User research is one of the most impactful things you can do to improve your product. To make it an effective part of your design process, you need to adhere to some best practices and avoid shortcuts.

I have an amazing neighbor. He has much more home ownership experience than I, so any time I have a question about home maintenance he always has the answer. When I need to talk to him I usually walk up my driveway, down the street, down his driveway, and arrive at his front door. However, sometimes I get lazy and take a shortcut through his yard.

When I hear a teammate say, “From a customer perspective, I think this is confusing,” I cringe because that’s a shortcut and you are not the user. I want to yell, “Get off my lawn!”

We’ve all had to take shortcuts and rely on our own intuition. This is a mistake. Don’t take shortcuts with your product. The best way to improve your product, accomplish your goals, and increase your ROI is to do user research. You may have discussed user research with your team and heard things like:

  • “It’s too expensive.”
  • “It takes too long.”
  • “It’s too difficult.”

These are common excuses used to avoid user research. They’re not true. Just as you want to simplify your user experience, you also should simplify your user research experience. You don’t need labs, one-way mirrors, video cameras, huge budgets, presentations, or reports. To get started, follow these five steps:

1. Recruit users

You will conduct the usability testing online with something like Zoom, Skype, or other videoconference software. The first step is to recruit users, and you have several options:

  1. Ask your Customer Service or data team for customer contact info
  2. Advertise online, i.e. Craigslist or LinkedIn
  3. Hire a third-party like User Zoom or UsabilityHub

However you recruit your users, the goal is to end up with a contact list of user email addresses. Email the users and schedule your test with five of them. Testing with five users uncovers 85% of the issues. Your test should occur on the same day, ideally in the morning. For example:

  • User 1: 9-9:45am
  • User 2: 10-10:45am
  • User 3: 11-11:45am
  • User 4: 1-1:45pm
  • User 5: 2-2:45pm

You will need to provide your users with an incentive to ensure they are motivated to attend and engaged during the session. You can use online gift cards, PayPal, etc. I recommend $50-$100 per user per session.

The key here is to avoid using participants from the same company, department, or family. Team members tend to get tunnel vision on their specific areas of responsibility and focus only on that. There are internal biases, conscious or unconscious, that will negatively impact the validity of the research. Family members have a similar issue in that they tend to only provide positive feedback for your idea or feature, but not for others’. The inverse also tends to be true for constructive criticism.

2. Plan activities

Usability testing focuses on giving the user an activity to accomplish. Examples include, “Add an item to your cart”, “Create an account,” or “Sign up for the email newsletter.” The key thing is that you provide the user with a specific task. You need to create around 8-10 tasks for the user to complete.

Why? Well, usability testing isn’t a focus group. We’re not concerned with what the user says they think, we want to know what they actually do. These are usually two completely different things.

The “lightbulb moments” that occur during usability testing are usually things that you did not plan for. That’s what makes this research so valuable. The customer will run into something that you never considered.

3. Invite teammates

As the person conducting the usability testing, you hopefully have a high level of empathy. Unfortunately, not everyone does. One of the best ways to build empathy in your team is to invite them to observe the usability testing with you. Watching the user struggle with a feature will be an eye-opening moment that will stick with your teammate. It’s especially critical to invite the person who keeps saying, “From a customer perspective, I think...” because instead of referring to their opinion you will be able to reference real customer examples. While your primary goal is to identify user problems, your secondary goal is to engage your team to solve these problems.

You need to limit attendance to one teammate per session. Any additional teammates may make the user feel uncomfortable. Try to schedule a different teammate for each user so you can involve multiple teammates. Let the teammate know that they will have a chance to ask questions at the end, but to let you drive the conversation to start. You don’t want the user to feel like they’re being interrogated. Once you’re through your activities, you can ask any follow up questions, and then you can turn it over to your teammate.

4. Conduct the session with users

You’ve joined your Zoom or Skype meeting with your teammate and the user. You’ll need to introduce yourself and teammate, explain what you’ll be doing, and ask the user if they have any questions before you get started.

One very important thing to mention in your intro is that you are testing the product, not the user. The user cannot do or say anything wrong. They are not being tested. You want their honest opinion. If they find something they love, that’s awesome. If they find something they hate, that’s even better. You want to understand the user’s pain points so that you can go back to your team and fix them.

Tell the user that you will ask them to complete an activity, and then you will listen. If the user struggles with the activity they may ask you questions. You’re not going to answer them. You want to try and simulate, as much as possible, what it would be like if you weren’t there and the user was trying to do this on their own. It’s not that you want the user to struggle, it’s that you want to understand how they would try to do this by themselves.

Ask the user to talk out loud. Whatever they are thinking, seeing, and considering should be spoken so you and your teammate can follow the user’s mindset. The user will usually say something invaluable.

Conclude the intro portion of the session by asking the user if they have any questions, then follow this checklist:

  1. Ask them to share their screen with you.
  2. Once you and your teammate can see the user’s screen, give the user the first activity, then stop talking.
  3. Watch, listen, and take notes. If the user asks a question, try to ignore it. The user will remember the instructions and will continue to complete the activity. If the user asks the same question again, just say something like, “Please try to complete the activity and I’ll answer any questions you have afterward.”
  4. Repeat for each remaining activity.

After all of the activities are completed, ask follow-up questions from your notes. These clarifying questions can provide the necessary detail to understand what would improve the experience for the user. When you’ve asked all your questions, give your teammate an opportunity to do the same. Finally, ask the user if they have any additional questions. Complete the session by thanking the user and communicate how and when they will receive their incentive. Ask if they have friends or family who might be interested in participating in a future session. Add any referrals to your recruiting list. Thank the user, end the meeting, and prepare for the next user session. Repeat for the remaining users.

To see a usability test in action, here’s the author of the “Do-it-yourself usability testing” approach, Steve Krug, conducting usability testing with a participant:

5. Share the insights with your team

A big part of simplifying user research is avoiding blockers. One big blocker is a follow-up report or presentation. These can take days or weeks to create, and people will start to forget what the user said during that time. What I recommend instead is to just have a same-day debrief Zoom meeting right after the user research ends. If you follow the schedule above you can schedule the debrief for 3-3:30pm. The key themes and issues will be obvious to everyone who attended. You want to communicate this to your team, even those who didn’t attend the sessions. The goal of this meeting is to help your team empathize, prioritize, and take action on these customer insights.

Next steps

For a much deeper dive into conducting insightful user research, I highly recommend Loops: Building Products with Clarity & Confidence, written by Nine Labs President J Cornelius. Loops will expand your user research toolkit with things like research frameworks, recruitment strategies, and interview techniques.

Here’s an excerpt:


How to request feedback on a prototype:

When the user has trouble with your prototype, use these questions to guide the discussion:

What were you trying to accomplish?
This explains the intention behind the user’s actions.

What did you do? 
This gives you the first indication of where things went wrong.

What did you expect to happen?
This can illuminate a few things: a flawed assumption you made, a missed step in your User Journey, or a missing feature that should be added.

What actually happened?
This shows you where the prototype failed and how it might be improved.

Here’s an example of how a customer will give feedback:

“What were you trying to accomplish?” — “I was trying to add an image to my email.”

“What did you do?” — “Well, I clicked on this thing over here and I dragged it.”

“What did you expect to happen?” — “I expected to see the image drop into my email, but the image disappeared.”


As you talk to more and more people, you might get discouraged because a common thread hasn’t emerged yet. Keep going! Talk to more people. More information is always better than less information. Yes, it can feel paralyzing to look at all the information you’ve gathered and not see a clear way forward. Press on. The clarity will come.


No shortcuts

Don’t take a shortcut. Don’t get lazy and say “From a customer perspective, I think...” Actually talk to customers, identify what their problems are, and work with your team to fix them. Don’t just do this once, make it a recurring monthly event. Making user research an ongoing part of your design process will uncover new opportunities that help you achieve your goals.

Want to improve your User Research? Wed love to help.