Praxent UX designer, Nick Comito, explains how companies can tackle user research practically and cost-effectively.

Don’t ask whether or not you have the budget to do user research on your next app or digital product. User research is not optional, but it can be economical.

Keep reading for insight on the scale of practical user research and 4 ways to cost-effectively execute on the recommended bare minimum.


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Those who are don’t do any user research at all create products built exclusively around their own business goals rather than around a concrete understanding of market need. Sometimes, they just make anything that technology allows them to, assuming people will want it because it exists.

Yes, user research can be expensive. We get it. But you don’t have to break the bank identifying clear objectives for your product based on real user needs. In fact, you’re far more likely to break the bank if you don’t.

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Place Your Project on the User Research Scale

User research will cost you something, but it’s worth it. Think of it as an investment in the financial success of your product. If your product doesn’t resonate with the people for whom you created it, then developing it is a waste of time and money because it won’t sell. User research is the only way around that situation.

When we advise startups on their custom software investments, we like to explain their options in terms of the scale of practical user research.

The scale of practical user research for startups

On the far left of the spectrum, you’ll find the least costly forms of user research. These are better than nothing. They can get the job done, at least enough to ensure your product won’t totally fail with users.

The right side of the spectrum represents massive amounts of user research that allow companies to deeply understand who they are targeting on a personal level. These researchers are able to get accurate, nuanced answers to questions about what motivates people to use a product and how that product can best meet or exceed their expectations. They develop empathy for users as humans, making a huge effort to relate to the problems they experience and the contexts for which their product is intended.

Equipped with an ideal level of understanding, researchers on the far right end of the spectrum equip teams to build products that are supremely excellent at connecting with people and adding value to their daily lives.

This is where the Walt Disneys and the Airbnbs of the world land. This is what sets the iPhone experience apart from its flip phone predecessor. Getting to this level isn’t automatic. It takes a passion and desire for understanding your audience and how they behave. It also takes a big budget.

Any progress along the Scale of Practical User Research will influence the success of your project. While the most affluent companies land on the right side of the spectrum, the reality is that not everyone is Airbnb, nor do they need to be. So let’s take a look at some practical ways to do user research that’s cost effective and gets the job done.

Recommended Bare Minimum: Generative User Research & Usability Testing

Getting accurate answers about why and how people will want to use your product is not always as straightforward as a user survey can make it seem. Sometimes you need a deeper, more human element to the information you collect.

Combine generative user research with usability testing on a prototype for a cost-effective way to get to the bottom of why, how and if people will use your product.

Usability testing is real-life user research on an actual product, while generative user research is the preliminary investigation. It helps you learn more about user needs and desires before investing in building a prototype.

Find out what you can about how your target users would relate to your product through surveys, interviews or other means. Then design your product in a way that will solve their problem satisfactorily, based on your current understanding of what that looks like.

Turn your designs into a prototype. Then find 5 people who match your provisional personas (or your current, evolved understanding of who your target users are) and have them use the product.

Categorize and measure their experience with the product, searching for concrete conclusions about what your product needs to be able to do and how it can best meet user expectations.

Getting Started with Generative User Research

Here are 4 types of generative user research you can do on a dime, plus two steps to get started:

Step 1: Create Provisional Personas

The most effective generative user research involves connecting with real people in real situations where your product could be useful. Instead of talking to any person you can find in the construction industry, strategically narrow down your search (and save time) by creating provisional personas.

Provisional personas are profiles about who you think will use your product and how you think they will use it. Create provisional personas before you begin user research and update them as you go. Your understanding of who will use your product and why will likely change the more you talk to real people.

Step 2: Choose a Research Method

Now that you have an idea of who you want to research, it’s time to make a plan for how you will conduct that research.

Allow your budget, personal network and who you’re researching, to guide your method. You may be able to conduct multiple forms of generative user research. Just remember, better one than none!

User Surveys

User surveys are one of the most common and easy forms of user research available to startups. We don’t recommend user surveys as a stand-alone method for conducting user research, but they can be helpful when paired with more in-depth investigation.

User surveys allow you to collect quantitative data about people. If you have an existing product that you’re trying to re-create or improve, you can conduct user surveys with actual people who have used or are currently using the product.

If you are building a new product and you don’t have real users yet, you’ll want to conduct your user survey with individuals who you think match your target audience. This could include people using a competing product or a category of people within a certain industry.

So if you’re trying to create a product that helps sales teams at construction companies, you’ll want to conduct your user surveys with people who match that demographic.

In your survey, ask questions with yes, no or multiple choice answers so that you can analyze the collective results. Do your best to write questions that will test whether your assumptions about target users are true. If you think the primary function of your construction sales app will be to eliminate the amount of paperwork sales representatives have to fill out, then you should ask questions in your survey that verify whether this is truly the primary need.

User Interviews

Collecting quantitative data through user surveys is great. But how do you know there’s not more to the story behind a person’s yes or no answer? Realistically, there is.

To conduct user interviews on a dime, find 5 or more people who closely match your provisional personas. Unless you have a lot of friends in the industry, you’ll need to be prepared to offer some compensation for their time.

Next, carefully craft a list of questions that will not only validate whether your assumptions are correct, but will also open up the conversation to discover insight you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

We recommend using the Jobs to Be Done interview framework to guide the conversation and help interviewees process their thoughts.

Contextual Inquiries

Contextual inquiries allow you to not only ask people about their experiences, but also observe their behaviors in the context of using a product.

For instance, using the construction sales software example, a contextual inquiry might involve visiting a construction sales office or shadowing a rep who matches your provisional persona. Benchmark how they spend their time on tasks related to your product idea, the problems they run into as they do so and how they go about solving those problems.

It’s important to go into the visit with a clear idea of what you need to find out while remaining open to new insight you may discover while observing people in action.

Don’t make contextual inquiries harder or more expensive than they need to be. If you have friends in the industry, maybe they’ll let you visit their office or talk to an employee. Then you’ll only need to approach one or two others cold turkey to get a sufficiently well-rounded perspective on your target user’s experience.

Competitive Analysis

Conduct user research on competitor products in the absence of your own product prototype or in addition to prototyping.

    • Put yourself directly in the user’s shoes. Try out other products that are trying to solve the same problem or other problems related to what your product is trying to solve.
    • Read as many reviews as you can about the competing product.
    • Investigate the financial success of the companies selling competing products. Did they receive funding from angel investors? Have they won Fortune 5,000 awards or been recognized locally for growth and revenue?
    • Conduct usability tests on the competing product. Measure how long it takes for users to find what they need and the number of errors they experience along the way. Then use that information to figure out how you can make your product better.

    Want to know if your product will succeed on the market? From wireframes and clickable prototypes to usability testing and customer journey mapping, our UX design services have got you covered. Far more than just a design and build shop, we create digital products that help businesses scale and own the competition.