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User Research on a Shoestring

A resonating message from Smashing Magazine contributor Leonard Souza has been creeping its way into my projects lately, and I think it’s time I share.

On the importance of structuring an understanding of the personality, preferences, and contexts of a target web user, he insists:

“Nothing is wrong with heading to the nearest coffee shop, finding five to ten people in your target demographic and asking them contextual questions or giving them a run-through of a proposed solution. This is generally enough to make a change.”

I love Souza’s statement because it shows us that we have no excuse for neglecting this aspect of web marketing. As Souza suggests, opportunities to learn about our target users wait for us in places closer than we imagine. And they don’t necessitate corporation-sized budgets.

Why do user research?

With user information gathered from primary research methods, we can create user-experience-based web projects that offer customers solutions that fit their needs.

Knowing what drives specific users to content online, and deciding how best to help accomplish their goals, will make the design process more efficient, and the project much more effective.

No web layout will appeal to “everyone” online (even a place like Facebook, where people spend tons of time every day, has its naysayers).

Focus on producing the best solution for your target markets. With a rich understanding of their needs and web contexts, you could get mighty close. Closer than appeasing the whole wide world of web users, I would wager.

Consider these budget-oriented solutions for gathering information about your target user. And remember Souza’s message; opportunities to learn await us at every turn:

Enlist Your Inner Anthropologist

Brick-and-mortar businesses can take advantage of observing their customers “in the wild”.

To gauge a profile of the typical user visiting your business site, spend a morning in the background of your shop or headquarters, taking note of customer characteristics.

Compile notes on age, gender, context (what are they doing at your business? Where have they immediately come from? How do they feel?).

Listen to your user’s inquiries. Record your observations.

Use Google Analytics

A basic and necessary step for indirect user research, Google Analytics provides free web traffic data specific to your website.

Measuring key metrics about what users are doing on your site, and for how long, Google Analytics offers vital information about the current effectiveness of your site.

Analytic information helps gauge what pages work for users, and which are being neglected or undiscovered, amongst other web traffic data advantages.

Follow Souza’s Lead

If arranging interviews with target users simply cannot fit your time and budget needs, do as Souza suggests and head to the closest Starbucks.

Go in prepared with contextual questions and a polite manner. Keep interactions short and direct. Thank participants profusely.

Key to this method is non-committal conversation. Don’t drag customers into long-winded question periods.

People will engage with you if the hassle-free context is immediately established.

Employ Your Employees

Getting information from your customer service and marketing employees about clients provides valuable insights from two remarkably different perspectives.

Customer service employees will know who is coming to your business with questions, and what these questions are.

Marketing employees can give you answers to who they feel should be targeted for web success.

From these two perspectives, a user persona can begin to take shape.

Organizing content and layout, choosing the right words to use, and most effective calls-to-action, all require a rich understanding of your user. Gathering information about your user’s needs and goals, and how best to help them accomplish these through your website, doesn’t need to come at a high cost.

Start with the resources around you, and recognize the opportunities to grow in market understanding.

Starting a project that could benefit from stronger user-specific design and content? Contact the team at Navigator Multimedia today to learn more about creating dynamic user experiences online!

Souza, Leonard. “Effective User Research and Transforming The Minds of Clients.” 6 December 2011. Smashing Magazine:


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