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You Are Never Too Small for UX: Making the Case for Small Businesses to Conduct UX Research


Many large businesses have in-house User Experience teams, or they hire UX consultants to do their research for them while internal teams implement changes based on findings. Both options are expensive. In-house UX teams are expensive to employ because, while useful for improving products, they are not the ones out there selling products and making money. Alternatively, consultant costs can range anywhere from the hundreds of dollars per day to thousands of dollars per day. Both sets of costs are easier for a large business than a small business to absorb. However, this does not have to mean that the benefits of using UX professionals are out of reach for small businesses. Small businesses can still improve their products and services by being smart about when and how they conduct UX research.

Getting Smart about User Experience Research

Take a moment right now to describe what is User Experience research. Were you struggling to formulate your description? Or, did your answer come out as something like, “It helps me understand what my customers are doing with my products?” If you fell into either category, then you could benefit from an explanation. UX is the industry term for ?user experience', and it encompasses more than product use. It delves into how customers use your product, why they use your product, and how all of that impacts their perceptions of your product and you as the producer.

How Do UX Professionals Work?

Most UX professionals have a background in one of the following disciplines: Research, visual design, or information architecture. All UX professionals are strong in one particular area, but can be competent in a second or third one. This is because quite often the UX professional is the jack of all trades. They must gather requirements, design and conduct research, analyze results, and translate results into design ideas that meet user needs and business objectives. This means that, regardless of the development stage your product is in, UX professionals are capable enough to act as objective guides to prevent your product from becoming overwhelmingly difficult to learn and use.

Why Is UX Research Important?

UX research has the end goal of making sure users--or customers--can actually use a product as intended. The logic behind this being that if someone can use a product they will recommend it to others. And if they ever need to replace the product or upgrade it in the future, they will buy from the same company. So UX research is also about securing and growing a satisfied and loyal customer base through dedication to producing quality products.

Isn't UX Research Just A Different Term for Market Research?

No! Market research is a completely different discipline whose goal is to gauge reaction and acceptance of products and services among consumers. It has a strong base in social psychology. UX research, on the other hand, has a strong base in cognitive psychology, or the study of the biological bases for how people think, reason, and act. Overlap exists in the methods used between the disciplines of market research and UX research, such as focus groups and questionnaire research, but the similarity ends there. Market research focuses on consumers' opinions and UX research focuses on the interaction between users' abilities and their wants and needs.

Small Businesses and UX Research

As mentioned earlier, UX research can be expensive to conduct. In-house teams drain money instead of directly generating it, while external consultants can be costly depending upon their skill set, level of education, and years in the field. On top of it, there are also costs for recruiting study participants and securing testing facilities if there is no room on the business premises to test users. These costs cannot always be escaped, but they can certainly be reduced if you are aware of some key concepts.

You Do Not Always Have to 'Go Big' to Get Reliable Results

Many critics of UX research say that studies are not valid unless you have a large enough sample size to yield statistically significant results. News flash: You do not always test to find statistically significant results. Some tests are exploratory in nature, such as those aimed at determining users' mental models. Test such as this, viewed as dry runs of product use, are often referred to as formative studies. When conducting formative studies it is not necessary to have 30 or more participants--6 participants will suffice.

Larger samples should be used when:
Benchmarking products
Evaluating complex products or services
Comparing performance on basic tasks across multiple products
Determining preference among multiple designs
Designing taxonomies
Conducting survey research
High rates of attrition are a risk to the integrity of the study

Study Your Customers Whenever Possible

Many businesses think using recruiters for studies can be expensive. This depends on the methodology used. However, if you maintain close ties with your customers--or are open to strengthening ties with your customers--then UX professionals can create and grow a database of study participants from them. Your customers can be reached through many channels: TV, mobile communications, online, in-store, and by phone. Why not use some of those channels to recruit willing study participants? Customer Service representatives can ask callers if they would like to participate in studies, and then flag that particular caller for follow-up by a researcher. Emails and paper mailings can include information about registering for studies, as can receipts for in-store and online purchases.

While this is a great way to recruit study participants, be warned: It is feasible for smaller studies, such as formative studies. Larger studies can quickly become unwieldy and should be handled by professional recruiters.

Lab Studies Are Not Always Necessary When Studying Actual Use

Another common criticism of UX research is that it does not mirror actual use because it occurs under very controlled conditions. This is a valid criticism to a certain extent. For example, if you are interested in how your customers interact with a system designed to manage automated processes on an industrial floor, then it makes no sense to test customers on the system in a well-lit room free of noise and any protective gear they might wear. In circumstances where the product already exists or some task performance baseline is known, then it is a good idea to study users in their actual environment. This can eliminate costs for creating a lab on business premises or renting facilities off-site. It also provides insight into issues you may not have thought of during the initial development of a product but that can be remedied in future iterations.

Lab studies should be conducted when:

Baselines of performance and user behavior are needed for new interactions

Comparing performance on basic tasks across multiple products.

One further note regarding where to test. It is not always necessary to have a lab or to use external facilities if you need to have strict control over environmental variables that could skew a study's final outcome. If there is an available conference room or office that can be converted to a testing area in your business space, then that is an easy way to avoid using external facilities.

Use Other Methods Than Just Testing Users

UX research is more than testing users. Using other methods, however, depends on where a product is in development, the type of information needed, and available budget. Testing with users is always a good idea, but some issues can be caught before they get baked into a design or product by conducting heuristic reviews or task analyses. These two methods in particular can be used on competitors' products to inform the design and development of a new product, or refinement of an existing one. Depending on the circumstances, a UX professional may also recommend using different methods than the two highlighted in this section.


UX research is not impossible for small businesses to conduct. This paper has provided several guidelines to dispel any misconceptions about working with UX professionals and conducting UX research. Small business owners should work with UX professionals to improve their products and increase revenue, making their businesses more competitive regardless of the industry in which they operate.

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About the Author

Leslie McFarlin, McFarlin Consulting, LLC
P.O. Box 5295
Aurora, IL 60507

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