How to start doing user research when you don't have time or budget

Most of us have had projects where there isn't time or budget for user research. Depending on where you work, this may always be the case.

Sometimes you'll be promised research, only to receive a flimsy "market research" deck that isn't worth the space it takes up on your hard drive.

You can start designing, and the interface will probably work fairly well since you'll avoid the common mistakes, but that's about it. You can't design for what you don't know.

You're designing blind.

So when the client comes back with changes that aren't in their best interest (and you know they will), you'll have nothing to back you up. At that point you either have the option of patiently convincing your client it's not a good idea or roll over and give them what they want. Either way, it rarely ends well.

You'd like to do research but it feels like there's a lot pushing against making it a reality.

When you're hired to improve the user experience, you have to feel confident you're offering a good solution. It's difficult to be confident in what you're presenting when you don't know who you're designing for.

So what do you do when you want to start doing research and you don't have time or budget? I've introduced user research to several companies I've worked with and here's some of what I learned.

What not to do

In my early years as a UX Designer, I worked at an agency that didn't do research. I knew I wasn't doing UX properly and I wanted to start doing research on my projects, so I did what most people do: I went to my boss and tried to pitch the idea of doing research.

I put together a short keynote with a bunch of stats and info about why companies should do more user research and presented it to the company. Everyone seemed to be receptive and they thanked me for putting it together. I thought I nailed it.

Yeah…nothing came of it.

A few weeks later I was in the same place, struggling through a project and complaining about my lack of research when I realized one of those big life lessons: if you want change to happen, you can't hand it off. You have to own it.

So I started figuring out ways I could start bringing research into my process.

Why doesn't your company do research?

There's plenty of excuses but most boil down to a few patterns:

  • They don't see the value of it
  • They think it's long and time consuming
  • It's just adding another step

It all goes back to providing value. Ask yourself what value it provides as it relates to their goals. If you're not providing enough value, then there's no incentive to do it.

What can you do when you don't have time or budget?

Research doesn't have to be expensive or time consuming. If you want to bring more research into your design process, here's some ways you can get started right now when you're short on time and budget.

Analytics

First, if you have access to analytics information, take a look to see what people are doing on the site.

What are people looking at? Where are they coming from? What did they search for when they landed here? Where do they leave?

Analytics can be a great starting point to find out the most used features and information and can help prioritize what's most important for users.

Be careful about putting too much value into numbers, though. Analytics are useful to show what people are doing on the site, but it falls short when it comes to answering why they're doing it. Use it to help point towards what you should be looking into and testing later on.

Go where the people are (guerrilla research)

One of the more effective kinds of research is simply bringing your laptop down to the local coffee shop and offering to buy someone a coffee for a few minutes of their time. This is my goto when I have nothing else to use.

All you have to do is open up your prototype or the site you're redesigning and ask someone nearby if they wouldn't mind giving their opinion on something. If they agree, show them your laptop and say you're working on a project but it just feels off and you'd just want to watch them click through it and see what they do.

Tell them what the site is about, give them a task (example: buying a certain package on an online store), then watch what they do.

Write down any notable things people said during testing and show it with your work.

With just a few hours and about $20 can show lots of problems you previously missed.

Nervous about approaching strangers? Try asking family and friends. But be careful about telling them it's something you're designing: they'll be more likely to say good things about it rather than being honest. Rather, say it's a project you're going to work on and you're trying to find problem areas first.

Remote research

One of the strengths of remote research is the ability to quickly put together a test, get it running, and work on something else while waiting for results.

There are a lot of useful remote testing services out there that can give you valuable data with just a little time setting it up. Most offer a free trial that usually limit the number of tests you can run or the number of participants.

Here are some good places to start:

If you want to learn more about remote research, I recommend checking out Remote Research by Nate Bolt & Tony Tulathimutte. It's a short read that covers the pros and cons of different remote research techniques and how to get the most out of your research.

Just start (really small)

As with starting anything, you'll be more likely to succeed if you start small and just do it. Pick one part of your project and just take an hour to do some research. You'd be surprised how much useful information you can gather in a short amount of time.

Once you have some research, put it to work. Add what you found to your work and show it to the client.

Then share your findings with your team. You were able to provide value to the client with just a little effort and virtually no resources. And with some a bit more resources, you can provide even more value to future clients.

In another post, I'll talk about selling the idea of user research (and UX Design) to your company.