A Pragmatist’s Guide To Lean User Research
About The Author
Paul is a leader in conversion rate optimisation and user experience design thinking. He has over 25 years experience working with clients such as Doctors …
We don’t live in an ideal world. Most of us have too much work, too little time, and too small a budget. When it comes to digital projects, it seems like our clients or bosses always prioritize speed over quality.
To make matters worse, we read countless articles telling us how we should do things. These articles emphasize research and testing but do nothing more than leave us disillusioned and add to our imposter syndrome.
In this article, I want to try a different approach. Instead of telling you what the best practice is, I’ll explore some practical approaches to user research that we might be able to fit into our existing projects.
I know what you’re thinking:
So let’s start there.
Lean User Research Saves Time Rather Than Costs It
The notion that all user research must take away from the available time for a project is flawed. Lean user research has the potential to save you time, especially on projects with multiple stakeholders.
Consider how much time is wasted on calls debating the best approach or in Figma endlessly revising the design because the client can’t make up their mind. Then there is the time of the other stakeholders, all of whom have to attend those meetings and provide feedback.
A small amount of user research can solve much of that. It can replace endless opinions, discussions, and revisions with data.
We don’t need to ask for extra time for research. Instead, we can replace some of those meetings with a quick survey or test and cut through all the discussion.
But what about the discovery you are supposed to do upfront? What about the research into your audience before you begin? Isn’t that best practice, and shouldn’t you be doing that?
Well, yes and no.
What About Upfront Research?
Yes, a discovery phase is best practice. It is our chance to challenge our assumptions about the users and their needs. However, we don’t always get to do what we should, and not every discovery phase needs to take a lot of work.
If you’re not careful, discovery phases can be a little wasteful. General research into your audience and needs may not always provide applicable insights. That’s because it’s only once we start work that we learn what questions to ask upfront. Of course, by that point, you have already used time on the discovery phase, and stakeholders may be reluctant to do any more research.
Simply carrying out exercises like customer journey mapping because you’ve read that you should do it upfront is not a good enough reason when time and money are tight.
So, if time is tight, don’t feel like you have to do a full-blown discovery phase just because articles like this tell you to. Instead, start by collating what the organization already knows about the user and their needs. Most organizations know more than you think about their audience. Whether it’s personas produced by marketing, surveys run in the past, or analytics data, it can often just be a matter of gathering together what already exists.
Once you have done that, you will have a clearer picture of what is missing. If there are some significant and obvious gaps in your knowledge, then some upfront research is worthwhile. However, it might be that you have enough to start, leaving more time for user research as issues arise.
Focus On Answering Specific Questions
User research can quickly become a time sink if not managed carefully. Adding more and more questions to surveys because “it would be interesting to know” will slow down the surveying process. Equally, you can waste hours simply watching user sessions back. While this context is helpful, it is better to conduct user research only when there is a specific question that needs answering.
For example, if you want to know why people aren’t buying on your website, run a one-question survey that asks why when people go to leave the site. Or, if stakeholders are concerned that users will miss a critical call to action, do a quick 5-second test to reassure them.
Focusing user research on answering these kinds of questions not only ensures a better result but also ensures that user research saves time. Without user research, discussions and debates around these topics can drag out and slow momentum. Additionally, by focusing user research on addressing a single question, it keeps it small and easy to incorporate into an existing project.
Of course, this is only true if the types of user research you do are lightweight.
Keep Your User Research Lightweight
When trying to keep our user research lean, tough decisions must be made. One of these is to move away from facilitated research, such as user interviews or usability testing, as they are too time-consuming.
Instead, we should focus on research that can be set up in minutes, provides results quickly, and can be understood at a glance. This leaves us primarily with surveys and unfacilitated testing.
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