Maybe you've finally decided to ditch the paperwork and spreadsheets and get your own low-code app. Or maybe you're already using a custom app that serves you well, but you're looking to expand and improve. Here's one thing you can do—no matter what your situation is—that will ensure your custom app turns out as well as possible:

Usability research. But isn't usability research expensive and time-consuming? And will it even be worth the effort?

While traditional usability research can eat up considerable time and money, it also provides you with valuable insights that will help you improve your app. And for a company leveraging a low-code platform and citizen developers, there's a way to get the benefits of usability research without the usual hassle and expense.

Some say discount usability testing, while others prefer guerrilla research; but regardless of what you call it, it's a method for extracting valuable user insights in the fastest, cheapest way possible. There's no need for dedicated user research teams, huge budgets, or months of testing. By applying certain key research strategies, you can get most of the benefits of usability research without breaking the bank or wasting tons of time.

What exactly is guerrilla research?

Guerrilla research is a method of usability testing that gives you many of the benefits of traditional usability research at a fraction of the time and cost. Think about it in terms of the 80/20 rule. You get 80% of the value of traditional research by putting in 20% of the time, money, and effort.

Guerrilla research is especially suited to small teams that have the desire to improve their apps with user data, but are lacking the resources required for traditional usability testing. In short, guerrilla research is cheap, practical, and agile.

Guerrilla research vs traditional research

So how is discount usability testing different from traditional methods?

First off, you're gathering less data by testing fewer participants. Traditional usability testing includes as many participants as possible, which can get expensive fast. Guerrilla research, on the other hand, tests lower numbers, meaning less time invested.

Guerrilla research also favors shorter sessions. Traditional research sessions can take up to an hour, while discount usability testing is aiming for 10-15 minutes each.

Finally, guerrilla research is less stringent and formal—asking a coworker if they can help out or approaching a stranger on the street, rather than paying a company to provide you with dozens of participants for a weeks-long project.

So the real difference between traditional usability research and guerrilla research is a matter of scope. The sessions for both will look largely the same—you'll be sitting down with a participant, whether it's in person or over the internet, and asking them to complete a task or series of tasks. You'll just be meeting with fewer of them, and for less time.

The benefits of guerrilla research

When a company is new, small, or still growing, there's often no room in the budget for expensive research, let alone a dedicated usability team. This is especially true if the core service a business provides isn't explicitly tied to the app that needs refining—if a retail startup is trying to establish itself in the market, it's not going to want to spend too much time and money on an internal app only being used by a dozen employees. One of the main selling points of guerrilla research is that sessions can be conducted quickly, with minimal investment, but still provide solid results.

And once leadership is on board, the agility and practicality of this method means that you can quickly expand or contract your efforts based on your team's changing needs. If you're testing an internal app, it's easy to grab a coworker or two—if they're free, of course—and run your notes, questions, and tasks by them to ensure your concepts make sense to other people.

If you're launching a public-facing app, volunteers—who provide invaluable real-world insights—are everywhere. It's often just a matter of doing the legwork of finding people, whether it's on the street or online.

Teams made up of citizen and low-code developers can benefit even more from guerrilla research, as they're often small and intimately involved in the project. Instead of a separate usability team that needs days to set up meetings and gather important information, the developers themselves can take the job from start to finish in less time, without all the back and forth.

Before getting started

Now, having said all that, you'll get the most mileage out of your discount usability testing if you keep some important points in mind before you begin. Planning ahead and sticking to your plan throughout the process will help you collect better data, by ensuring your questions are targeted and your sessions run smoothly.

Your first step here should be to set your goals. What is it you want to achieve from this research? How will you run your sessions in order to gather the insights needed to reach them? And what metrics will you be tracking?

When setting your goals, you'll want to keep it simple. Guerrilla research works best when it's straightforward, well-defined, and uncomplicated. You should be aiming for sessions that are no more than 15 minutes long. This means sticking to one feature or process in your app, or perhaps a few specific tasks.

And once you have your goals set, you'll want to create a script. Scripts are extremely important for a few reasons. They help you formulate unbiased questions and ensure that every participant is getting more or less the same experience, which improves the quality of your data. 

Take this question for example: Do you prefer Option A over Option B? In this case, you're subtly encouraging your participant to agree with you, which will skew the data in favor of Option A. This phenomenon is called "acquiescence bias," and it's a major issue when running research of any kind. A better way to phrase the question would be: Which of the two options do you prefer? This allows the participant to state their preference without having to agree or disagree with your question. Writing a script beforehand is the easiest way to identify and eliminate any subtle bias in how you're asking your questions.

In addition to keeping your questions unbiased, scripts also help you stay on track, if you lose your train of thought or find yourself going off on a tangent. While discount usability testing is cheap, it's not free—time is money!

Customer-facing apps

You'll also want to think about how you're going to approach your participants. If you're testing an external-facing app, deciding how, when, and where you'll conduct your testing is extremely important. We're going to give you a few options to get you started, but this is far from an exhaustive list:

  • Ask someone in your circle who matches your target demographic. Because discount usability testing isn't meant to be as scientifically rigorous as traditional methods, there's no reason not to tap into opportunities in your immediate social circle. If your relative or friend has a dog, get them to try out your dog-walking app by scheduling an appointment!

  • Solicit participants from people in a relevant public space. In this case, you'll want to prepare a few questions for potential participants, to ensure they fit your target audience. These recruitment screeners are invaluable if you're not hand-picking your participants beforehand.

  • Source participants from online. Craigslist and social media platforms are low-cost ways to attract participants if you can't, or don't want to, do it in person.

Offering an incentive of some kind—a gift card for example—is sure to attract more willing participants. Just make sure to screen everyone, to ensure your gift cards aren't being given to people who aren't providing you with relevant data.

Business-facing apps

Now, in the case of an internal-facing app, you don't have to worry quite as much about getting participants, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't think about the points we made above.

You'll still want to screen your participants to ensure they're your target audience. In this case, that means recruiting people who are (or will be) actually using the app as part of their jobs. And you'll want to do your best to make sure your participants aren't bored or preoccupied. Try and find coworkers who aren't buried under a mountain of work, and if you can avoid forcing anyone to participate, that will ensure the entire process goes more smoothly.

Bribing them with smoothies or donuts probably won't hurt either.

Running your research session

So you're all set to get started. You've got a good grasp of why usability research is important, and you've put together a solid script that's been looked over by your teammates and is ready for the real thing. What's next?

While the details are a bit different depending on the circumstances—internal vs external, in-person vs remote—we're going to walk you through how to run your own successful discount usability session.

Warm up

A great way to ensure a good session is to make sure your participant is comfortable and relaxed. Don't jump right to business; have some light questions prepared to break the ice and build rapport. Asking how their day is going will go a long way here.

Collect demographic data

This step will be different depending on the details of your research. If it's a session for an internal app, and your participant is a colleague, you probably won't need to collect much information from them. If it's a session for a customer-facing app, you'll want to gather relevant user data. For example, if you're asking parents to try out a tutoring app, you'll want to collect some information, such as the age of their child and what other outside educational services they're currently using.

Begin the session

Now is when you start giving your participant tasks to complete. This will, again, be specific to your app. If you have a pain point you already know you need to eliminate, the task can focus on that—perhaps users are having difficulty successfully navigating the app and you're looking to get data on how to fix it. For an internal app, you may have noticed that colleagues are slow to pick up certain workflows, or that there are particular areas of the app that people find frustrating.

Your job here is to identify why these problems are occurring and find a way to eliminate them. This means asking questions to determine what's wrong and how to fix it. If your participant is having trouble figuring out where to go to accomplish your task, ask them where they think they should go. Finding out where a participant expects something to be is integral to improving your user experience and, in turn, increasing user satisfaction.

It's also vitally important to make sure you're moderating the session well. Always use clear instructions that don't guide the participant in any way, and speak in a neutral tone to ensure you're not influencing their behavior. Watch for cues that the participant is getting bored or frustrated, so you can intervene to find out what the problem is, how they're feeling, and why. This will elicit extremely valuable data that you can then turn into actionable improvements to your app.

You'll want to avoid speaking too often, though, as this can get the participant off track. During the research session, the participant should be explaining their thought process while you observe quietly. While we do want to sometimes intervene to gather data and move the session along, it can be good to allow a participant to struggle for longer than we may like. In the real world, there won't be a moderator there to help them overcome a problem, and this experience can be turned into valuable data with questions like: "At this point, what would you do?" or "What would you do next?" If the answer to the first question is "I'd quit the app," then you know you've identified a problem that needs immediate attention.

Take detailed notes—and actually go over them

In a perfect scenario, you'll be running your sessions with two people: one to moderate the session and one to observe and take notes. If a dedicated note-taker is unavailable, we suggest that you record the session, to make sure you don't miss anything important while you're moderating. Even if you do have a second person running the session with you, it's a good idea to record it. And after the session is over, sit down with your partner (or by yourself) and go over the session again. Read through your notes, watch the video, and look out for anything you may have missed in the moment. This will all come in handy later.

Analyzing the results

Once you have your data collected, it's important to begin analyzing it as soon as possible. Identify the major and minor issues your participants had and flag them for future attention.

It's just a matter of rewatching your sessions and taking detailed notes—including quotes and time stamps—to ensure everything's organized and easily accessible when the time comes to start implementing changes.

We hope this guide has helped you on your path to running your own guerrilla usability tests. Remember, you don't need a dedicated UX team with unlimited money and a timeframe of weeks or months—all it takes is one or two citizen developers, a couple days, and a few participants. Once you start gathering valuable, actionable insights, you'll be making significant improvements to your app in no time.

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