UX Research and User Research: what’s the difference?

Illustration of UX research and user research
Terminology

UX Research and User Research: what’s the difference?

After my latest blog post, I was asked the following question: „You used the term ‚UX research‘. How is that different from user research?“

Well, frankly speaking, I think those terms represent the same matter, but I prefer to use the phrase UX research. I will explain later on why. However, after that conversation, the question did not let me rest, so I threw myself into a bit of internet research. Today I want to share my findings with you.

My definition of UX research and user research

First, let me give you my definition of the two terms: UX research (user research) encompasses all research activities carried out in the field of user experience. It is a systematic approach that includes identifying, investigating and understanding target or user groups. Data on those users, their behaviour, needs, pains, and such are gathered and synthesised. The goal is usually to improve the user experience of products or services. Hence UX research (user research) is a critical component of every design process as well as every product discovery.

But as always, when it comes to terminology – at least in our field – probably every Designer or every Researcher has their own definition, and they would all treat the initial question differently.

How some references differentiate UX research and user research

To make this quite clear: I haven’t discovered powerful voices that differentiate between the two terms. To be precise, I have not found a single primary source that could explain the difference sufficiently and in such an understandable way that I would want to share it with you. Of course, this doesn’t mean those beliefs aren’t out there. It only means I could not find them.

However, let me tell you what I learned: If User experience research and user research are referred to as different concepts, it’s always in a way that describes user research as the broader, more general approach. User research – as they see it – is not necessarily related to or embedded in, for instance, an actual design process. Instead, it focuses on more abstract research questions – like optimising theories in the discipline – and the elicitation of general user data. 

UX research, on the other hand, always takes place in a context – i.e. a design sprint or a product discovery – where you instantly want to apply what you find out. If I understand it correctly, only UX research directly impacts the optimisation of products and services in this definition.

I am not entirely sure if the distinction in these interpretations goes as far as scientifically separating the two terms into research and practice. Where user research would be the research discipline and UX research would be what the practitioners do. But at least it points in this direction.

References that do not describe the terms differently

Most resources on UX research or user research – of those I perused – treat the two terms interchangeably. Some even use both phrases within the same article alternatingly. I really found a lot of these references, but I will only highlight two of them representatively.

The Nielsen Norman Group, for instance, uses UX research and user research alternately in their documents. Susan Farell summarises her report „UX Research Cheat Sheet“ as follows: „User research can be done at any point in the design cycle. This list of methods and activities can help you decide which to use when.“ (Farell, 2017)

The situation is similar for the Interaction Design Foundation. They have definitions for both terms that are not entirely the same word for word, but both explain the same concept in the end. In both posts, the same explanatory video is embedded in which the term user research is used. (Interaction Design Foundation, n.d.)

Why I prefer the term UX research

Now, why do I prefer the term UX research? The reason for this has mainly to do with language itself. I strive to use inclusive and non-violent, and also more concise speech in my everyday and professional language. I know that I tend to exaggerate or go to extremes in some places. Maybe this is one of those extremes.

On the one hand, I think we don’t only want to examine the users but also the UX of our product, service or idea. „UX“ automatically includes the users (since they are the ones who make the experience). So from this – admittedly a bit skewed perspective – I think UX research is the more inclusive term regarded professionally in that it includes more of what we want to express.

Secondly – and I understand if you find this too extreme: I feel the term „user research“ is slightly offensive. Users are not lab rats that we examine or assess. Yes, we want to learn and understand who they are, what they think and do, what they feel and all that. But I like to frame this with the words „UX“ and thus prefer UX research to name what we do.

Fun fact: that does not mean I am only using this term. I guess that I still say „user research“ more often. But I am in the process of changing that 😅

Conclusion

My findings – particularly those from the „big players“ in our discipline – reinforce my initial belief that UX research and user research refer to the same thing. I don’t see a need to differentiate between a more general and a more practical usage of research tools and methods. Even more so if many of us professionals or prospective experts do not understand or see the difference. Why make it more complex or complicated than it is?

KISS („keep it simple, stupid!“ or „keep it stupid simple“) should be the motto in this.

Relevant Resources

Farrel, S. (2017). UX Research Cheat Sheet. Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ux-research-cheat-sheet/

Interaction Design Foundation (n.d.). User Research. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/user-research

Interaction Design Foundation (n.d.). UX Research. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/topics/ux-research


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