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A 7-step adaptable UX research process
Every team knows how important great UX research is for satisfying and converting users. But with so many tasks to juggle, research can get pushed to the bottom of the workflow.
You conduct research—but only in response to stakeholder requests, user complaints, or a major new web or product launch. By then, it’s too late for your research to shape your design. The result? Scrappy research and a missed opportunity to forge your product around user needs.
Be proactive rather than reactive by implementing a solid user experience (UX) research process from the start. Stay tuned to learn how to structure a flexible, 7-step research process that will guide your product development and design thinking to help you generate customer delight.
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Why a strong UX research process is key
The UX research process acts as the foundation for all other stages of UX design and product development.
Mar P., product researcher at Hotjar, says: “The main goal of UX research is to create a product that works for your users and your business. It's about understanding real user problems so the team can work on solutions and move away from assumptions that can lead to bad product decisions.”
Without a strong UX research process, you’ll end up with frustrated users, low conversion and customer loyalty rates, high error and churn rates, and costly redesigns. In short, if you rely on guesswork rather than research, users suffer—and so do your business objectives and team.
What are the benefits of great UX research?
Great UX research helps you make confident UX decisions.
It lets you validate your assumptions and weed out unpromising ideas before you waste resources on them, and ensures your product is designed to delight users from the start.
Ongoing UX research is crucial to cultivating empathy for users throughout your organization. User experience data helps you solve problems and continually optimize your platform or product to meet user needs, and gives you the insights you need to get stakeholder buy-in on fixes and redesigns.
UX research is critical in validating that a team’s concepts are on the right track. It fosters alignment between an idea and the reality of what users actually want and need. UX research also allows teams to ‘fail early’ and adapt before large sums of time and money are spent.
The UX research process
Clearly, research is critical to UX design and development success.
So it can’t just happen sporadically to put out customer or stakeholder fires, or when you happen to find yourself with extra time—which, let's be honest, never happens.
Instead, engage in a structured UX research process to prioritize research and infuse all stages of UX design with data insights.
But remember: a structured process doesn’t mean a rigid process. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to UX research: the best processes are flexible, adaptable, and tailored to the unique needs of your users, team, and business.
Use our guide to establish a solid UX research process—tweaking it throughout to fit your workflow, company culture, and customer types.
You want your UX research to inform decisions, rather than post-rationalize decisions that have already been made without customer input. That’s why you need to define a research process.
7 steps for user research with impact
Our step-by-step guide to UX research is based on lean UX design principles, meaning continuous iteration, testing, and user feedback are central.
Lean UX is based on an agile cycle with three phases:
Think: brainstorming and reflecting on areas for improvement
Make: creating new designs or features to solve user problems
Check: testing assumptions and verifying designs with real customers
UX research is a non-linear process—research doesn’t end when design and development begin. The best research centers on continuous discovery at every stage, and involves circling back and forth between those stages.
These 7 steps will get you well on your way:
1. Clarify your goals
Clear goals will help you define the process, efficiently distribute resources, get stakeholders on board, and maximize the user insights you uncover.
Start by formulating hypotheses and topics of interest based on the potential problems and opportunities you want to learn more about. These might emerge from previous research, new opportunities you’ve identified, or from creative brainstorming.
Then, define the key UX research questions you want to answer. These might center on user behavior (why are customers abandoning carts?), on different UX design options (which new CTA option performs best?), or on customer goals (which new features would most improve the user experience?).
Pro tip: design user questions that are focused but flexible enough to allow for free discovery. Don’t go in armed with too many assumptions and don’t ask leading questions. Make sure you leave space to discover new information from your users that might not have occurred to you. Set up Hotjar’s Feedback widget to collect open-ended feedback from users to start.
Next, make sure you contextualize UX research goals in line with larger organizational objectives and success metrics: how will decreasing cart abandonment impact conversions and revenue, for example?
Finally, explain to key stakeholders what you’re doing—and why—to get their support and maximize the reach of your research.
It’s important to set research goals around current problems. For instance, if we need to offer an advanced search function for an ecommerce website, the goal will be to find the best solution for our users that’s easy to implement from the development perspective.
2. Define your research methods
Once you’ve set goals and designed user questions, decide what kinds of research you’ll do and the type of data you want to collect.
Use a variety of methods to cover all the bases and fill potential gaps. These will depend on your user and business needs, and the resources you have available.
Make sure you include both attitudinal and behavioral UX research methods.
Behavioral research is about observing how users act. Heatmaps, A/B testing, user recordings, and eye-tracking are all important sources you can use to understand user behavior data.
Attitudinal research tells you how users are thinking and feeling. This often involves asking them directly through surveys, focus groups, customer interviews, concept testing, and card sorting.
If you rely on only one of these, you’ll be missing out on the big picture. Combining behavioral and attitudinal research fills in the gaps between what users say and what they actually do, which don’t always align.
Seek to also explore a mix of qualitative and quantitative UX data.
Quantitative studies put a number on user behavior. Analyzing the number of users who scrolled past your CTA or clicked in frustration where they couldn’t find a button will help you spot patterns in clickthroughs, conversions, user engagement, and retention.
Qualitative data uncovers the reasons behind these patterns. They’re opportunities to learn what your users really think and help you understand their needs more deeply.
Remember: Hotjar’s tools combine behavioral and attitudinal research methods through a blend of quantitative and qualitative data. Use Hotjar Surveys and Feedback widgets to collect voice-of-customer (VoC) feedback, and Heatmaps and Session Recordings to round out the picture with behavioral insights.
3. Dive into discovery
Once you’ve set up research questions and UX analysis methods, the next step is to jump into the discovery phase, where the spotlight should be on speaking to your customers and understanding what they need to convert.
Seek to develop a deep understanding of your users, the problems they experience, and what will help them with their jobs to be done.
Check out our in-depth guide to UX research tools that can help streamline the process.
You should also:
Observe customers using other similar sites (lab studies are great, but you can also use session recordings to see how users behave in their own environment)
Deploy Hotjar Feedback widgets to learn what users are thinking while they browse and understand blocks in navigation
Use surveys to ask users questions about their current and ideal experience
Run competitive analyses and conduct market research to understand the UX offered by other companies and identify areas of improvement and exploration
Make sure to ask customers open-ended questions about their experiences and what they’d like to see, as well as targeted questions around navigating particular product pages or features. For example, are they finding all the information they need to confidently complete the checkout process? You might discover that your users like to check out reviews before making a final decision, so making reviews more accessible could help UX and conversions alike.
4. Dig deeper and explore
Use the insights from the discovery phase as a starting point, then get more specific and home in on answering your specific UX research questions and really understanding your users at a granular level.
Map out customer journeys and develop user personas and stories to clarify and communicate the information you’ve learned.
You should also use your discoveries to inform preliminary idea development, design sketches, and wireframes and prototypes.
Maybe you’re losing customers at the checkout stage, and discovery phase feedback has suggested it could be because you don’t have a ‘guest checkout’ option, forcing users to sign up for a full account, which creates friction if they’re browsing your site on mobile.
Start by validating the guest checkout idea with your users, then design and test different iterations through prototypes, mockups, and card sorting experiments.
5. Iterate and test
Once you have a working model of your website or product redesign, focus on testing the user experience to refine it.
Start with usability testing to ensure that your website hierarchies, user flow, and search filters make sense. Run A/B and multivariate testing to see which designs users respond to best, and use heatmaps to see exactly where they're clicking and scrolling.
Make sure you also evaluate accessibility: is the guest checkout option easy to find? Is it visible to users across different devices, and with different vision needs?
Next, go deeper: seek to build a complete picture of the UX and how it facilitates and blocks users from getting their needs met.
Observe users in action. Use Hotjar Heatmaps to identify click and scroll patterns and Session Recordings to track the entire user journey. This helps the UX team see what their customers see, which is crucial at this testing stage when you’re often too close to the design to understand the experience from the outside.
Look at the page elements customers are engaging with, and which ones they’re scrolling past. Filter session recordings by rage clicks to see where users may be clicking in frustration expecting a button or action. Pay special attention to dissatisfied customers or users who didn’t complete key conversion actions, and understand what their journey looks like.
Complement this understanding of user behavior with qualitative interviews and survey methods that will help you understand their motivations and product experience (PX).
6. Evaluate and communicate research findings
By now, you’ve collected many research insights. Organize your data using categories and tags, focusing on user pain points. Look for key patterns and recurring issues—and once you’ve identified them, ask users more questions if needed.
Make your research insights searchable, manipulable, and easily accessible by everyone on the team.
Then, engage in cross-functional communication outside the core UX team. Make sure you keep different departments informed and involved with your UX research process.
Create UX analysis reports and engage stakeholders with comprehensive UX and user storytelling and strong product narratives. But make sure you also share key nuggets of user data along the way, so your research insights filter throughout the whole organization.
Pro tip: use Hotjar Highlights to easily share user recording clips, screenshots, heatmap snippets, and VoC quotes throughout your company. You can also use the Slack integration to automatically keep different departments up to date!
7. Put your research into action
The UX research data you gather is a potential goldmine. It can help you prioritize brilliantly and boost user satisfaction, engagement, and retention. But only if you turn those insights into action.
You need to put the data to work in making key UX design decisions.
Use your UX research insights to prioritize fixes and product updates. Focus on urgent issues that are affecting key metrics and blocking users from meeting their needs.
Heatmaps and session recordings can help you quickly spot low-hanging fruit. You might find you could drastically improve conversions by positioning your CTA differently or making your signup form more streamlined and intuitive.
For larger design opportunities that will require significant resources, UX research data can help you to justify the cost to stakeholders.
I follow the process of finding patterns in the data, pulling at least one insight from each identified pattern, and then creating at least one design recommendation or design principle for each insight. When you are designing you can easily refer back to your identified design principles and requirements to help guide your decision making and have data-supported designs when it’s time for handoff.
Building the UX research process into your design culture
UX research isn’t a one-time activity to be forgotten about once you begin designing and developing.
The UX research process should happen continuously, influencing all other aspects of UX design and product development. Ongoing research, testing, and user conversations are all part of confident, user-led design thinking.
Prioritizing brilliant UX research will improve your design culture, boost conversions, and keep users engaged and delighted.
Boost your UX research with Hotjar
Design confidently with Hotjar’s rich, data-informed user experience insights