5 Essential Tips for Conducting User Research on a Budget

Designing products people love requires making user research a priority, not a privilege. User research is your opportunity to learn who your users are and gain insight into the most important elements of their experience. Understanding what motivates and frustrates them is foundational to delivering delightful, high-quality products and experiences.

Illustration of team conducting user research on a budget.

If user research is so important, then why do so many companies seem to neglect it? There are lots of reasons teams cite for not conducting user research. Historically, this process has been complex and costly. So time, resources, and budget are some of the most common reasons companies don’t conduct user research regularly. 

But regardless of what your budget is (or isn’t), there are steps you can take to cut down on costs. Reframing user research as a necessary, important part of cultivating experiences that deliver value to users may help you evangelize a user-focused mentality within your team.

If the cost is an organizational barrier to conducting user research, know that there are ways around this challenge. We’ve put together some tips on how to reap the benefits of user research without breaking the bank…or your team’s budget. 

Table of Contents

  • Tip #1: Try Your Hand at Guerrilla User Research
  • Tip #2: Recruit User Research Participants Loosely and Grade On a Curve 
  • Tip #3: Conduct user research online as opposed to in-person
  • Tip #4: Investing in a tool…seems counter-intuitive but…
  • Tip #5: Know the ROI of user research 
  • Conclusion
  • Your Exclusive Offer: Qualaroo’s Permanent Plan

Tip #1: Try Your Hand at Guerrilla User Research 

When looking to save money on user research, guerrilla methods should be your first move. The primary purpose of guerrilla research is to collect actionable insights when you’re short on time and money. Narrowing your scope can focus your research and help limit the amount of resources needed to execute.

“In guerrilla user research, you make it a priority to talk to and learn from at least a few users, firsthand and by whatever means necessary,” explains Leah Buley in The User Experience Team of One

Illustration of user research participant and organizer.

Buley reminds us of two key factors here. In short:

  1. Guerrilla research should be done with people from the “outside”. Team members and family don’t count! 
  2. User research doesn’t have to be perfect. Doing what it takes to get it done will have a much greater impact than skipping over this critical step in the design process. 

Check out The Beginner’s Guide to Guerrilla User Research to learn more about this approach.

Our remaining budget-friendly tips actually highlight a few different ways you can ‘guerrilla-ise’ your next user research project! 

Tip #2: Recruit User Research Participants Loosely and Grade On a Curve 

One of the most common reasons people choose not to conduct user research is because they feel they need to limit their efforts to exactly the right people, AKA their target market. However, conducting user research with only a hyper-specific group of participants is not only expensive but also often unnecessary. Unless your tool is intended for such a niche group that only a very specific subset of people can use or understand it, you really don’t need to obsess over recruiting only folks who fit neatly into your target audience.

In fact, UX thought leader and author Steve Krug writes that conducting user research with just about anybody can be very useful. As he puts it, we should all “recruit loosely and grade on a curve” when it comes to choosing user research participants. Krug’s point is that you can identify usability issues with pretty much any user research testers, not just those who may fit the profile of your ideal customer to a T.

Illustration depicting targeting users for user research.

So if you’re strapped for cash, don’t miss out on important insights just because your participants are not part of your target market. You never know what you may learn! 

On that note, don’t fret too much over having a large number of user research participants either because you can still get very valuable insights from just a few participants. With qualitative user research, you aren’t confined by the need for a representative sample. In fact, if you’re interested in user testing, Jakob Nielsen, argues that “the best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford.” Removing the statistical barriers that come with quantitative research lets you conduct user research more frequently and stretch your research budget even further.

So if the cost associated with getting the exact right user testers or enough testers is prohibitive, make it work with different and/or fewer people. Odds are, their insights will still be impactful. 

Tip #3: Conduct user research online as opposed to in-person 

Conducting user research online as opposed to in-person is a major cost-savings strategy. Many people assume that user research has to be conducted in person like a focus group or in a lab-like setting, but that’s not necessarily true. Online user research is becoming increasingly common and is particularly useful if your product is digital. 

On a related note, a lot of teams get tripped up thinking they have to spend a lot of money to recruit user testing participants, but in reality, you don’t need to recruit anyone. You have your users! 

Graph illustration of responses to user research survey.

Consider exploring how users handle your product and asking them questions directly. A number of tools exist for this very reason. Here are a handful of tools that can help you along your journey of online user research. 

Session recording tools will show you how users navigate your product or interact with your website. These session recording tools capture mouse hovering, clicks or taps, and page scrolling. Replaying what real visitor sessions look like can detect usability issues and lead to faster UX optimization. Decide on a session recording tool by asking yourself which one works best for your budget and is most compatible with your product. 

Here are some to consider:

Pro-tip: the tools below offer free versions!

User insights tools allow you to ask questions in real-time. There are lots of tools on the market that can help you target the right user testers and ask them questions about their experience. Surveying a targeted group of users is probably the easiest way to get started with conducting online user research, but there are lots of options available. If you’re just getting started, you can collect responses with simple web forms like Google Forms or Typeform.

However, we recommend asking questions to users while they’re experiencing your product if you want to capture their thoughts in real time. These types of tools usually only require copying and pasting a short amount of code onto your webpage. It’s a pretty simple tactic that ensures the user research experience feels embedded and native to your product. 

Pollcode, for example, will instantly generate code for a poll you can place on your website for free in exchange for ad placement on the poll results page. With certain tools, you can even enable targeting options so that questions are aimed at the right respondents and in the context of their user experience. If you’re looking to automate more of this process to save both time and money, consider signing up for Qualaroo to collect responses at scale. 

Psst…scroll to the end of this guide for an exclusive offer on a user research tool. 

In some cases, even if you can conduct user research online, you may still need to recruit participants. Online recruitment tools such as Ethnio, TestingTime, PingPong, or User Interviews can all help you here. 

Not sure if you need to recruit users? Here’s a quick cheat sheet for when to recruit:   

  • Your product doesn’t have any users yet
  • You’re in the pre-launch prototyping stage
  • You want to learn what the experience is like for first-time users. (Obviously, you wouldn’t ask your users to test onboarding for a product they’re already using!) 

With the help of the right tools, conducting user research online isn’t just cost-effective, it’s also more scalable. With online user research, you can expand to more participants easily and periodically assess your responses to pivot research questions as needed. 

Tip #4: Investing in a tool…seems counter-intuitive but… 

If you’re pressed for time and shouldering all of the organization’s user research needs, odds are your bandwidth is already pretty limited. Automate where you can. Instead of adding another project or task to your plate, consider UX tools that automate how you gather and report on user insights. It’s a lot less expensive than bringing on a full-time employee or engaging a vendor to run your research. 

Illustration of feedback from a user research participant.

Let the insights you collect do the heavy-lifting if you can’t add another team member to champion this user-focused mentality.  As a UX researcher or UX designer, being able to point to both quantitative and qualitative user responses can go a long way in demonstrating the impact of user research…which brings us to our final tip. 

Tip #5: Know the ROI of user research  

While this tip may not make the actual process of conducting user research any less expensive, it may make it easier for you to get stakeholder buy-in. The trick is to understand (and effectively communicate) the return on investment (ROI) of your research. As real and pressing as time/budget constraints are, forgoing user research because of its upfront cost is short-sighted. That’s where demonstrating ROI comes in. 

Because you’re reading this piece, you’re probably well aware of the positive impact that conducting user research can have on your product and UX. Moreover, these changes can positively impact your bottom line in terms of being able to fix usability issues that may be stifling product adoption and ultimately costing you money. So knowing how to demonstrate ROI with estimates or other statistics can be a particularly powerful proof point when building your case for conducting user research. 

Conclusion 

Whether you are an advocate for UX design, design thinking, and human-centered design, the Double Diamond, or any other framework practiced by UX and design professionals, the process always begins with a firm understanding of your users’ needs. While different methods may refer to this user-centric approach as empathy, discovery, or observation, the meaning behind each descriptor remains the same. It’s simple: spend time researching your users if you want to genuinely meet their needs. 

Illustration of a person using a computer.

User research can have such a big impact on business goals. So letting the upfront cost stop your organization before you start is a mistake. Thankfully, there are so many ways to save money on your user research efforts. Whether it’s leveraging guerrilla user research techniques or loosening up the requirements for who can participate in your study, there’s a way for you to reduce your costs without compromising results. These ideas are just a few to help ease the upfront burden, but the insights that come with conducting user research are a gift that will keep on giving. 

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