How Do I Get User Research Done On a Shoestring Budget?

Welcome to Highway1’s hardware advice column What’s Your Problem, where our startups get answers from our amazing community of staff, mentors, partners, and suppliers.

Robert Prickett
Published in
6 min readMar 3, 2017


Today’s question is for anyone taking those first steps toward product-market fit.

How do you conduct user research on a tight budget when you’re trying to introduce consumer hardware?

For our answer, we turned to Highway1 mentor and industrial designer Rob Prickett.

Assuming you can afford the time, a small budget isn’t necessarily a barrier to doing effective user research. While budget may constrain the quantity of high-fidelity hardware prototypes you can produce, this is of little concern when you’re in the early stages of going out to gather insights about your customers and gauging their response to concepts.

Research can be done on a shoestring budget; you just need a strategy and the courage to get out the door and talk to people.

Project Framing

Save yourself time and money by fully articulating your objectives and the project scope. Doing so will not only help focus your recruiting, but also reveal the questions you should ask, as well as the tools worth using. Take considerable time defining your problem, your audience, and listing your assumptions — constraining your research scope by identifying knowledge gaps can have a massive impact on the efficacy and cost of your research.

Maintaining Focus

Building and maintaining empathy for your users is critical to staying focused on what counts. Throughout a project, it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of who you’re building for and get sucked into prioritizing a feature or styling your product based on the unfounded thoughts and opinions of your team members, advisors, vendors, etc. Avoid this time and resource trap by collecting, analyzing, and documenting user insights.

Start by building a working draft of your user personas, which you can also use to inform your recruitment. To organize and make sense of the information you gather, begin developing frameworks including journey maps, comparative matrices, and 2x2s. Further refine and build on all these documents as you go and refer to them periodically throughout your project, using them as a gut check anytime someone insists on adding to or changing the product.

From Generative to Evaluative

When it comes to how to collect user data, there’s a wide range of techniques to choose from (see for a range of techniques). The important thing is having a strategy for applying each one according to where you are in your development. Generally speaking, the insights you collect and the prototypes you develop should seek to answer the following human-centered questions as you advance from front-end to product launch:

  • Who are we building for, what are they like, and what problem do they have?
  • What are some solutions that may solve the problem, meeting their needs?
  • What do they think of the solutions we’ve imagined?
  • What do they think of our refinements?
  • What do they think of the launched product?

Notice your research will progress from mostly generating insights to evaluating your product concept and feature set. Similar to framing your problem, having a strategy around what you’re trying to achieve with each interview, co-creation activity, and survey will mean getting meaningful data faster and more cost-effectively.

Recruiting Participants

While established businesses can often utilize a database of existing customers or a mailing list for recruitment, startups need to be more scrappy. Start by creating a plan for who you should talk to, how you’ll reach them, and what questions you should ask.

Consider where each user you’re investigating typically hangs out and how you can make contact. If, for example, you’re targeting parents of kids who swim, you could hang out at the front gate of a water park to solicit opinions and ask for follow-up interviews, or organize a swim meetup for parents and their children at a local community pool. If you’re B2B, recruitment can be as simple as targeting and messaging key contacts over LinkedIn.

Once you’ve found a few willing participants, ask for referrals. You’ll be amazed how quickly this can snowball.

Regarding cost for participation, you’ll find many people are happy to take as much as an hour out of their day to sit down and chat with you, for free — provided you promise to keep them in the loop. Generally speaking, this is true across all fields, especially when you’re talking about a passionate userbase. However, if you really need to incentivize them, a $20 Starbucks gift card goes a long way.

Validation Research and Prototyping Hardware Frugally

Once you’ve gotten to ideating product concepts, you’ll need to validate them with users. There are a number of ways you can go about this on a tight budget, often without even building a physical prototype.

You want to be intelligent about what type of feedback you’re trying to gather with what kind of prototype, which boils down to how you separate the aesthetic fit and finish from how it works. Knowing when and what to prototype per your research/testing objectives is key to cost savings. Consider the following:

  • 2D Visuals (No Model) get you feedback on early ideas for the cost of a pack of sticky notes.
    Staying Scrappy: Stick-figure illustrations and rough storyboards accompanied by verbal explanations can often be enough to communicate a new idea and gauge initial response — with no 3D prototype required.
  • Looks-Like Model gets you feedback on form factor, aesthetics, and ergonomics.
    Staying Scrappy: Early on, get into the lab and shave down some foam by hand — in this way, you can explore a ton of concepts and quickly get them into the hands of users. When presenting to users, consider showing drawings and visualizations to back up your prototypes.
  • A Works-Like Model gets you feedback on functional aspects of your product.
    Staying Scrappy: Working doesn’t necessarily mean fully working; oftentimes it just has to have the appearance of working. Be a magician; maybe your user is clicking a dummy button on an iPad and you’re secretly working behind the scenes to make the lights on the model flash. Not everything needs to function, so long as you can convince the audience and get the feedback you need for what you’re testing.
  • Works-Like & Looks-Like gets you feedback on the nuances of your physical design and functional features simultaneously. These models are typically produced beyond your ideation phases, after you’ve down-selected to a single product concept or direction.
    Staying Scrappy: Cut corners where no one will notice. Build economically using 3D prints rather than machined plastics. Use off-the-shelf parts rather than custom.

No matter what you’re building and testing, remember not to fall into the trap of trying to do everything at once — iterate quickly, test, and move on.

Extra Credit: It’s not uncommon to produce a prototype to show off at a conference expo, only to stress test it to failure the following week. So while you’re building a prototype for one purpose, such as validation testing, consider where else it can be utilized before or after. Minor tweaks to your prototype build spec can make it useful in a wider range of applications — meaning you can get more data with fewer prototypes.

In conclusion, saving cash on your user research really comes down to strategy, planning, and hustle.


Design Kit — IDEO’s free, web-based toolkit for human-centered design, including a detailed breakdown of research techniques

3D Prototyping:

Fictiv, Shapeways — 3D Printing

Ponoko — Laser Cutting

ProtoLabs and Plethora — Machined plastic and metal parts

McMaster-Carr — Supplier of off-the-shelf mechanical parts — highly searchable inventory with 3D CAD available for many items

UX Prototyping:

POP (now Marvel) — One of my favorite lightning-fast tools for clickable mobile prototypes — sketch on paper, snap with your phone, make clickable, and test

Invision, UXPin, Axure RP — For higher-fidelity wireframing and clickable prototypes —Compare popular tools by speed, affordability, interactivity, and more.



Robert Prickett

Product designer - research, strategy, industrial design, and UX.