When startups conduct user research early, they move faster, make fewer mistakes, and have better aligned product teams. And yet, despite that, designers and product managers still often neglect user research as part of their process.

Think about what would happen if other industries worked this way. What if an architect failed to verify the ability of a building's materials to bear weight before construction began? What if a medical professional failed to ask a patient their symptoms prior to prescribing medication? The risk of not validating your assumptions can be dangerous in some fields and is reckless in all fields— including product design.

Skipping user research is risky and dangerous.

Regardless of the industry in which you work, mitigating risk is critical to the success of your service or product. Developing a product is always a risk, because you cannot predict exactly how successful it will be. If you're not able to answer why there is a need for your product, you're taking an even bigger risk by blindly moving forward.

This is why user research is so important. Performing the proper user research upfront will answer your "why" question and provide you with a better understanding of how big a risk your product is. By researching user behavior, product teams can spot early on the important user behaviors that could impact what a product might become.

So how can startups balance moving fast with doing this important user research? This guide can help.

If user research isn't a part of your design process, adjust your design process

Do you have 6 weeks to design a product? Great.

When product teams need to hit tight deadlines, user research is often the first thing they remove from the design process. The better option, however, is to adjust the process itself. It's more important to make sure you have identified the right problem before you start designing a solution. The last thing you want is to waste resources designing a product that fails to solve a user need.

Do you have 1 week to design a product? Fun.

Do not negotiate your process. Redefine it to include user research and build it it into your timeline.

Key questions include:

  • Why should we invest in this product?
  • What problem does this product solve?
  • Why will users pay for this product?
  • How would this product be most useful to your users?
  • How do users expect to interact with a product like this?
  • How do users determine success and failure?

If you don't have access to external users, test your product internally

While the inability to test a product with real-world users can affect the validity of a product's design, there are still some easy ways that product teams can get some early user insights.

One of the easiest ways is to lean on people inside your company, who can help you figure out if you're going in the right direction. After you build their feedback into your product, you can use added feedback from real-world users to iterate further.

When you are trying to determine who in your company could best exemplify your product's users, consider a few questions:

  • What led your company to design and engineer a product?
  • Did leadership see a big opportunity that they wanted to explore?
  • Did customer support report a workflow problem from a customer?
  • Did the sales team identify a growing need from your customers?

There are people across your organization who hold bits and pieces of knowledge about your users. These people can have unique insight into your target users and can influence your designs. Aggregate this data, and you will begin to form your "why," which you can refer back to throughout your product design process.

If you don't have time to prototype and test, use a competitor's product

If you don't have time to mock up a prototype to test, test a competitor's. A competitor can be defined in multiple ways. To start, determine if there is any company with which you are in direct competition. This could be a company that is solving the same problem for the same users. (Think, for example, McDonald's and Burger King.)

Next, go even broader. Figure out if there is any company that offers a different service or product, but serves the same users, such as McDonald's and Pizza Hut. Begin collecting this data and determine how your competitors are succeeding and where you have an opportunity to improve the user experience.

To start, consider the following:

  • Who are the competitors in your space?
  • How are they addressing this problem?
  • What are they doing well? What could they do better?

Perform usability tests on a competitor's product to identify what is clear and what is unclear to your users. This will begin to form a starting point to influence your designs.

When testing, consider:

  • How easily does a user perform a task?
  • Are there industry standards that you will need to meet in your product?
  • Does the user enjoy using the product?

In your testing process, you may just find out that a competitor's product solves your users needs. That might seem bad, but it is, in fact, a gift because it saves you from investing resources in remaking a product that already exists.

If you don't have support to perform user research, get your product team involved

It's important to remember that your product team is comprised of multiple people who play different, equally important, roles in the product process.

Your product manager, for example, is responsible for the product from conception all the way through to its launch and maintenance. They focus on setting the product vision and strategy. Convince them how user research can help them achieve better results. Do so by considering:

  • Has your product manager ever struggled with getting buy-in from leadership on product vision? User research equips them with data to create a more convincing argument.
  • Has your product manager ever missed a deadline due to shifting user requirements? User research lets designers move faster due to increased confidence in decision-making. It will reduce the probability of needing to take a step back from making too many assumptions.
  • Is conversion one of your product goals ? What about retention? User research influences how the product is designed, which influences how the product is used and whether or not it's valuable to users. And that has a direct impact on whether you meet your goals.

And then there are your engineers. These are the people responsible for the technical designing, testing, and maintenance of your products. They focus on identifying solutions to technical problems, implementation challenges, and developing and releasing well-tested, bug-free software.

Here's how to convince them how user research can help them work smarter.

  • Was there ever a time where designs changed last minute due to lack of early testing, disrupting an engineer's workflow? User research up front helps designers make fewer changes that engineers need to implement. It can help engineers plan longer term technical roadmaps by understanding how users expect to interact with a product now and in the future.
  • Was there ever miscommunication around a design spec, resulting in an incorrect engineering of a design? User research acts as a source of truth. Involve engineers on your team to take part in understanding why we are designing and building something. The more you are a part of making a decision, the more likely you are to understand and support it. This will also help eliminate feasibility issues or misalignment down the road.

Find an executive sponsor

An executive sponsor will be someone who is dedicated to supporting you in getting the proper research done. It can be someone on the leadership team who is willing to step in and support you if you are blocked. They must find equal value in user research as you do and you must get in writing that they will support you in performing user research.

Find an executive sponsor by directly asking someone you know who finds value in your current design process. This can be a product owner, design leader, CEO, or anyone else who has the ability to influence a decision. You can start by explaining why you believe you need an executive sponsor, outline their responsibilities and how you expect to utilize their help. You can then lean on them as an escalation path.

People support what they know and understand. Help your team understand the value of user research by including them. Bring product managers and engineers into user research sessions, and encourage them to watch recordings of usability tests to understand why certain design decisions were made. Utilize your executive sponsor as a resource to get things moving and get buy-in.

The bottom line: Start scrappy

As a product designer, research is part of your job description. Even if you are strapped for time and resources, there are ways to make user research a feasible part of your product design process. Take the parts that you can incorporate now and get started. And use the small early successes to build momentum and advocate to expand user research. These incremental improvements will eventually embed research as an essential step in your company's product process.

Rachel Rodden is a Senior Product Designer at Button. Rachel advocates for user research, design thinking, and most importantly simple design. When not designing, she can be found desperately wanting a dog, doing yoga, trying new restaurants and doing crafty DIY projects. You can find her on Twitter.