Now available: Design for Impact by Erin Weigel

How to plan your first lean user research project


It’s one thing to announce you’ll start conducting lean user research and another thing to do it. How do you start when you’re a tiny four-person team juggling three unique lines of business?

We poured our energy into drafting a research roadmap. It was ambitious and read like a thick, spiral-bound menu from the Cheesecake Factory. A buffet of enticing research techniques. Mental models, ethnographic studies, journey maps, interviews, surveys and Big Data. But face it: small businesses like ours don’t have the resources to apply them all. So Lou and Elaine suggested we tap our deep bench of consultants for advice. Cut out the cheesecake, go straight to the meat.

We asked our experts a question: how can we glean insights without investing a lot of time or money? Here are quick takeaways I gained from the six who answered the call.

1. Know the research question before you start.

Curb the temptation to tackle everything at once. Choose the one burning question you most want to answer then plan a short sprint no longer than 2-3 weeks long. By keeping your sprints short and focused, you obtain quick, actionable insights. You avoid burnout and enable repeatable research.

– From Caroline Jarrett, form design and survey guru

2. Don’t fish with a hammer.

Tools can be shiny and sexy but choose the one(s) that will help you answer the research question. For example, mental models are most useful when you plan to pivot strategies or have a known blind spot.

– From Indi Young, author of Mental Models and Practical Empathy

3. Tap asynchronous tools. Or a few volunteers.

Asynchronous tools. Small teams can extend their capacity by using asynchronous tools to gather customer input. Be sure to pick the right tool for the job. For example, a service like can help you validate usability of task-based actions.

Volunteers. Find interns or volunteers within your organization (or even your customer base) who are passionate about the topic to add brains and elbow grease to your research project.

– From Leah Buley, author of UX Team of One

4. Develop an efficient and effective interview plan.

Interviews. You don’t necessarily need to interview a lot of people. Once you start to hear a pattern in people’s answers, you can stop.

Synthesis. Immediately after each interview, jot down your top 5 takeaways. Iterate your hypothesis as you go. When it’s time to synthesize listen to recordings or pay a transcription service.

– From Steve Portigal, author of Interviewing Users

5. Make a quick and dirty customer story with what you know.

Traditional personas can take weeks or months to research and develop. Meanwhile a customer story, like a Buyer Legend, takes a few hours. It’s written from what you already know about your users and revised as you collect insights. This post shows you how to write your own.

– From Jeff Eisenberg, co-author of Buyer Legends: The Executive’s Storytelling Guide

6. Segment around behavior, not demographics.

Indi Young and Jeff Eisenberg took issue with our audience segments because they focused on demographics. Forget job titles, years of UX experience, gender, they said. Instead, try building segments around a commonly shared behavior or intention.

7. Tell an insights story.

After you gather insights, consider crafting a compelling story, rather than a report about what you learned from your audience. Stories build a foundation of insight that is easier to remember than a report. It also helps build connections with users as people, not numbers.

– From Boon Sheridan, content strategist and IA provocateur

With plenty of food for thought, it’s time to adjust our approach. Stay tuned for our next post, where we’ll reveal the burning question we chose, and cover the highs and lows of conducting our first People Project sprint.

What lean methods have worked well for you? What are we missing?