Lean UX research for startups (angel, pre-seed, seed)

An image showing the title “Lean UX research for startups”, illustration of stars gradually increasing in corner count to symbolise learning quicker when conducting more user research and steps that symbolise that early on in your startup it is more difficult to conduct more research.
Fail more, know more. The first step is the steepest.

It’s a common scenario we’ve seen played out amongst startups: time and resources are few, and often key stakeholders or higher-ups are adding pressure to get going on developing the product. In some cases, startups buckle and dive straight into product development, while in others, startups prioritise the value that user research brings to the user experience. Almost always, the products that launch to market and succeed are those that prioritised user research and UX. In The ROI of User Experience, Dr. Susan Weinschenk showed that, “The cost of fixing an error after development is 100 times that of fixing it before development,” and the Nielsen Norman Group proved that you could uncover up to 85% of usability problems if you test with only 5 users. Startups simply cannot ignore UX research as part of the product design process.

When timelines are short and funding limited, its easy to overlook user research in favour of dedicating those few resources to building out the product but, without user research, there’s no guarantee that users will adopt your product and that it will be successful. Lean UX research, as an agile and cost-effective option for startups, is the solution.

What is lean UX?

UX research, overall, refers to the process where product designers conduct in-depth user research in an attempt to outline user pain points and then determine the best product solutions to solve those pain points. UX research is an integral part of the user experience journey.

Lean UX may be likened to the agile methodology in that it focuses on fast-paced cycles and ongoing improvements throughout the development process, while that user research is being uncovered.

Now that we’ve outlined lean UX research a bit better, we need to jump into the various components that make up UX research that you’ll require to build out an effective UX research plan for your startup.

An illustration of building blocks with gaps in between to show that user research in startups (angel, pre-seed, seed) doesn’t have to be perfect

The building blocks of an effective lean UX research plan

It’s a common misconception that planning is a waste of resources and time. Two well-respected world leaders, Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill, echoed that failing to plan means that you are preparing to fail, and you’ve undoubtedly heard that sentiment shared by many other leaders. Taking time to create a plan ensures that you and your team remain focussed to the task at hand, which is conducting user research. So, what should that plan look like?

  • Outlining questions
    As you’ve gathered by now, there are multiple ways to conduct user research but not all of them will be worth your while. This is entirely dependent on the questions you want answered. Be strategic, thoughtful, and purpose-driven when outlining your questions so you can eliminate any research methods that won’t result in the insight you need.
  • Defining your why
    It’s easy to get mixed up with market research and design research. Remember that you’re looking to define specific answers that will ultimately assist you in creating a better product design for improved user experience. Focus on these only.
  • Identifying research techniques
    Different research methods will provide different insights into user behaviour. Take the time to highlight which methods will most likely grant you the information you’re after and build a strategy around those techniques. Lean UX research prioritises timesaving so this is an invaluable part of your plan.
  • Identifying timeline resources
    Using the strategy you’ve already outlined, create a timeline of your user research project. Remember to allocate team members as resources, leeway for instances where it might take more or less time to conduct the research and indicate your budget, as well as the services and software you may need to incorporate.

Start with data that’s already at your fingertips

User research is a time-consuming exercise, and if you want the data analysis to be an accurate representation of your target audience (eg. data that is valuable and useful), then it should be prioritised. The problem though, is that in-depth user research is expensive. It’s for this reason that we recommend gathering data and insights from resources that might already be available to you and then build on the process from there.

Google Analytics is the perfect place to start. This tool provides key insights into the user traffic and demographics on your website. Understanding how users interact with your website can not only help you begin the process of collecting quantitative research but assist you in forming questions for the qualitative research you aim to conduct, as well. Building profiles of your current users is also made easier as you can quickly extract information such as: interests, age, location, and devices used to build your target audience.

Another great tool to utilise is your network! While it’s important not to make any assumptions or rely too heavily on opinions that may be bias (such as opinions offered by your nuclear family or close friends), there’s no reason why you cannot conduct user research with those you already know. Bring a topic of conversation to the table in an informal setting, ask your online network to complete a survey or start a conversation on your LinkedIn profile; these are all ways to enlist the help of your network. Just consider any informal conversations, questions or chats to be preliminary.

Once you’ve exhausted the research options already available to you, you may want to expand into some other user research techniques that are commonly used by product designers when time and funding are limited.

An illustration outlined circles surrounding a sold circle. The solid circle being you as the person conducting research, the outline circles being the users you are testing with

The different types of UX research

There are numerous, additional ways to conduct data analysis, some of which are also employed by user researchers, but the focus of UX research is to determine user behaviour. How do they think? What are their needs? What motivates them to purchase a product? UX research answers these, and other questions, through observation, analysis, and feedback techniques.

The two main types of user research are qualitative and quantitative. There are many different types of qualitative and quantitative research techniques but, for the purpose of your startup, we recommend focussing on the following techniques:

  • Card sorting
    Card sorting is an effective tool for better understanding the inner workings of your users’ minds. It’s also a fairly easy way to collect data, with minimal input required from your product designer. Simply structure an Excel spreadsheet with terms that the user is required to categorise, either by categories you have created or by creating their own. The product designer simply emails the user a copy and collects the completed forms to review.
  • Free surveys
    Google Forms is a free, and incredibly easy, tool to make use of when you’re looking for a better understanding of your users. Ideally, your first few questions should specify demographics or other categorising data (so you can later sort the surveys) and the remainder should then be product-specific. These surveys can be sent out via any social media channel of your choosing. Bear in mind that you’ll likely receive some opinions from non-users, so those initial questions within the survey template should be used to distinguish between information that is useful to the product development process, and that which needs to be removed from the pool.
  • One-on-one interviews
    One-on-one interviews can be time-consuming, but it isn’t necessary to dedicate all your time to this technique, only some of it. Interviews grant insight into how users navigate your product, and how they feel about it. We recommend a guerrilla approach to one-on-one interviews. Instead of setting up standardised testing in a formal environment, head out to a public space and ask a few people to answer some questions. This is a great way to get unbiased, honest feedback; just remember to try and compensate participants for their time!
  • Usability Tests
    We mentioned at the start of this article that you could uncover up to 85% of usability problems if you test with only 5 users. Usability tests give high-value insight to how users perceive and engage with your product in the early stages, so even if you cannot dedicate a lot of time to walking through tests with individual users, you should spend time doing at least 5 usability tests. Invite a few users to participate and sit in on the walkthrough as they experience your product; it costs nothing but some time and ensures valuable insight into the functionalities and features of your product.
  • Heuristic Evaluations
    Heuristic evaluations are the usability tests of software; they assist in identifying any usability problems so that your development team can make corrections or fixes early on. While this technique is broadly considered as simple, judging the product interface against the compliance criteria laid out by the Nielsen Norman Group offers valuable insight that can be used to enhance your product and/or gain an advantage over your competitors.
  • Concept Testing
    There are various methods of conducting concept testing. It isn’t important how you do it, just that you make sure that you do incorporate it into your research process. The purpose of concept testing is to determine whether the idea behind your product will meet the needs of your target audience, and testing the value proposition of the product can be achieved by proving the concept one-on-one, or through large group interviews. By way of example, the product design teams at Blott Studio like to iterate on each other’s concepts to determine the best possible prototype.

Incorporating the above combination of qualitative and quantitative research techniques is not only the most cost-effective way to conduct lean UX research for your startup, but also caters for more limited resources, while still ensuring that due consideration has been given to the research process.

How to share your findings with your team and implement effective UX design

The key to quality user research is summarising it in an organised way so that your team can easily interpret the information and draw key findings, assumptions, and validations from your report. Unorganised, raw data is not usable nor actionable.

In the case of providing insights to your UX product design team, you’ll specifically want to provide your findings in a way that is easy to interpret so your team can extract the relevant information. We recommend using a tool such as Excel spreadsheets or Google Docs. The idea is to tabulate all your research and aim to colour-code and organise the information for your UX product design team. This ensures that, at a glance, they can determine what pain points your research has highlighted and work to solve those pain points.

Once you’ve shared your findings with your team, those insights can be interpreted and used to improve on your product design for a more effective, and quality, user experience.

To summarise

As a startup with restricted resources, its easy to get caught up in the excitement of creating something new. But, getting started on the product design without prioritising user research (regardless of how limited resources may be) means dismissing the user that will translate to a poor user experience and, ultimately, an abandoned product. Implement this easy process to create an effective lean UX research plan by giving thought to the research you need, reviewing the tools you already have access to, dedicating time to a few additional cost-effective research methods, and then compiling your research into a thorough report your product team can utilise.

Lean UX research incorporates the best components of effective user research methodology with an agile approach so you, as a startup, can maximise on available resources and gain thorough insights that convert into a user-centric product with the highest probability for success.

Thanks for reading 🎉

Some further useful articles on these topics that I’ve referred to can be found here:

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