Putting the “academic” research in UX

What excites me the most about UX research is its enthusiasm to apply scientific principles to solve a problem. I’ve been a user-centered academic researcher and a research design instructor for the past 15 years. I’ve spent the last few months learning about UX research as part of my effort to transition into the field. What I’ve found is that structurally, UX research follows a nearly identical path to its academic cousin, though it may use different terminology and some aspects are more (or less) developed.

Here’s how I introduce bachelor and master-level students to the process of research design:

  • Choose a research problem
  • Conduct a literature review
  • Choose a research question
  • Design an appropriate research method
  • Data (collection, analysis, interpretation)
  • Dissemination

In this article, I will discuss the parallels I see between UX and academic research and highlight some ways we can learn from each other.

Choose a research problem: As a UX researcher, the research problem is focused on user experience. As one UX researcher told me, you are there to advocate for the user, not your company’s existing ideas. Academic researchers also keep in mind their aim is to tell people’s stories in a meaningful way and not promote their (or their supervisor’s) current views. For both UX and academia, coming up with a research problem via exploratory interviews is an excellent way to start. In other words, go straight to the source. Clearly defining a research problem helps researchers avoid creating a solution to a problem that does not exist.

Conduct a literature review: If you’ve written a paper in higher education, you remember this part. Your professor wanted 10-20 (or more) academic references to demonstrate how your research problem relates to existing literature. The point is: scholars agree that the problem you want to solve is a problem worth solving. The literature review is an academic necessity. For UX, this is often a missing research step.

My advice, also to students? Don’t see an academic article as (just) a piece of theoretical work. It can also give insight into findings that may be applicable, and it may even use a method in a particular way that gives inspiration. Lots of literature is open access these days. Just hop over to Google Scholar, type in some keywords related to your research problem, and see what pops up. You might be surprised. And your client or company will probably appreciate seeing how the problem you’ve identified exists in the broader world of research.

Choose a research question: I’ve done one-hour lectures on the importance of choosing the research question. Why? Because the nature of the research question implies a particular research design. The question defines the rest of your project. Think about the questions you ask for generative versus evaluative research. A question that can be answered with yes or no is better suited for an A/B test, not 20 hours of interviews with users.

If it’s written well, the research question is a great way for a UX researcher to communicate the project’s aim. It makes it clear you know what you’re doing and how you want to do it.

My advice to students: Write out your research question on a piece of paper and stick it on the wall near your workspace. Look at it often to make sure you don’t deviate from the main aim of your project. If it’s written well, the research question is a great way for a UX researcher to communicate the project’s aim. It makes it clear you know what you’re doing and how you want to do it. I also tell students not to panic if the question changes: just be sure to document why and how it changed. After all, the best research evolves with insights found along the way.

Design an appropriate research method: Remember those academic articles you reviewed? Sure, sometimes the theory is irrelevant and is embedded in so many literature references you forgot what you were reading. But if it was an empirical article, what method(s) did they use? Was it something standard, like interviews? What interview questions did they ask? Did they use a method you hadn’t thought of before, like having people submit photos that express their emotional attachment to an app, or observing dating app use in a late-night bar? Like I tell my students, literature can be inspiration. You never know what gems might be hidden in all the jargon.  

Data (collection, analysis, interpretation): For academics, the data process is a more fixed process than for UX researchers. This is one of the things I love about UX research: the focus on iterative data collection. It’s OK to repeat, evaluate, and improve data collection, analysis, and interpretation, because each cycle gets the researcher closer to the desired result. I’ve often seen thesis students fearful of “messing up” their analysis because they decided to change their interview guide halfway through. But this is a sign of reflection, not weakness.

Dissemination: When you’re doing academic research, this is easy: you write a paper. If you’re a student, and you get a passing grade, that’s enough. If you’re an academic researcher, your research is approved if it is accepted into an academic journal. UX researchers have a different challenge: rather than professors and reviewers, they must communicate the value of their findings to non-researchers like product managers, designers, and other stakeholders. Academic researchers have a lot to learn from UX here. Acquiring the skills to persuasively share findings without jargon or inside knowledge makes the case much stronger.

In all honesty, each of these topics deserves its own article – or maybe that’s just the long-winded academic writer talking. I do believe academics can learn from UX researchers and UX researchers can learn from academics. Whether in academia or UX, we do research in order to systematically uncover what people need, want, and desire. We do research to avoid coming to conclusions that simply reflect our private beliefs and opinions. By reflecting on the research process in this way, both types of researchers can improve their research techniques, argue persuasively for more time and resources for the research process, and, in the end, better the products (or papers) they are developing and improving.

Janelle Ward

Janelle Ward

Janelle Ward’s research and consultancy expertise has focused on user-centered research in digital environments. She’s spent 15 years researching the political youth user experience and the practices of dating app users. She’s published widely on these topics and is an experienced lecturer and coordinator of academic and professional courses. Janelle is also an avid fiction writer. More info:

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