A Human-centric Approach to User Research in the Age of AI

What does the future of user research look like

7 min read


The article starts with an AI-generated response to the question, “What does the future of user research look like?” which lacks novelty and innovation in approach. The modeled answer is based on already existing data, rather than the intent to uncover unknown facts about the users.

The author highlights the importance of having a human-centric approach while conducting user research and how AI systems like ChatGPT miss out on various dynamic factors that influence human behavior; hence, a more tailored approach is the best way forward.

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Around the start of a year, business people often discuss plans and aim to forecast the year ahead.  ‘What’s going to happen?’, ‘Where do you see the biggest changes…?’ and frankly, I’m no different!  I’ve been asked a lot recently about the future of user research and where I think it is headed.  And I thought about writing this piece to express my thoughts, but who wants to read about another forecast?!  We’ve all seen rapid change over recent years, and for me, the research looks VERY different than even just 5 years ago.  

Keeping up with the Kardash-AI-ns

So in the spirit of embracing new trends and trying new things, I thought I’d ask the question ‘What does the future of User Research look like’ to the latest AI platform on the block: ChatGPT.  So here is what is said:

“The future of user research is likely to involve a greater emphasis on technology and data analysis. As technology continues to advance, researchers will have access to more data and more sophisticated tools to analyze that data. This will allow researchers to conduct more in-depth and accurate research and gain a deeper understanding of user needs and behaviors.

Additionally, user research is expected to become more integrated into the product development process. This means that researchers will work closely with designers and developers to ensure that products are being developed with the user in mind.

Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are becoming more prevalent in the field of user research. It allows researchers to conduct research in a more naturalistic and realistic environment, giving them more insight into how users interact with products and services in the real world.

Another trend in user research is remote research, where participants are not in the same physical location as the researchers. Remote research is becoming more common due to the COVID-19 pandemic and advancements in technology, which allow researchers to conduct research remotely using online tools and platforms.

Overall, the future of user research looks promising as it is becoming more data-driven and technology-focused, providing researchers with more tools to conduct more accurate and in-depth research.”

So firstly, I know I cheated by using a robot to provide my content!  But the world never sits still and research should be no different, so why not try something!?  Secondly, I’m actually amazed by this technology.  It really does feel like the next game-changing piece of tech, and my imagination starts to run wild with how this could be used in research.  

But scrutinizing the answer, I’m sure we can all agree it’s pretty safe. Most of this has already arrived and nothing remarkable has arisen here!  So to give my own (human) take on where user research is heading, I’ll start briefly with my own story.

‘User-centricity’ will never change

I studied Sociology (way back in the day now) as a student, and I have always had a fascination for people and the different ways in which people live.  This is often a prerequisite for travelers, and ‘finding yourself’ often in a period of life where you just want to explore and see what else exists in our amazing world.  For me, research allows for this and I think I’m in the best profession there is!

Learning about people and different cultures makes you question things about your life or the environment you are used to.  Which is just endlessly fascinating.  How different people interpret language or services, or behavior creates so many opportunities to understand and figure out ‘why?’  I just don’t get tired of it, and there’s always something new to explore.  

Continually learning about people is fundamental in conducting user research, and that is something that will never change!  But having a genuine fascination for people, well, that makes it fun!

And when it comes to researching people, having a genuine curiosity for them and constantly asking ‘why?’ is key to any great research and at the core of our great profession.  

The future of user research lies with us: The researchers

I do, however, worry that when studying people, the industry is a little stuck in its ways.  There are many ways to conduct research, and thousands of great works explain the wide variety of tried and tested methods.  But if we live in an ever-changing world, then why should our methods stay the same?  I definitely think some anchors should exist within a piece of research, for example, ensuring you are talking to a representative panel. Let’s be honest, you could be the most talented researcher ever to walk the earth, but if your sample is off, then the data you collect won’t mean anything, then your insights won’t stack up.  It’s like trying to build a house on a foundation of quicksand.  

Ethics is also something we should never cut corners on – we need to build trust with our participants, do right by them and show the utmost respect.  Often things they share are personal, private, and sensitive.  That should ALWAYS be respected otherwise, we risk losing the one thing we need in our profession!

If you stick with ethical research and spend time creating a high-quality sample, then go and experiment with methods and try things out.  Don’t stick rigidly to methods you learned as a student, and look outside the box.  We deal with people, so take inspiration from other professions such as journalism, author, design, or even your family and friends.  Particularly with qualitative research, we have to build rapport and a bond with our participants, so they tell us stuff!  Ask journalists how they get the quick scoop, speak with your parents about how they talk with people and even ask your friends how or why they would open up even a little.  Without that, jumping in the cold means a guard is still up, and we don’t get the data we need.  Bring walls down by talking, showing genuine curiosity, and encouraging them to talk.  

Another great exercise is to ask people close to you what you are like and how you come across.  Ask them to be totally honest – which you may not like – but understanding how you come across may help you shape your style when it comes to qualitative research.  

And I believe that as researchers, we should try things and stick with things that work when we find they do.  But keep iterating and moving just as you would for a new product or service.  

For me personally, this change hit home when I began conducting research with designers for the first time.  Participants can only tell you so much, but the feedback becomes much more focused when they have an actual prototype or something they can use.  It shines a light on what people really want, as opposed to what they think they want.  I don’t think I could research without designs now, and I’m able to do so much more thanks to this partnership.

So where do I think we are headed?

Understanding users is complex, with lots of different ways to approach them.  We see a shift away from demographic type data having such a strong influence on how we look at users, and I don’t necessarily think that is wrong, but there is so much more we can learn about people.  Looking at the behaviors of people is very interesting and allows us to create products or services that fit around that.  However, I still think there is a big opportunity in putting a different lens over human behavior, to look less at the individual and more at the external impact in people’s lives which can affect the behavior.

We need to understand the experiences of people, not just with the service, but by knowing how they live their lives and what motivates their needs.  Understanding the circumstances people are in builds a context around their needs.

Often, they can’t tell you exactly what they need, but by understanding their circumstances can bring to life who you are designing for.  Take, for example, someone who is at a stage in life where they are expecting their first child.  There is A LOT that will change for them, and often people don’t know what to expect – if it’s their first child, then why would they?  There will be a whole host of things to will need to buy: a pram to walk the baby in, a cot for it to sleep in, creating space in the family home, then planning ahead for new expenses for food or lifestyle changes.  What’s more, the baby’s mother will often take maternity leave, which is crucial for people in this situation. However, household income is very likely to be reduced, which only adds to the change in circumstances.  

Then outwith this impending change to an individual’s life, homeowners can have impending mortgage renewals. With recent changes in the mortgage market, this can create a perfect storm for many people.  

This example only scratches the surface, but if you consider how many users will go through a change like this, you can build a great picture for creating and designing products or services.  A picture that tells you far more than current demographic information.

Understanding the person behind the customer can also tell you more about social trends. Then, start to create an educated guess on where things may lead also.  

Take the current Gen Z or even Gen alpha.  The only cohort of people who have lived through imposed lockdowns through their youth and through periods of their education.  We are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the impact on these respective generations and how this will impact the world in the future.  Learning, working, playing, communicating, and generally living through a digital world has never been seen on such a scale: what does that do to the development of a young person?  How has it affected mental health?  How has it affected their view of what they want from their own lives?

I haven’t even touched on social media yet, but the split in people’s lives from an ‘online life’ and an ‘offline life’ is a fascinating dynamic, where people are looking to showcase themselves more and more, but the pressure to keep that up brings challenges that we are only beginning to learn about.  


ChatGPT represents a continuous change in the world, and by embracing these changes as user researchers, we can do so much more.  Our desire to learn about people will never leave and will always remain a constant, and it’s great to see so much emphasis put on human behavior and learning about how people experience.  But those eternal factors for me are so interesting.  The lives of people, how they live, and how their environments impact them.  That’s what we know least about, and I’m excited to learn more!


  • Scott Elder

    Scott works as UX Researcher with xDesign, a digital development company based in the UK. He has more than 10 years of experience in Market Research, Design Research, Service Design, UX Research, and User Experience (UX). He holds a Master of Science in Applied Social Research from the University of Stirling, Scotland.