Marketing organizations big and small are talking about data-driven design and decision making — leveraging user research and analytics to optimize user experiences, increase marketing campaign effectiveness and improve products — with the ultimate goal of winning and retaining new customers. For start-ups with digital products or those reliant on digital marketing, where platforms are new and resources are limited, putting user research processes and analytics tracking in place can be overwhelming and get put on the back burner in order to meet launch deadlines. Unfortunately, this can have immediate consequences in the form of poor customer experiences, poor conversion rates, negative user feedback, and business requests for user behavior for which there is no data available. Understanding what makes up user research and where it belongs in the process can help start-up organizations build it into their culture from the start.

Objectivity is the Goal

First off, what is user research? Put simply, user research should help drive design decisions and can consist of any feedback, observations, research results or user data that helps provide an understanding of how users behave and their needs, motivations and expectations. User research — the cornerstone of every good UX design practice — is observable, objective and actionable. Whether incorporating usability studies, leveraging web/mobile analytics, performing A/B testing, or looking at survey results, the key word here is objective. It is all too easy in a start-up environment — where product team makeups may be less formal or sophisticated and input may come from various sources — to respond to anecdotal or subjective feedback. Often confused with market research (i.e., what people say or want), user research findings are based on what people actually do when they interact with an interface.

Informal Efforts Can Uncover Big Findings

For start-ups, user research doesn’t have to be formal or sophisticated to be objective or effective. For example, when putting a product flow or digital marketing flow in place, getting feedback on paper printouts or PDF prototypes are easy ways to find out if a user experience is intuitive or not. Gathering feedback in this way can be done without investing time or resources in testing technologies or leaving the office — simply by asking co-workers outside of the project team or a few customers in the local Starbucks to walk through a flow and provide feedback. It doesn’t take more than half a dozen people to uncover issues and get meaningful feedback that can greatly improve a digital or product experience (a small sample size of 5-7 people will generally uncover a large percentage of standard navigation or functional usability issues).

Know What You Want to Test and Keep it Simple

Whether formal or informal, it is important to have specific objectives about what you are trying to learn. What part of the user flow is most critical to your marketing or revenue goals? How simple is it for users to get through it? Can they find what they are being asked to look for? Can they get through the tasks they need to in order to complete a transaction? Knowing the specific questions you want answered will provide more meaningful findings, and will enable you to filter out more subjective feedback (for example, “I don’t like that color” or “I don’t like that font”). Also, don’t try to test too many different things in one study. Keeping tests simple will keep participants focused on the critical areas you need feedback on, and make reporting the findings more efficient and effective.

Connect Study Feedback with User Analytics Data

Once user behavior metrics are available (via third-party and or internal analytics platforms), connecting usability feedback with user analytics will provide the clearest insights into user behavior. It’s possible for user analytics data to contradict study or anecdotal feedback, showing that critical flows or functions are in fact being completed at high frequencies, even though study participants (or family and friends) provided negative feedback on a user flow. Some user experience flows will have a learning curve, requiring some (though ideally minimal) trial and error on the user’s part before the behavior becomes second nature. It’s easy for negative feedback from the field or during sales presentations to set the alarm bells ringing, but it doesn’t always align with the real story. While numbers can tell you what is happening, user research can shed light on the reasons why it’s happening.

Better Early Than Late

In a perfect world, user research and analytics processes are incorporated up front during the design and development process. This is easier said than done in start-ups, as limited resources and tight deadlines can lead to this work effort being deemed less than critical. However, not accounting for it up front ALWAYS creates more work or rework in the end. Knowing whether a design flow actually works before implementing it sounds like a no brainer, but this is all too often not the case in organizations of all sizes. When it comes to user analytics, it is also important to have up-front discussions on key success metrics, to understand benchmarks and set targets, and then to make sure pages or screens are instrumented correctly to capture the data. Analytics software packages can only do so much on their own, and too often experiences are launched with no mechanisms in place to capture data critical to understanding business success or failure.

For start-ups, it’s important to remember that robust and accurate reporting on user behavior doesn’t happen overnight. Different platforms and databases will need to be integrated, and there will be limitations of certain platforms in providing a complete picture. It is therefore important to start out with the core behaviors and metrics that are critical to business and marketing success, and make sure they are being measured and reported accurately. From there, as existing product features are being updated and new product features are being rolled out, more formal and regular user research processes can be put into place, with additional resources and capabilities added as necessary. Ultimately, the ideal end-state is to build research, testing and optimization into the day-to-day culture of the organization. Your customers, and your business, may depend on it.