I recommended conducting user research, but my client considers research and testing to be the same concepts. I am not sure how to explain the difference between research and testing in layman's words.

Can anyone here please advise me on this?

  • 1
    Research is generally done before a project and testing is during (before completion). Not just for UX for all projects in general.
    – sclarke
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 7:43
  • You need to use clearer terminology to make your point. Testing is a research activity. It's a form of evaluative research. Typical early-stage research activities like contextual inquire, interviews, and observations are exploratory.
    – Crowder
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 21:16
  • @Crowder "layman's words" means you don't use technical jargon. Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 6:42

10 Answers 10


As @sclarke has already put it, research is done before testing. You can't cook a meal without knowing what the ingredients are. Same with UX, you can't start to test if you don't know what your tests should be.

To know what you should test, you need to know your target audience, to know your target audience you need to research.

UX Process Credit: UX Process by UX Mastery

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    It'd be useful to clarify that "research" means exploratory or generative research to prior to design. As others have noted, "user research" is a broader category than "user testing" and actually includes "user testing".
    – Crowder
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 21:15
  • @Crowder The OP is asking for a simple (aka layman's) example "...to explain to [the client] the difference between research and testing...". I feel like getting in too deep would be going beyond what is needed. And if more info is needed, the link at the end of the answer will clarify any misunderstandings. Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 6:39

User testing is just one way to research your users.

User research encompasses variety of methods, like interviews, observations, surveys. The role of the usability specialist is to pick the right user research method considering the project's available resources, and business limitations.

  • I'd say this is the role of a design researcher. Unless a usability specialist's responsibilities and capabilities are greater than evaluative research like usability testing, someone else is doing interviews, observations, etc. That said, I've worked with "usability specialists" who skillfully practice many user research methods... It seems like they need bigger job titles to match their bigger responsibilities and capabilities.
    – Crowder
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 21:21

Here's my take: User Research is the broader effort, and includes Usability Testing.

User Research also includes maybe the most important work you'll do, getting to know users and their tasks before you design anything. I find the best way to gather this info is to shadow users, simply observing what they do. This knowledge then informs the design decisions you make. Ideally, it determines what thing you build.

(After shadowing for a recent project I concluded that the tool they use is perfectly fine. The users just needed a better layout for the printout they referenced for each task. Of course, a software-development team doesn't want to hear that.)

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    Agreed. That's a very common outcome I get from shadowing users, sometimes they don't really need a new solution being pushed to them. Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 14:03
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    "Of course, a software-development team doesn't want to hear that" -- Can confirm. Though, to be fair, it's really unprofessional to insist on wasting company time and money to develop an unneeded upgrade, so their complaints will hopefully stay complaints.
    – anon
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 16:31

Other answers give some good detailed descriptions, but if you want a short answer in layman’s terms:

  • Asking “What do you want for dinner?” is user research.

  • Watching whether they go back for seconds is user testing.

  • Asking “So how did you like it?” is both.

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    +1 I think your answer certainly fits the "layman's terms" the best! :D
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 14:25

I'd make it really short and to the point.

User Research is the parent to User Testing i.e there is no research without involving a test process too.

User Research focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies. Mike Kuniaysky further notes that it is “the process of understanding the impact of design on an audience.” REF. HERE

It involves the life cycle of the product from the initial design or first prototype iteration (Interaction Research), then the beta version (Testing Research/ User Testing) and finally Production version/Updates (Usage Analytics)

  • 1
    Agreed User Research is what it says: methods of researching users. You can do usability testing (sitting with them watching them use technology); quantitative research (getting them to fill in questionnaires); card sorting; ethnographic research (where you 'live' with them for months) etc etc
    – PhillipW
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 10:13

Short answer: They aren't the same.

Long answer: Let's consider what your client is concerned about here. If he's not sure about the difference between both, I can assume he's never done research or testing formally himself. While almost everyone does it informally, the odds and cost of being wrong are much higher.

Research and testing exist at the opposite sides of a design cycle. The research phase will help define the problem and develop a point of view about the people being affected by this problem. Why is this important? It's the foundation of the divergent thinking process, where ideas are generated and the volume of choices makes it more likely that whatever outcome you get will satisfy the end-user. Research is about painting a more clear vision of that ideal future and what it will take to get there (or whether it is even worth going there).

Whereas testing can only tell us about the performance of a single idea turned into a prototype, if the testing uncovers a flaw with the design there is nowhere to go back to and iterate, because the research foundation isn't there.

If you do testing without research and fix the product or service iteratively, based only on the feedback of those you are testing the product with, you'll end up designing a product or service with unclear goals and never know what aspect of it influenced its success or failure. By only looking at testing results it's easy to adopt a framing bias and place more emphasis on the positive results and ignore potential risks.

Proper research will make it evident that bias exists and will provide ways to overcome this by design. We are all biased, that's why we need research, we aren't perfect either, so we need to test. We also don't have infinite budgets, so we need to be smart about reducing the risk of failure.

EDIT: Research can be done at any stage of the design process, in this case, I'm assuming you are trying to bring research at the initial discovery phase.

  • Can you not also be doing research by testing? I saw that you have a very interesting background and that you speak a number of different languages. Hope to see you around answering a few more questions, especially from the perspective of someone with experience working with people from diverse language and cultural backgrounds :)
    – Michael Lai
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 14:27
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    @MichaelLai Yes, I think research is done anytime there's a research question and process in place to evaluate the results. I assumed that I'd answer from the point of view of stakeholders who I found are most likely to place research only at the end in the form of testing. I really appreciated your message and I hope I can add value to this community, thank you so much. Commented Aug 26, 2018 at 10:57

User testing is research.

There’s formative research which informs ideas - field studies, interviews, other discovery homework, Googling, focus groups, card sorts, etc. - and summative research which evaluates ideas, for example via tree testing, user testing, heuristic evaluation, expert reviews, etc.

You essentially bookend UX design with research anytime you do problem definition up front and then execute and measure design work against that definition.

That’s about as jargon-y as it needs to get, in my opinion. Research is already hard enough to do without definitions and nuances that make it feel like a departmental concern.


As UX is still a very young field a lot of terms have not been properly defined and so are interchangeable.

However, judging by the way you are using them, I would say that in layman's terms User Research is finding out who your users are and what they want and User Testing is finding out how your users interact with your product.

The bit where it can get confusing for your client is that User Testing can form a part of User Research if you're trying to discover how your users interact with the current iteration of your product in order to find out where best to make changes or improvements.

  • 3
    Young ! People in this business now have lots of grey hair and wrinkles :-) nngroup.com/about
    – PhillipW
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 21:20
  • Most terms have been defined. That doesn't mean everyone knows them, because "UX" (interaction design) has spread widely and quickly often without formal training to provide a shared vocabulary.
    – Crowder
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 21:34
  • I think you mean "usability testing" not "User Testing" since we don't test users, we test designs.
    – Crowder
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 21:35
  • @PhillipW I'm one of those grey-haired wrinklies but compared to other design disciplines UX is still wearing nappies. Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 21:57
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    @Crowder I meant user testing as that's what the OP called it. This proves my point:OP calls it user testing and you call it usability testing. Unfortunately in these linguistic battles the simpler term tends to win. I would prefer the clarity that you're advocating but that's not how these things work out. I don't know where this one's going to land but I'm flexible enough to understand either. Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 22:01

Clarify your terminology. To keep it in layman's terms, specify when in the design process you do each.

Say, "At the beginning, we do exploratory user research to make sure users' real needs and behaviors inform our design requirements. This up-front research includes interviewing real users and observing their behavior in context. Once we have a prototype, we test it with users to see if it works the way we want it to. That's evaluative user research. It includes usability testing."

It's imperative to not only explain user research but also make a simple, jargon-free case for why you need it throughout the design process. Good luck!


Conceptually you are talking about two activities that are complementary and probably are too closely related to separate them into two distinct things.

Regardless of the actual labels that you apply to each of the activities, what you are essentially doing is to try and gain an understanding about the user (i.e. what most people would term 'user research'), and by having a deeper understanding of the user you can then make some assumptions about their behaviour when designing your product and service.

However, you need to validate these assumptions so you apply the knowledge gained about the user in a particular way so as to test its validity (i.e. what most people would term 'user testing'). Where there is a degree of ambiguity is that through the process of validating your assumptions that you also develop a deeper understanding of the user.

So I think it is semantics, but the process of doing research involves observation of the subject, drawing some general conclusions and then testing those assumptions to see if they are sensible to carry over to design. This is an iterative and evolving process, which is difficult to separate into two distinct activities.

I hope that makes things clearer as to why it is confusing to most people.

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