User research can be a hard sell for clients and stakeholders who don’t understand its value. They might have questions like:
- Where does it fit into the budget?
- Do we have enough time to make it happen?
- Is research even worth it?
Unfortunately, some people can’t be convinced of the value of user research—so designers have had to get creative in developing time-effective, low-cost, and impactful methods.
Guerilla research is one of these.
- The definition of guerilla research
- When guerilla research should, and shouldn’t, be used
- How to implement guerilla research methods
What is guerrilla research?
Guerrilla research is a quick, low-cost way of learning about and understanding experiences. It is usually done in public spaces and does not require a rigorous recruitment process, although it does require its own type of planning.
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Especially when facing pushback from stakeholders regarding the cost of user research or the benefits of user-centered design, guerrilla research can prove the value of research with minimal investment. Its inherent flexibility—online or offline, one day or one week, sessions as short as ten minutes—makes it an easier sell than a full research program.
When should you use guerrilla research?
Guerrilla research is most effective for research that has a small scope, especially when used for intercept studies at the beginning of a project. An intercept study is a research method that involves gathering feedback from users onsite as they complete a process. For example, introducing a short survey after a user completes a transaction, or interviewing participants of a conference as they leave the conference. You can use intercepts to define and refine what areas to explore more deeply for more foundational research, such as contextual inquiries, interviews, participatory design research, and when necessary, surveys.
“Especially when facing pushback from stakeholders regarding the cost of user research or the benefits of user-centered design, guerrilla research can prove the value of research with minimal investment.”
Guerrilla research is also helpful for testing product concepts at all levels of fidelity, from paper prototypes to high-fidelity mockups. This will help you identify quick fixes and learn if potential users have a general understanding of what your concept is about. It is best to limit this to one feature, flow or 2 or 3 tasks as you want to keep it short and quick. Guerrilla testing can be implemented during design sprints or workshops or in agile or lean processes.
When should you avoid guerrilla research?
The beauty and brilliance of guerrilla research lie in its flexibility. Therefore, projects with stringent needs from users aren’t a great fit. These projects include:
- Sensitive subjects, like finance of healthcare
- “Expert” personas who require specific domain knowledge
- Context-dependent experiences
This is because people are unlikely to share sensitive topics or want to discuss domain-specific knowledge with a stranger who bumps into them at a mall. Imagine you went to a mall or a coffee shop to relax or do some work and someone comes to ask you about your sex life or spending habits? They don’t want to just check boxes in a survey, they want to have a full conversation with you. How would that make you feel?
Watch people use your product or prototype in real-time. Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash.
How do you conduct guerrilla research?
Like any research process, guerrilla research can only be successful when properly planned.
Define your goal
Like with any other form of research, you need to clearly define what you want to find out before stepping out into the world. If you already have a prototype, be it low- or high-fidelity, determine what tasks (limit this to two or three), feature, or flow you want to test or what questions you want to ask. Determine what metrics you’re tracking if any, and what the findings of the study will be used for.
Examples of goals for guerrilla research:
- To understand if and why proposed investment tracker feature appeals to users
- To assess if users understand the purpose of scan-to-pay feature
- To understand how current law students study for examinations
Define your participants
While you’re usually testing concepts or ideas that do not require specialized knowledge, depending on what feature, flow, or idea you’re working on, you might need to define your participant group.
For example, when testing the usability of news sites, I wanted to talk with people who already read news online every day. I did not consider gender and age as participant criteria, but I made sure to talk to people of different ages and genders.
If you were working on a study app for law school students, available only as a mobile app, your participant criteria for usability testing would include people who are current law school students and use a smartphone.
Create a discussion guide and short screener
Once you’ve defined your goal and your target group, you should write out a short guide that helps you recruit people on the spot. This is known as a recruitment screener, which is a series of questions that allow you to qualify participants for your research, ensuring you’re talking to the right people. For example, if you want to understand how people order food online, you might want to include screener questions to find out if, how often, or where they order food.
Another reason screeners are useful is to help ensure you have the right mix of people. For example, if you want to find out their level of tech proficiency, you can include a question on that in your screener. Limit your screener to two or three questions.
For my newspaper website study, my first screener question was:
How often do you read the news online (never, once a week, two to three times a week, four to six times a week, every day)
If they answered “never”, I thanked them for their time and moved to the next person. If they answered any of the other options, I would ask them this:
Where do you read the news online?
I would only proceed to the usability testing if they answered on their phone.
In addition to the screener, you’ll need a discussion guide, highlighting how you’ll introduce yourself to the participant as well as what areas you want to focus on in the short time you have together. You could start with something like
Hi, my name is Lade and I’m working on a project to understand people’s experiences using news websites. Would you mind trying out some things on a website and giving your feedback?
In your notes, you should include what specific areas you would like to cover, like experience using the website or checkout flow.