When doing UX research, this usually means laying the foundations for future building. Usability testing is a way of finding errors in prototype or fully working products. But what are the questions I should ask myself (or my users offcourse) when wanting to lay the UX foundations for a product (with no foundations at all) which has been on the market for more than two years?

Right now I am considering doing a few group sessions with the developers of the application. I would be asking questions like, "What would you do to achieve goal X, without using the application?" (where goal X is one of the main goals in the applications). The information found in those sessions would be flowing into new sessions with the end-user.

These end-user sessions would be of the evaluative kind but without obstructions to go wild on new ideas.

Are there better approaches for this Retroactive UX Research?

  • "reversed" is a bit confusing. I Think maybe you mean more like "retroactive" research?
    – Zelda
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 13:35
  • That is indeed a better word. I'll change it. Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 13:40
  • Your use of the word "reversed" is throwing me off. Are you seeking to simply establish documentation for the decisions already made? Or, are you trying to establish a baseline by which to move forward?
    – mawcsco
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 13:42
  • The baseline is exactly what I am looking for. Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 13:42
  • 2
    Since you are looking for a "baseline," there's no need to distinguish this as "retroactive" or "reversed" UX. Many (if not most) UX projects start with existing products and user bases. Follow the ordinary UX path like in @michael-zuschlag's answer below.
    – mawcsco
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 13:46

2 Answers 2


I’m not clear what is “retroactive” about what you call retroactive UX research. User research is studying users to inform the current or next design iteration, and this can occur at all stages in design-development:

  • To determine users’ characteristics, needs, goals, tasks, and work environment before making any designs or prototypes.

  • To test iterations of prototypes at increasing levels of fidelity to improve a design.

  • To summatively validate that the final product meets UX goals to justify release.

  • To test an established product (yours or competitor’s) to determine design improvements for the next version or generation.

All of these are “forward” user research.

You say you already have a product and you know the user’s goals. So if your intent is to tweak the design to improve the UX, then you can run your basic usability tests on the tasks that accomplish the goals and see where there are any problems.

Or perhaps by “laying the foundations,” you mean to do a major overhaul of the UX, or even create an entirely new product. The bigger the changes, the more abstract, qualitative, and naturalistic the user research becomes.

To do a major UX overhaul, you combine structured testing of specific windows/pages to accomplish specific tasks, with open-ended ethnographic research, observing in the real world how users use your product and how they accomplish the goals, with or without your product. You build an understanding of the product and the goals in context to figure out the UX you want to achieve.

To make an entirely new product, you go fully ethnographic, and start looking at the goals of the goals. Say one goal of your product is to “make international phone calls.” Start researching why people want to make international phone calls. Is it to stay in touch with overseas relatives? Are they planning international trips? Are they trying to acquire products they can’t get domestically? Look at how users pursue those meta-goals (with and without your product) to see where they succeed and fail. Start looking at how you can fulfill each meta-goal better. Survey technologies to find better ways of serving those meta-goals.

From your comment below, I see you're using "retroactive" to mean "after the fact" (i.e., doing the user research after the product was released). However, the above still applies: you're doing research to improve an upcoming, not previous, design; specifically, you're doing the 4th bullet above. It's still a matter of choosing how open-ended you want your research to be. Given your only foundation is the goals the developer assumed, then you are correct in that you in fact know very little about users, task, and environment. Thus, you probably should lean towards the ethnographic methods, if you have the authority and budget to make major changes to the product. No point in discovering a big unfilled need if you can't do anything about it.

  • As of right now, there is zero foundation or whatsoever. By foundation I mean documentation, existing user needs, user requirements or even a proper styleguide. But yes, I guess I know some of the user's goals. I just finished a short session with two developers, which resulted in some clear user needs. I'll just start from there. Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 13:18
  • Sometimes for existing products, it can be useful to "go fully ethnographic..." I don't think it should only be reserved for "entirely new products."
    – mawcsco
    Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 13:49
  • You are right Michael, I'll continue with trying to find some budget for the ethnographic part. I would like to use the input from my 'developers session' in (hopefully) upcoming end-user sessions. Commented Jul 17, 2012 at 14:12

The User Research is always taking the product forward. Based on the retrospective research findings ( from the previous research on the same product), the researcher will try to understand the pain points and gaps that exists presently to research and come-up with better designs in the future. Usability tests is done towards the end during the evaluation phase after the analysis ( the initial research) design, prototyping is done. Based on the feedback obtained during usability tests, the product design and navigation is tweaked to incorporate the features, if it requires to do so. That is my understanding of the retroactive scenario/research.

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