I was recently in a project meeting in which several stakeholders were drawn into an argument over a homepage design. As the UX professional in the room, I pointed out that we aren’t our users, and suggested we invest a few weeks into research to learn what users are really doing. The project lead rejected the idea, deeming that we didn’t have time for research. Instead we’d just have to rely on assumptions, debate and ‘best practice’.Many UX practitioners can relate to this scenario. The need to stay competitive forces agencies, freelancers and internal teams to reduce budgets however they can. Much to the chagrin of designers, research time is often the first cut. The problem is that cutting research often results in usability disasters. With no data or insight, people fall back on assumptions—the enemy of good design. Stakeholders will preface statements with ‘As a user…’, forgetting that we aren’t our users. Without research we inadvertently make decisions for ourselves instead of our target audience. In times like these we need guerrilla research. To be ‘guerrilla’ is to practice faster, cheaper and often less formal research alternatives; alternatives that don’t necessarily need to be sponsored, budgeted or signed-off on. Much like the warfare from which it takes its name, guerrilla research is unconventional yet effective, in that it allows the designer to gather meaningful data at low cost. The concept of guerrilla research isn’t new. Experience designer David Peter Simon discussed the basics of guerrilla usability testing here at UX Booth last July. Now I’m going to expand on his premise by reviewing other tools to add quantitative and qualitative insight—without impacting the project budget.
Research smart, research fastLimited budgets require us to be very efficient, and a traditional UX research phase can be very involved. Researchers can potentially spend weeks trawling data, conducting interviews or running user testing in order to ultimately identify valuable insights. When budgets and time are constrained however, we need to know exactly what insights are needed before we begin. Let’s refer back to the meeting I had, discussing my client’s homepage design. The issue was that we couldn’t answer a specific question: ‘What do people do on our home page?’ In most cases, a question like this is the perfect frame for a research topic. If we can plan our research as a series of questions, we can keep our time much more focused. The more questions we can identify early in the design process, the more likely we will prevent nasty and unproductive debates later on. Some examples of research questions might include:
- How do people navigate the site?
- How easily do people understand what the site is about?
- What do people do after purchasing a product?
Online toolsThanks to advancements in technology, researchers are now spoiled for choice with options for quickly gathering usability data. The methods we have at our disposal make this a really exciting time for all researchers—guerrilla and otherwise. Techniques with origins in expensive usability labs have now been adapted into ‘quick and dirty’ online tools by our peers.
Analytical toolsThough often misconstrued as a resource only for marketers, Google Analytics is one of the most invaluable UX tools available. It provides a huge array of information about site visitors and their behaviours. Best of all it costs nothing and is immediately accessible. The data can be used to answer questions like:
- What are our users’ interests?
- How do users move through the site?
- Do behaviours vary between devices, locations or demographics?
- Additional free analytics tools such as page load speed calculators and accessibility checkers are also incredibly handy. They help us understand the existing site performance, and set goals for improving these factors in our redesign work.
Heatmapping toolsTraditional analytics are great for finding the ‘what?’, but less so for identifying the ‘why?’. Heat mapping services such as CrazyEgg and ClickTale track actions like mouse-movement, clicking and scrolling at the page level. We can use these tools to answer questions like:
- Are our calls to action effective?
- Is a particular in-page feature used?
- Do people scroll on long pages?
Keyword & content analysisKeyword research is a crucial component of your site’s SEO, but also has a huge effect on user experience. Understanding the vocabulary that people prefer can heavily feed into the planning of a site’s information architecture, and tools such as Google’s Keyword planner can support this. This same research can then be used to optimise site search, plan landing pages and feed into content strategy. Though they come at a slight cost, tools like MOZ can produce inventories of existing content—and that of competitors. From a UX perspective, effective keyword research allows us to answer questions like:
- How should we structure the site information architecture?
- What naming / labelling should be used in navigation?
- Are there particular sections of the content we should prioritise?
Unmoderated user testingPioneers in UX originally outlined user testing as a rigorously scientific process. Studies were run in a labs using scripts, task sheets and specialist recording equipment. This was all very expensive though—a study by Jakob Nielsen in 2003 cited the average cost for usability test recruitment alone as $171 per participant, and this didn’t even account for the researcher’s time! Small budgets rarely permit for this level of formality when testing. Moreover, when research time is squeezed to its limits even the leanest of methodologies may present too much of a time barrier. Luckily, by using the right tools participants can still test the product without needing a moderator. There are many free screen and audio recording tools available for allowing users to test products, just requiring the company to send out the scenarios. For example, Macbooks come bundled with Quicktime as standard. For PC users, or to enhance recordings, paid tools such as OpenHallway are available that offer slightly more robust features and task prompting that can be useful, but aren’t at all required. Video players such as VLC will also allow researchers to increase the speed of video playback. By watching the session at double-speed, the researcher can get all of the insight from the session in half the time. Usage for guerrilla research: Unmoderated testing leaves the researcher to analyse the sessions in their own time. It’s always preferable for researchers to moderate their usability sessions (even if remotely) to ensure that participants stick to the ‘think-aloud’ protocol, but this allows for qualitative insights when that time isn’t available.
‘Targeted’ feedback toolsSometimes timescales and budgets are so prohibitive that full testing of the product is out of the question. This sounds dramatic; but it’s the harsh reality of many projects. If we just need to quickly test our landing pages or calls to action, services like Five Second Test or Verify App are ideal. Because of the shorter and more focused nature of the tests, it’s possible to get qualitative feedback really quickly and without needing to schedule or analyse full user testing sessions. This can answer more subjective questions around how people feel, giving insights that you couldn’t get with an analytics tool. These might include questions like:
- Do visitors like the brand look-and-feel?
- Are landing pages catching the user’s attention?
- Do people understand the product’s value proposition?