Words Matter: Terminology in User Experience Research

image of a dictionary page with definition of definition in view

Discovering writing for the web and content strategy was more or less a career revelation for me. I have an English degree and took every non-fiction writing course that was offered, but after spending time in retail, going to grad school, and then entering academic libraries, it took a few years for me to fall into this work. Now in my role as a User Experience Specialist at the University of Michigan in Library Information Technology, I am focused on content strategy, information architecture, and in turn, user research and fair smattering of project management.

All said, I care a lot about words and am pretty passionate about how much the words we choose matter. I also love definitions and believe in the power of having a shared vocabulary. This post is my attempt to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, if you will) on the vocabulary I model around user experience research in Library IT. I also try to carry this language through to other contexts around the library in having general conversations about UX and working on cross-organizational teams.

User Experience has abounding definitions, but I defer to being user-centered and thoughtful in everything we do and quite like the summary provided by Usability.gov:

User experience (UX) focuses on having a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their abilities, and also their limitations. … UX best practices promote improving the quality of the user’s interaction with and perceptions of your product and any related services.

I’m also partial to Peter Morville’s UX Honeycomb in presenting the factors that influence user experience.

User Research is research conducted to understand our users, their habits, perceptions, needs, pain points, and so on. User research methodology is a vast collection of options that includes both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Usability Testing or Usability Studies are tests or studies conducted specifically to evaluate and/or validate the design and functionality of a product. In libraries this often means interfaces, but usability testing can be conducted on just about anything users interact with (i.e. service models, spaces, signs, etc.).  

User research and usability testing or studies of course intersect. There is regularly ample opportunity to learn more about users through their behavior in usability testing, as well as chances to assess our services, spaces, interfaces, and beyond through user research findings.

Some posit that usability testing is a type of user research (like this handy article and chart from Nielsen Norman) and I don’t totally disagree with that. Whether or not your project constitutes user research or usability testing at heart really gets down to how that work is framed. In the context of higher education, determining the frame is important to consider and do, particularly when it comes to thinking through any need for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval.

I want to wrap up on a brief rant. There is one phrase I work consciously not to use: user testing. A core tenet of usability testing is that you are testing the product, not the user, so why anyone ever uses the term ‘user testing’ is beyond me. Yes, we are testing with users (that’s great, go us!), but in my opinion ‘user testing’ is an ill conceived phrase that I do not use and encourage others to clarify.

Now...back to analyzing some qualitative user research data!


Ben Howell
on March 10, 11:25am

Thank you Heidi! Excellent article on the terminology and scope of user research and usability studies.

on June 23, 5:30pm

Really? "A core tenant of usability testing..." (final paragraph)? I expect you to understand the difference between tenant and tenet. That just negated your article's point for me.

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt
on June 25, 8:43am

Thank you for the comment, Diane, and I corrected the error. I am a fallible human and accidentally typed the wrong word, but am sorry to hear it negated the whole premise for you.

on Sept. 11, 6:38pm

You'll use the phrase 'user research' but not 'user testing'?

Heidi Steiner Burkhardt
on Sept. 12, 8:58am

Hi Kate! Yes I will. The way I digest it, user research is doing research about our users, but user testing reads like testing our users, when what we're testing is the interface, service, etc. Others may read the phrase as testing *with* users and that's their interpretation. I'll be honest that I still do not use that phrase myself, but don't get quite so fired up about it anymore ;-).