Staying competitive, user-centric and on top of your UX game in an ever-evolving digital landscape can be tough. However, UX audits provide the deep-dive necessary for unearthing usability issues, meeting your users’ needs, and creating evidence-supported recommendations crafted to take your product to the next level and lead to more conversions. But how do we gain the most effective insights from them?
At the heart of a UX audit lies intentional and rigorous user research. Within the UX audit sits a myriad of user research methods which collect and interpret data on your digital product. In this article, we’ll take you through all you need to know about the role of user research in UX audits, the unique benefits of each method, and how triangulating these methods within a UX audit can produce reliable and concrete insights about your digital product.
The role of user research in a UX audit
User research, sometimes referred to as ‘UXR’ by experts in the user experience landscape, is the empirical exploration of user behaviour, motivations, and interactions with digital interfaces. In product development, user research is the cornerstone of fully understanding user needs. User research begins with a thorough definition of research goals and objectives, followed by a careful selection of methods based on unique project needs. Next, data is collected via these selected methods and then translated into findings during analysis.
Methods can be both qualitative and quantitative. Qualitative methods, such as in-depth interviews, user observations, and contextual inquiries, delve into the intriguing nuances of user behaviours, attitudes, and motivations behind a digital product. The goal of qualitative techniques is to carve out rich, deep insights to inform product decisions and design strategies. Qualitative user research studies usually consist of a small sample size. Contrastingly, quantitative user research methods focus on the collection of numerical data and analysis of large-scale patterns. Some techniques include analytics and A/B testing and reveal user interaction data such as website traffic and click-through rates.
User research can also be either generative or evaluative in its approach. While generative research seeks to create new, undiscovered insights about a product or specific features, evaluative research aims to assess the usability and validity of a product or specific features. For example, generative research might inspire fresh ideas for new designs, whereas evaluative studies might identify the strengths and weaknesses of a prototype. In both cases, the results will inform design decisions.
Whether you use qualitative or quantitative methods, or perhaps a combination of both, user research is a collaborative process that requires the involvement of cross-functional teams, including developers, project managers, UX designers, UX researchers and marketers. Each area of expertise brings a fresh perspective to ensure that users’ needs are met and exceeded. User research is paramount in mitigating the risk of designing products that cause friction for users and fail to provide them with a seamless, functional and pleasurable experience. Avoiding intentional and robust user research, therefore, might lead to losses in precious resources and time as well as reputational damage to a brand.
The role of user research in UX audits
User research takes centre stage within the UX audit, forming the majority of the necessary steps. Each method is unique in its application and results, providing a multi-dimensional perspective. This multiple-lens approach is known as triangulation. The methods triangulated in a UX audit include a UX maturity survey, a UX workshop, user observations, a usability evaluation and proto-personas. This comprehensive blend of techniques creates a thorough understanding of user needs, behaviours, pain points and preferences and results in a reliable and robust UX audit output. Triangulation avoids drawing inaccurate conclusions and recommendations that are unsuitable or limited and ensures that appropriate and tailored design decisions can be made with confidence.
What are the types of user research in a UX audit?
At the outset of a UX audit, it’s best practice to kick things off with a UX maturity survey. Think of it like a preliminary diagnostic tool that enables us to gauge the organisational landscape of a website or digital product, assessing its current state of user experience maturity. This stage involves asking a series of specific questions that invite insights on the organisation’s existing UX practices, methodologies, and overall awareness. UX maturity surveys serve a dual purpose: providing a comprehensive overview of the prevailing UX maturity levels and revealing potential areas for improvement. By understanding the core context of how UX is positioned in an organisation, we’re better equipped to fine-tune a UX audit plan and shape appropriate recommendations based on business needs.
Next, a workshop with key stakeholders is conducted to create a picture of the potential issues that users are running into. UX workshops create the perfect space for brainstorming ideas, sharing perspectives, and aligning goals. These activities enable both our team and stakeholders to foster a deeper understanding of user needs and business goals, ultimately laying the groundwork for actionable recommendations and equipping existing research plans with a sturdy structure.
Some areas discussed might include the following:
> Audience definition: capturing key demographic information, behaviours, pain points and goals of target users
> User journeys: tracing out the steps that users take when interacting with the product or service
> Feature prioritisation: aligning on which features should be prioritised throughout the UX audit
> Business goals: agreeing on the bigger picture – what are the key objectives that the business wants to achieve?
> Establishing project direction: building a mutual understanding of the direction of the project, including key milestones
> Stakeholder expectations: establishing what the visions for the team are following the completion of the UX audit
UX workshops are also an opportunity to sharpen stakeholders’ understanding of UX and user research as a practice, allowing them to take a more active role in the planning phase as well as following the UX audit.
User observations are another key user research method employed during a UX audit, providing invaluable first-hand insights into how real users interact with the digital product or service. User observations produce a clear and nuanced picture of user behaviours, preferences, and pain points in a natural context. They uncover usability issues and friction points that may impact user satisfaction and task completion, illuminating targeted improvements. User observations also validate design decisions and recommendations in an evidence-driven, data-backed manner, which also humanises the design process and fosters empathy among stakeholders.
Users might be observed using in-person usability testing or remote observation through screen-sharing or video conferencing tools. During the session, the moderator takes notes on the user’s actions, behaviours, verbalisations, challenges and decision-making. This data is then analysed to form themes and insights based on patterns identified in the findings. At this stage, we might synthesise user observation findings with feedback from the UX workshop to further triangulate the research output and build an overall stronger picture of the user experience.
A persona is a representation of a typical existing or desired user group, often shown as a fictional (but realistic) individual. Traditional user personas contain details such as a user’s age, name, and general description based on actual user research data. Proto-personas, however, are based on assumptions made by stakeholders rather than extensive user research. Both user persona types might represent potential or existing users of a digital product or website, and function as documents that enable the communication of typical user needs and behaviour to stakeholders.
Proto-personas should be referred to when making design decisions and, therefore, enable teams to foster an early empathy for potential users rather than imagining how designs might work for a broad and generic audience. This results in a reduced risk of developing a product that does not suit its users’ needs. The user-centric culture that proto-personas introduce to a team increases the level of an organisation’s UX maturity.
Proto-personas are user research artefacts that guide user-centric design decisions throughout the UX audit process. They provide a snapshot of potential user groups, consisting of unique demographics, pain points, challenges, interactions, goals, key tasks and aspirations. Typically, proto-personas are initially crafted using the insights from the UX stakeholder workshop and then fleshed out with data from user observations to enrich the quality and depth of the personas.
Proto-personas can also serve as a starting point that evolves over time. To improve the accuracy of the representation of the users, proto-personas should be iterated on a consistent basis. As a frequently used tool within user experience and marketing, proto-personas create a solid foundation which can be built upon and supplemented further in the future. In this sense, proto-personas should not be treated as static tools, but rather living documents that change alongside ever-evolving audience types, even after the completion of the UX audit report.
In essence, user research is a critical component within UX audits that leverages a range of diverse methods. UX maturity surveys, UX workshops, user observations and proto-personas fit together like pieces of a puzzle to reveal valuable insights regarding user needs, behaviours and pain points, enabling organisations to identify key areas for improvements. By incorporating intensive user research into a UX audit, the foundations are established for prioritising design enhancements, meeting business goals, and ultimately delighting users with an exceptional user experience. Want to find out what you can expect from our UX audits? Hear all about our process from our director, Sarah Edwards, in our UX audit overview. If you’d like to dive into UX audit specifics, such as how long a UX audit should take, or the common mistakes to avoid in a UX audit, check out our thought-provoking articles from our studio.
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