The value of user research is undeniable. Understanding the needs of people who might use your product or service is critical in defining what you should build. Conducting this kind of research can help reduce risk on any project and provide context that would be otherwise invisible.
While it’s extremely valuable, it’s also resource intensive and can lead people astray. It can take a lot of coordination and logistical effort to plan, schedule, and conduct user research. After that, it takes substantial time to organize and make sense of the data. While one person can do a lot of that heavy lifting, other people must contribute to the process. So, how could you conduct user research without a team?
I recently explored a few ways the process could be more doable, especially for a small team or — as in my case — a team of one. During a Research, Design, and Planning (RDP) project, I felt it was critical to do some level of user research. It was a short timeline of three months, the budget wasn’t huge, and I was (for the most part) flying solo. It was important to reduce time while still seeking valuable customer insights.
I was able to save time and offload some of the heavy liftings by:
- Alleviating upfront coordination by using a recruitment platform to find interviewees;
- Minimizing data collection and note-taking by leveraging a transcription service; and
- Simplifying the synthesis process with a digital collaboration tool.
Alleviate upfront coordination.
One of the most time-consuming aspects happens upfront. Before you’ve spent any time observing end users, you have to identify your goals and craft a plan. What do you want to know? What hypotheses do you need to test? How are you going to uncover that information?
After you’ve established what you need to understand, you want to find people to interview. This is where time can evaporate rapidly. Depending on the project, you may need to go three or four degrees of separation away from the client you work with. This isn’t as simple as cold calling or sending out a quick email. It requires time (sometimes weeks or months) to line up ideal research candidates.
Since I had budget and time constraints, I couldn’t waste weeks finding interviewees. I decided to leverage a recruitment service to speed up the process and offload that heavy logistical lifting. Several platforms offer different packages to support research activities. Most also provide consultation services to assist in finding the right plan. My goal was to gain consumer context and review a few screen concepts, so I didn’t need to overdo it. I went with a simple pay-as-you-go plan through userinterviews.com.
After I set up a basic research overview and screener survey, I launched my project. Within days, not weeks or months, I had a plethora of interviewee prospects to choose from. This allowed me to focus on preparing for the interviews and avoid burning through a bunch of billable hours early in the project.
Minimize data organization.
Another time drainer comes right after you’ve conducted the interviews. Before you can jump into understanding what you heard, you have to organize your findings. The messy phase of sifting through qualitative data is hard to speed up, and it’s often a step in the process, not part of your key deliverables. Nonetheless, it’s important to get right and do with diligence.
Almost always, you will have quite a few video and/or audio recordings to review. You need to go back and listen to them, but to properly analyze what the interviewees said, it helps to have transcriptions of the conversation. Your job now is to listen with an unbiased perspective and uncover patterns. You might miss something if you use paraphrased notes of what the interviewee said. Having a word-for-word transcription can make a huge difference.
Transcription takes more time than listening to a recording and jotting down a few notes. For an hour-long interview, it could take you two to three hours to transcribe. Even if you’re only doing a small sample of interviews (six to eight), transcribing could consume the better part of one person’s 40-hour work week. And unfortunately, the analysis portion has only just begun at that point. As I wrapped up my interviews, I felt a sense of urgency to put this information to good use. I investigated a handful of transcription services to once again buy myself time and remove some heavy lifting.
Although the transcripts weren’t perfect, I was pleased with the results I got from otter.ai. Rather than transcribing each video myself, I was able to upload the Zoom recordings one morning, and a few hours later I had transcripts to review. One of my favorite aspects of this platform was a feature that highlighted the words each person was saying as the audio played back. I could quickly find and extract statements for further analysis. Again, within days, not weeks, I was ready to move to the next phase: synthesis.
Streamline synthesis and sensemaking.
Lastly, you can streamline the final stages of user research without a team by doing everything digitally (as opposed to a huge wall chockful of Post-it Notes). Although it’s become somewhat of a norm, it’s helpful to remember how much time is saved by doing research synthesis using digital tools. As much as I love a good whiteboard jam session, it is not an effective way to manage large amounts of data. It also doesn’t support iterative thinking — something extremely valuable at this point in the research process.
After I pulled the key observations into a spreadsheet and organized them, I was able to edit any text errors using Grammarly. I then copied each observation from the spreadsheet and pasted them into Miro. When pasting content in Miro, you have the option of pasting as digital sticky notes. I rapidly moved from a list of observations in a spreadsheet to rows of sticky notes. I was then able to jump to affinity mapping exercises and identify themes across each interview.
What might have taken an afternoon took a matter of minutes. I was once again transitioning swiftly from one phase of the research process to another. Doing this helped me avoid monotonous busy work and saved my billable hours for what’s valuable to the client. The time savings was less apparent during this phase, but that’s okay. Research synthesis will always take time, and you should give it the time it deserves. Doing the above steps allowed me to get to synthesis quicker, which is where the real magic happens.
Don’t hesitate to do user research without a team.
On the whole, I feel there are ways to make user research more accessible and efficient. It shouldn’t take months and months to gain context about the people you’re designing for. Getting valuable feedback to validate (or invalidate) your assumptions should be achievable for teams of any size. Some aspects of the process will always take time, but some of them don’t need to take nearly as much.
If you have a short timeline and a small budget, it can be daunting to ensure valuable research can even be done. I understand that it seems like a big-ticket item that could swallow up project resources. It could be scrapped to remain agile, deliver on time, and stay within budget. I encourage anyone facing these constraints to pursue user research anyway. Services, tools, and methodologies to automate and streamline the process are out there. You can cut out the busy work, allowing you to more effectively uncover insights about the people using your products and services. And when it comes to crafting meaningful experiences, that is never something to skimp on.