Undercover User Research

When it comes to user research I try to find a balance between speed and quality of insights. This is how I do that as efficiently as possible.

Find The Minimum Effective Dose

Early in my career I feel in love with UX Design. The idea that users should be at the center of the design process felt like a real eurkea moment. No more guess work, no assumptions and no opinions. Just speak to the end-user, figure out what makes them tick and design for that underlying need.

For every project I would budget large amounts of time for user interviews, usability tests, stakeholder workshops and pretty much anything that would put me face-to-face with the end user.

This was invaluable experience and the results were worthwhile but it was an incredibly time consuming process. Speed is important in product design so over the years I have implemented some more efficient ways to glean insights from my target audience.

Tim Ferris coined the term ‘minimum effective dose’. He asks – what is the smallest dose of something that will produce a specific outcome?

To boil water, the minimum effective dose is 100 degrees Celsius. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it ‘more boiled’. Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.”

— Tim Ferriss, The 4 Hour Body

Finding the ‘minimum effective dose’ of user research is key to producing effective, usable and enjoyable products quickly.

Alternative Methods For Effective User Research

Here are some things I do to perform user research more efficiently as I progressed through my career:

Customer Support Intead of Customer Interviews

Instead of bribing customers to schedule a Zoom call, I now look for the areas in the business where users are already reaching out proactively.

Customer support is my favourite way to do this because a conversation usually centers on a specific ‘job’ that the user is trying to achieve. Rather than prodding interview subjects with general questions about events that happened in the past or that may happen in the future, I let them bring their problems to me. Not only do I get raw and unbiased insights but it helps to build a relationship by actively helping them when people need it most. Every designer should do customer support regularly or at the very least review support conversations and follow-up.

Feature Request forms

People often think that they have a great idea for a feature that will revolutionise your product so feature request forms often have a really high conversion rate compared to more traditional ‘get in touch’ forms.

I like this method as a way of encouraging customers to reach out but it is dangerous to crowdsource your product roadmap. Instead, I use suggestions as a starting point to dig deeper on the underlying problem. I usually follow up with the customer to ask more questions and often I am able to solve the problem without actually building the feature in question.

Covert Usability Tests

Like customer interviews, usability tests can be time consuming and impractical to set up. Unless you can get your ideal customer involved then they are a complete waste of time. Instead, I’ve been using Hotjar’s Recording product to observe how real users interact with my products in real time.

No more fake scenarios for a user to work through. Instead I can observe how real users behave in the product as they complete their actual day-to-day work.

The obvious drawback here is that the sessions are anonymised so I can’t follow up to ask why they did something in particular but again, we’re looking for the minimum effective dose and these recordings have helped me catch so many small usability issues over the years.

Sales Safari

Amy Hoy shares many of my frustrations with user interviews so she devised the Sales Safari as a way of observing potential customers in their natural habitat.

I say ‘potential customers’ here because the goal is to learn from people who are experiencing the problems that you solve rather than people who are already using your product.

So you might read reviews of a competitor’s product and look for recurring trends. Or you might browse a forum or community to learn how people talk about the problem you are solving.

A Sales Safari won’t help you to find prolems in your own product but it will help you to hear the Voice of Customer (VoC) so you can prioritise and refine your work.

Quantitative Analysis

Have you ever heard the saying “judge people by their actions, not their words”?

Despite their best intentions, people often tell you what you want to hear. No matter if it’s a survey or an interview, it’s hard to know if you’re getting 100% truth.

That’s why I like detailed product analytics to get a sense of how people are truly using a product. Which features do they use most often? Which features barely get touched? Which features could we do a better job of promoting?

Product metrics can act like a metal detector to find the general area you should be working on. You still have to dig though!