Finding Users

And what to do when you’ve found them

Finding users can be really hard.

If we want to talk about majestic beasts, then your actual users are the unicorns. Finding and getting time with one is a magical experience, getting time with a blessing of unicorns is even more than a blessing… it’s a miracle.

Before we dive into where to look for these end users, let’s figure out what kind of insights you are looking for.

There are two main kinds of research and depending on which you are going for, you might change where you look.

User Research

User research is done to understand the user. Particularly their pains, wants, needs, and any opportunities your product might have to make their life better. Do user research if you don’t know who your user really is. Do user research if you’re starting a new project or track of work. Do user research if you’re ‘done’ and think you know all the things.

Usability Testing

Usability testing is done to… test the usability of your product. Pretty straightforward, right? This should be done ALL THE TIME. Weekly. It helps you find issues with big things like information architecture, the desirability a new feature, and whether or not the user understands what the product is about; down to the smaller things like color contrast, visual inconsistencies, and the clarity of labels. It’s just great.

Places to look

This list starts from the best places to look down to the “this’ll have to do” places. Much like my Jillian Michaels DVDs tell me there’s no excuse not to work out, I’m telling you there’s no excuse not to talk to users. We both might disagree, but deep down we both know we are wrong.

Members/Subscribers/End Users

Obviously we want to try finding people that are similar to your user, if not your actual user. So. Do you know your actual users? Do you have living, breathing, bought in, subscribed, app downloaded AND used users you could point to? Actually, pointing is rude, can you reach out to them and ask if they would be willing to talk to you? These would be the prime people to talk to for both user research and usability testing.


Unicorn is to end user as horse is to proxy. Close, but not quite the real thing.

Sometimes your end users will be encased in red tape, sheltered by politics, or their opinions aren’t valued. In other words, maybe it’s raining outside, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your P90X.

If you can’t access users directly look for the proxy users. These are the people who have similar jobs, oversee them, or interact with them for you. You can do user research with them, but only as the last resort.

Go Rogue

Go to them — or where you think they might be. Building a ukelele tuner app? Go to a place that sells ukes. A running app? Head to the park. Make a little sign and set up shop. Be a guerrilla researcher. This is good for user testing.

Craigslist/Task Rabbit/

This is the virtual version of going rogue. Put out an ad with a screener to see if you can get someone close to an actual user. If you are meeting them in person, make sure you stay safe and meet in public. Again, this is good for user testing.

Streets and Hallways

These are your coworkers, friends, and randos you meet on the street. You could also try attending relevant Meetups to find friendly, helpful people. This is kind of the worst case scenario where you ask them to “pretend” a lot. The feedback you get won’t be ideal, but you can still find out a lot about general UI and UX issues.

Protip: don’t ask mom or dad. Their love for you will be directly applied to anything you make. Case in point: My mom reads all of my posts and despite not understanding them, she still likes them and shares them. (Hi mom! Love you.)

What to do when you’ve found them

Lay it all out.

Give them an amount of time and an agenda and stick to it.

If you are user testing, take a few minutes to explain your product and make sure they know you’re not testing them… just the app. If your app has a domain that most people wouldn’t be able to grapple quickly, try really hard to get the actual end users. If that’s not possible, spend a little more time explaining your domain. Ask for honest feedback and if you see them holding back remind them that you WANT to hear what they have to say — good or bad.

Be quiet.

Shh! You’ll scare them off! Ask them questions and ask them to think out loud so you can follow along. Don’t be defensive or rush them through their answers. Just listen. Be super polite and positive and take good notes.

Thank them… A lot.

There are several ways to do this. Mix and match as you and your budget see fit, but always treat your users like the rare and amazing beings they are.

Monetarily. Cold hard cash or gift cards if that’s too sketchy. Keep in mind the user you are targeting and how much time you are asking of them. Make it worth their while.

Free stuff. Tshirts, stickers, mugs, etc. People love swag. Coupons and discounts for whatever you’re peddling work great, too.

Juice and cookies. You can go Red Cross blood donation style and feed them as thanks. If you’re sitting at a cafe, buy them a coffee. If you bring them into your office, have drinks and snacks to offer.

Words. They just did you a huge favor and gave you insights you likely couldn’t see because you are way too close to it. Always thank them.

Mini Story Time

I’d like to conclude with a story from a difficult user testing session. The test wasn’t easy for him to complete, and it wasn’t easy for us to watch, but it really drove home the importance of talking with users.

Me: “Thank you so much for coming in. You’ve given us a lot to think about and work on! Your feedback has been amazing to hear and we really appreciate it. Is there anything else you want to tell us before we wrap up?”

Henry: “Well. You know how there are good sites that are really easy to use? I don’t know how to describe it, but you know when you’re on a good site. Then there are bad sites and you get so mad and frustrated and think, ‘DOESN’T ANYBODY USE THIS?!?’ I guess if I could suggest anything it would be to use it. Or maybe test it out with people and see if it’s hard to do.”

From the mouths of unicorns.

Find them and listen.

Jenn is a product designer @pivotallabs in NYC who owns way too many Sharpies and drinks way too many Schweppes. Also, she writes about product design every Wednesday.

Thank you Bethany Legg for the photo!

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