Keeping research lean in the agile world of UX

4 min read
Michal Mazur
  •  Mar 2, 2016
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Without at least a basic understanding of your users, you can’t design a successful and sustainable product. You either create a solution that doesn’t solve the right problem, or a solution that doesn’t solve the problem adequately.

When undertaking a UX project, the kinds of research information you need to be looking for include typical behaviors and psychology of decisions (motivations, needs, doubts, etc.). Basically, anything that will support you in building personas and allow you to empathize with the end user. Empathy is the key to meaningful design.Twitter Logo

Best practice suggests the answer is to conduct a full ethnographic study, but that usually comes with a huge price tag and a long timetable—2 things that aren’t easy to sell clients on.

“Empathy is the key to meaningful design.”

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So when budgets and other constraints dictate that we can’t always happily head down the ideal “best practice” research route, we have to think a little differently. Below, you’ll find a couple of lean methods to conduct user research on a budget.

Desk research

In an era when access to the world’s knowledge resources is commonplace, there are ways to bypass the traditional primary research approach and look for studies that have already been conducted by somebody else (called secondary research).

In 2013, in the US alone, there were 28,462 master’s degrees and 6,496 doctorates awarded in psychology (the field that proves the most useful in design research). As the areas of human-computer interaction and human factors have continued to thrive over recent years, the number of papers containing highly useful and informative content for web designers is growing exponentially.

With a little bit of ingenuity, it’s possible to gain insights into a wide range of industries and user types. Apart from general industry-specific papers, you can find brilliant nuggets of wisdom, some of which are directly related to the web experiences of certain user groups.

“You can’t design a successful and sustainable product without understanding your users.”

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As an example, when recently designing a web app for recruiters, the team at Pomegranate Media managed to find excellent, relevant papers on the common challenges faced by recruiters and the downsides of the software they work with every day.

What’s more, insights from areas theoretically unrelated to your research problem might actually turn out to be highly informative and shift the way you perceive your audience. The knowledge is just sitting there waiting to support your design process.

There are a number of sources to look to for scientific knowledge. Here, we’ve handpicked a selection of the ones we consider the most useful. But we have no doubt you’ll uncover many more, including those specific to your field of study.

Online questionnaires

Another lean method commonly used in user research: questionnaires. Although time needs to be invested in preparing them as well as publishing and analyzing findings, it doesn’t require the researcher’s presence during data collection. With the multitude of brilliant online survey tools currently available—Wufoo or Typeform are a couple—there’s no excuse for not creating even just a short questionnaire to inform your design decisions.Twitter Logo

“There are always questions that cannot be answered with a spreadsheet.”

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Many people associate surveys with preference- or rating-based questions, but you can design a form that captures both qualitative and quantitative data. The right questions can help you explore someone’s needs and pains, and those responses then feed into user persona building.

Obviously, the depth of information you gain from such a passive instrument will be smaller compared to full-on ethnography, as you won’t be able to observe behaviors or even see the context. But it’s still a better substitute than plain demographic data. There are always questions that cannot be answered with a spreadsheet.Twitter Logo

If you’re struggling to gather respondents for your questionnaires, try publishing them using social media, direct emails, and networking. If that fails, you can always recruit people directly via your website using tools like or HotJar .

Remember: you shouldn’t recruit every possible person for your study, as not everybody may be relevant. Write good screener questions to eliminate undesired participants.

Guerilla research

Whether you’re exploring a particular research problem or testing a design solution that you already have, guerilla research can be a huge time-saver.

Guerilla research means getting out of the building (a phrase recently popularized by Steve Blank and the lean startup movement) and spontaneously recruiting and interviewing research participants.

In order to find people relevant to your research problem, target places where your audience might regularly spend time. You don’t want to discuss speed dating with couples shopping for wedding rings, for example. But if you research problems that are common across the demographic spectrum, you might want to visit places where people will have spare time to help you: train stations, parks, restaurants, etc. People love to tell their stories—you just need to listen.

During her UX Cambridge workshop in 2015, Dr. Emmanuelle Savarit described her successful efforts to conduct quick interviews with people waiting for trains on the King’s Cross station.

“People love to tell their stories—you just need to listen.”

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The same method can be used when testing your designs or prototypes—just go out, take your designs (even sketches) on your mobile phone or tablet, and ask people for feedback. Even though people you encounter may not be knowledgeable about the subject matter of your design, they’ll often point out simple usability issues that you couldn’t see.

Remote interviews

Interviews are usually time-consuming—recruiting people, preparing scripts, scheduling, conducting, analyzing findings. But by using smart, online participant recruitment methods mentioned above, you can quickly build a pipeline of participants you want to interview.

Scheduling interviews can still be tricky, but with smart tools like Doodle, you can propose a range of dates and get availability details from your potential interviewees.

In her article Minimum Viable Ethnography, author Erika Hall explored the method of 10-minute interviews, where the only question you have in your script is “Walk me through a typical day.” It’s a question anybody can understand and answer. Of course, some interviewees might struggle with an answer and you’ll need to use your interviewing skills to encourage them. And some follow-up questions won’t do any harm.

Conduct interviews via Skype or Google Hangouts to cut out the time it’d take to organize a room and sort out the logistics of in-person interviews.

Analysis of such interviews won’t be complicated—you won’t end up with a lot of data at the end. Still, it’s always useful to look at data collaboratively in order to see various perspectives on the same problem or insight. You’ll be surprised how much your solution can gain from even such a small involvement from your audience.

“Research gives you leverage over opinions and ammunition against politics.”

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Informing your design doesn’t need to be a great investment of time or budget. By harnessing digital tools, you can streamline your process and extract bits of knowledge that can make a huge difference in the quality of your solutions.

Avoiding research will eventually leave you in an awkward position of facing an intimidating blank canvas or trying to justify solutions to your stakeholders. As a designer, research gives you leverage over opinions and ammunition against politics.Twitter Logo It’s objective.

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