group behavior to see which design has the most real-life impact on sign-ups, sales, or other key metrics.

📅 When to use A/B testing

When you’re trying to optimize marketing materials, A/B testing is usually one of the final (and most awesome) steps in the process. 

For example, let’s say you’ve gathered data, developed a hypothesis for what might improve your page, and created a new iteration accordingly. A/B testing allows you to validate your improvements and determine which design works better in real life

After testing your new variant(s), you can decide whether to stick with your original design or keep the new one. Some businesses repeatedly test and iterate their pages to see continual improvement.

👉 Read our guide on how to do A/B testing to learn how to do this step by step.

Learn more from A/B tests with Hotjar

Hotjar’s Optimizely integration makes analyzing your A/B tests a breeze. Your Optimizely experiments are available as Events inside Hotjar, so you can target surveys and view recordings, heatmaps, and trends for each page variant.

Next, use the data you gather in Hotjar to learn more about why one variant outperforms another. 

  • Watch recordings from each variant and compare journeys of users who converted with those who didn’t

  • View heatmaps for each variant to learn if users got distracted or rage clicked on a page element

  • Send surveys to ask users about their experience on each page

13. Feedback

Feedback is a Hotjar tool that invites users to share their sentiment about your website. See that red button on the right hand of the screen now? That’s the feedback widget—and whenever users click it, they can instantly rate their experience on your site.

#A user rating their experience via a Hotjar Feedback widget
A user rating their experience via a Hotjar Feedback widget

📅 When to use feedback

Feedback shows you what users think of a live website. Because it lets you measure user sentiment on a five-point scale, you can do some pretty neat things with the data, like

  • Aggregate feedback scores for every page on your website to identify pages with the lowest ratings

  • Check your aggregated feedback scores before and after an update to see if users liked the changes

With these insights, you can continually gauge what users actually respond well to—and identify where your site most needs improvement.

💡 Pro tip: Hotjar also connects individual feedback responses to the same user’s session recording. So, when you want more context on a user's answer, simply click the play icon to zoom out and see what happened during their session.

Connect user research methods to get a complete picture of your audience

Each one of these user research methodologies will help you answer different types of questions about your audiences. For example, tree testing tells you how intuitive your menu structure is, while scroll heatmaps show you what parts of your content users see.

But while these individual insights can be helpful, you can only learn so much from single tests. The real magic happens when you combine research methods to get a full picture of your users’ needs. By equipping your team with tools that let you run multiple tests—and see the connections between them—you’ll be closer than ever to building products and services that delight your users.

Everything you need to understand your users

Hotjar brings you Surveys, Recordings, Trends, user interviews, and more, all from a single platform.

FAQs about UX research methods