Life at KAYAK
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Life at KAYAK

7 Hacks for Lean User Research

A UX Designer’s guide to getting over User Research struggles.

Unless you have the luxury of working closely with a UX Researcher, Lean User Research is a term you’ll probably love and hate. You love it, because it means that you can do all the things you want. You hate it, because it also means that you have to do them with limited resources.

In my journey as a UX Designer at KAYAK, I’ve been involved in developing our own guidelines of Lean User Research, all the way from evangelizing its need, to developing and increasing its impact. Thankfully, there was always great material out there created by the explorers and pioneers of Lean User Research. These resources aim to help teams of “one or slightly more” to get jumpstarted with user testing, user interviews or other studies with guerrilla methodologies.

So now is the time for me to share my collection of top hacks for getting over some of the obstacles of Lean User Research.


While recruiting is not the toughest problem to face, it is quite time-consuming. In a fast-paced work culture, it can be a full-time job just to organize content, get legal approvals, send out emails, screen candidates and arrange interviews. Here are some ways to go through the first difficulties faster.

1. Internal user testing

Internal user testing is not cheating. You are being efficient, by using a tech-savvy and capable resource to get great feedback from people who care about the product. My process? I get cookies, book a time and a room and send out an announcement for people who want to participate in user testing in exchange for said cookies.

It is admittedly the fastest way to user test your products. Plus, you get extra points for spreading some UX evangelization across the different teams of your company. Way to go!

2. Street testing? Line ’em up.

When internal user testing is just not going to cut it, you might want to take your prototype to the streets. If you have done street user testing — or if you ever held a job handing out flyers — you know that getting people to talk to you for more than a couple of seconds can be tough. People are either on the go or want to be left alone, and asking for their time can be a socially terrifying experience.

When we decided to try our luck with street user testing, we started by setting up a table at a nearby mall. Getting the first people to accept was difficult, in spite of the strategically placed gift cards and engaging “Love Travel?” signs. Our luck changed when a group of four people agreed to user test. As two people sat down to talk and two formed a line to wait their turn, something miraculous happened. People started being interested on their own and lined up behind them. No more recruiting was needed, we just brought more laptops and sat down to talk to our user testers.

In the end, peer interest was a much more effective recruiting mechanism than us asking people proactively. Next time, get a group of user testers to line up — starting with some colleagues if necessary.

3. Recycling

If this is not your first run of user tests in a while, you probably have some sessions in mind that went great and some that weren’t the definition of success. No matter how hard you work on the set-up, warm-up and question preparation, people will be people and some might be harder or easier to work with.

  • A bad user tester will keep asking you if that’s what you want to hear and will come up with wildly innovative ideas to try to impress you.
  • A good user tester will feel comfortable thinking out loud, will explain clearly what they are looking for and what confuses them.

If you get the latter, don’t be afraid to invite them back! Ask them if it’s okay to contact them again for future user testing, and keep a record of what part of the product they tested. Make sure you don’t use them for the same product twice, as that could create an unwanted bias.

Which leads to our next challenge…

The interview process

So you’ve managed to get over the first hurdle; you got your users, you offered them a cup of coffee and you are sitting across from them. Now you are both getting nervous. You are nervous because you have to lead the interview and because your product is being tested. Your user is nervous because they don’t really know what to expect. During the interview process, it’s your job to guide without leading and make the user feel as comfortable as possible. Here are some more tricks to facilitate this step:

4. Have users read instructions out loud

Standard practice dictates that you should prepare an interview contract and read it to your user. This could include disclaimers and instructions for the interview or test.

To make this process a little less awkward, try preparing the instructions as a slideshow and have the user go through it by reading it out loud. That way you achieve 2 goals:

  • First, it makes the user read through it carefully. If you are given a piece of paper to read under the pressure of people waiting for you, you tend to skim through it fast to avoid the awkward silence.
  • Secondly, it warms the user up to them doing most of the talking. By having them read out loud uninterrupted, the user gets in the habit of talking out loud and hearing mostly their own voice.

5. White lies (“I haven’t worked on this”)

Social conduct gives people a natural tendency to be nice, especially when they are called to judge products of their own work. Ideally, you shouldn’t be conducting the interviews on a product you worked on. But this is Lean User Research we are talking about, and with lean resources, it is hard to get someone else to do the interviews. Despite that, you should make a point to assure the user you did not work on this project and thus cannot take offense to their comments.

I personally like to push a little more by encouraging people to be critical, as it balances the natural tendency to compliment someone’s work.

6. Create a scenario relevant to a past experience

One of the biggest challenges of user testing is the make-believe aspect. “Imagine yourself wanting to travel to a tropical destination” is not exactly the best start to inspire an authentic interaction. Add to that the fact that users are self-conscious when being watched, and you end up having a conversation with an actor who is trying hard to give you what you want to hear.

“Would you have clicked on that if I wasn’t here?” asked the KAYAK interviewer.

“Probably not.” said our tech-savvy, curious and investigative user tester, in a moment of honesty.

One way to eliminate the make-believe parameter, is to relate the script to an experience the user already had. As KAYAK in particular is focused on travel, sometimes it’s difficult to find recruits that are currently planning a trip. To help them relate to the scenario of the task, we adapt it to their previous experience.

An example of that would be a user who traveled a month ago with their partner to California for a wedding. We ask them to plan for that same trip but now as if it was set in the future (let’s say 2 months from now). Noting down details, like which days of the week they traveled on, can help bring out things that were important for that particular trip. For example, one of our testers had to accommodate their partner’s very strict work schedule into planning, meaning that filtering the departure times was way more important to them than to our average user.

7. Neutrality

My personal challenge when interviewing has been to avoid leading the user where I want them to go. One of User Research’s most important benefits is getting you to think like someone else, so you want to make sure you are as objective as possible. This is the time to practice your poker face and, most importantly, practice feeling comfortable in silence. Don’t feel the need to fill in the gaps, since that increases the risk of saying something leading.

One good trick to make this situation more comfortable is to keep yourself busy by writing notes and to let the user get out of situations on their own. If you feel like you have to give a response, have some neutral replies ready to use.

  • What do you think?
  • What would you expect? / What that what you expected?
  • I will answer that question for you after the test.

As Lean User Researchers, every user testing session brings us closer to optimization. As you develop your skills as recruiter, facilitator and interviewer, you will end up with your own list of rules and hacks that make this process effective and as painless as possible. Remember that the most important goals you should aim for is streamlining recruitment, avoiding bias and creating a comfortable environment for the user tester that will help you get as honest of a response as possible. Keeping track of these values, and you will be a force that brings your product closer to the user.

Are you a Lean User Researcher? What are some hacks you have on your list?



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