How to start doing user research for websites

User research sits behind all the best digital projects. We distil the best insights from our years of running user research projects to explain how to get started with doing user research for your website.

User research is an essential step in creating great digital projects. It helps you understand your users and their behaviours, so you can make sure your new website best suits their needs.

User research has informed a wide range of our ambitious and award-winning projects, helping to shape our approach to developing websites for the likes of The Science Museum Group, The British Museum, Cancer Research UK, the University of London, and more. In this article we’ll focus on user surveys, interviews and observation tests.

Why do user research?

In our experience, user research helps you to:

  • Collaboratively make informed decisions: Great user research helps to unite internal teams and key stakeholders. It puts everyone on the same page, with a shared understanding of user goals.
  • Eliminate assumptions: Projects can start with a whole host of assumptions about who your users are and what they want to do. User research helps you to replace these with evidence and focus your time and effort on what your users really need.
  • Justify digital spend: Robust research means you can build a strong case based on real evidence, which is especially useful for large organisations. Website projects are a big investment, and good user research can give leadership teams the information they need to make informed decisions.

Where should you start?

The best way to start user research is to think about what you want to find out and work backwards. Think about the problems you’re trying to solve before getting tangled up in which research methods to use. For example, imagine the perfect dataset that answers your most pressing questions. What does it look like? What information does it contain?

Asking specific questions will really help you too. You’re not looking to find out if the website is good or bad, you want to probe into specific areas of improvement. Once you know what you want to find out, you can consider if surveys, interviews, observation testing, or a mix of the three will get you the best insights.


Surveys are an easy and low-cost way to get a lot of quantitative data on a website’s users in a relatively short amount of time. Here are some top tips we’ve compiled from running our own user surveys.

  • Consider what problems you’re looking to solve and focus your questions on finding the data that will help.
  • Have a screening question at the start of the survey so you know which demographics of people are responding.
  • Your questions should use language that your users are familiar with, so avoid any technical jargon or internal terms and always spell out questions so they’re not open to interpretation. For example, “do you visit this website regularly?” won’t really tell you anything because ‘regularly’ will mean different things to different people. Giving multiple-choice options will give you more insightful feedback.
  • You’ll be able to get some great quantitative data from closed questions, but you should also consider including an ‘other’ option for multiple choice questions, and a free text box for users to provide more detail if they want to.
  • Keep the survey as concise as possible to keep your participants engaged and reduce drop off.
  • Be aware of potential bias in how you set up your survey - it’s likely your most engaged users are responding to your surveys, so think about how you could engage lesser engaged parts of your audience.

Ask for consent to get back in touch with the participants for follow-up questions, or to participate in further research.

User interviews

Conducting user interviews is a great way to get meaningful insights straight from the source. In a 1:1 conversation you can get really specific insights about your content, and the more you do you’ll start to see trends across your user base. Here are some top tips we’ve compiled from doing our own user interviews.

  • You should start by making a recruitment plan that defines your target users and demographics. You can attract participants through your mailing list, social media, or even a participant recruitment agency.
  • Get informed consent for your interviews and ask if the session can be recorded for future analysis. You’ll be busy focussing on the conversation and might miss important things that you couldn’t scribble down.
  • Prepare a discussion guide that will give your interviews structure and ensure some consistency between different participants. This shouldn’t be a detailed script though, more like bullet points that you want to cover so you can adapt and respond to what your participant says.
  • Open-ended questions that focus on understanding user behaviours, motivations and pain points are best, but make sure to be flexible if anything surprising comes up in conversation that you hadn’t planned for.
  • Plan where you’ll conduct the interviews. If in person, make sure you have a comfortable space that’s conducive to an open discussion where you won’t be interrupted. If remote, make sure your video conferencing tool is working how you need it to.
  • Try to establish rapport with your participants to make them feel at ease to honestly share their feelings about your website and remind them that there aren’t any wrong answers.

Observation tests

Observation testing allows you to observe users navigating the site in real time, giving them tasks to complete and asking questions about how they found the experience. They’re a useful research method because they can uncover things a user might not notice themselves doing, like hesitating over which button to click or jumping around a page.

Make sure you give participants a clear goal that imitates a real user’s experience. People generally don’t visit websites to look around, they have a task to complete or a question to answer. Think about the criteria you used to select the participants and try to tailor the activities you assign them to what they’d likely to use the site for in real life.

Think about these tips to get the most out of the session:

  1. Tell the user that you can’t help. If they get stuck completing your task, you should let them work it out on their own for the most realistic results. Letting them know this upfront creates a more comfortable atmosphere if they get stuck later.
  2. Encourage thinking out loud. Asking the user to describe why they click on certain things will give you an invaluable insight into their thought process while navigating the site.
  3. Ask users to be honest. Most people will naturally be polite and sugar-coat things. You don’t want to hear nice things about the website, you want to uncover actionable insights. It might help to create some distance between yourself and the site so participants don’t think they’ll offend your work if they have comments.
  4. Record the session. Because you’re asking questions, your mind will often be focused on thinking of the next thing to ask. Recording the session means you can look back and spot things you’d have missed first time. Always secure the user’s permission for this first.
  5. Ask follow-up questions. At the end of the session, ask about what they clicked on to see if they can tell you why they did it. This should be participant-specific, so don’t read questions from a fixed script.

How to mix research methods

To generate the best insights, you’ll probably want a mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods. Qualitative research delves deep into an issue and lets you explore, uncovering unexpected questions you didn’t think to ask. Quantitative research lets you establish concrete findings and uncover any common experiences and user trends. It’s good practice to substantiate claims by using multiple methods of user research to corroborate your results.

You should build each round of research on the last, so don’t over-plan each round in detail before you kick off the project and make sure there’s time to iterate designs and development based on user feedback. For example, if your survey uncovers a problem with a certain area of the site, focus the observation tests there so you can ‘get under the hood’ to get to the root cause.

It may seem counterintuitive, but you could also deliberately recruit your more critical survey respondents to take part in the observation test. It can be more useful to hear from these people as you are more likely to get specific feedback. Use the survey as a screening tool, and recruit those who reported having some issues. You can also use the survey to help you recruit specific groups of users you’d like to reach based on their response to your screening question, such as a user with specific needs, or from a specific industry.

What to watch out for

Your users are an invaluable source of insights, but you should be careful to separate identifying problems and designing solutions. A common mistake with user research is to ask participants how they would solve an issue on your website. Remember that your user is (probably) not a design expert and when you look back at user suggestions, their solutions may be very different and contradictory. It’s better to review all your user feedback and let a designer come up with a well-informed plan.

You should also avoid attributing blame. In a sense, the user is always right, even when they don’t complete a journey how you’d expect them to.

In a similar vein, keep user research and testing separate. Research is about drawing out insights and identifying problems to shape the eventual solution. Testing is done to establish if the solution works. They need different approaches and different mindsets. Similarly, don’t do user research to validate your assumptions. You’ll naturally introduce bias. You need to have an open mind and not be looking to prove a hypothesis.

Turning great insights into great results

Conducting user research is an essential first step for delivering a great digital project. If you’re embarking on a user research project and you’d like an expert opinion, or if you’ve developed some great insights and now you need help taking action, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via [email protected]