How do I conduct UX Research for personal projects?

Visual Q’s: June 2020

Jun 29 · 6 min read

Sticky notes, clip board, magnifying glass, speech bubbles

Sticky notes, clip board, magnifying glass, speech bubbles

This month I’m going to be answering SUCH a good question that I think anyone trying to break into UX will find helpful. The biggest difference between being a graphic designer and a UI/UX designer for me has been the research bit. It’s such an important part of the UX process, but it can be difficult to learn when you’re not in a UX job or on a product design team!

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Okay, let’s get to the question:

Dear Maddy,

I’m newer to UX design and am trying to build my first portfolio, but lack work-related projects so I’m trying to create some of my own. I was wondering if you have any suggestions for recruiting people to participate in UX research/usability testing for personal projects. I worry about exhausting the list of people in my immediate circle and also worry that I’m not getting a truly representative sample of users.

— Re-Searching

I think there are two important things to address with this question. First I want to talk about how much/what kind of research is actually necessary for a successful case study for your portfolio. Then I’ll get into the ‘how’ of recruiting for your research.

When it comes to creating work for your portfolio, always think about the goal of the portfolio. Here are some possible goals you might have:
1. Get a job in UX on a design team for a brand or tech company
2. Get hired by a brand/company as a freelance UX designer
3. Get a project out into the world & try to get it built

There may be other goals you have, but these three are the most likely that come to mind. The point of thinking about this goal is to remember WHO you’re trying to impress with this project.

With the first goal, get a job in UX on a design team / at a tech company, you’re trying to impress a hiring manager.

A hiring manager is not going to expect you to have the resources to conduct dozens of interviews or collect tons and tons of data. They want to see that you’re able to use design thinking to solve problems. So should you do some research? Sure! But it can be fairly simple and small-scale.

For example, maybe you’re designing an app that is meant to encourage people to read more. I’d recommend finding 5 people who express interest in wanting to read more (we’ll get into the recruiting in a bit), and ask them a series of questions. Take what comes out of those 5 interviews and draw conclusions to inform your design. Feel free to interview a few more if those conversations don’t yield ANY consistent findings. But the important thing is that you indicate in your case study that this is a restraint you’re working within. This lets the hiring manager know that you’re working with a limited amount of research, you recognize that limitation, and you’re moving forward with the assumption that further research would yield similar results. Certainly this is not how a big tech company should or does handle research, but you’re not a big tech company! Work with what you have and be clear about the constraints you’re working within.

With the second goal, get hired by a brand/company as a freelance UX designer, you’re likely trying to impress a start-up or small business owner.

In this case, it’s probably a good idea to create work that fits within the same industry as the brand(s) you’re trying to work with. And better yet, do some research to show that you understand the industry, the problem space, and the world the product lives in. Ideally, a company who hires you as a UX designer will have some sort of budget for research, so they shouldn’t expect that you already have all the answers, have a line-up of people ready to interview, or have spreadsheets on spreadsheets of data for them to inherit. So just like the first example, the amount of research is less important than the process of researching and how it’s communicated in your case study. For freelancers, a portfolio is a great way to let potential clients know what they can expect from working with you. They’ll want to see that you can conduct research, analyze it, and let it inform designs in a way that’s beneficial for them and the people who use their product.

The last goal, get a project out into the world & try to get it built, is the one that would likely require the most amount of research.

That’s because in this scenario, you’re not just creating a case study, you’re designing a real product that real humans are going to use. Anytime that’s the goal, you should take research more seriously. Since your question was specifically about creating your first UX portfolio, I’m not going to dive any further into this scenario since I’m fairly certain the goal of your portfolio is either #1 or #2.

So with that said, let’s get into some tips for recruiting research participants for personal projects!

I’m going to go back to the example I used above — creating an app for people who want to read more. Let’s say you want to find out when people normally read: what scenarios, times of day, what reminds them to read currently, how much do they read, how much do they want to read, etc. This is all foundational research that will help inform the type of solution you design. But you need to find the right people to talk to and convince them to spend some time talking to you!

You have a couple of options for this…
1. Talk to people you know who you can interview for free
2. Offer a small gift card to people you don’t know

It’s totally okay to talk to people you know for research for a personal project!

The only way it would not be accurate data is if they start saying things they think you want to hear, because they think they’re helping you. In order to squash this, don’t let the interviewee know any details about your project until after the interview. Simple! :) If you have some questions that give away your project or intentions at all, save them for later in the interview.

If you don’t want to interview family or friends, or you’ve already exhausted all of those options, a great way to recruit is by creating a nice-looking post on instagram, facebook, twitter, etc. calling for participants. And better yet, offer a small gift card in return! Encourage your friends & family to share your post so that more people outside your circle can sign up. If you’re in any online groups or forums, those are also great places to post about your study, as long as you OK it with the group host!

Show up where your users would show up.

Another tip specifically about getting a ‘truly representative sample of users’ — Show up where those people would show up. Show up by a book-store (post-COVID of course) to talk to people about reading more. Show up in a new-mom’s FB group to talk to mom’s about motherhood challenges. Reach out to a skincare influencer to see if they’d share a post about recruiting for your skincare app study. You can even get a lil creepy and reach out to individual people on Instagram by searching hashtags related to the topic you’re working around. I’ve done it!! As long as you approach people with kindness and authenticity, they’ll usually respond really well to the request.

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