Imagine that you need to do some gardening work. You're certain that you'll need a lawnmower, but the type you use will be different if you're mowing the MCG versus mowing your backyard. Similarly, when it comes to human-centred research, there are many tools at our disposal. It is important we choose the right tool or a combination of tools for a given purpose. This involves identifying the right 'problem' to solve and asking ourselves what the research goals are (the ‘why’ behind research).

Therefore we've put together a non-exhaustive list of business problems or digital product problems that can be explored through research, to help you choose your 'why' and find the right tools for the job. 

An illustration with the word why in the middle and UX activities around the outside

How should we organise products and/or content to make them easy to find?

Imagine if you have an existing website and want to add new content. Or maybe you’re about to create a website. Either way, it’ll be useful to understand how your audience thinks about the content (or products).

Card sorting is a great method to inform the design of the information architecture for a product or website. In card sorting, participants who represent your customers organise information into categories that make sense to them. Participants can create their own groups (called an open card sort).  Alternatively, participants can sort information into existing groups (called a closed card sort).

An illustration of card sorting some fruit topics

Open card sorting provides insight into how people group content. In contrast, closed card sorting is useful for understanding where people think new content fits in an existing structure.

Utilising online research tools such as Optimal Workshop ( means that card sorting research can be run remotely. It also means that you can reach a large number of respondents. In addition, these kinds of platforms also offer a variety of analysis tools.

For more in-depth insights, conduct card sorting as an interview.  In this way, there is a greater opportunity to discuss participants' thoughts and reasoning behind their actions.

Why are people having difficulty finding products or information?

Findability is the ease with which people find information or products. This is usually determined by a well-defined information architecture and well-designed navigation system.  A good way to test a sitemap and the navigation menus (of a website for example) is to conduct tree tests. Like card sorting, this can be run remotely with a large number of participants.

Participants in a tree test are shown a simple navigation structure and given a set of tasks. For each task, participants state where they think they will find the information or content. As a result, you'll be able to see the task success rate and where participants went. The results will help you to understand which aspects of your sitemap and navigation menus are working effectively and areas for refinement.

For more in-depth insights, conduct tree testing as an interview. Use the discussion to understand people's answers and their mental models.

Example of a section of a Optimal Workshp pietree diagram

Example of a section of a Optimal Workshop pietree diagram (

Why are people struggling to use our system or product?  

If you want to understand how people engage with an existing or new system, product or service, consider conducting usability testing (sometimes referred to as user testing). This will allow you to uncover what is working and what people struggle with. In addition, usability testing delivers an understanding of behaviour which can be used to inform what to fix and how it needs to change.

In usability testing, a facilitator administers a series of tasks or activities with the participant. The facilitator then observes the participant completing the tasks (e.g. adding items to a cart and checking out) and listens for feedback. Above all, the facilitator balances gathering feedback from the participant while avoiding distractions and biasing the participant.  Post-test interviews can be useful for exploring participants’ mental models and feedback on the product and features.

What needs and existing pain points do my users have, and how can I solve them?

If you need to understand people's needs and pain points, exploring their behaviour in their natural environment can be very powerful. Imagine you need to explore the way people use software for an emergency hotline. Or imagine you want to understand how people use an intranet at work. Contextual inquiry is a technique that involves observing people using systems and tools in the original setting with a focus on the context of use. 

Contextual inquiries are generally run as semi-structured interviews in the context of the problem space. For instance, let's say the research objective is to understand how customer service staff engage with different I.T. systems to serve clients. Participants might share their computer screen with the facilitator and talk through how they go about their work, including the various tools and systems. In addition to pure observation, the facilitator would typically guide some discussion during the session. This is to ensure important topics are covered and probe for detail as required.

Why do customers visit my site and why do they sometimes leave?

Imagine if you want to know why people use your site or product and whether they can successfully complete their tasks. Similarly, you might want to find out why people sometimes leave before completing a task. Therefore, you might consider running a true-intent survey. Generally, this is run as an intercept survey on a site or product.  The survey is triggered during the use of your site or product, or when customers leave. 

In the survey, respondents state their purpose for visiting, and whether they are able to successfully complete the task.  This provides useful data to help understand the top goals for visiting your website and which of these goals are being effectively served. For example, this might tell us that your website is good at supporting new customers and selling but less effective at helping existing customers.

An illustration of a survey

Understanding the top tasks allows you to prioritise designs that best support peoples' needs. In addition, true intent surveys can assist with the prioritisation of what content or design elements need improving. 

Find your 'why'

This list of questions is by no means exhaustive - merely a starting point to think about what your research needs might be when choosing a technique for your next research activity.

Similarly, there are many more research tools at our disposal and getting the best research outcome involves 'mixing and matching' various tools and methods.

After all, spending some time upfront to understand the 'why' and making sure the business objectives align with the research methodology will save time in the long run.  

How have you used different research tools to achieve your research objective? Tell us about what works for you in the comments below.

Learn more about how we can help you get the most out of research.

About the author

About the author

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Author photo
Author photo

Amanda Chen

Senior Designer and Researcher

Amanda is an analytical thinker who strategically combines human-centered design with business requirements to create thoughtful and feasible experiences for the end-user. She utilises more than five years of stakeholder engagement, collaboration and project management skills and enjoys working collaboratively to build a common understanding and to communicate fact-based research findings.

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