What is User Experience Research?

User experience research is research that focuses on understanding the needs, motivations, frustrations, and behaviors of website and application users. It’s the process of understanding how a design or solution impacts a particular audience.

Some user research tools look at data from real users that visit your site, while others provide data from a screened panel of users, based on pre-defined demographics. Either way, the user-generated results help UX strategists, like myself, iterate and recommend solutions that’ll improve the user’s overall experience.

Why is User Research Important?

User research directly supports UX, or user experience. In fact, without user research, UX is meaningless. Even the most well thought out designs are merely assumptions until taking the time to validate them with your end-users. Assuming you know exactly what your users are thinking or are frustrated with is a naïve way of thinking. The only way to truly understand what’s working, and what’s not, is to test, test, and then test some more.

Before diving into any user research or UX project, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the following user research tools, learning what they are and how you can use them to your advantage.

1. Google Analytics

Google Analytics is a web analytics service that tracks and reports web traffic and web behavior. When starting a project, Google Analytics is one of the first places I’ll start my user experience research. I start with Google Analytics because it covers all the basics. The tool gives you a high-level insight into who is coming to your site and how they are using it.

While Google Analytics can be used to pull truly amazing, nitty-gritty reports, it’s important to start with the basics. At a minimum, make sure you’re pulling these common reports:

Device Type

This report tells you what percentage of users access your website on a desktop, mobile device, or tablet. Looking at this data may surprise you—a recent study shows that, for the first time, mobile internet use has surpassed desktop.

New vs. Returning Visitors

This report lets you know who is visiting your site. Are most of your visitors new, or are they returning? If one clearly outweighs the other, there are implications. For example, your strategy, tone of voice, and UI should cater to new visitors differently than it should for returning visitors.

High Traffic Pages

This report gives you access to the content/pages users are visiting most frequently. This will help you identify which pages to highlight moving forward and, perhaps more importantly, help you understand which pages to eliminate or restructure.


Demographic reports don’t come with the basic Google Analytics set up. To access these reports, you’ll first need an administrator to enable this feature. You’ll also need to update your site’s privacy policy with the appropriate legal terms. Once you’ve done so, you’ll have access to a quick breakdown of the age, gender, and geo-location of your users.

Interested in reading more on Google Analytics and UX research? We’ve got a blog on just that.

2. Competitive Analysis

Competitive analysis simply means looking into your competitors. This may seem like an obvious user research tool, but it’s one that often gets neglected. When performing this analysis, it’s important to look at who your competitors are, what they’re doing, and how you compare to them.

It’s crucial not to get too wrapped up in the competitive analysis by constantly comparing your site/company to those of your competitors. This can lead to wanting to duplicate exactly what your competitors are doing—but don’t. Simply “copying and pasting” an idea will get you nowhere.

When performing competitive analysis, try to “leapfrog” the competition. Or in other words, understand what your competitors are doing, leapfrog over that concept, and land on something that potentially accomplishes a similar goal in a way that correlates directly to your brand.

3. Heatmaps

Heatmaps provide data from real users that access your site. The report screenshots every page on your site and displays a thermal map over the top of each page. The thermal map represents where users hover their mouse. The darker colors of the thermal map, typically a deep red, signify that many users hovered their mouse there. The lighter colors, such as light green, mean not many users interacted with that area of the page.

By identifying where users hover their mouse, you can infer what users are looking at, where they’re spending their time, and, on the flipside, what users don’t pay much attention to. Heatmaps can also validate standard web conventions and web mistakes, such as banner blindness, F-shaped reading patterns, and more.

4. Clickmaps

While heatmaps show where users hover their mouse, clickmaps (as the name describes) show where users click their mouse. Commonly, you’ll see a trend between heatmaps and clickmaps. Heatmaps show some level of interest from the user—clickmaps confirm this level of interest.

Clickmaps are necessary for measuring engagement. They tell you which areas users are engaging with on any given web page. These thermal maps are also useful for showing where users are trying to click, but aren’t having much luck doing so. For example, if your clickmap shows users repeatedly clicking (or trying to click) on an area that’s not actually clickable—there are UI changes to be made.

5. User Tests

User testing is one of my favorite user experience research tools, because it typically resonates well (or actually not so well) with clients—I’ll explain. User testing records users’ screens as they accomplish tasks by navigating through your site/your competitors’ sites. The screened panel of users are told to think out loud and comment on their experience as they navigate through the web pages. As an end result, you get access to the recordings of each user’s session, which shows their computer screen and gives audio feedback from their commentary. From these recordings, you can then draft a “highlight reel” comprised of key clips and insights. At Zion & Zion, we show these highlight reels to our clients.

Showing user testing clips to our clients is often a turning point because the clips can be shocking. It’s a critical part of our process, and ultimately helps drive home the importance of a good user experience. It’s one thing for our UX strategists to offer their professional advice—to share that a site’s navigation is cluttered, that the IA labels aren’t concise enough, or that the CTA is not on target for the company’s’ KPIs. It’s an entirely different situation for the client to hear these user frustrations from real users, first-hand. Pushing back against the feedback of multiple users is next to impossible.

P.S. When it comes to running user tests, there are a lot of things to keep and mind and a lot of tips/tricks we’d recommend, like asking open-ended questions, screening panelists based on your target audience, and more. For more do’s and don’ts of user testing, check out our article on this topic.

6. Preference Tests

Preference tests is another user research tool you should have up your sleeve. While preference tests can be used to test many different scenarios, the primary reason we use preference tests at Zion & Zion is to uncover how a site stacks up to its competition.

To run this type of preference test, screen for users that closely align with your site’s target demo. You’ll then give those users a designated mindset. For example, try something along the lines of “You’re looking to purchase XYZ. View the following homepages (typically four) and click on the company you’d select to make a purchase from.” Remember to consider the positioning of the screenshots you choose to show the users. At Zion & Zion, we switch the position of each screenshot after each test has been conducted and take the average of those results. We do so to avoid any biases users may have towards certain positions, so we get the most accurate data points.

After you run the test, it’s time to analyze the results. Preference tests are a unique tool because they give you access to both quantitative and qualitative feedback:

  • Quantitative: Shown by the number of users who preferred each site.
  • Qualitative: Obtained by asking users a follow-up question—why did you chose that site, company, design, app, etc.? This feedback helps you plan appropriately for further areas of improvement.

When analyzing your results, remember to keep the level of significance in mind, as it will vary depending on your sample size. Larger sample sizes give you greater significance, and so on. We recommend, at a minimum, running a test with at least 25 users.

7. Click Tests

Click tests measure the usability of a website or mobile application. The test is run on a screened panel of users, usually based on the demographics of your target audience. The screened users are asked a question that typically begins with, “Where would you click to…” The users are shown a screenshot of the interface, on which they are asked to click.

Once the user clicks, the exact position of their click is recorded and will display under the results. You’ll also be given information on how long it took users to click, which may help determine whether this was an easy or difficult click for your users to make.

Click tests are a beneficial tool because the results often show clicks that occur in unexpected areas—allowing you to generate unique insights. These tests are also handy because you’re able to vary the mindset you give to the screened users. This allows you to isolate and investigate user behavior around each distinct scenario.

When is the Best Time to Conduct User Research?

Okay, fine—this is a trick question. In reality, the best time to conduct user research is now, and all the time.

User experience research should be conducted multiple different times in your process. This means conducting user research before you jump into a project, after your first iteration, after your second iteration, even after your third iteration, and so on, until launch. And, even after launch, it’s important to conduct more user research to ensure users are having a good user experience with the end result.

This may sound like overkill—but trust me, it’s not. Conducting user research at multiple milestones in your project will only help you and the UX you’re creating in the long run.

Still not sold on this theory? See the proof in our recent case study, which shows the results of a multi-milestone web testing strategy.

In Conclusion

User research tools aren’t just cool and impressive ways to show off your knowledge to clients (although they can be). User research tools are critical. They’re imperative to the success of your future website or mobile application. Start with these seven basic user research tools and you’ll be on your way to developing a well-rounded user experience, curated directly from your users themselves.