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Written by Benten Woodring, Andrea Vollendorf and Hebah Abdelqader

User research can seem daunting, especially when you don’t have a research team or easy access to resources. Here are 5 techniques you can use to improve your understanding of users, save money, and launch a successful product, even when you’re short on time.

At Unfold, we build and ship new products alongside clients on a regular basis, from massive household names to bootstrapped tech startups. Regardless of their size or ambition, we often hear the same concerns expressed when initiating a new project — there just isn’t enough time or money for user research. In some cases, the client is hyper-focused on a symptom affecting their business and is not even aware that any research should be done.

Effective product design is not just about perfect pixel placement or building beautiful UI, but also about developing an experience that feels intuitive for the users of the product – all of which requires understanding the goals and needs of people using the product. Even when tied to time or financial constraints, it’s still possible to ship successful user-centric products, on-time and under-budget.

Here are 5 methods the team at Unfold utilizes to lead a lean but impactful user research process.

Defining UX

First off, let’s clarify what we mean by “user research” and “UX”.

User research refers to a process used to understand how and why someone might use a specific product. This includes discovering how a person might go about accomplishing a specific task, or understanding pain points or roadblocks they may encounter along the way. It’s important to note that user research is ideally completed prior to starting any design work. This allows you to first identify the problem, then solve it through design.

UX (shorthand for user experience) encompasses many things, but at its core is the person using the product, not the client or stakeholders. Well executed UX involves creating a seamless and intuitive experience and requires understanding how users deal with pain points and how they behave when trying to accomplish different tasks. Though we’ve referenced UX specifically in relation to product or digital design, user experience is not exclusive to that arena. Anything that involves people using a product, like how a coffee mug or subway station is designed, can be considered user experience design.

The case for user research

Our clients often initially hire our team in order to solve symptoms their customers or the business is experiencing. We could easily slap some updated UI onto their platform and call it a day, but in order to do our jobs well and prevent future symptoms, it is in our (and our client’s) best interest to uncover the underlying problem, which requires doing some research.

For example, let’s say a local falafel shop approaches us with a request to redesign their website. The client shares that their customers love the food, but they’ve found that few people come back to visit, which has also been detrimental to their word-of-mouth advertising. It’s clear their website could use a refresh since it was designed five years ago, but we would not be doing our due diligence if we didn’t ask why their customers weren’t coming back. 

After asking the client a series of clarifying questions and speaking to a handful of their patrons, we realize few people even visit the website. We discover that the menu is actually the pain point — much of it is written in Arabic and is difficult to decipher. Armed with that information, we put efforts to refresh the website aside and instead focus on translating the menu, hiring a food photographer, and updating the layout of the menu in a way that is clear and easy to understand.

Within four weeks of dropping the new menus, the client excitedly tells us that business has already increased by 30% compared to the previous month. By digging deeper into the problem and utilizing patrons of the falafel shop as a resource, we were able to dramatically increase our client’s revenue and visibility, all at a fraction of the cost of a new website.

As evidenced above, there is a real incentive for a business to integrate user research into their workflow when developing a new product. Not only can research save time invested into a project, it can also dramatically affect revenue. According to a study done by Forrester, every $1 spent on UX brings in $2 to $100 in returns. That’s a massive return of 100% to 9000%.

On top of that, additional studies show that user research can:

  • Prevent wasted development time by 50%
  • Reduce overall development time by 33%
  • Increase sales by 30%.
  • Decrease bounce rate by 50%
  • Cause a 70%  increase in the quality of products

If we focus on finding and solving the underlying problem, any overarching symptoms quickly disappear, and it can also dramatically reduce any future symptoms from emerging.

What if we don’t have time for in-depth user research?

Great, so we know that integrating user research into product design is a smart move, but what if the client is either not interested in conducting user research or simply does not have the time or budget set aside for it? Glad you asked — enter: Lean UX.

Even if you are up against these constraints, there are a host of best practices and methods that can be easily integrated into your process, regardless of the size of the project.

Start by sharing what resources are at the client’s disposal along with any shortcuts your team plans to take. While we may not be able to do more involved research, there are ways we can gather the information we need from our users in less time-intensive ways that can be equally as beneficial.

Here are our five favorite Lean UX resources:

1. The client

We need to remember that our clients are a boon of information when it comes to expertise in both their industry and their customers. Ask questions until you are able to get to the root of the issue. This usually involves asking “why” several times and taking the time to listen. You can even give them homework to complete if needed.

2. Competitor analysis

Take a look at direct and indirect competitors in the space. What can we glean from how they are approaching problems? What can we do better?

3. Your Lean UX toolkit

Build out your own toolkit to quickly gather data needed for a project. This could include accessibility standards, user stories, stakeholder interviews, heuristics, user flows, customer support reports and customer reviews, guerrilla user testing, and a general understanding of human psychology. Nielsen Norman Group is an excellent resource to reference.

4. Your own experience

Rely on your own experience and judgment. Download the product yourself and become a user. Notice what pain points you encounter. If you are having an issue navigating a product, it’s likely other people are as well. But also keep in mind that we are designing for the end user, not ourselves — their background and experience will differ from ours.

5. Clear boundaries

Keep the proportion of your research relative to the size of your project. If the budget is small, keep the research lean, quick and simple. Set a time limit and move on — for smaller projects, done is better than perfect.

Even if a client might not have the resources to conduct in-depth user research, using these five resources on your next project can dramatically improve your understanding of the people using the product, save the client money, and help your client launch a successful, beloved product.