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User research doesn’t have to be expensive. Here’s how to conduct UX research on the cheap, whether you have a limited budget or no budget.
Ideally, every project you work on should have some discovery research and some usability testing. This means there’s some research done before the project starts to work out what it is your customers really care about. Often, this happens in the form of user (or generative) interviews. Then, once you’ve started building, you’ll need to test your product with users to make sure you’ve met their usability needs.
You can repeat both the discovery interviews and usability tests as often as you need to, with multiple rounds of each for a complicated project. But if time crunch as well as a tight budget, you should be able to get by with a round of user interviews and a round of usability testing, each with about 5 participants.
If you have time for more research, you should start by adding some rounds of usability testing. This means you conduct a few rounds of usability testing while the product is still in development. This increases the chance that you catch any bugs, issues, or problems early on (which saves time and resources).
If, after that, you have time for even more research, fantastic! Consider adding a continuous interviewing practice to your research stack, going deeper at the beginning of the process with field studies, and establishing a cadence to conduct research on past projects or parts of your product that haven’t been updated in a while.
No budget? No problem. You can still do great user research, you’ll just have to be a bit scrappy about it. We’ll walk you through how to recruit participants for research, conduct user interviews and moderated usability tests, and store all of your research notes without paying a cent.
One of the most important parts of user research is recruiting the right people to talk to for your sessions. If you talk to the wrong people, you may not get the insights you need to move your project in the right direction.
Once you know your research question, you can evaluate who will be the best people to help you answer that question. For example, if your research question is, “Do our support pages accurately address our customer’s questions?” you’ll need to talk to current customers.
The easiest way to conduct user research with no budget is to talk to your current customers. You likely already have their contact information, and can use behavioral data, support tickets, NPS scores, etc. to identify which customers will be a good fit for your study. It also means you can offer them something other than a cash incentive for their time. For example, you can offer them credits within your product or higher-tiered customer support.
Teresa Torres, founder of Product Talk, said this about research incentives:
“You have to look at: What's something valuable that you can offer? It could be anything from inviting them to an invite-only webinar. It could be giving them a discount on their subscription for a month. It could be giving them access to a premium helpline. Think about: What is outsized value for the ask that you're asking for?”
When it comes to actually reaching out to these customers and organizing research sessions with them, Research Hub is a great way to keep track of everything. It’s free forever and you can add up to 100 participants to your participant panel. Research Hub can manage scheduling, incentive distribution, and track your participant’s research study activity all in one place.
You can start by uploading a list of the customers you would like to include in your research study. We suggest inviting 10x the number of participants you’ll actually end up needing for your study—so, if you need to talk to 5 people for your research study, start by inviting 50 users from your list. It may seem like a lot, but many people won’t reply, be interested in participating, or fit your criteria for the study after screening, so it’s better to start with more participants than you need.
Getting people who aren’t already your customers to participate in research is a little trickier. You can still use Research Hub to keep track of your research participants, but you’ll need to get crafty with your distribution. Often, this means recruiting on social media or forum sites.
For the budget-less folks out there, let’s go over some of the most popular social media sites and how you can use them to recruit participants for your research without a budget.
Facebook: If you have a company Facebook page, it’s worth creating a post to alert your followers about your study. However, according to Hootsuite, the average reach of an organic page post hovers around 5.20%. That means that roughly 1 in every 19 fans sees a page’s non-promoted content.
So you may need to do more than just post on your Facebook page to get participants for your study. That’s where Facebook groups come in—they can be very specific and packed with people who fit your participant criteria. Bear in mind that many Facebook groups have rules that prevent you from asking for research participation or require approval from moderators.
Our advice? Be respectful. Clearly state what your project is about, why you could use the help, and what’s required of the participants. A respectful and clear post that follows the guidelines of the group can be a great way to gather participants for your study.
LinkedIn: Like Facebook, the organic reach of LinkedIn posts can be unpredictable. Our advice here is to focus your attention on more specific LinkedIn groups. Like Facebook groups, these can be great ways to connect with potential participants, so long as you are respectful of the group rules.
Slack: Many specialized communities have Slack spaces where people get together and talk about their industry. For example, if you want to connect with people who work in UX research, you can join a Slack community like Mixed Methods.
Once again, be sure to be respectful of the group’s rules when posting. People join Slack communities to connect with others in their community, not join research studies.
Reddit: Reddit may not be the first place that comes to mind for participant recruitment, but it can be a great way to connect with people who have a deep interest in a specific topic. It primarily consists of specialized subreddits that center around a theme, idea, hobby, location, etc.
When posting your research project on Reddit, remember to provide a clear description of your research project, why you need help from the people in this subreddit, and engage with any comments or questions people might have.
Here’s a good example of a survey posted on Reddit, looking for participants with Celiac disease in the subreddit r/celiac:
The poster clearly defined why this survey was in this subreddit and stuck around to answer and address questions from people in the community.
You can also use research-specific Reddit communities to find participants for your research. These communities are devoted to participating in research or finding ways to make a little extra pocket money. They’re not as targeted as posting in a subreddit that’s related to your specific research, but can still yield good results.
Craigslist: Free Craigslist postings are another scrappy way to find research participants. The quality of participants you get from Craigslist can be hit or miss, but it’s worth working into your recruitment checklist and letting your screener survey sort out the good participants from the bad if you’re having a hard time filling your quota
Once you find your participants, it’s time to actually do some research. This is when you’ll want to conduct user interviews, as a generative research tool. These interviews are meant to help you generate new ideas based on your participants needs.
Doing these interviews at the beginning of your product development process allows you to make decisions based on real feedback from the start. This means less time wasted on rework later in the process. Don’t believe us? Research from the Interaction Design Foundation has shown that companies that invest in UX work in the concepting phase reduce the time spent on product development by 33 to 50%. Plus, the cost of fixing something after development is 100x that of fixing it before development.
For your generative user interviews, we recommend starting with just 5 interviews. Starting with 5 interviews gives you a manageable amount of work, especially if you’re trying to juggle lots of things alongside research. Of course, if you find that you have more questions or think you can learn more during this generative phase, you can do more interviews.
To make your life even easier, we’ve made a user interview template to help you with creating interview questions, taking notes, and synthesizing your data after research. This template can help you conduct great interviews, even if you’re a total beginner.
If you’re using Research Hub Free Forever to organize and schedule your participants, the only other thing you’ll need for your interviews is a video conferencing tool.
Of course, you can also conduct your interviews in-person (once COVID is under control and it’s safe to do so), but that puts some limitations on your research. Conducting your interviews in-person creates a geographical restriction and creates more work for the participant, meaning they may be less likely to show up for your research session. This is especially true if you’re conducting research with no budget, and therefore no participant incentives.
Any video conferencing tool will work for your user research, so you may choose to go with whatever platform your company already uses. If you’re on the hunt for options, here are the most popular video conferencing tools for user research, according to our State of User Research 2021:
Zoom: Zoom was by far the most popular video conferencing tool for people who do user research, with 59% of people using it. Zoom has a robust free tier, allowing users to conduct up to 40 minute calls with up to 100 participants. Zoom has a few features that make it especially good for user research, like easy screen sharing and automatic transcriptions. Plus, there’s a direct Zoom integration with User Interviews, making research even easier. Zoom does require that users download a Zoom app on their phone or computer prior to the research session, which may provide unwanted friction.
Google Meet: Google Meet came in second among video conferencing tools, with 32% of people using it in their research stacks. Google Meet is an entirely online solution, meaning you can just send your participants a link to open in their internet browser, no app required. It’s free to use, and easy to add a link to your existing Google Calendar events.
Microsoft Teams: Microsoft Teams came in a close third, with 28% of people using it to conduct their user research sessions. Teams has both an online and app-based option, making it easy for anyone to join a meeting. If your team uses Teams to collaborate, it may be a great option to use something already integrated into your workflow.
Once you have a prototype or design in hand, you can start to conduct some moderated usability testing. In this phase of research, you’ll evaluate what you’ve created with participants to see if it fits their needs. Like your generative interviews, we suggest you start with just 5 usability testing sessions. This should be enough to uncover 85% of usability problems with your prototype or design.
You can conduct usability testing with the same tools you used for your user interviews, recruiting and scheduling sessions with Research Hub Free Forever and conducting your sessions with a video conferencing tool of your choice. The difference is that, in a usability test, your participants will share their screen as they interact with your prototype, instead of just answering your interview questions.
We’ve created a template to help with your usability testing too. This template includes questions to ask during testing, note taker templates, and a place to synthesize your insights.
In order to conduct usability testing, you’ll need to create a prototype to test with your users. Prototypes can be anything from a flat design to a high-fidelity, interactive page.
Miro: Miro is a whiteboarding tool, so while it can’t help you build high-fidelity prototypes, it’s great for quick layouts or brainstorming sessions. Miro’s free plan offers 3 editable boards to get you started.
Whimsical: Whimsical is another whiteboarding and mind mapping tool. Like Miro, it’s great for putting together quick layouts, rough mockups, and brainstorming with your team. Their free plan offers unlimited boards with up to 3,000 objects.
Balsamiq: Balsamiq is specifically designed to help teams create low-fidelity wireframes. It offers a 30-day free trial, which you can use to create wireframes during your no-budget research.
Figma: Figma is a design tool that can help you create more sophisticated designs. It’s great for creating mockups of pages, fully realized designs, and even interactive prototypes. Figma’s free plan allows you to create up to 3 projects.
Invision: Invision is an interactive design tool that makes it easy to collaborate with your team on designs and prototypes. Like Figma, it’s a good tool to create mockups of pages and interactive designs. Invision’s free plan allows you to create up to 3 projects for free.
Axure: Axure is a tool specifically to help you create high-fidelity prototypes. They offer a 30-day free trial, which you can use for your no-budget research.
Some teams use specialized tools to conduct their usability testing. This is most common for unmoderated usability tests, in which you upload your questions and allow participants to complete the test on their own time. But they can also come with specialized capabilities that make moderated usability testing easier.
Loop11: Loop11 provides tools for both moderated and unmoderated testing. Through our UX Research Flex Stack, they offer 1 free month of Loop11 Pro, which you can use to conduct your no-budget research. Loop11 allows researchers to create specialized usability tests with on-screen questions and prompts to guide users through the process. It also allows researchers to add time-stamped notes to their videos, collect testing analytics, and export video clips to send to their team.
Lookback: Lookback offers a 14-day free trial to allow researchers to conduct testing, which you can use for your no-budget research. However, researchers can’t download any of the sessions until they upgrade to a paid plan, which means you won’t get recordings of your research sessions. Lookback offers the ability to set up usability testing with on-screen questions, time-stamped notes, and highlight reels. If you do decide to upgrade to a paid plan, you can get 10% off your subscription with our UX Research Flex Stack.
UserZoom GO (formerly Validately): UserZoom GO allows researchers to conduct research sessions with participants for all kinds of research. It offers both moderated and unmoderated usability testing, with heatmaps to show participant actions. They offer a 14-day free trial to allow researchers to try out the features.
With a small budget, you’ll likely employ most of the same research methods we suggested for no-budget research. You can do a lot without shelling out for specialized research tools, and many research teams still operate by using tools like Zoom for their interviews and Google Sheets templates to store their insights.
If your budget is small, we recommend spending it on participant recruitment first. Offering your participants even a small cash incentive (say, $20 per session), can help speed up your recruitment process and ensure participants feel like they’re getting something out of the process, too. Check out our participant incentive calculator to figure out a fair incentive for your participants.
If you have some funds left over after participant incentives are taken care of, the next thing you should consider is a participant recruitment tool to help speed up the process. When you choose User Interviews, we’ll give you your first 3 participants free. After that, recruitment costs between $40-80 per session, depending on your criteria.
Using a recruitment tool like ours can help you save time by automating much of the work for you. No more scouring the internet for participants or posting your study in all the Facebook groups. Our median time to the first participant matched for a study is 3 hours, so you could potentially have your study filled the same day you launch it!
At this budget, you should be able to comfortably pay your participants market-rate incentives based on our incentive calculator, and use a participant recruitment tool like User Interviews to automate your recruiting process.
How you spend your budget next is really dependent on your pain points.. For example, if you find running usability testing via Zoom doesn’t give your participants enough opportunity to interact with your prototype the way you would like, you’ll want to look into a usability testing tool first.
If you only plan to do research with this budget once: Look for tools that will make your research life easier without roping you into an annual contract.
For recruitment, User Interviews offers per-project pricing with each recruit costing between $40-80, depending on your recruitment criteria.
For usability testing, Loop11 offers per-month pricing, so you can cancel after a month of use if you want to.
For any specialized testing (like card sorting or first click testing), Optimal Workshop offers per-project pricing that allows you to run a test without a monthly subscription.
If you plan to do monthly research at this budget: You can upgrade to a monthly subscription.. We’d advise shopping around a bit for the first few months so that you only pay for tools that really work for you and your team.
Here’s an example of how you could spend your budget and upgrade your tools:
As your user research budget grows (and you can try to ensure this happens by regularly educating other people in your company about the value of UX research), our recommendation is that you consider doing more research with that additional money, before you invest in more tools.
Expanding your research efforts to include more discovery work, more testing, or more rounds of research will help you understand your users even better, and create even better products.
Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.