You know you want to do UX research. But how do you pick the right tool for the project?  With so many to choose from, you might wonder: Do you want a usability test? In-depth interviews? In-home visits? An ethnographic study? An expert review? A survey? A card sort for information architecture? Focus groups for market research? 

If these tools aren’t enough to consider, you also have to fit your choice or choices into your budget and your timeline.  

In this article, I’ll review some of the most frequently used UX tools to guide you in making the right choice. 

Usability Testing

Usability testing is engaging your users—one at a time—in pursuit of their goals with your product and learning from them what works, what pleases, and what frustrates them.

If you could pick just one tool, the best choice is often usability testing.

Why?  Because nothing can take the place of learning directly from your users using your product to do real tasks with goals.

Another great thing about usability testing is that it is a highly flexible tool.  It can be scaled to fit the size of your budget, it can be conducted in person or remotely in 1:1 sessions of variable length (15 minutes to an hour are typical session lengths), it can be done with or without a moderator.  And, as soon as testing is done, findings can be put into action.

What you need for user testing:

  • For in-person and remote moderated sessions:
    • A plan for each test session, which includes the moderator’s script and a detailed screener for participant recruiting
    • A recruiting plan (do it yourself or hire a recruiting company) to find and schedule your participants
    • A moderator to deliver the script that shapes the session tasks and asks the relevant questions
    • A logger to take notes for post-test discussion and analysis
    • Screen sharing/recording software like Zoom or Teams
  • For unmoderated sessions:
    • A testing platform like or
    • Screener questions to identify your target user, which the platform will then recruit for the study
    • A task list for each session, typically 20 – 40 minutes long, depending on the platform chosen
    • Post-task and post-test questions

Expert Review

As the name implies, expert review is a review of your product by a usability expert.  It is also sometimes called heuristic evaluation, especially when the review is conducted using a set of heuristics—or “rules of thumb” for good usability practice.  Jacob’s Nielsen’s 10 heuristics are often used and adapted for  websites or other interfaces. 

Expert review is a popular tool in the UX toolkit because it can be done almost at a moment’s notice if a UX expert is available.

The goal of an expert review is to identify violations of good UX practice. Once identified, these violations can be addressed and fixed before the product gets put in front of users.

What you need for an expert review:

  • One or more UX experts to inspect the interface
  • A set of UX guidelines or heuristics that each expert will use, formally or informally, to identify UX violations
  • A plan to collate the findings and prioritize the results

An expert review is a good tool to use to clean up the interface but it is no substitute for testing with real users.

diary study insightsDiary Study

How do you learn what happens with your product over time—days or weeks after its first use?  A diary study is the UX tool best suited for this.

A diary study engages users in their daily activities, reporting at intervals on their use of your product in the context of their situation.  With a diary study, you learn how the user gets to know your product, trying out more features over time and reporting on their experience.

What you need for a diary study:

  • A plan of activities for users to engage with your product over the period of the study
  • Incentives delivered at intervals in the study to encourage continued participation to the end of the study
  • A platform for participants to upload comments, videos, photos, and other relevant feedback

You can set up a diary study on your own, including recruiting the participants, or you can hire a UX research company to do the study for you.

You can also use a software platform, such as dscout, which specializes in recruiting participants and conducting diary studies.


Ethnographic research is the study of people in their environment, which might be their home, their workplace, or any other place in which they will engage with your product.

Studying people in their environment tells you what constraints they experience and what impact the environment has on their use of your product.  Getting out of the artificial nature of a usability lab situation and into the real place where your users are using your product provides invaluable insights into their experience in their world.

What you need for ethnography:

  • A plan for the visit to include a script of information and questions that can be modified as the situation dictates.
  • Two researchers, especially if you are conducting the study in someone’s home. One researcher will take notes and one will facilitate the session.
  • A video camera (or phone camera) if permission is received to record the session or take photographs.
ethnographic research

Budget, Time, and other Tools

If your budget is small, start with a small usability test.  Five users is enough to get you started and to learn a great deal about your product.

If your timeline is short, do an expert review and then plan for a usability test in the next phase of development or budget.

If you have enough budget to use several research tools, consider this approach:

  • At any stage in development—the earlier the better—conduct one or more small usability tests, building improvements into the product as you iterate product design and testing throughout the development cycle
  • If your product is in an early stage of development, consider a card sorting study to understand users’ expectations for grouping items into categories
  • If your product is close to launch or already launched and you don’t have any UX research, conduct an expert review to identify issues to address in the next release of the product
  • If your product is launched (or in pre-launch), conduct a diary study to learn your users’ experience over time
  • If you want to get responses from a large number of respondents to generate quantitative findings, consider a survey, which you can deliver to respondents electronically via a link
  • If your product is in the requirements gathering stages, conduct focus groups to get users’ perceptions of the product and their interest in it
  • If you have an e-commerce website, conduct usability testing to focus on calls to action (CTAs), the shopping cart experience, and users’ reasons for abandoning the site at any point
  • If you have a medical device that you want to bring to market, conduct small formative usability testing studies during product development, iterate on the design, then conduct human factors validation testing to provide the research required for FDA clearance for 510(k) and De Novo submissions

Carol Barnum

Carol brings her academic background and years of teaching and research to her work with clients to deliver the best research approaches that have proven to produce practical solutions. Carol’s many publications (6 books and more than 50 articles) have made a substantial contribution to the body of knowledge in the UX field. The 2nd edition of her award-winning handbook Usability Testing Essentials is now available.