Four Kitchens

DIY UX research, part 1: How are other people doing it?

7 Min. ReadDesign and UX

Throughout 2020, the Strategy team at Four Kitchens is publishing a series of DIY articles about user experience (UX) research practices and procedures. 

You may wonder why a consultancy like Four Kitchens wants to provide guidance to our clients and potential clients on conducting their own UX research. You could hire us to do it, after all. And yes; we think hiring Four Kitchens to conduct UX research is a swell idea. However, we also know the reality of our clients’ businesses. Time and money constraints abound.

Not to mention, we care deeply about our clients’ success! One of our core beliefs is to give back to the community in which we work.

“Design research is something you do continuously, in small bites. It’s like scientific research or doing physics or mathematics… you will never know everything, but you will constantly seek a little more understanding.”

Indi Young (data scientist and researcher)

Who was interviewed for this article

In kicking off this series of do-it-yourself articles about conducting UX research in the absence of a professional UX researcher, I first wanted to speak to people in the business world who are already taking it upon themselves to know their users.

Jen Perry is an entrepreneur and marketing strategist at Think Marketability who in 2017-2018 was the CMO at a startup called BoxUp in Terre Haute, Indiana. BoxUp contains a design app, similar to Canva, where users design custom shipping boxes. So Jen’s customers were using software and ordering hard goods from BoxUp, a hybrid company with technology and retail challenges.

Jason Cagnon is the director of sales at a manufacturing company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His company manufactures and services machinery.

Brent Leffew is a product and design leader at eBay. He has been responsible for the buying experience, design systems, ads, and has led the mobile team in his 10-year tenure at eBay.

The value of knowing your customer

Perry, Cagnon, and Leffew are all believers in the practice of talking to your customers and gathering authentic user feedback in any way you can.

“Knowing your customer is so important,” Perry said. “It’s important to be in close touch with their needs in an ongoing way.” She was adamant on this point. While she said they had paid for professional research on large initiatives, for ongoing customer knowledge she and her team took it upon themselves. “I have an easier time remembering and communicating the research findings when it’s something I did firsthand.”

“Our users and customers use our products day in and day out,” Cagnon explained. “Hearing from them helps stop us from falling in love with a design for a product that won’t truly meet the customers’ needs. What we hear in research makes our end products better. And we are always trying to differentiate ourselves from the competition.”

“I have a lot of freedom on my current projects,” Leffew said. “I’m not obligated to many stakeholders. But I choose to do first-person research in an objective way because it’s research gold for me.”

Research can settle internal debates about design

Internal debates about something subjective like a design decision are painful. So. Much. Pain. These debates unfold in different ways at different organizations, but ultimately without data or research it often comes down to the loudest voice. But the loudest voice needs to be the voice of your users and customers.

Cagnon said that user research is one of the most effective tools he has for settling internal disputes. “I absolutely conducted user research to settle internal disputes. Our internal product development committee was a cross-section of internal roles, and they all had very strong opinions. The technical team always wanted too many features, while the sales team always wanted a better price point. These were always at odds. How did we settle these disputes? With customer data.”

Perry had a similar reaction. “For sure! No question that doing user research settles internal disputes. Research takes the emotion out of decision making. It’s no longer ‘I think;’ instead it’s ‘the users think.’ Your team needs to be willing to accept what users say; it’s not always what you want or hope they’ll say. But it takes the politics and emotion out of decision making.”

Perry also emphasized that crafting your research questions carefully to avoid an emotional bias is key. She learned that it’s hard to ask the right questions so you don’t accidentally feed into a pre-existing belief. 

Why not hire a professional researcher?

In Leffew’s case, he engaged in loose guerilla research tactics and he wanted to maintain that level of freedom and the ability to follow his curiosity. He calls it “an informal research approach.”

“We go out and observe people shopping in our particular category,” Leffew said. “I just walk up to people in shops and talk to them casually.” Sometimes he will show people the prototype app on his own phone and gather feedback about it that way. “I also talk directly to shop owners. I ask them if they sell on eBay, and if they say no I explore the reasons why. This is research gold for me.”

For Perry, it came down to the realities of time and budget. “In a perfect world, I would have a researcher on staff full time,” she said. Instead, she reserves hiring a professional for special, finite projects.

Cagnon’s company also faced limitations concerning budget and overhead. At his company, it took individuals like him who were willing to wear multiple hats and were motivated to include the voice of the customer to conduct the research, otherwise it would not happen.

Which research tactics were used most?

Perry had a lean team, as most startups do. She relied on her customer service representatives to become conduits of customer research. “Our chat logs were a constant stream of user feedback,” she explained. “Chat was the primary way our customers reached out for help from us. We began to diligently tag conversations so that at any time we could sort through chat logs and see which problems were the most common for our customers.”

Perry also described her other research methodologies, saying, “I had a lot of angst, so I would break it down. I’d start by writing a list of what I wanted to learn. If I felt stuck, I might look at past surveys for inspiration. (I like SurveyMonkey as a tool.) Whether I’m doing a survey or interviews, I like to start with a small number of people. I write my script, I test it out on a few people, and tweak it as I go, making it better.”

Perry’s other research tactics included keeping a constant eye on customer chats (as mentioned above), looking at analytics for the website and emails, conducting surveys, conducting interviews, and conducting focus groups.

At Cagnon’s company there was determination to maintain a constant feedback loop with customers. They did this through multiple tactics including surveys, inviting customers in for lunch-and-learn sessions, a product advisory committee made up of customers who met quarterly, and one-off research initiatives like phone interviews and focus groups. 

Is conducting your own user research valuable?

It was unanimous: Perry, Cagnon, and Leffew all felt that conducting their own user research was extremely valuable.

Perry went even further, saying, “I worked hard to build a culture of ‘user needs,’ and after a while leadership at my company came to accept it and believe in it, too. I’ll also add that doing your own research internally is a huge help when you finally do hire a professional research consultant because you can hand over the findings to get them started.”

“Customer participation always led to better products,” said Cagnon, who saw it happen repeatedly at his company. “But the value I got by doing research myself was great. Just listening to what customers said. Hearing context and tone.”

“I’ve been doing research this way for a long time,” Leffew said. “At this point, I’m objective. I take the good and the bad from users.”

Any advice for people faced with conducting their own user research?

Perry, Cagnon, and Leffew had plenty of useful advice for other people in their shoes.

“I regret being shy at the start of my career, and not realizing you can just talk to people about their needs,” Leffew lamented. He advises people to not be shy. Most customers want to tell you their opinions. They like knowing they can make an impact.

“Make sure you get a diverse set of opinions,” Cagnon instructed. “Too few opinions can steer your product or service the wrong way. I recommend pulling in an outside consultant—a professional researcher—when you can. They will help you form better questions, and pull more and deeper information from customers; they’re better at that.”

Perry recommended staying on top of customer feedback constantly. “The customer is always changing,” she explained. She also recommends thinking of the future. “What are the tools you can put in place now that will maximize the value of user research later? Such as analytics tools, surveys, and constructing your chat logs strategically with meaningful tags.”

Perry also felt she had learned a lot from past experience, and would try to involve a professional researcher more often, almost like a tandem research situation, working in harmony with her internal team.

Stay tuned

Now that you have a clearer picture of what other companies are doing to conduct user research in the absence of a professional researcher, stay tuned to our series of DIY UX Research methodologies. You’re going to be knocking the socks off of your peers and bosses with dynamic, valuable user research in no time!