Alternative user research methods when customers are out of reach

These days, businesses need to be innovative, creative and spontaneous in order to succeed. User research is an important component: we need to know who we are creating a solution for and what their needs are. In an ideal world, you would want to have direct access to your customers, but that’s not always realistic. What do you do in these cases? Ask your pet to give you advice? Bribe your neighbour for his opinion?

In this post, I’m going to show you less conventional ways to uncover hidden insights about your user personas.

Desk Research: Your Starting Point

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I often use desk research as a first step in user research because it’s fast, cheap and easy to do. You can do it from anywhere with internet access. Even if you have time for user interviews, conducting desk research can help you get started with some basic information. You might even find existing surveys and data about your topic of interest.

There are a few best practices that you should follow when conducting effective desk research:

1. Be sure to define your goals before starting any kind of research. This will help you focus on what kinds of information you need to collect in order to meet those goals.

2. Use multiple sources for your information to gain different perspectives on your topic.

3. Make sure that all the information you gather is relevant — that it actually helps answer the questions that prompted your research in the first place!

Keep in mind:

Desk research is helpful for understanding your topic, expert opinions, user voices, and statistics, but it can’t provide specific answers about user behaviour. I often use desk research to define my detailed user research questions: what ELSE do I need to know that I can’t find with desk research?

Customer-facing Team Members: Use Existing Knowledge

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Talk to the people who deal with your customers every day.

If you work at a startup or a small company, chances are your customer-facing team is also your sales team. If you’re in a larger company, you may have a separate call center that deals with customer support and other issues. Engaging with your team will give you valuable insight into user desires, areas where they need help, and their struggles with your product.

Some tips on how you could approach this tactic:

  1. Set up interviews to talk to your customer-facing team members directly. Ask questions like: what questions do you hear from customers most frequently? What are they trying to achieve? What do they find difficult? How can we assist them?
  2. Send out a survey or an email with questions if you can’t find the time for interviews. Use open-ended questions (like the ones above) to gain the insights you are looking for.
  3. Schedule shadowing sessions and listen in. If you have the opportunity, listen to customer support calls or sales calls to find some interesting nuggets first-hand.

Keep in mind:

Remember that sales calls or customer support calls serve a specific purpose. You may not fully understand all customer needs or hear from every customer type as not every customer will contact customer support.

Analytics & Heatmaps: The Data-Driven Approach

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If you have an existing digital product, make use of user analytics and heatmaps. They allow us to see how our users interact with the site or app at an aggregate level and can help us identify pain points.

An analytics tool like Google Analytics can provide valuable data about user interactions. For example, you can see where they spend the most time on your site, which pages are getting the most views, and what content is being read the most frequently. Use this information to make your content better and more user-friendly.

Heatmaps visually represent how users interact with an interface by showing where they click or hover. They can help UX designers identify elements that are difficult to find and provide input on the content hierarchy of your site.

Keep in mind:

These tools are great additions, even if you can talk to customers. They provide you with quantitative data and allow you to access a way bigger pool of customers than you could cover with interviews. What you won’t get with analytics is the WHY behind a behaviour: why is someone spending so much time on a page, why do they leave your application at a certain point? Analytics are a great starting point to formalize a hypothesis that you can then validate with interviews.

Social Media & Online Communities: The World of User Wisdom

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Online communities and social network provide another way for UX researchers to get closer to their customers’ way of thinking.

Monitoring comments on social media will give you a glimpse into their behaviors, needs, and interests. This can be incredibly helpful when creating personas or developing new features. Use tools like Google Alerts or Mention to track keyword mentions and stay updated.

Online communities (like Reddit) give you access to groups of people who share common interests. Use social media to engage with customers by asking questions, conducting surveys, or recruiting for interviews. Moderators in these communities can save you time by connecting you with your specific target audience.

Keep in mind:

Be aware that online comments tend to be more negative because people are more likely to complain than to share positive experiences. It makes for a wonderful source to detect problems and expectations, but don’t take it as representative for all of your customers.

Unmoderated Research: The Task Completion Focus

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If you have access to your customers or a representative group, unmoderated research might be a good choice.

With tools like PlaybookUX or User Interview, you can set up tasks for participants to record themselves completing. Not having a moderator makes this process fast and efficient. You will often have results within 24 hours.

Keep in mind:

Unmoderated testing is a great option to discover usability issues or get feedback on very specific questions. On the flip side, you don’t have the option to drill deeper into any situation.

Assumption Map: Your Planning Guide

This is not so much a research method, but I am adding it here as a supportive technique to plan your research steps.

An assumption map is a way to visualize how certain or uncertain you are about your (customer) knowledge and how relevant your knowledge and your knowledge gaps are for your product design process. Learn more about how to run an assumption map workshop.

Gaining more clarity about your knowledge gaps and their importance will help you to define your research objectives.

Keep in mind:

Assumption map is not a research method itself — but it is a great planning tool. Once you know your research objectives you can become creative with your research approach — and use the list above to seek alternatives in case you cannot talk to your users directly.


What you should take away

These methods here are not at all a replacement for user interviews. Talking to your users directly will always be a very powerful method. It allows you to go deep, to be flexible with your questions and it is more than just “talking”: it’s about observing and understanding behaviour, HOW your users are doing things.

These methods here are your fall-back and also a reminder: there is always something we can do to learn more about our users. Start small, but start with some research. Then share your learnings and show the gaps to get buy-in for more research.