July 17, 2013

The social sciences are alive and well in UX Research

by Anne Aretz

UX Research
UX Research Methods with Tomer Sharon

I have always been a research-buff (just my general curiosity I suppose), especially when it comes to finding out more about people and the answer to the nagging question of why. So, as an unofficial UXer, I wanted to learn more about the ‘official’ research methods employed by UX designers and how they approach answering the question of why when it comes to digital products. And what I found was surprising; the methods employed by UX designers are strikingly similar to what I learned as a sociology-anthropology student.

In “Validating Assumptions with 12 UX Research Methods," Tomer Sharon presented a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods, but the qualitative ones were the most intriguing and the most similar to what I learned previously. But before we get to the methods, let’s start with the definition of research.

Tomer offered this definition of user research:

“Providing insights into product users, their perspectives, and their abilities, to the right people at the right time.”

Charles Ragin describes social research as:

"…the interaction between ideas and evidence. Ideas help social researchers make sense of evidence, and researchers use evidence to extend, revise and test ideas"

The two definitions are actually not that different. Social research is largely empirical, which is a method that entails collecting data to support a certain theory or to come to a certain conclusion (also, empirical is derived from the ancient Greek work for ‘experience.’ Coincidence? I think not). Both are looking to support ideas with evidence that will either further their original thinking or cause them to revisit it.

Social sciences, like Anthropology and Sociology, look to provide insights into groups of people, not necessarily for a specific group of people (like clients), but simply to gain a greater understanding. UX research’s goal is doing the same thing, but with a specific audience in mind, for a specific item (and the specific group of product users). Tomer framed it as validating assumptions, but I see it more as testing them. Assumptions should help you formulate what you want to research (so a hypothesis), but the goal should not be to simply validate or prove that hypothesis, thus the assumptions.

Tomer divided the 12 research methods into 3 groups: Needs, Wants and Usability:


  • Observation: Pretty self-explanatory, watching users in their environment (or the context of use).
  • Interviews: Talking directly to users in their ‘home’ environment.
  • Diary Studies: Asking users to keep a diary as they use a product or complete a task or routine.
  • Experience Sampling: “Capturing experiences at the moment of occurrence within the context of everyday life”
  • Photo Diary: Similar to the diary study, but instead of writing, the users are asked to take pictures.
  • Collaging: Users use images to express their feelings about a certain topic or task



Now the sorting aside, there is a similar goal to all of them, qualitative or quantitative: understanding of why. Why does a person do something? That is the similarity to my sociological and anthropological training. Both sociology and Anthropology work to understand the behavior of specific groups with a particular goal in mind (usually to serve a theory or hypothesis), using very similar methods.

While there are a multitude of methods used in social research, the ones I am most familiar with are from Sociology and Anthropology and that is where I see the most similarities.


  • Sampling: More of a quantitative method that uses existing data sets to identify populations to observe and interview.
  • Observation
  • Survey Research: The sociological equivalent of interviews.
  • Longitudinal Study: Studying a group of people over a prolonged period. This would be similar to the Diary studies.


  • Ethnography: This is more of the outcome of your research, providing a comprehensive story of findings from the ‘field.’
  • Participant Observation: Similar to straight observation, this entails the researcher actually becoming one of the people he or she is studying.
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison: This is inherent in most research where you are dealing with subjects in various locations and contexts and especially true in UX research.

The social methods are largely qualitative, not really too concerned with the quantitative outcomes and statistical significance (unless forced to). However, in my opinion, that is where all the ‘meat’ of research is.

Not all research methods are created equal and some may work better at different stages within the design process. Either way, there are similarities between the way User Experience designers and Sociologists and Anthropologists learn from others. Anthropologists and Sociologists have been doing this type of research for nearly centuries, so maybe that is place we should be looking more when trying to learn more about users, especially as their relationship with devices and services become more complex. 


Submitted by Xia Zhu (not verified) on
"The social methods are largely qualitative, not really too concerned with the quantitative outcomes and statistical significance (unless forced to). However, in my opinion, that is where all the ‘meat’ of research is." This statement is not true at all. Plenty of social sciences focus heavily on quantitative methods. In political science (my field), quantitative research has become the forefront of the majority of the research being done today.


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