Sometimes a website or app is so intuitive to use that you feel like it’s reading your thoughts and anticipating your needs in real time. But that seamless experience isn’t some kind of sorcery — it’s the result of user research.
UX (short for “user experience”) Researchers study user behavior to identify potential pain points, and then work with UX Designers to develop solutions. “My primary job is to get feedback from people who use our website or app by talking to them and running tests,” explains Sil Lavers, a UX Researcher at Codecademy. “I think of myself as an investigator who tries to understand the underlying why to what people are saying.”
UX professionals like Sil use a variety of research methods — from surveys to focus groups — that fall into the category of “generative research.” In our new free course Learn User Research: Generative, you’ll get an overview of different user research methods and when to use them. Plus, you’ll get to conduct research for a fictional app, analyze the results, and build your own research report using the virtual collaboration platform Miro. If you’re interested in having a career in UX, these are the sorts of skills you need to showcase to potential employers.
Pretty much anyone involved in building products can benefit from user research. “The more you learn about users and the problems they have, the more powerful knowledge you have to build the right thing,” says Juan Real, Lead Product Designer at Miro. Here’s what you need to know about generative research, and how to start practicing the method.
What is generative research?
Generative research is all about developing a deeper understanding of your users and defining the problem that you’ll address later on in the design thinking process, Juan says. As the name suggests, generative research helps generate insights that inform the rest of your work.
You might also hear generative research referred to as “the discovery stage” of a project, because it happens pretty early on. “It is normally the phase where a team is building knowledge and it drives the direction to take the problem forward,” Juan says. In many cases, UX teams will start conducting generative research before they have a firm grasp on what the problem is that they’re solving, Sil says.
Generative research can also happen at a later stage to solve smaller problems within a large problem space, Juan adds. “Generative research can help to ‘double-click’ on a specific subject where you want to learn more,” he says.
How do you conduct generative research?
Thorough user research combines mixed methods to grasp the big picture and nuanced details of a problem space. Here are some popular generative research methods:
- Interviews: A UX Researcher asks each participant a series of dialog-provoking questions about a topic. Unlike a focus group, interviews are usually conducted one-on-one, and they can be structured, unstructured, or somewhere in between.
- Diary studies: Users keep a running log of certain behaviors over a set period of time. These diaries give UX Researchers a better idea of users’ long-term habits, attitudes, and usage scenarios, according to the UX consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group.
- Contextual inquiry: “This is a fancy term for observation and field studies,” or research that takes place in the user’s context, Sil explains. Essentially, a UX Researcher acts as a “fly on the wall” and observes users to understand their behaviors.
- Surveys: Often used alongside other research methods, surveys enable UX Researchers to pick up on broad insights and trends, plus gather qualitative (non-numerical data) and quantitative (numerically-measurable) data. In a survey, all the participants get the same questions — so it tends to be a relatively low-lift research method.
- Card sorting: In this technique, participants have to sort note cards with keywords on them into categories. (Participants can also do this via software using a collaborative digital platform like Miro.) This activity lets users establish an information architecture that meets their expectations and needs.
You can learn how to put all of these research methods into practice in our free course Learn User Research: Generative.
What’s the difference between generative and evaluative research?
Whereas generative research tends to be more open-ended, evaluative research has a defined objective: assess whether a product or concept meets expectations and requirements of a user, Sil says. Since generative and evaluative research have different goals, they require slightly different approaches.
Researchers have to be a blank slate during generative research. “With generative research, the world is your oyster,” Sil says. “You figure out what the lay of the land is, what the context is, what’s going on, and if there even is a problem to solve.”
In order to conduct evaluative research, you need something tangible to evaluate and test, like an existing design or prototype. UX Researchers will use methods like surveys and usability testing in evaluative research to gather “behavioral and attitudinal data” on users, Sil says. Taken together, both generative and evaluative research help UX Researchers paint a clearer picture about their users and how they think.
Eager to practice generative research? Our free course Learn User Research: Generative will walk you through all the concepts you need to know in order to conduct generative research, analyze the results, and communicate your findings to other stakeholders. You’ll also get to use Miro, the visual collaboration platform that UX Researchers rely on throughout the research process.
Then, you can apply your user research findings in our free course Learn Design Thinking: Ideation, where you’ll learn the steps that designers take to define a problem and ideate solutions. You might also want to check out Introduction to UI and UX Design to learn how to create wireframes and prototypes and get a sense of the UI/UX career landscape.