I often hear about how hard it is to do user research when there isn’t someone dedicated to the task and when others in the company aren’t sure how to do research.
And I get it: often, there aren't enough resources to adequately conduct user research, whether that be time, budget, people, or processes.
Luckily, there’s a great solution: user research hacks.
The reason I am sharing these hacks is not to enable people to skip user research but to encourage companies to start research in the smallest way. From there, you can begin to build on a user research practice.
Again, this is not a replacement for user research but, if you can get some good results from these hacks, you can get buy-in to continue growing user research in your company.
(Although some of these make me want to share the monkey with his hands over his eyes emoji).
We hosted a webinar on working with (rather than against) agile workflows as a researcher. If you've been on a time crunch, you might want to give it a stream.
9 top user research hacks for when you have limited resources
Hack #1: Emailing users for feedback
Emailing users is always my go-to when I think about user research hacks. It can feel a bit like cold-calling and doesn't always have the highest success rate—but it can lead to some great results.
I start by emailing my users, and asking them if they would be willing to provide feedback on a particular feature or concept idea. I offer three ways they can give feedback: hop on a call, have them record themselves and send it, or have them respond via email. I offer different levels of incentives for each option.
Hack #2: Internal user testing
I have used internal testing at nearly every company. Internal testing is a great tool to learn about the product in general and method to get (sometimes considerable) feedback from people who care about the product.
Generally, I will start with account managers, customer support, and sales, as they usually have the most contact with customers and an understanding of what customers might want. I book a time and room, get snacks/cookies/pizza, and send out an email asking for interested parties.
Usually, within the hour, I fill up most of the slots, making it incredibly fast. Also, I get to evangelize UX research across the company. Double win!
Hack #3: Look for research studies online
The wealth of research studies online is practically endless. So chances are, there are studies out there that cover similar topics you are looking to understand.
For example, the NN Group has many studies available online, including information on how users interact with the products (which may be similar to yours), what satisfies them, and what angers them.
Another excellent way to understand your users is to look up the studies your competitors have conducted. These don't have to be your direct competitors, as they may not have data online, but you can extrapolate to a competing company that would have information available. I recommend doing this before (or during) research to learn about the market and industry. Another option here is to look at your app reviews or those of your competitors!
Hack #4: Use analytics (or previous research) to help make decisions if you can only talk to a few users
If you are only about to speak to a few different users, you can understand the patterns they perform and use supporting data to validate or disprove the hypotheses you made. Use analytics tools, such as HotJar and FullStory, to watch how users are interacting with your product.
Data only gives part of the story, and can't answer the question why, but it is a great tool to use when you have little time and participants. It is also essential to use data in conjunction with qualitative research, as they are incredibly complementary to each other.
Hack #5: Go for a survey
Surveys are a great tool to use when you don't have time for a full-blown research study. Surveys can also give you a better idea of where you should focus your research efforts and get you a lot of answers in a short amount of time.
Although I recommend using them in conjunction with qualitative research methods to get a more holistic picture. I always include open-ended questions to receive qualitative feedback that can help answer the why. If you can, offering an incentive to complete the survey always helps. If you're interested, I wrote an article about survey creation here.
Hack #6: Keep a panel and recycle
Maybe you have run some user research sessions before, and you are looking to test some new ideas or prototypes, but are struggling to find new participants. One hack is to think back to your previous research sessions and try to identify which sessions went well.
Usually, after a research session, I write down whether or not the research session was successful, and I ask if the participant is okay with my contacting them for future studies. So I know if I can recycle the participant. It isn't the most effective method to get research insights repeatedly from the same set of people and can introduce some bias, so don't use the same people every single time. But, if you need participants, recycling isn't cheating. Having a participant panel can also lead to beta testing, which is a great way to get continuous feedback for a low cost.
Hack #7: Set up a demo desk
A "Demo Desk" is an area that allows employees to stop by and play with the current prototypes/ideas we are working on and give feedback to us. Demo desks will provide colleagues with the chance to understand what the product team is working on and also give their input to impact our ideas. It is a great way to understand what user research is and how it affects our product.
Hack #8: Street & coffee shop (guerrilla) research
If you have already done enough internal testing, or you can't do it, you can always take your prototype to the street, coffee shop, mall, what has it, and perform some guerrilla research.
Of course, this depends on your product. If you have a very niche product that only a specific user base benefits from, this may not be the best method for you. However, if you have a broader product that can be used by the masses, guerrilla research can be your friend.
It isn't the most reliable way to research, but it can give you some good feedback to help propel you forward. It can be pretty tough to approach people, but there are a few ways to make it easier. I have set myself up in a coffee shop (my neighborhood Starbucks was super nice letting me do this), with a sign on my computer asking people for 30 minutes to talk about X, Y, or Z for a free drink/food of their choice.
People were surprisingly interested, and I had five people who sat down and spoke with me in a span of four hours. They weren't the most insightful interviews I've ever conducted, but I did get some information that helped the team make our first round of decisions.
Hack #9: Use customer support
Is there a customer support team or someone who deals with customer support/tickets? If you have a customer call line, it is incredibly helpful to listen to calls.
Although you can't guarantee you will get a specific request about a particular area of the product, it is very insightful to understand the most common problems your customers are having, and potentially, what you could do to fix them.
Another option is to filter and look through support tickets. With this, you can funnel down to support tickets containing interesting issues. It is excellent to speak to the support team members and the most common problems they are hearing.
Hacks are not a replacement
These may be controversial points, and they stray from best practices, but they are a great way to get started with research, especially if you are struggling to get buy-in. However, these are not a replacement for the conventional qualitative research methods that should ideally be part of your user research process as and when possible.
Nikki Anderson is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 8 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Explore her research courses here or read more of her work on Medium.