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Informed Design

Prioritizing UX Design Research – User Interviews vs Usability Testing

October 05, 2022 10 minute read

“These days it’s pretty easy to make new products — there are a lot of frameworks and tools out there — but it’s still really hard to make a great product, a product that people can understand and use, a product that makes people feel good.”

Aaron Walter
Designing for Emotion

When designers embark on UX projects, they need to have a singular focus on users who are at the centre of their work. Certainly, there’s creativity and self-expression in the design process but it is not the main thing. What’s more important is understanding users—their needs and wants—and the best way to accomplish this is to make strategic use of two investigative tools available for harvesting this information: empathy and user research.

Simply put, empathy is getting in touch with other people’s feelings, and becoming sensitive and aware of their emotions and intrinsic motivations. Seeing the world through their eyes, setting aside our own assumptions and preconceived notions to really understand the reasons behind their behaviours. At Pivot Design Group, we’re obsessed with user satisfaction, so empathizing is a critical skill in our quest for looking deeper into situations and coming up with design solutions that are more user-centric. Engaging in empathy skills is how we really connect with our users and comprehend their points of view.

User research means getting into the weeds of your target audience—understanding their preferences and idiosyncrasies and how their emotions and experiences interact—pointing the way to the optimal engagement.

In other words, empathy gives us understanding and user research is our method for harvesting the data. When you put them together, these twin skills empower us as designers to create products, services and experiences that work well, look and feel good and function in the way that their users really want them to do.

User Interviews vs. Usability Testing

The two important qualitative research methods being looked at here – user interviews and usability testing – are complementary techniques that usually differ as to when they are employed in the design process. User interviews occur early in PIVOT’s Discovery phase and provide teams with a first look at the users’ attitudes and behaviours associated with using the product or service or experience. We uncover what their expectations are and how they might use it or what they might want out of it. For designers, interviews are an invaluable opportunity for us to get in front of the users, validate assumptions, and test the strategic goals of the project.

Usability testing, on the other hand, usually takes place towards the end of Pivot’s Design phase for a chance to test out working prototypes. Usability testing can also occur repeatedly over time at different stages of the design process to promote continuous improvement in products and services. While user interviews are important for figuring out the nature of the problem, usability testing helps validate project integrity and alignment at different stages of design and development. It can both measure the design progress to date in achieving a viable solution and give us a glimpse of the next steps.

Either way, PIVOT’s design team is very sensitive to the needs of clients, and we always ensure that the strategic goals of our client’s organizations are fully embedded within both of these research methods and throughout the project.

A UX researcher conducts a user interview with a participant

User Interviews

User interviews are one of the most flexible and adaptable research methods at our disposal. Generally, they’re live, 45-to-60 minute structured but candid conversations with a single participant, in which a skillful researcher asks a range of prepared questions on a topic of interest to gain a good understanding of their subjects’ attitudes, beliefs, desires and experiences. Usually, we like to conduct a number of interviews (more than three) so that patterns or trends can be detected.

In short, they’re a powerful tool in Discovery for a number of reasons – aligning the project’s development with its strategic goals, advancing the tactical plans for finding new design opportunities, generating ideas, and validating assumptions about users, use cases and context of use. When done properly, user interviews yield a large amount of data, including detailed notes, transcripts and videos, that are then synthesized into different themes and artifacts to help inform the project direction and design. They are an important first step toward identifying the opportunities and shaping our efforts in finding a meaningful solution.

A user participates in a usability testing session with a designer

Usability Testing

Like user interviews, usability testing is also an integral part of user experience design. It’s a way of seeing how easy a solution is to use and helps us better understand the reaction of the target audience to the intended experience. We look for what issues arise in the course of a series of interactions, a flow, and we look for the completion of specific tasks. The main benefit is to identify the usability problems with the design prototypes as early and as often as possible in the process, so we can minimize the cost of fixing those defects which might be more costly and more time consuming to change later on in the process.

When we’ve finished our usability tests, there are sufficient data to point to our next steps and the prospect of improved designs in the next iteration. Taking us that much closer to our end goal of releasing the best product, service or experience to meet the needs of users and to satisfy the project’s strategic objectives.

The Takeaway

User interviews and usability testing are two of the most important qualitative research techniques that we have. User Interviews are employed early in Discovery to unearth invaluable user information for the project, while also ensuring strategic alignment with the client’s organizational goals and cost constraints. Usability testing can happen throughout the Design phase, though it is particularly important to complete at least once for specific screens or flows prior to development. Both user interviews and usability testing can provide us with critical backup information to further support the project goals and ensure continuity of objectives throughout the life of the project.

Making the most of these complementary research methods will ensure that we can dig deep into our core audience to deliver the optimal solutions we’re looking for. And successfully maximizing these research methods for the benefit of users is the best opportunity there is to harness the knowledge needed for the most rewarding design choices.


Iffat Jokhio, RGD
Experience Designer & Researcher

Iffat is a design thinker and doer. She fills her days with building a better understanding of the people she designs for through holistic service design thinking and visual storytelling. She is mom to 2 young kids, a community builder, explorer, and maker. Drop her a hello at

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