When you’re the only product designer on a project, you’re responsible for every aspect of user experience design—including user research. An approach founded in research helps you empathize with users and ensure that your work is meeting their needs. Success in this critical aspect of design depends on understanding how to conduct user research from problem discovery to implementation. It also means optimizing your time and budget to align with business goals and user expectations.
A user-centered approach to product design carries a potentially significant payoff: According to a rule of thumb popularized by principal UX consultant and former IBM researcher Clare-Marie Karat, each dollar invested in user experience research saves $10 in development and $100 in post-release maintenance. However, research is a time-intensive process, and without a team to assist you, it can be difficult and costly to obtain and analyze enough data.
So how do you perform impactful research as a solo UX designer, and what strategies can help you overcome limited time and resources? Let’s explore the possibilities.
Involve Your Colleagues
A good first step is to learn more about an existing product by partnering with colleagues who interact with users regularly. Customer support teams are deeply familiar with users’ problems and can provide data about how often specific issues arise. They may also have a list that ranks the most frequent issues, which can help you prioritize concerns to address.
You can coordinate research goals and design hypotheses with product managers by sharing your research plan. The PM can help you brainstorm the type of users to recruit for various studies and provide insight when analyzing results.
User data should inform decisions throughout the design process. The data analytics team collects invaluable information about user behavior and product performance. They can share raw usage numbers, conversion rates, user flows, and more.
Sales teams know the product features that customers find useful or frustrating and can help you identify research participants. For example, if you wanted to test a feature that is generating multiple support calls, you could consult with the sales team to find out who uses that feature most often.
Research Methods for One
There are dozens of UX research methodologies, but solo designers should prioritize methods that can be done asynchronously or remotely to acquire user insights more efficiently.
Be sure to tailor methods to your research goals. Are you trying to improve findability? Do a card sort. Do you need to understand how users interact with certain product features? A usability study may work well for you.
Usability testing is an efficient, low-budget research method that can be exceptionally helpful, from wireframing to the final usability check. Moderated usability testing is preferable because you’re able to question users in real time about their decisions, but these sessions are time consuming and can be impractical for a solo designer.
Instead, consider asynchronous unmoderated sessions to save time. Tools like UsabilityHub and Maze offer options including first-click analysis, prototype testing, five-second tests, and design surveys. Both tools enable participants to complete tests on their own time and provide data visualizations that help you more easily analyze results.
If your product is live, tools like Hotjar or FullStory monitor user behavior, including excessive scrolling and rage clicks, and can help you assess how different aspects of your product are performing.
If you opt for moderated usability sessions, you can still optimize the time you spend organizing tests and analyzing results. Calendly can help you find convenient testing times, while automated transcription tools like Otter can speed up post-session analysis.
A/B testing is an efficient way to compare two versions of a design component, such as a call-to-action button, without having to host a usability session. The goal is to see which component performs best by analyzing analytics for both versions. There are inexpensive and free A/B testing platforms available, including Google Optimize and Optimizely.
Contextual inquiry is great for designers who want insights into how to build new products, as well as for designers working on existing products.
In a contextual inquiry, you visit target users in an environment where they would use your product and interview them about how they perform relevant activities. For example, if you’re designing an app to help developers plan their work, you would visit their workspace to observe what they do and how they do it, as well as ask questions about their pain points and what they need.
In recent years, technology has made remote contextual inquiry a viable option, even for a solo designer with a limited budget. By asking participants to document their experiences over a predetermined period of time or observing them throughout their day via an open video chat, researchers can collect data without spending time and money on travel.
Card sorting helps designers understand how users organize information, which is essential to ensuring that a site’s information architecture is intuitive and easy to navigate. In a card-sorting exercise, users are asked to organize cards—each representing a topic relevant to the app or site—in the way that makes the most sense to them. Tools like UXtweak, Maze, FigJam, and Miro can be used to do this remotely and asynchronously.
Recruiting Existing Users Efficiently
If you’re working on a product that’s already live, then existing users are an ideal group to target. A solo designer should mine established customer bases for research participants and important user insights. Existing users meet your demographic, plus they’re familiar with your product and will likely want to see it improved.
You may find that a product has a passionate base of power users who gather in spaces like Reddit or product support forums. These users may be able to highlight where your product needs improvement. A budget bonus: People who love a product so much that they join an online community about it are often happy to offer their opinions at no cost.
Finding New Subjects
If you don’t have an existing user base, then you’ll have to get a bit more creative with your recruitment efforts.
Start with members of your personal network who fit your target demographic. There may also be Slack teams, Reddit groups, and other online communities for the type of user for which you’re designing. Reach out to these people. Make sure they are willing to participate in multiple sessions, so you can easily reengage them for further insight throughout your process.
Utilize user recruiting platforms like User Interviews or Respondent. These services connect researchers to prescreened subjects in a variety of demographics to help you with your research. Pay attention to outliers, however–there may be opportunists who speed through the test to make a quick buck, or people who do UX testing for a living and provide unusually specific or technical feedback. Not every outlier is dishonest, so it’s important to know how to spot the difference.
Know When Enough Is Enough
Perhaps the most important way to save time is simply to know when to stop researching. You need only five participants to get good results from a qualitative study before your findings become repetitive, Raluca Budiu, research director of the Nielsen Norman Group, wrote in 2021. “If one person falls into a pothole, you know you need to fix it. You don’t need 100 people to fall into it to decide it needs fixing.”
Quantitative studies require more participants—ideally 40 but even 25 or 30 can provide useful data, albeit with a higher margin of error. Be mindful of the risks of a smaller sample size if you don’t have enough subjects.
And while user insights are essential, remember that you’re not the first person to address many of the design problems facing your users. Consult published research on user behavior and consider how those findings can inform your work.
Look at similarly behaving products, too. For example, if you’re trying to figure out the best interaction for sorting a list of items, you could look at the way Spotify organizes playlists, or Trello organizes cards. Your users may already be experienced with those interactions and have a mental model established.
Consider a heuristic evaluation as well. This involves comparing a product against an authoritative UX checklist, such as the Nielsen Norman Group’s usability heuristics, in order to identify common usability pitfalls. A heuristic evaluation can’t replace the nuance you gain from research, but it can help you streamline your efforts.
If possible, analyze research results with other members of the product team. This helps everyone understand users’ pain points and prevents designers from making choices based on assumptions. And when multiple people analyze research, they’re likely to discover connections between findings that may have gone overlooked.
Balance Is the Key
Many designers are perfectionists, spending hours ensuring everything is pixel-perfect. But for solo designers, especially, creating viable solutions to multiple problems is better than delivering a single perfect solution.
Being flexible and creative in the way you conduct user research is essential to uncovering the insights you need to design a product that meets user needs. Remote and asynchronous techniques and a strategic approach to user recruitment can go a long way toward helping a solo designer balance research with their other tasks.
Further Reading on the Toptal Design Blog
Understanding the basics
The UX research process can be challenging for a solo designer because of how time-consuming it can be. However, by being strategic with your research activities, collaborating with key stakeholders, and prioritizing the biggest usability issues first, you can achieve excellent results.
User research is how designers collect the quantitative and qualitative data that helps them design products that are functional, intuitive, and beautiful. Research techniques may include interviews, surveys, observation studies, and more.
The most important factor in successful user research is to approach it with an open mind. The point of user research is to ensure that the product reflects user needs, not the designer’s biases, preferences, or assumptions.