The kick-starter guide to user research

User Research is crucially important in software development, but far too often, it is not being done. Common excuses for brushing off user research include:

  • “We don’t have time to talk to users”
  • “We don’t have any budget allocated for that”
  • “We’re too far along in development to change anything now”
  • “We already know what our customers want”

Sound familiar? Well I’m here to tell you that no matter what your excuse may be; YES, you can (and should) do user research! No matter what stage of development you’re in—from a mere idea to having functioning software already released and being used—user research is well worth it.

Think about it this way: would you send a piece of software out into the world without conducting a single round of QA? I didn’t think so. User research is to UI/UX design what QA is to development.

Beyond the obvious benefits to your product, user research has perks for your entire team. After working on the same product day in and day out, teams can quickly forget that they’re building a product for real humans, not robotic users or 2-D personas. Meeting users, learning about them, and seeing them interact with your product can re-invigorate your team, exciting them about the work they’re doing and even providing inspiration for new ideas and features.

Hopefully by now you understand the value of user research. But how do you get started?

Step One: Identify Your Target

First and foremost, answer the question “who are our users?” Ideally, your team has already answered this question, and beyond mere demographics. Who are your users, what motivates them, what devices do they use, why are they using your product? If you met a user, how would you describe them to a friend? What adjectives would you use? These are just some of the questions you should think about as you identify your target user group.

If you’re not 100% confident you’ve identified your user group correctly, it’s okay. This research should help solidify or modify your description. If you’ve identified more than 1 group of users, that’s also okay. Stick with your primary user group for this round of research.

Step Two: Identify Your Goals

Next, identify what questions you are trying to answer with research. Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • What pain points does our user group have?
  • Are they as big of an issue to users as we think?
  • Do users understand how to use it?
  • What would make it easier for our users?

Gather all your team members in a room, grab some sticky notes, and have each person write down questions they have about your users.

If you’re in an earlier product stage, dedicate the first half of the exercise to writing down assumptions you are making about users (i.e. what we think is the most important thing to our users.). If you’re in a later product stage, questions might be more specific (i.e. do users understand how to accomplish _____?).

Group all the similar stickies together and see what themes emerge. Then, as a team, decide which questions are top priority to answer.


Step Three: Select Your Technique

Once your questions are set, it’s time to decide what research technique will be most effective. We typically approach research with two big phases: finding out what is going to be useful and ensuring what we are building is usable.

Useful Research

Useful Research is about understanding what it is you should build. This method is ideal for teams in earlier stages of development. Useful Research is about stepping back, removing any attachments you have to your ideas, and listening to your users. Ask your users the questions you think you know the answers to, validate your product concept, and listen for pain points or workarounds. Useful Research methods include 1×1 interviews, focus groups, diary studies, and ethnography—all of which can be done in-person or online.

Usable Research

Usable Research is great for teams that are in later stages of development, and have already validated their product’s concept. Remember, your code doesn’t have to be completed before you get in front of users. Clickable prototypes like Flinto, or even beta code, can be presented to users. Select the tasks you have questions around, show users your product, and have them complete the tasks. Most importantly, let users figure it out on their own! If users get stuck, let them try and work through it before you jump in and help. The main Usable Research method is usability testing.

There are a lot of interesting remote research options available nowadays. However, I highly recommend conducting in-person research if possible. Why in-person? Because it’s the easiest, and most natural way to talk to people. You don’t have to worry about potential technical difficulties, allowing you to focus on the person right in front of you. Seeing a user in the flesh also makes the interaction seem more real.

But won’t meeting with users in-person limit the types of users we’re able to meet? Yes, and no. It’s true that you’ll be gathering data from a limited location, but any research is better than no research—as long as it’s done properly, and with users that fit the profile you’ve established. If you have the budget to visit more than one location, than certainly go for it, but you’ll be surprised at the amount of valuable data you can get with even just 15 users in one location.

Step Four: Find Your Users

So now you’ve got your users identified, a list of questions you want to answer, and you know what method you want to use. Now you just have to find your users. This is the step where people often give up, but DON’T. Even with little time, and little (or no) budget, finding users can be easier than you think. Consider these cost-effective methods:

  • Have everyone on the team post on their personal Facebook or Twitter about the type of user you are looking for. (Even offer to buy folks willing to help a coffee or beer for their time.)
  • If you have a very niche type of user, find a local event (via, Facebook, or some other social-gathering website) and contact the organizer. Offer to bring snacks and drinks for a chance to meet with folks before or after a meetup.
  • Don’t be afraid to “cold call” or “cold e-mail” folks. Remember, you’re NOT a salesperson. Briefly explain the project, emphasize that you’re conducting research, and most importantly, be genuine—not sales-y.
  • If you have an existing product, reach out to your existing clients or folks on your e-mail lists that live in your area. Just remember to add a personal touch by sending inquiries from your personal email account, not “”
  • If you have a highly specific enterprise product, latch onto conventions and seminars. Reach out to a targeted list of attendees before the event, explain the project, and ask them if you can meet with them. Don’t forget to offer to buy them a drink after the sessions conclude.
  • If all else fails, go guerilla style. Find your users at coffee shops, grocery stores, wherever you expect them to be. Be brave! Say you’re working on a project (key word there), you would love to get their input, and it will only take “x” amount of minutes (be sure to let them know how long this will take). Be personable, smile, and don’t badger. If they say no, let them move on. For this approach, you may need to trim your questions down to fit the allotted time.

How many users should you aim to meet with? That depends on what type of research you’re conducting. Ultimately, you should meet with as many users as it takes for their responses to start being predictable. Once you stop taking away any new insights from meeting with users, you’ll know it’s time.

Step Five: Go For It!

As you start scheduling time to meet with your users, make sure everyone from the team gets to attend at least one session. Try and make it happen. If it’s simply not possible, gather team members in a room for informal debriefing sessions after each session. Along with the key takeaways you learned, show off artifacts like pictures and videos to remind the team that users are humans.

Now, go for it! One of the biggest obstacles for user research is simply getting started: leaving the building, leaving your comfort zone, and getting out there. The thought of reaching out to strangers may seem intimidating and a bit scary (especially if you’re going guerilla style), but get over that pit in your stomach and push through. After your first user research session concludes and you walk away with a notebook full of insights, I guarantee you won’t be able to wait to meet with more and more users.


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