By this point we all know how critical it is to leverage in-depth UX expertise — but at the end of the day, a great UX team doesn’t guarantee you great results. The reason? If product owners and other decision makers don’t have a good grasp of UX roles and their functions, even the most amazing UX professionals will have trouble producing their best work.

Many in the UX community wish their companies, clients and stakeholders knew more about their work and its concrete financial value. User research seems to be hit particularly hard by this problem; just ask the participants of our experiment at the UXPA conference. When UX research isn’t well understood and integrated into the big picture, it’s common to see delays and buy off issues — and unsurprisingly, products that don’t target real users’ wants and needs.

Fortunately, it only takes a basic understanding of the “what” and “why” to start bridging the gap. Becoming more familiar with UX research methodology doesn’t just improve communication and project flow: it goes a long way toward reducing development costs and boosting profits.

That’s why we teamed up with Filterati and UX Researcher Michael Perry to create a crash course (or refresher) for non-researcher. Read on to learn about the three main categories of user research and how they impact your company’s bottom line.

1. Ethnography

Observe users in their natural environment to determine whether, why and how they would use your product. Examples include interviews, questionnaires and naturalistic observation.

What is it?

As the exploratory stage of the research process, ethnographic research should begin well before design and coding. Its goal is to identify and describe users’ needs — most importantly their unmet ones — and their behaviors with existing products. Ethnographic research can be relatively informal, and can take place in cafes, street corners, retail stores, homes, or wherever users would engage with the product.

The business value:

This foundational research ensures that you’re building a product for a real user base and their real needs — not for the customers in your own head. If it isn’t a valid market idea, this is when you want to find out!

ROI tip:

Ethnographic research can produce a lot of information at a low cost; you don’t need a lab, elaborate technology, or even a design prototype. “But to get real value,” Michael explains, “you need a plan for how the design and business people will apply all the knowledge that comes out of these studies.”

2. Usability Testing

Usability testing takes research into a more quantitative realm, examining how users actually interact with the product. Users are asked to complete tasks, typically while being observed by a researcher, to see where they encounter problems and confusion.

What is it?

Usability testing can take place at multiple points in the product development lifecycle — any time you have a design prototype, or even a competitor product to evaluate. Researchers watch and listen as users interact with the product, focusing mainly on how easy it is to use.

The business value:

Usability testing reveals how users actually navigate the product (rather than relying on their stated opinions). This method provides crucial information that helps maximize ease of use — arguably the most important ingredient of effective UX.

ROI tip:

To get the most out of usability testing, it’s necessary to be aware of the interpersonal dynamics and the artificiality of the testing situation. Michael explains, “It takes careful analysis to separate the information you believe from all of the things a participant might say out loud.”

3. Clickstream Analysis

This method allows researchers to really get inside users’ heads — eliminating the subjective feedback that can problematize other types of research.

What is it?

Once you have a live website or other software with which to record user actions, you can start analyzing users’ behavior in a relatively precise manner by studying clicks and conversion rates. One of the most common types of clickstream analysis is A/B Testing, sometimes called split testing. This method tests different designs on a site by randomly assigning groups of users to each one; the version with better conversion rates wins.

The business value:

Clickstream analysis generates cold, hard data that helps validate claims and discover remaining usability problems. Its primary value is that it cuts personal opinions and bias (both the user’s and the researcher’s) out of the equation.

“Clickstream analysis is great in that you avoid all the artificialities of other research methods,” Michael says. “It’s an excellent method when you have clear goals for your site, such as purchasing products, because it uncovers data on how they complete the desired tasks.”

ROI tip:

Keep in mind that this powerful method does have limitations. “Because you can only see the actions of users, you have to make inferences about their motivations,” Michael explains. “For an informational site, such as a list of products or a how-to article, it is difficult to determine what measures are meaningful.” To avoid misallocating time and resources, make sure this method is the right fit for your specific needs.

For an even deeper dive into the business of UX research, check out More Insight, Lower Costs: Boosting Your UX Research ROI.