The Bifurcation of UX Research

Dr. Ender Ricart
3 min readJun 6, 2019

A fission has taken place in the practice of UX research, rendering the term itself inadequate at communicating the two different disciplines contained within. This post defines the two forms of UX research and draws attention to the different applications and skill sets inherent therein.

First, there is a form of UX research, termed “Design Research,” that is more explicitly in service of design. The second form of UX research is in service of product strategy and ideation, being termed here “Qualitative Research” or “Quantitative Research”. This latter form is a specialization around the application of quantitative and qualitative analytic tools and skill sets.

Design Research

More and more, you will find on designers’ resumes expertise in “UX research,” listing a set of methods including usability testing, interviews, card sorting, empathy maps, and affinity diagramming. The inclusion of such skills is indicative of two things — 1) the precedent that a UX designer should be equipped to perform such tasks, and, more importantly, 2) that designers are being held responsible for performing such research for designs.

The research methodologies in the wheelhouse of a designer are tools for identifying and testing such things as design principles, elements, and the user-experience of a UI or IA. Many of the research methods utilized by designers are executed in the development and evaluation stages of a product and navigate sprint cycles.

Qualitative or Quantitative Research

A correlated trend is the specialization of “UX Researcher” resumes to specify Qualitative or Quantitative skills-sets. You may similarly find job-ads specifying the need for a “Qualitative UX Researcher” or “Quantitative UX Researcher.” Such researchers are expected to be experts in methodologies that explore user mental models, conceptual associations, patterns in behavior, and attitudinal trends. They have professional training in the analysis of data, be it qualitative or quantitative, and communicating impact and paths forward for product teams. Insights are applied in earlier stages of product lifecycle, for medium and long term product strategy and concept ideation.

A Qualitative or Quantitative Researcher will have as its internal stakeholders product teams as well as design teams. The way such researchers integrate with teams and the needs they address differ from the more traditional UX teams. Therefore the same team structures found amongst design teams should not and do not readily apply (for example, embedded or centralized structuring with integration in team sprints). Teams of Qualitative and Quantitative Researchers should operate at a more strategic level to maximize impact across multiple teams, leveraging insights for product strategy and ideation.

Specialization as a Sign of UX Institutionalization

The goal of this article is to draw attention to a hitherto unarticulated bifurcation that is unfolding in the field of UX. But, what does this mean for the future of UX Research? Perhaps we are moving away from the touted ‘unicorn’ model of the UX generalists towards specialization. This is not an uncommon phenomenon when a field or profession matures to the point of being institutionalized and standardized as a discipline. UX is in this next phase of maturation, that of specialization and branching.

The value you bring to the table and how you can best function on a team, will depend on whether or not you are a Design Researcher or a Quantitative/Qualitative Researcher. It is critical that we learn to clearly identify and communicate the existing and emerging specializations (such as UX writer, Conversational Design, UI Designer, UX Designer, VUI Designer, and more) within the space of UX so we as professionals are utilized to our fullest capacity.