How to maximize user research when the clock is ticking.
When you’re down to the wire, time-wise, how can you ensure that user research is still being planned and executed as thoroughly and as user-focused as possible?
Even when you have a bounty of resources, budgets and stakeholder buy-in to enjoy, things don’t always go according to plan – perhaps the product release deadline has been accelerated, or perhaps the sourcing participants became too complex and time-consuming?
Or perhaps you’re trying to integrate user research into an Agile Sprint cycle, which is definitely achievable but requires some adjustments to your choice of methods and tools.
To help guide us through this particular pain-point, we sought the advice of a variety of senior research leaders on how they maximise their research when the clock is ticking. Here are their own detailed recommendations…
One of the biggest challenges I faced as I transitioned out of academia into industry was learning how to live life in the research fast lane. In academia, it’s not uncommon to use the better part of a year to plan, run, and report on a study, while in industry, the entire process is usually condensed into 2-3 weeks. In some cases, however, product teams don’t have weeks to wait for research, and in extreme cases, they may have only a day or two. Projects like these can put UX researchers in a very difficult position. We never want to miss an opportunity to advocate for users at any stage in the design process, but we also don’t want to be responsible for delaying teams as they try to meet important deadlines. Below, I describe three tips for dealing with time constraints that have helped me help my teams in spite of tight schedules. Do a literature review. If I have no more than a day or two to bring insights to a team, I’ll focus on doing a literature review in order to generate a list of best practices, which can be used as a heuristic framework for auditing a design or parts of a UI. For example, I once worked with a software designer who had created different prototypes for a date-picker tool. The product manager we were working with wanted her to pick one as quickly as possible, but she wanted to make an informed decision. In just a few hours, I reviewed several online articles and discussion-board postings on this topic, which yielded a list of about 12 preferred design solutions. I then sat with the designer for a couple of hours, and we checked each prototype against the recommendations on this list, allowing us to identify the single prototype that was most consistent with industry standards. Run usability tests with colleagues. When time is of the essence, recruiting and running a representative sample of users in a usability study is not always feasible. For near-deadline projects, I’ve found that running tests with my colleagues can still uncover a range of usability issues, while saving me a great deal of valuable time. In my experience, it’s relatively easy to get coworkers to participate in 30-minute test sessions (even if they’re scheduled on the same day) with little more than an email or a face-to-face request. As a rule of thumb, I’ll generally try to limit the number of internal participants from the UX org, and instead I’ll lean heavily on colleagues in customer support, marketing, finance, IT, and people operations. Even if you don’t have the time to include a few external users in the study, you’ll almost certainly still uncover the most egregious usability issues by testing internally. Skip the formal report. One of my favorite parts of being a UX researcher is summarizing the findings of a study in a report or presentation. But reports often take several days to produce, and when you’re working against the clock, skipping a formal report can be a major time saver. This approach really only works when stakeholders are willing and able to hear user feedback in real time. Thus, when I’m asked to do a project with a crazy deadline, I’ll often agree only under the conditions that my stakeholders observe the user test sessions as they take place, that they take their own notes, and that they be available for post-study discussions with me and the other stakeholders about what we’ve all observed. For thoroughness, I’ll often produce a brief report at some point anyway, but I won’t promise a deliverable by a deadline if I can avoid it. When working under demanding time constraints, it’s critically important to manage your stakeholders’ expectations, which includes being clear about the very real limitations of need-it-yesterday research. But by modifying your research approach with an eye towards saving time, it is still entirely possible to help your team make better design decisions.
Darrell Penta, HubSpot
Senior UX Researcher
To optimize research under time constraints, there’s really nothing better, in my opinion, than unmoderated studies. In my department we utilize a combination of Respondent.io, for recruiting, and user testing tools, like Validately and Optimal Workshop, to conduct unmoderated studies. The beauty of this setup is that you can recruit for, create and deploy a study in short order. In fact, we often are able to recruit for and complete studies in as little as 24 hours. This speed is possible as we and the participants aren’t beholden to typical work hours or other, similar restrictions; participants can sign up and participate in the study whenever works best for them. In addition to this, what I outlined above about preparation helps to streamline the process of data collection, analysis, and presentation.
Kyle Brady, Keap
Senior UX Researcher
Before the project is started, we ask, “When is the latest you can have findings in your hands and still have an impact on this project?” This helps us understand what the real deadline is. The amount of users and methods will be adjusted for the amount of time allotted. When we have very little time, I usually propose doing something with an online user testing platform. It takes little overhead from a research perspective and can get results back the same day.
Samantha Alaimo, GrubHub
Senior UX Researcher
Emailing users for feedback: The way I go about this is emailing them, asking them if they would be willing to provide feedback on a certain feature or concept idea. I offer three ways they can give feedback: hop on a call, have them record themselves and send it, have them respond back via email. I offer different levels of incentives for each option. Internal user testing: To begin with, it is a great way to learn about the product in general, but it is also a wonderful method to get (sometimes very valuable) feedback from people who care about the product. Generally, I will start with account managers, customer support and sales, as they generally have the most contact with customers and understanding of what customers might want. Use analytics (or previous research) to help make decisions if you can only talk to a few users: If you are only about to speak to a few different users, you can understand the patterns they perform, and use supporting data to validate or disprove the hypotheses you made. You can also use analytics tools, such as HotJar and FullStory to watch how users are interacting with your product. Data only gives part of the story, and can’t really answer the question why, but is a great tool to use when you are strapped for time and participants. Guerrilla research: if you have a more broad product that can be used by the masses, guerrilla research can be your friend. It isn’t the most reliable way to research, but it can give you some good feedback to help propel you forward. It is pretty tough to approach people when, usually, they just want to be left in peace, but there are a few ways to make it easier. I have set myself up in a coffee shop (my neighborhood Starbucks was super nice letting me do this), with a sign on my computer asking people for 30 minutes to talk about X, Y or Z for a free drink/food of their choice. People were surprisingly interested, and I had five people who sat down and spoke with me in the span of four hours. Use customer support: Is there a customer support team or someone who deals with customer support/tickets? If you have a customer call line, it is incredibly helpful to listen into calls. Another option is to filter and look through support tickets. With this, you can funnel down to support tickets containing issues you want to learn more about. In addition, and similarly to internal testing, it is great to speak to the support team members and the most common issues they are hearing.
Nikki Anderson, Founder of User Research Academy
Senior UX Researcher