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I feel most experts would agree with me when I say "User research is king". You can't know how your users will react to a product until you ask them.

That said, some clients are on tighter budgets than others and may be developing within a smaller scope than would justify something as intense as focus groups or any of the other lab-like user research; or at least not as much of it as would be beneficial.

So, instead of just taking guesses on behalf of these clients, what are some ways we can discover the user's needs without expending too much?

Here are some things I've come up with so far:

  • This tool by 3m which I heard about from this post seems interesting. Sure, it can't be solely relied upon, but at least it's a process beyond a designer's guesses.
  • We could also, once defining our users, just try to start candid conversations with people we think might fit.

Is there anything else out there?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

For starters there are a number of articles which call out the possiblity of doing User research on a low or non existent budget. A good article to start would be 10 Tips on Doing User Research with No Budget which has provides 10 different ways you can get research data without having to spend any of your budget.

To briefly quote some of the points in the article

  1. Use existing analytics. If you are redesigning a site or product, review all existing data on traffic patterns, errors, and any survey results since the product’s last launch. Get a sense for what is going right and what is going wrong with the existing product. Don’t expect a single point of contact on the client side to have all the information you need. Do the leg work and pull the data together.
  2. Add the call center to your list of stakeholders to interview. If your client has a call center, interview the call center employees. Observe the call center at work if you can, even just an hour is great. The call center knows better than anyone else in the business what the user problems and perceptions are. When you interview stakeholders, ask them about analytics. Try to make questions open-ended so the answers can surprise you. Surprise is good.
  3. Identify key scenarios. Once you’ve reviewed existing analytics and aggregated stakeholder requirements, you can begin to sketch out key user scenarios. Make sure these scenarios come with measures of success so you can plan to gather analytics for the next product launch. UX is cyclical – line up your next success early. Ground scenarios in the return on investment they can demonstrate.
  4. Mock-up the concept by any means necessary. Sketches, HTML prototypes, iRise, Axure, comps; use whatever works for your timeline and your team to get the concept to a point that it can be shared. It’s better to get user feedback too early than too late.

Another good article to look at the UX Myths article Myth #22: Usability testing is expensive which has this to say about conducting usablity testing

Many organizations still believe usability testing is a luxury that requires an expensively equipped lab and takes weeks to conduct. In fact, usability tests can be both fast and relatively cheap. You don’t need expensive prototypes; low-tech paper prototype tests can also bring valuable results. You don’t need a lot of participants either, even 5 users can be enough to test for specific tasks, and the recruiting can also be done guerilla-style. For many projects, you can even use remote and unmoderated tests.

I also strongly recommend looking at this article about how to conduct UX interviews on a low or non-existent budget to drive a better understanding of users. To quote the article

User interviews are also easy on a project budget. Other methods, like eye-tracking, usability testing, participatory design or even surveys, can use up budget hours. These types of field interviews are best used before a project really begins, but they can also happen during the interaction design phase. The key is to focus on quality over quantity in selecting the right users. One of your team members can conduct three user interviews in the course of a morning or an afternoon, and if you have designed good questions, your data should be easy to read without adding lots of hours of analysis time.

I also recommend looking at Hallway testing as a way to quick user evaluations and get an understanding of the challenges faced by the user base.

I also recommend looking at this question What ways to conduct user research quickly and cheaply are there? for additional inputs

I also recommend looking at this excellent article Five Techniques for Getting Buy-In for Usability Testing. To summarize the article

Start Testing Right Away Start testing. Start doing it right away. We’ve found there isn’t any one experience more beneficial to design teams than running a usability test. I’m still amazed by how quickly development team members recognize the benefits of usability testing once they’ve actually seen it in action.

Debunk the Myth that Usability Testing Is a Big Production One of the biggest obstacles design teams face when trying to sell testing is the perception that usability tests need to be a huge production.

The best way to tackle this resistance is by debunking the myth that testing has to be a big deal. Usability testing isn’t rocket science. The organizations that do the best job of incorporating usability tests into their existing process understand that testing is not a big deal.

The best organizations make usability testing a part of their everyday culture. To convince management that testing doesn’t need to be a huge production, we recommend design teams start simple. You can start by testing 3-5 users and disseminate that information throughout your organization.

Start Testing Early in the Process Many organizations are concerned that testing will disrupt project timelines because it may necessitate major design changes before launch.

However, time and time again, we find that design teams actually save time (and money) when they start testing at the beginning of a project. By finding usability problems very early on, teams prevent themselves from going in the wrong direction, leading to wasted time and resources.

The most successful teams have learned that the best way to create usable designs is to make informed decisions from the beginning of a project. They view testing as a technique to gather information to create great designs in a more timely and efficient way.

Involve Management and Stakeholders To get buy-in from team members and management, it’s essential to keep them involved. On every project, we suggest that stakeholders sit and observe at least one usability test. This will give team members the opportunity to observe first-hand the information gathered from tests.

Identify Your Organization’s Champions and Address Their Needs Finally, one of the best ways to get buy-in is to identify which members of your organization will benefit most from usability tests and recruit them as your Champions, assisting to rally other members of the organization

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Jakob Nielsen, a personal hero, champions his approach of "Discount Usability" (a summary available at http://www.nngroup.com/articles/discount-usability-20-years/).

One of main principles is "You need only 5 participants for a usability research", and I can testify myself that you don't need more for significant results.

All in all, he promises "Fast, Cheap, and Good: Yes, You Can Have It All".

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2  
Ive done UX testing with just 5 participants (gave them a few basic tasks to perform and then just watched how they went about it) and picked up some major issues - its dirt cheap (these were actually customer services peeps hired for the xmas rush) and it took maybe 3 hours total. Loads of useful info for free. I found it also helped to ignore what they were saying - their actions on the screen were far more informative –  Doug McK Feb 26 '13 at 23:48

Ask your customer this:

Can you afford letting a product to the market, without having it tested properly, with the potential of having your brand drawn through the dirt in shame? Would your company even survive such a misstake?

If they say yes - go ahead, no research needed!

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1  
Sounds a lot like scare mongery :-). Don't presume that all applications are selected by their actual users. The people selecting software are very often not the ones actually using it. I don't use MS Office because I like it, but because my employer selected it. Usability is just one factor amongst a plethora of other factors that dictate the final choice. And don't presume that an apps' or website's usability or lack thereof is what decides brand conception. There again usability is just one factor. An important one, but absolutely not the only one. –  Marjan Venema Feb 22 '13 at 19:50
    
@MarjanVenema Agreed! Our consultant firm lives on reported hours, and the system producing the invoices based on hours, can't be learnt. I use screenshots, arrows and comments to make invoices all the time. Still - on would wish to make that comment sometime in working life... –  Benny MCSA Office365 Feb 22 '13 at 19:57
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Yup, unfortunately, life ain't perfect... :-) –  Marjan Venema Feb 22 '13 at 20:00
    
@MarjanVenema Well, I'll settle for what I have now - almost perfect! .-) –  Benny MCSA Office365 Feb 22 '13 at 20:07
    
I do ask clients provocative questions like this; especially if they are new[ish] to user experience in web development. I think it's best to take a whack at trying to get them to do what you, the consultant, think is best. Nonetheless, if the client really can't afford a recommended level of user testing, I think it would be irresponsible to avoid the research process altogether. –  dom Feb 22 '13 at 20:39

As your emphasis is on a tight budget, I can suggest you something that I personally use in case of a zero budget. The practice that I am going to list will consume time, but will help your rolling out products that are based on user frustrations and needs.

  1. Usabilityhub: https://usabilityhub.com/ This a simple web based tool where you can test your interfaces for free. All you need to do is to test others interfaces and earn some Karma, which by the way feels productive to me as the testing gives me an idea of what I can expect.

  2. Talk to a college going student, who is specializing in data sciences. This is an advice that worked for me in past, but you need to be careful as you are looking for people who are brilliant but are not in Ivy League schools (Ivy's are more brand oriented, quite useless in this case). Ask him to perform the following: sentimental analysis, graphical presentation of demands, frustration and usability. This will require you to think like a statistician, but it will help a lot!

  3. GOOB -Get out of the building. Get out of your building and go to the target audience itself. Go to a cafeteria, Mall, exhibitions, wherever you can find your audience. And offer them something as a reward for the research data/testing.

  4. Go to various survey sites-Make a survey. Some of these websites have a free survey audience(~50-100) after which you need to pay. Get your survey done.

  5. Use Google. Make templates based upon your competitors, enter data into excel sheets and add as many as a competitors and their details. Extract the most frequent features, and draw your conclusions of what works. Place your product on Value vs price graph, see where it lands as opposed to the rest of the products.

I am not sure if you prefer these methods, as they require a lot of manual work.

But if still you are not being able to do any of the above '5' mentioned. I can suggest you start with a persona, raw information can be obtained from the organization, no matter the size of it. Start with product features defined upon it. Make mock-ups, prototypes (low fidelity, high fidelity) then perform user testing at the end of the end of each of them.

This will not allow your product to still remain user centered. Ensure that the user testing at the end of each phase is done properly.

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