Research doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. Here are ways to do it cheaply and efficiently.
By Beth Lingard (User Experience Research Manager, ModCloth)

About 7 years ago, the CEO of a small startup I was working for dropped Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think” on my desk and said, “Beth, you’re going to start doing usability testing for us.”

“Sure… What’s usability testing?” I cautiously responded.

“Read the book,” he said. And thus, started my career in user experience research.

In the 5+ years at this startup, I held many positions and performed a variety of roles, including, research, product management, project management, QA, copywriting – whatever needed to get done, as you do at a startup. Eventually, when I moved on, I had extended my internet startup skills tool belt, and landed a project management job at ModCloth. Shortly thereafter, I returned back to my roots in UX and headed up the User Experience Research team.

One of the reasons I love user research is because you get to truly understand someone – what motivates them, what scares them, essentially, what makes them tick. Once you understand someone, you’re their advocate and you get to work with a team that helps solve their problems or makes their life with your product or brand, enjoyable.

No matter your company’s size or stage of existence, research will help you build a better product and stay ahead of your competition. Research doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. As I’ve learned from working at startups, there are many ways to do it cheaply and effectively.

Here are 4 myths of research to be dispelled.

Myth #1 – Research is expensive and takes too long.

Research will save you money and time if you build something that people want to use. And it’s certainly cheaper to get user’s feedback every week or so, rather than after you spend all that time and energy building and launching your product that might not be a success.

At ModCloth, we talk to people when we first have an idea. At this phase, our goal is to understand customers’ current problems around this idea and how they deal with an issue we’re trying to solve. Then, we talk to them again when we have an initial prototype to observe how they interact with it and what their expectations are, and yet again, when we have made changes.

This cycle goes on until we launch something, and often times, continues post-launch to determine what the next phase of the project could be. I’ve found that if you’re talking to customers on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, listening to 4-5 users during each session will help you move your project to the next phase.

Myth #2 – I don’t have any customers to talk with.

If someone contacts help desk or subscribes to your newsletter – reach out to them to see if you can get their feedback.

Don’t have any customers yet? No problem – think about who might use this product and where they’d hang out. Some other inexpensive ways to recruit: Ask friends of a friend, post a note in a online forum, pay for a Google, Facebook, or website advertisement, hang out at a coffee shop and offer a drink for feedback, or post a task on TaskRabbit. Invite them to your office or wherever they are whether it’s an in-person or online chat.

Myth #3 – Customers don’t really know what they want.

They may not know what they want, but with your help you can truly understand their need. Many times, user test participants have told me they’d love a particular feature and go as far as to describe how it would work and what it would look like. Acknowledge their great idea, but try to get to the root of their need by asking them “why?” – what are they trying to do and why is it important?

Once you identify this need, brainstorm with your talented team of designers, product managers, engineers, and other folks from the business on the best solution to their need, and of course, once you determine the solution, get it out in front of users again to validate it.

Myth #4 – Research results aren’t helpful or actionable.

After you speak to your customers, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with so much good information. One of the most effective ways I have found to synthesize this information and get the team on board with it, is to call a meeting the day (or day after) you end your research sessions.

Invite anyone who attended a research session, any teammates who will be working on the project, or anyone (yes, ANYONE) interested in learning what happened. Print out screenshots of what you tested or create a list for each area you discussed and ask each person who observed a session, to write their observation on a post-it note and stick it on the screenshot or list. Then have everyone talk through what they’ve observed, and for those who didn’t, let them ask questions. In about an hour, the entire team will have a good summary of the research.

Research doesn’t need to be expensive and you don’t need fancy tools to get started. You just need a curiosity and desire to make a better experience for your users.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
Photo credit: Dave on Flickr.
About the guest blogger: Beth Lingard is the User Experience Research Manager at ModCloth, an online retailer of vintage and vintage inspired clothing, where she’s constantly looking for ways to keep research lean. For the past 7 years, Beth has been a Jill of all trades in the Internet startup space. Follow her on Twitter at @beth_lingard.