User research vs usability testing - what's the difference?

Published 26 Apr 2022 4 minute read

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User research vs usability testing

Sometimes terminology can be confusing. What exactly do we mean when we talk about 'user research'? And is it the same thing as 'usability testing'? What about 'user testing? And 'UX research'? And isn't it all just the same thing as 'market research'?

For more on the important - and sometimes divisive - differences between market research and UX research, read our article market research vs UX research - what's the difference here.

The aim of this article is to pick apart what we see as the difference between user research and usability testing - two terms that are frequently confused or even used interchangeably.

Is user research the same thing as UX research?

As we've said previously, in our UX vs Market research we believe there is a clear distinction between the terms user research and UX research.

What is UX research?

We see UX research - as referring specifically to elements of the user experience of a product or service and in particular the user interface between supplier and customer.

There is often a distinction made within corporates between the UX department and the market research and insights department; with UX research being conducted by UX researchers who form part of a design team working closely with product managers and the insights teams who are more often than not aligned with or form part of the marketing team. UX teams often have different - but complementary - skills and approaches to insights teams.

UX research tends to focus on observing the behaviour of users as they interact with whichever element of the product, service or existing interface is being studied.

What is user research?

We regard user research as being a much broader umbrella term meaning 'any research that is done with users of a product, service or brand. This includes UX research but can also include the sort of methods that are outside of the remit of the UX department.

For example, user research includes research into the attitudes, beliefs and motivations of users (and potential users) as well as into other behaviours that don't relate directly to the product or service in question.

Researchers use a number of different research methods to identify target users and better understand their needs and behaviours.

We've listed a handful below: 

  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Field study
  • Co-creation
  • Focus groups
  • Usability testing

The type of UX research methods you choose will depend on the particular research question you are tackling, your target market, time frames and of course your budget. 

So, what about usability testing?

As noted above, we believe usability testing to be a subset of UX research that deals specifically with the functions and features of a product, service, website, app or other user interface. The goal of a usability test is to ensure that the user can interact effectively and complete the tasks that they want to do in the way that you want them to be done, as easily and quickly as you deem acceptable.

And user testing?

The term 'user testing' is also often used interchangeably with usability testing. However, we prefer not to say user testing as it implies that it is the target users that are being tested, rather than the product, service or website.

It is a technique for validating your design decisions for an interface by testing it with representative users. Usability testing typically involves observation of users as they attempt to complete the tasks with a prototype in order to identify areas where they encounter usability issues.

Usability testing is often focused on particular areas of a website or app and can be used to validate design decisions or to uncover usability issues or errors in the flow of complex website design or user journey.

Usability testing is typically conducted by asking potential users to perform tasks and observing their progress. This can be done in a lab environment - although increasingly researchers are turning to remote usability testing particularly for digital products - using tools such as Screen Recording to observe users in-the-moment and the context interacting with the tool or device, which can be both more agile and less expensive than in-person studies.  To learn more about Screen Recording and how it can employed within our asynchronous online qual platform to conduct usability tests head over to our blog.

Qualitative usability testing involves the detailed study of individuals as they complete the given tasks, but there is also room for quantitative research methods in usability testing. Tools such as heatmaps can be used to aggregate user testing analysis to gain insights into, for example, which parts of the website users spent the most time on or which they clicked away from without engaging.

What does that mean in practice?

Imagine you have an idea for a new app - Woofer. This is an app for dog owners that helps link them up with other dog owners in the local area to chat and share tips, meet up for dog walks and offer pet-sitting.

Of course, before you put a lot of time and effort into developing Woofer, you would need to gauge interest and to understand more about the features and functions that pet owners would find valuable.

In order to do so, in the early stages of the development process you might conduct some user research using market research methods such as an online qualitative research community, focus groups or ethnography. You would want to conduct the research with a specific target audience, recruiting participants who own dogs, and you would also probably try and ensure that they were open to using apps.

This type of research would help you to understand if you were on the right track; what is important to user groups about their dog ownership, how they like to relate to other dog owners and what the pain points are around dog ownership?  Through analysis of this work, you would start to validate whether there was genuine interest for the type of app proposed and how it might be constructed to meet the needs of potential users.

You might in turn follow up this initial study with a more quantitative method such as a survey to look in more depth at the size of the potential market for Woofer.

All of these studies come under the umbrella of user research.

Now let's assume that the user research phase has gone well; you have invested in developing your app and have built a prototype. You are now moving into usability testing phase.

This is when you get a handful of target pet owners into your usability testing lab or into your online research community to test the prototype administering tasks for your participants to undertake. For example, you  might give them tasks such as 'create a profile for your dog' or 'go to the doggy friends section of the app and send a message to another owner'.

Using usability testing software, you could track the steps the users took to accomplish the tasks, the time taken and whether they encountered problems or difficulties along the way. You could also interview the participants to get feedback on how they felt about the tasks and their views on the app.

The task analysis would then feed into your decisions about how to fine- tune the prototype and progress the design decisions needed to create a market-ready app.

In summary

We hope that this has cleared up some of the confusion that there can be about the difference between user research and usability testing. Although, at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what it is called as long as your user research methods are helping you to improve the product development process, give your customers a better user experience and, ultimately, sell more products and services. 

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