User Research & Key Words

What is User Research? And UX..? Some definitions first

In a nutshell, User Research (UR) aims at understanding users better before building innovations meant to serve them, ultimately, to improve the fit between your target group and your service or product. More specifically, User Research is the collection and interpretation of data to understand behaviour, needs, experience and motivations of future users for a product in the design or re-design phase. Since these all aim at developing empathy for how your target group experiences the problem you are trying to solve for them, it is sometimes called User Experience Research (UX Research). Different from User Interface Research (UI Research), it goes beyond the analysis of the interface (App menu or website layout) and addresses your future users’ motivations and behaviour.

Technology-led innovation starts with the question what would be possible technically, e.g. what an AI-driven agricultural recommendation system could do and only then, as an add on, argues why farmers would love it. While this is the reason why many programs are being funded, you can always switch perspectives (even within the frame of an already set program determined by technology-driven goals) and ask what your target group wishes for, suffers from, or is annoyed by. By putting your target group rather than technology and its possibilities in the centre of your design process, you are thus applying a Human Centered Design (HCD) approach. When human centered design ideas meet informed considerations regarding the feasibility and viability of product development, we talk about Design Thinking approaches.

Why user research?

Ultimately, the aim of user research is to develop a great user experience with a future product, leading to high user numbers and/or happy customers. Despite the widely held belief that user research is an extra expense, it can actually save you a lot of money spent on the wrong problems and priorities or technologies. This being said, the mere application of user research methods is no guarantee for a successful design process, since it is but one puzzle in the larger User Experience Maturity of your organization and the success of your design endeavour will depend on more aspects than brilliant research – your partnerships with local actors, the digital ecosystem and its dynamics, financing mechanisms and business models for your innovation etc. For a set of guidelines to sustainable digital development, check the Principles for Digital Development to get an overview on best practices into technology-enabled development programs for international collaboration.

How is User Research different from or similar to scientific research?

As in academic research, there are quantitative methods (e.g. surveys) and qualitative methods (e.g. user experience maps) to collect and understand user data. As in academic research, good practices of user research include involving the research objects in the research process. A user research process that actively involves users is part of a human-centred design approach.

User research differs from classical academic research in that it aims to understand behaviour in a very specific (product-related) context, often uses small samples that match the target audience, and produces actionable design outputs as outcome. User research is meant to spark design ideas to be tested, and to a lesser degree to prove hypotheses. It complements academic research which is focussed more on understanding and predicting phenomena, and produces peer-reviewed, replicable results for a scientific audience or practitioners. User research is at best informed by data and frameworks analysed in academic research and understands the behaviour, needs and motivations of a smaller subgroup situated within larger contexts analysed by scientific research. User research approaches are built on empathy and the willingness to discover insights and entry points for design solutions beyond the scientifically proven trends and developments. 

In User Research, we basically collect three types of data:

a. Behavioral Data – Understanding the “what”: This is qualitative or quantitative data that displays what people do in a specific situation, faced with your service or product. Behavioral data is best if you want to understand users’ interactions with your current product or service. It measures what they do, but not what they feel or think.

b. Attitudinal Data – This is data on peoples’ opinions and perceptions, generated in interviews, focus group discussions or surveys, and displays what people think that they’ll do (which is not necessary what they will do in the end), how they feel when they use your product, or more generally how they understand a specific topic.

c. Beyond these two major data types, we sometimes need contextual data to be able to situate our product and service within larger structures of access, capacities or affordability. This data describes the context within which your user will meet and use your product. It is usually collected using Digital Ecosystem Analysis methods.

Further Reading:
Read more on mindsets for User Centered Design from IDEO.ORG, one of the leading organizations for this approach. They can be very helpful to use during User Research.

What do I need for good user research?

If we were to name three things, it would be budget, time, and trained people. Don’t have all of these? No problem, there are ways to start small!

First of all, check the planning modules to create a User Research Plan, including clear research questions and a strategy to feed your research results into your overall development process.

Second, browse through the available modules to find the method that will create the data you need to test your hypothesis or to create your User Persona (very recommended as a first step!). We also recommend this overview on UX Research Methods by Norman Nielsen Group for you to read further into the overall approach, timing, and methods available.


There are different ways of organizing the available User Research (Or User Experience Research) Methods. They all follow the same approach of

  1. Open your mind to the universe of your users
  2. Try to formulate hypothesis on (a prioritized list of) their problem and needs
  3. Test these early with prototypes
  4. Keep listening and iterating once you design

So, whatever visual presentation works best for you, as long as you follow these basic steps, you’re on a good path to a fantastic product!

Third, check your research ethics! User research – as any research – should not be a one-sided, extractive process by which you gain valuable information to make your innovations a success and your research partners only invest their time. Many of the method modules make suggestions on how to recompensate your research partners, but you can always invest some time to think about your specific target group and how to engage in a fair, mutually beneficial research process together. Major factors are informed consent, the respectful use of images, quotations and voice recordings (with their owners’ permission, of course) and a safe and secure data storage and deletion plan.

To find out more on this, check in with your Institutional Review Board to approve your research plan.

Fourth, keep learning! You will make mistakes, no doubt. It is important to reflect on your own errors as well as share them and in return be able to learn from the pitfalls others encountered. Consider joining a community of practices (LINK) and start reading about success stories and case studies.

Version 2.0 of this toolkit will feature case studies from the CGIAR, in the meantime check out stories online like e.g. the IDEO collection of “inspiring stories of innovation and impact show how human-centered design gets real results.”