5 ideas for user research when you can’t talk to users

Getting direct access to your audience can sometimes be tricky. Luckily there are still ways to get real insight, even when you can’t talk to people.

Let’s start by making it clear. The best design work requires user research.

Without research, we’re just guessing. Sure, these might well-educated guesses based on our experience… but how can we be certain our solutions are the right ones?

Skipping research can seem like a tempting shortcut to delivering your product a little sooner. But it’s an incredibly risky move. Not understanding your audience from the outset can result in the final product being unusable. Needless to say, that can spell doom for a businesses.

In spite of the risks, many organisations are still skeptical about user research. To many it can seem over-expensive and time consuming.

In truth, it’s only as expensive as you want to make it.

With the right techniques and a slightly more laid-back attitude, it can actually be quick and easy. So there’s little excuse for skipping it!

What about when we can’t talk to users?

Most UX designers will agree that moderated sessions are the best way to conduct user research.

A moderated session means being right there with your audience (or at least on a call or screen-share). This means you can ask questions, and probe for further feedback. You can get to know them, building a true sense of their needs.

Usability testingworkshops and interviews are all great techniques for getting what you need.

Sometimes though, for whatever reason, we can’t speak to our audience directly.

It could be due to extreme time constraints, resistance from our clients, or the very nature of the users themselves. It’s an unfortunate reality you’ll sometimes have to face.

Let me give you an example. I recently worked on an app where the audience were time-poor investment professionals. It was difficult to access to these people directly. We did a bit of interviewing when we could, but struggled to afford the incentives these people needed to take part in longer moderated sessions.

In cases like these, what’s a designer to do?

It’s time to get flexible. To find some alternative methods. Here are 5 quick and easy methods to gain user insight - even when you can’t access people directly.

Idea 1. Trawl the forums

If you have an existing user base, then they’re probably already talking about you online.

The internet is a big place. Most industries have a huge choice of online communities where people can go to rant about products & services… Including yours, most likely.

Find out where these conversations are happening. If you’re established enough, people will have probably mentioned you… for better or worse.

If not, check out what people are say about your competitors instead. Find out where the opportunities are.

  • Are people crying out for a feature that nobody else is giving them?
  • Are people using your product in a way that you didn’t expect?
  • Why aren’t people using your (or a competitor’s) product?
  • What kinds of lifestyles or attitudes do your users have?

Reading forum discussions can help you spot opportunities for your product.

It might seem a little creepy, but reading through other people’s conversations can be amazingly insightful.

You’ll build a real picture of your users, and their personalities. It’ll help you understand how they feel about your product and the problem area. You’ll get an idea of how it affects them in the real world.

Forum discussions might also help you to understand the language your audience uses. Pay attention to the specific words and phrases. If you notice any clear patterns, you can adjust the text in your user interface accordingly.

You’re unlikely to pinpoint specific usability issues with this kind of research, but it could highlight pain points or attitudes you may not have expected.

Idea 2. Read reviews

Like forums, user reviews can be a great source of insight.

This is especially true if you’re designing an app or digital service. For these types of projects, the reviews section of the App Store should your first stop.

The people who are willing to write reviews of your work (positive or negative) are among your most important users. They’re the most emotionally invested in your product. They’re dedicated enough to commit time writing the review.

Pay close attention to how they feel, and any issues they have.

The nature of a review means they’ll be quite specific about what they like, and what they don’t. You might identify some granular usability issues or bugs.

If you have an app, pay close attention to reviews.

One word of caution. Take reviews with a slight pinch of salt, and go for the ’80/20 rule’.

Broadly speaking if 80% of your audience are happy with a certain feature but 20% aren’t - that’s probably ok. You can’t please everyone.

Try to notice patterns in the feedback and focus on the recurring problems. If you leap on every criticism or suggestion made, you may end up playing ‘feedback whack-a-mole’.

Idea 3. Speak to those on the front-lines

In most larger organisations, there will be people who’s actual job it is to listen to customer problems and complaints. If you need to understand customer pain-points, these people will have the insight.

For example :

  • When using an ecommerce website, shoppers will call customer services if they have a problem.
  • When using an internal productivity tool, workers send complaints and help requests to IT.
  • When using a company intranet, staff who are stuck will email HR asking for help.

These people can be fairly low down the organisational pecking order. Because of this, executives often neglect to engage them at all on redesign projects.

This seems crazy to me. The people on the front-lines of your business often have the best understanding of the customers. After all, they deal with them every day. Just talking to these people can provide a whole load of valuable insight and direction.

Speak to the people on your businesses’ front-lines. They know your audience best.

Even if you’re in a position to interview users directly I’d still recommend getting close to these customer support teams. They’ll have so much knowledge that’ll be helpful to you.

Try asking them :

  • What feedback do you hear most often?
  • What do you help users with most often?
  • What do you think the best & worst parts of the existing product are?

Don’t be nervous about approaching these people. After all, your design improvements will make their lives a lot easier, so they should be happy to help.

Idea 4. Check your analytics data

Most websites should already have something like Google Analytics set up.

Because analytics tools are often viewed as the marketing team’s remit, they’re often forgotten by UX designers. This is a massive shame, because they offer a mind-boggling amount of information about your site visitors.

If the tool is already set up, then you’ve already got a whole load of insight ready to be uncovered at the click of a button.

Google analytics is an absolute treasure trove when it comes to understanding your audience.

Just one warning. When it comes to analytics data, be cautious of ‘Analysis Paralysis’.

Tools like Google Analytics have provided us with an amazing opportunities to get real user insight quickly and easily… But if it’s not used to drive any actions or decisions, then it’s not helpful.

Make sure that you always have a research goal before diving into your analytics.

Use it to answer questions, rather than aimlessly browsing around. Try questions like :

  • Which sections do people visit the most often?
  • What are people searching for, and do they find what they need?
  • How do the behaviours of first time visitors differ from returning visitors?
  • Do people behave differently on mobile to desktop?

Set these questions first, otherwise you’ll end up looking for needles in haystacks.

Idea 5. Watch remote session recordings & heat maps

Online analytics tools have really come a long way in the last few years.

Google analytics has always been great for highlighting which parts of the site are underperforming, but it can’t tell you exactly what’s going on there.

A new breed of tools have recently sprung up, dedicated to tracking sessions & user behaviours on the page. There are quite a few to choose from. Industry favourites include HotJarCrazyEgg, and FullStory.

These tools let you see how far people scroll, what they spend the most time looking at, and where they eventually click.

Personally I’ve been using HotJar a lot recently. This is because I find the reporting interface quite easy to use and the price is pretty fair. You can actually use it for free up to certain number of session recordings, so there’s value to be had even if you can’t afford the subscription.

HotJar also gives the ability to add little pop-up surveys to your page, which can trigger after the user takes certain actions. It’s a great little bonus, and an opportunity to get som qualitative data, too.

Like with traditional analytics it’s important you have a research goal before diving in.

Set yourself some questions to answer in the research, like :

  • What do people seem to be drawn to on the home page?
  • How do people navigate around the site?
  • What are people doing right before they ‘drop out’ of a session?

Tools like HotJar and FullStory are the next best thing to moderated user testing.

All of the tools I mentioned will allow you to filter sessions to show only those that involved a certain URL or behaviour.

My advice would be to focus on one specific journey or usability issue at a time when watching the recordings. For example, people who use the checkout on an eCommerce site, or visit a specific landing page. If you don’t focus your analysis, you’ll quickly feel overwhelmed, and back once again in ‘needles in haystacks’ territory.

I highly recommend these kinds of tools. You’ll be amazed with how many usability issues you can observe just by watching people use your interface.

Look out for things like ‘rage clicking’ a broken button, or scrolling up and down a page repeatedly.

It’s no substitute for a moderated session, where you can hear what people are actually thinking… But it’s as close as you’ll get when that’s off the table.

All research is good research

Here’s the thing. Ideally we’d always be doing our research in-person. We’d always spend time in moderated sessions running interviews and tests, until we’d gotten everything just right.

But life is rarely that ideal. Sometimes we need to resort to secondary methods like these to get the job done.

And that’s OK.

Whatever kind of research you do, primary or secondary, it’s always better than nothing.

It can even act as a ‘gateway drug’ for your bosses and clients. Seeing results from more ad-hoc methods like these can whet their appetites for further learning. It can unlock the gate to doing moderated research.

Don’t skip research when your users are inaccessible. Make the most of a situation. Do what you can. It always pays off in the long-run.

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Chris Myhill, an incredibly handsome UX designer with over 8 years of experience

Chris Myhill

Chris heads up Just UX Design with over eight years of experience.

He’s worked on loads of different projects, using UX wizardry to help businesses make better products.

Learn more about Chris

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