3 real-world UX research case studies from Airbnb, Google, and Spotify—and what we can learn from them

All successful products have at least one thing in common: they’re driven by thorough and ongoing UX research. Learn how the biggest brands conduct user research with these real-world case studies from Airbnb, Google, and Spotify.

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User research is the foundation of good design. Any successful product you can think of is driven by user insights. And, while all UX designers tap into the same pool of tools and techniques, you’ll find that every team has their own unique approach to user research.

Are you curious about how some of the biggest brands conduct UX research? Then keep reading. In this post, we take a deep dive into three real-world UX research case studies:

  1. Airbnb: The power of observing behaviour to uncover design opportunities
  2. Google for Education: The importance of user feedback for rapid product adaptation
  3. Spotify: The value of human perspectives in a data-driven world

Each of these case studies teaches us a valuable lesson about UX research—lessons you can apply to your own design projects. So let’s jump in!

UX research case study #1: Airbnb and the power of observing user behaviour to uncover design opportunities

Oftentimes, user research is planned in advance and conducted within a controlled setting—think user interviews, or analysing how people interact with your website over a specific period of time. 

But sometimes, user research occurs organically—like an accidental light shining on a major design opportunity. That’s exactly what happened at Airbnb, leading to the design and launch of a new global check-in tool. 

Vibha Bamba, Design Lead on Airbnb’s Host Success Team, writes: 

“The decision to design the tool was informed by an intriguing host behaviour. We noticed that about 1.5 million photo messages were being sent from host to guest each week—the majority of them to explain location and entry details. Photos of the home were juxtaposed with maps, lockbox locations were described, and landmarks were called out.” 

Observing these behaviours over time, the Airbnb team realised that there was a huge opportunity to make the exchange between hosts and guests much more seamless and consistent. This kicked off a year-long project to design a global check-in tool for the Airbnb platform. 

The result? An integrated check-in tool that enables hosts to create visual check-in guides for their guests. They can upload photos and instructions which the tool will translate depending on the guests’ preferred language, and the guides can be accessed both on and offline. 

And, after launching the tool, the team continued to observe how hosts used it. They were able to flag issues and further design opportunities, adapting and evolving the check-in tool to better meet hosts’ needs. That’s the power of observing user behaviour! 

The takeaway

User behaviour provides us with incredibly rich insights. Don’t rely solely on planned or periodic user research—continuously observe how people interact with your product in the wild, too. You don’t know what you don’t know, and this approach will help you to uncover design opportunities you may not have even thought to look for otherwise.

Read the full UX research case study here: Leveraging Creative Hacks: How the Airbnb Community Inspired a Global Check-in Tool

UX research case study #2: Google for Education and the importance of user feedback for rapid product adaptation  

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, our lives changed almost overnight. Many of us were suddenly working from home, navigating new challenges of communicating and collaborating remotely. 

Teachers were no exception. They had to quickly adapt to teaching online, relying on tools like Google Meet to conduct lessons virtually. But Google Meet was originally designed as a conferencing tool for businesses, so the user experience for teachers and students wasn’t ideal. 

In the words of one tech admin speaking to the Google Meet team: 

“Students are using the tools in a way that makes it hard for teachers to do their job. Teachers can’t mute students, or put them in groups, they can’t ask questions easily to take the temperature of the class. Students are also jumping on the video without supervision—and that’s an issue. I wish there was more control.” 

The Google Meet team needed to act fast to figure out how the software could better meet teachers’ needs. To do this, they went straight to the source, gathering user feedback directly from teachers.

Based on this feedback, they added a range of new features such as attendance taking, hand raising, waiting rooms, and polls. 

The result? A rapidly improved user experience for teachers and students which ultimately benefited all Google Meet users. 

The takeaway

Sometimes, UX designers must think and act fast; there’s not always time for lengthy user research and cautious feature rollouts. When you need to adapt and evolve a product to quickly improve the user experience, it pays to go straight to your users for their feedback. 

Read the full UX research case study here: Adapting Products to Meet Teachers’ Changing Needs

UX research case study #3: Spotify and the value of human perspectives in a data-driven world 

Data is a powerful research tool. It enables you to gather and analyse broad and vast user insights, to make evidence-backed decisions, and to track and measure important UX KPIs

But, as Nhi Ngo, Insights Manager, User Research & Data Science at Spotify will tell you, it’s important not to become over-reliant on data when conducting UX research. Sometimes, making the best design decision boils down to a human perspective. 

Nhi Ngo came to this realisation when developing and launching a feature called “Shortcuts” on the Spotify Home tab. Powered by machine learning, Shortcuts is a dedicated space that showcases the user’s current favourites, as deduced by Spotify’s algorithms. 

The feature was developed based on data collected through a variety of research methods, including longitudinal user studies and A/B testing

So far, so good. But when it came to deciding on a name for the feature, A/B tests came back inconclusive. 

In the end, the name was decided based on the product designer’s instinct to go with the name that would create the most human and personal experience. Nhi Ngo explains:

“A few candidates that were tested were ‘Listen Now’ (the objective that the model optimizes for), ‘Shortcuts’ (the user-facing functionality), ‘Quick Access’ (a UX goal of this space), and last but not least, a daypart greeting, ‘Good morning’ (that would change with the time of day to ‘Good afternoon’ or ‘Good evening’). We were counting on the AB test to help us make this important decision. The test returned neutral. Our designer recommended we go with the daypart name, much to my reservations. 

Indeed, participants were most often positively surprised in our interview sessions whenever they opened their phone and saw the greetings. Convinced by our designer’s humanistic approach and recognising the intangible benefits of providing users with this joy of being ‘greeted by Spotify’, we decided to go with our perspective-taking as humans to humans, and chose the daypart name.” 

The result? A new product feature that evoked delight in Spotify’s users and led to further improvements, such as incorporating more time-based features in the model so that the recommendations changed depending on the time of day (for example, showing sleep music playlists at night). 

The takeaway

Data-driven research is an extremely powerful tool, but it may not always give you the full picture or a conclusive answer. Whenever you conduct and interpret research data, it’s important not to lose sight of your human perspective. 

In the words of Nhi Ngo: “When data can’t give you a definitive answer, it is OK to be human and make a human decision. Prioritise user joy; treat them as you would any human in your life.” 

Read the full UX research case study here: It’s OK to be Human in a Machine-Learned World

Learn more about UX research

All of these ux research case studies emphasise the importance of user research in UX design. If you’d like to learn more about UX research, check out the 9 best UX research tools, read about a day in the life of a UX research manager with Google’s Dr. Stephen Hassard, and master the art of analysing your UX research and pulling out useful insights in this guide.


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