We are living in the Age of the Customer, and user experience (UX) is leading the charge in design of web and mobile software products. UX has become an integral part of software design, resulting in a paradigm shift in user research.

Therefore, modern business must move past the old advertising methods that scream corny slogans in big bold letters: “Try X. We are the Best!”

The obvious problem with this outdated approach is that there are too many comparable products out there that also claim to be “the Best” in their respective product categories. To survive in a market oversaturated with competition, companies must invest in developing their websites, apps, services, and other customer touch points around overall user experience.

The best way to assess your customer’s experience with company websites and apps is through UX user research.

The Case For Low Cost UX User Research

There are plenty of methods for conducting user research; however, many of these methods are resource-intensive and can be slow. In other words, they tend to be expensive and take a while to implement.

No money, no research? Not true. Developers and designers can employ multiple cost-effective methods to conduct user research on a dime.

No money, no research? Not true. Developers and designers can employ multiple cost-effective methods to conduct user research on a dime.

For companies operating on limited budget, pushing out a working product may be more important than quality UX research, but not taking the time to do useful research may have negative effects on the success of your product or service.

This is what compelled me to tackle the problem in this blog post, and I am confident a lot of people in the UX field often face the same challenges:

  • UX user research is no longer an exotic field, reserved for cutting-edge products and services, usually launched by big companies.
  • UX research is a must, even for small companies and startups; but, these organizations often lack the financial and technical resources needed to conduct in-depth user research.
  • These small players have to find innovative ways of levelling the playing field, allowing them to remain competitive in the face of strong competition from bigger companies.
  • In this context, user research has to be cost-effective and time-effective.
  • Lastly, a more down to earth reason: There simply aren’t that many quality UX research resources online, and there are even fewer resources covering UX research from the perspective of cash-strapped outfits.

Below, you’ll find a few methods that will help you conduct user research on a budget.

Desk Research

In the old days, in order to conduct adequate research, companies had to go out into the field to collect data. Now, there’s an entire world of research information available at your fingertips. If you want to get a head start on user research, bypass traditional primary research and look for secondary research.

A lot of user research can be conducted from the comfort of your office. Use secondary research methods to your advantage.

A lot of user research can be conducted from the comfort of your office. Use secondary research methods to your advantage.

While there aren’t that many UX-related resources online, the psychology of user interactions with computers and digital content is a growing field of study. With a little creativity, it is possible to find good information about user behavior and decision-making from a variety of industries.

The key takeaway here is that you shouldn’t limit research to user behavior to your specific industry. Browsing data collected and used by other industries could answer some of the same questions you may have about your audience.

Usability Testing

The usability testing method is self-explanatory and involves inviting users to test product prototypes. This is one of the most common types of tests run by companies that conduct UX research.

Nowadays, usability testing is almost a requirement for web and mobile app designers. It involves watching users actually navigate your apps and recording their reactions and statements as raw data for the design team to analyze. Large companies can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on usability testing, but the process doesn’t have to be super expensive in order to yield useful results.

Usability testing and A/B testing can be conducted on a tight budget, provided you plan ahead.

Usability testing and A/B testing can be conducted on a tight budget, provided you plan ahead.

Take a gander at Steve Krug’s book Rocket Surgery Made Easy on usability testing to learn more about the finer points of usability testing.

A/B Testing

A/B Testing involves showing users two different options and asking for feedback on each of them. Ask users for a list of pros and cons for both prototypes, ask them to gauge the overall experience, ask them to focus on certain aspects of your product that could benefit most from additional research.

UX designers will take this data and modify prototypes to eliminate flaws or use these pros and cons to make a new hybrid prototype for another round of user testing. The Handbook of Usability Testing does a great job of discussing usability testing and A/B Testing.

Online Questionnaires

Another inexpensive UX research method, commonly used by big and small business alike, involves online questionnaires. It is simple enough to disseminate questionnaires to hundreds or even thousands of participants with just a click of a button. However, a significant amount of time should be dedicated to preparing surveys, publishing them, and ultimately analyzing the findings.

Online questionnaires are cheap and potentially extremely useful tools for user research. However, you don’t want to spam your users.

Online questionnaires are cheap and potentially extremely useful tools for user research. However, you don’t want to spam your users.

There are a variety of awesome online survey tools available, and I would single out Wufoo and Typeform as effective tools for those who are just getting started. Make sure to write good screener questions to eliminate unwanted participants! Here are some starter tips for user research surveys.

Use social media, online networking platforms, and emails to scrounge up respondents for your questionnaires. Remember that the point of the survey is to dig into the user’s psychology. How are they finding information? What types of information do they find relevant and useful?

The right questions will uncover your customer’s needs, desires, and pains.

Time for some caveats; the value and quality of results generated by online questionnaires and surveys varies depending on the type of questions asked, and the quality of your audience targeting. This is why it’s crucial to develop a set of well thought out screener questions, and to properly analyze the data once it is collected. Also, let’s not forget that many users disregard such surveys, so don’t expect a huge response rate. If you are faced with this problem, and if the response rate is too low, it doesn’t mean you’ll do any better if you keep spamming people with your questionnaires.

That’s why it’s important to get the questions right and direct them at the right audience the first time around.

Guerilla Research

Guerilla research (a phrase popularized by Steve Blank) is essentially a neologism for field research, although there are some differences. In any case, it all boils down to the same problem: Companies sometimes need answers on short notice.

While surveys are useful, the quickest way to get specific information is to take your questions straight to the people most likely to use your product. To find the best data for your research efforts, target the areas where your particular audience likes to congregate. Go to places where your audience will have the time to help you, like in a cafe, park, or sports venue.

Guerrilla research does not have to cost anything, provided you have time to spare and don’t mind approaching people for advice.

Guerrilla research does not have to cost anything, provided you have time to spare and don’t mind approaching people for advice.

This type of research can be fun and enlightening, as people usually love to share their technological experiences with professionals who are in a position to improve them. You can also use this method to test your prototypes in the field. Just take your prototypes on your laptop, smartphone, or tablet and ask people for their feedback.

You’ll be surprised at the usability issues strangers point out. It’s also important to note that you are likely to get data from people who might otherwise not be interested in your product. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary, expanding your target demographic and getting comments from casual users can prove quite useful. They might point out some issues you never thought about, since you did not view the product from their perspective. Don’t ignore such seemingly uninterested people; they can provide useful feedback too, and they can help you make your product more appealing to other casual users.

Focus Groups

Gather users together in an informal setting to discuss your products and services. Researchers have been using this method for eons, but it has been criticized for its propensity to encourage “groupthink” and ignore unmet needs.

Focus groups and remote interviews allow you to source targeted and in-depth user information and to receive instant feedback.

Focus groups and remote interviews allow you to source targeted and in-depth user information and to receive instant feedback.

Check out this article on how to effectively utilize focus groups for UX research.

Let’s point out the obvious: You need to take your time and ensure your focus group demographic is diverse. Prepare for the meeting, identify key areas you would like to discuss, make sure you have adequate background info and resources so you can answer any questions your group may direct back at you.

Remote Interviews

Interviews can be a bear to schedule, and many researchers lose participants due to scheduling conflicts.

Luckily nowadays, we can use online tools like Doodle to sync schedules,and Google Hangouts or Skype to conduct remote interviews. This drastically reduces the time it takes to organize multiple in-person interviews.

Remote interviews won’t give you the volume of data that other types of research methods will, but remote interviews can be useful in terms of uncovering major usability issues and analyzing various reactions to them.

The obvious advantage of one-on-one interviews is that you can focus on certain issues and get detailed information and targeted feedback. This may be problematic when dealing with groups of people. Plus, you also eliminate the risk of “groupthink”.

Analytics

A lot of research methods can fall under this category. If you are working on a tight budget, use free tools like Google Analytics as a starting point for the collection of quantitative data.

Alternatively, simple tools, such as Betaloop, are available for collecting specific product insights from users. Betaloop’s software collects data from a set of users on the performance of product features. Data is then organized and displayed in a collaborative environment that allows designers and developers to create action items for their team on the fly without leaving the app.

A lot of analytics tools are free to use and can be a vital asset in user research. Structure your data properly so you don’t waste too much time tidying up.

A lot of analytics tools are free to use and can be a vital asset in user research. Structure your data properly so you don’t waste too much time tidying up.

Analytics tools usually answer questions like these:

  • How long does it take for users to complete a task?
  • What features are most popular?
  • What paths do people usually take?

Once you’ve got the raw data, be sure to pair it with real qualitative research for insight. Plan ahead and make sure that you collect useful, properly structured raw data that can be analyzed with as little effort as possible.

User Research On A Budget: Money Is Not Everything

Conducting useful user research doesn’t have to take a ton of money and a lot of time. By utilizing the power of digital tools, inexpensive research methods, and taking a closer look at customer interactions, your company will get the raw data and insights it needs to improve the user experience for its audience, without breaking the budget. UX research is an invaluable process that can have a major impact on product success and, ultimately, your sales and revenue.

This brings us to the financial aspect of user research. What’s it really worth? What’s the ROI of UX research? How do you convince your clients they need UX research, even if they think they can’t afford it? How can you compete with huge companies and their seemingly unlimited human and financial resources?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. It all depends on the type of product you’re working on, the target audience, and client needs. However, this does not mean you can’t do anything to promote budget UX user research as an alternative. Quite the opposite, it merely means you have to streamline the research process, making it cost-effective and time-effective. You have to do more with less.

Communicating the value of user research to your clients is another vital step in this process. If you are dealing with clients who don’t think they can afford proper UX research, make it your responsibility to change their minds. Try not to throw numbers around, don’t make ROI promises you can’t keep, don’t tell them they’ll get top notch research for the price of a hotdog. Be realistic and straightforward, argue your position and emphasise the merits of your low-cost approach.

Remember, conducting UX user research on a limited budget usually means you won’t get all the data you need, and your efforts may even appear futile in the face of overwhelming competition from businesses that can afford to burn heaps of money on research. However, you are not trying to compete with them. This is what you need to bear in mind: The alternative to conducting budget user research is doing no research at all, and basing crucial design decisions on past experiences, best practices, or educated guesses.

Bottom line? Even a limited amount of cost-effective user research easily trumps these alternatives.

About the author

Ivan Annikov, United States
member since October 24, 2015
Ivan is an experienced product designer with an entrepreneurial spirit, proven leadership abilities, and a thorough understanding of business fundamentals. His core competencies are in user experience, interaction, and interface design for both web and mobile platforms. Since relocating to Silicon Valley in 2011, he's worked with multiple startups in verticals ranging from ad tech and social networking to enterprise and SMB SaaS. [click to continue...]
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Comments

Thiago Ghilardi
Great article Ivan. It is such an important topic, however it gets very little attention. I was once a hippo, then I built a product no one used, now I own a research company. Don't be me, do research before, during and after your launch.
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About the author
Ivan Annikov
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Ivan is an experienced product designer with an entrepreneurial spirit, proven leadership abilities, and a thorough understanding of business fundamentals. His core competencies are in user experience, interaction, and interface design for both web and mobile platforms. Since relocating to Silicon Valley in 2011, he's worked with multiple startups in verticals ranging from ad tech and social networking to enterprise and SMB SaaS.