Trust in UX 3: Ways of Exploratory Research


There are two kinds of research in the world of user experience: exploratory research and evaluation research. Depending on the objectives of the research, researchers and designers choose various methods to achieve their goals. In this blog, we want to break down some  exploratory research methods that are popularly demanded in UXTesting. We also want to cover the field of evaluation research in the next blog so stay tuned for that.

While exploratory research is set to uncover issues that are not well-defined and help find unaddressed pain points, we want to know more about the means of exploratory research. Without further ado, let’s dive into the world of research.

(Image 1: Research Methods)

Research Methods

1. Contextual Inquiry:

Contextual inquiry can be perceived as field research. It is an approach that consists of researcher-to-user interaction. In this case, researchers and designers observe users’  behaviors through their normal activities and discusses what their discoveries with users.

It should be pretty straightforward to understand the content of contextual inquiry. Set aside the presumption of the outcome. As you walk into a user’s life, there is so much insight that you can never think of just by imagining in the office. In the predigital age, this method is dominated in service design and still serves a great role in designing digital products.

Steps for preparing contextual inquiry:

Define the problem or the scenario  -> Find participants -> Meet with participants -> Observe and ask questions -> Work modeling -> Affinity map


A. Recruit right testers: When it comes to recruiting participants, careful selection is often needed as selecting the right match is crucial. From the start, we often can already picture our target market. However, recruiting testers is a different thing. As shown in the below, there are two groups of users that most individuals are not familiar with: the experts and the extreme users.

(Image 2: Landscape of Users)

Instead of target users, these are the two groups of people you should be looking to recruit as they often have a different perspective when it comes to specific issues. While statistics teach us to eliminate the outlier, User Experience is about finding the singularity and raise the bar of the entire human being to its level.

(Image 3: Statistics vs UX)

B. Understand your testers: In order to collect information about testers’ daily life, they need to feel comfortable around researchers. Hence, we recommend researchers to invite testers for a coffee before the interview. Bridging the gap between the relationship and creating trust is often required to generate the best results.

C. Work modeling: This is a step to visualize researchers’ observation and share it with the team. We find these models good at illustrating the collected data from different views. According to different studied issues, there are five models that highlight different aspects of the research. 
  • Flow Model - work distribution among different roles. To understand the interpersonal relationship of a designated environment, flow model allows the team to quickly grasp the situation.

(Image 4: Flow Model)

  • Sequence Model - details and steps of the process. BD stands for the breakdown. This model displays the obstructions and problems keeping  users from their goals clearly.

(Image 5: Sequence Model)

  • Artifact Model - objects to be observed derived from the research. It can be a notebook used by the participant or something that the participant can store a piece of daily information on. The point of a physical model is to understand the way that the participant structure information and use it to obtain the context.

(Image 6: Artifact Model)

  • Physical Model - a physical copy of an object. Notebooks and Calendars that are marked are objects frequently seen in this model as it usually exhibits the mental model of how user structures information. In our humble opinion, this model allows the team to obtain the context of use of the object and the user’s habit of structuring information.

(Image 7: Physical Model)

2. Cultural Probe:

The cultural probe is a research method that involves creating a "kit" that can be given to testers and help them document their lives. Once the kit is mailed to the tester, researchers can communicate with the tester via mails, emails, postcards to find out the progress of the tester. After the research is done, the kit can be sent back to researchers which will, in turn, become the outcome. The purpose is to create empathy for the selected group of users, gain a better understanding of the world they live in and become a source of inspiration for design.

The advantage of cultural probe:

A. When the probe is set, researchers can remotely work with participants.

B. Participants can contemplate on things that are taken for granted in their daily life via executing certain tasks

C. Researchers can collect rich contexts for research and have more discussion with participants.

Under what condition should you apply cultural probe:

A. When the research is long-term

B. When the research involves fragmentary activities (usually that do not occur on a daily basis)

C. When the field of the research is highly secured and cannot be accessed by the researchers.

D. When the field of the research is highly private

What’s in the kit ?
  • Camera: With the use of a disposable camera, participants can be given tasks such as taking pictures of certain objects or document events related to the topic of the research. The visual medium of personal photos can be combined with other media like a diary or the map.

  • Map (with stickers):With the use of stickers, participants can mark off places which they find relevant to the research.

  • Workbook: In the workbook, designers can give tasks to participants to execute and to write about. This can mean adding personal objects like photos, newspaper cut outs or tasks that can reveal the lifestyle of participants. The assigned exercises in the workbook are a good way to engage participants in the topic of research.

  • Diary(a.k.a diary studies): Participants are asked to log information about their daily life in the diary. Participants can use visuals to support their written documentation.

  • Mobile apps: As technology is becoming an essential part of people’s daily lives, the use of mobile apps could be detrimental. Well-developed applications can serve to collect a great amount of contextual data from participants’ daily life. Moreover, it can be the best way to test out your own app or prototype by putting it into the real world. 

(Image 10: Using Apps to Track Contextual Data)

Together all these different media provide a big diversity of data to designers. However, it is essential to ensure that the items selected for use in the cultural probe are relevant, thought-provoking and interesting.

3. In-depth interview:

The in-depth interview might be the mainstay of user research as it is both cost-efficient and can gather a great amount of insightful data within a short period of time. A questionnaire is prepared in advance and the props may be used to enhance the quality of answers. In UXTesting, we find that the ideal interview should be around 2 hours where researchers would be able to gain rich data from participants. The 5-whys method is recommended for various interviews. (Introduction of 5 whys:

Props that can help

  • Card sorting: Card sorting is a method used to help design or evaluate users' expectations and understanding of your topics.  We find out that this one of the best ways to design the information architecture. You can uncover hidden categories that make sense to users the most by asking them to sort pre-selected information. Sometimes it can be sorted alphabetically or hierarchy. It is crucial to understand the reasoning behind the choice for sorting.
  • Product reaction cards: A product reaction cards is a list of predefined words that allow users to choose to describe their feeling toward the site or the topic. By asking participants to choose 5 words that describe their experience can help them focus on the exercise itself and articulate their ideas.
    A great document provided by Microsoft:

These props are not exclusive to an in-depth interview. We have made use of them in different stages of design and resulted in a fun exercise from the exhausting questionnaire.


In the past, we developed products by ourselves in the office and naively believed that users would pile into the server and growth would be astronomical since the launch of the product. It didn’t happen. The product that could be used was totally different from the product that users would use. We collected data from our previous projects and delivered features that users declared to want. However, what users said contradicted to what users actually did in many cases. With many failures, we find out that the focus should be put on accomplishing users’ goals instead of focusing on what the things they say and with constant reminders to keep them motivated. Exploratory research is very technical but is a great method to closely watch and observe users in their daily lives and extract the most useful insights. In design school, design is beyond the visual looks and is about the whole experience. With research, we do gain a better understanding of users and their goals. At UXTesting, we aspire to design for humans. It is a challenge to take a step out of the office and start interacting with users but the reward is that maybe we can design with a purpose of serving all human beings.