The 4 types of research methods in UI/UX design (and when to use them)

Design research is a necessary part of creating a user-centered product. When done right, you’re able to gather data that helps you:

  • Identify and solve relevant design problems.
  • Better understand the product’s end users.
  • Improve your designs based on data-driven research.

Though there are many different ways to collect data and do design research, they can broadly be categorized as either primary, secondary, exploratory, or evaluative research. In this article, we’ll explain these four types of research methods in the context of UI/UX design and when you should use them in your design process.

Primary research

Primary Research

Primary research is the simplest (and perhaps most effective) way to come up with data to get a better understanding of the audience for which you’re designing. The purpose of primary research is to validate design ideas and concepts early on in the design process. The data you collect from primary research allows you to design meaningful, user-centered solutions.

Let’s take a look at some examples of primary research:


Conducting interviews with individuals or in small groups is a great starting point, and there are many ways to go about it. Depending on your project, you might conduct direct interviews or indirect interviews. Direct interviews are simple question-answer format interviews whereas indirect interviews are set up in a more conversational style. You’ll also have to decide whether you’ll interview people in-person or remotely.

Focus groups

Focus groups are structured, group interviews in which a moderator guides the discussion. As a UI/UX designer, you might consider using this research method when you need to gather user insight quickly.

Usability testing

Once you develop a prototype, you can recruit test participants and conduct usability tests to uncover foundational issues with the product’s user experience and gather user feedback. The idea is to define user goals and turn them into realistic task scenarios that the test participants would have to complete using your prototype.

Secondary research

Secondary Research

Secondary research is when you use existing books, articles, or research material to validate your design ideas and concepts or support your primary research. For example, you might want to use the material you gather from secondary research to:

  • Explain the context behind your UI design.
  • Build a case for your design decisions.
  • Reinforce the data you gathered from primary research.

Generally speaking, secondary research is much easier (and faster) to do than primary research. You’ll be able to find most of the information you need on the internet, in the library, or your company’s archives. Here are some places you can collect secondary research from:

  • Your company’s internal data, which may include information contained in your company’s files, databases and project reports.
  • Client’s research department, e.g. the data your client has regarding user behavior with previous versions of the website/application, user interests, etc.
  • Industry statistics, i.e. the industry’s general consensus, standards and conventions.
  • Relevant books, articles, case studies and magazines.

Websites have evolved a great deal over the last two decades, and so has the way users interact with them. This is why one of the most common challenges with secondary research in UI/UX design is outdated data. In such cases, UI/UX designers resort to other research methods (such as primary research or exploratory research) to gather the data they need.

Exploratory research

Exploratory Research

Exploratory research is usually conducted at the start of the design process with a purpose to help designers understand the problem they’re trying to solve. As such, it focuses on gathering a thorough understanding of the end user’s needs and goals.

In the Define the Problem stage of the design thinking process, you can use exploratory research techniques to develop a design hypothesis and validate it with the product’s intended user base. By doing so, you’ll be in a better position to make hypothesis-driven design decisions throughout the design process.

You can validate your hypothesis by running experiments. Here are some of the ways you can validate your assumptions depending on where you are in the design process:

  • Conducting interviews and surveys
  • Organizing focus groups
  • Conducting usability tests
  • Running various A/B tests

Essentially, you’re combining exploratory research and primary research techniques to define the problem accurately. You can do this by asking questions that encourage interview participants to explore different design concepts and think outside the box.

Before you begin collecting data, remember to write down the experiment you’re running and define the outcomes that validate your design hypothesis. After doing exploratory research, you should have enough data to begin designing a solution.

Evaluative research

Evaluative Research

Exploratory research gives you enough data to begin designing a solution. Once you have a prototype on hand, you can use evaluative research to test that solution with real users. The goal of evaluative research is to help designers gather feedback that allows them to improve their product’s design.

There are two main functions of evaluative research: summative and formative.

  • Summative evaluation is all about making a judgment regarding the efficacy of the product once it’s complete.
  • Formative evaluation, on the other hand, focuses on evaluating the product and making improvements (i.e., detecting and eliminating usability problems) during the development process.

For example, you can conduct usability tests in which you ask test participants to use the product to perform a set of tasks. Keep in mind that the purpose of evaluative research is to gather feedback from users regarding your product’s design. In case you’re short on time or low on budget, you can choose to conduct usability studies that fit in your time and budget constraints (such as guerrilla usability testing).


Deciding which research method to use depends on what data you’re trying to gather and where you are in the design process. The information you collect through your design research will enable you to make informed design decisions and create better user-centered products.

Let’s quickly recap the four types of research methods UI/UX designers can use in the design process:

  • Primary research is used to generate data by conducting interviews, surveys, and usability tests and/or organizing focus group sessions.
  • With secondary research, you’re able to use existing research material to validate your design ideas and support your primary research.
  • Exploratory research is when you come up with a design hypothesis and run experiments to validate it.
  • Once you have a prototype, you can use evaluative research to see if there’s any room for improvement.

Which of these research methods do you use in your design process and how? Let us know in the comments section below.