5 Ways to Save Time During Research

Don't cut out research. Time-saving techniques can help you fit it into any budget.

Research can sometimes feel like a luxury when you work at an agency. With budget constraints, we have to conduct research much more leanly than we might, say, at a product company that has more flexibility when it comes to timelines and hours. This can be frustrating, but some research is always better than no research, and it’s often just a matter of getting creative or simply knowing what tools are out there to help you get things done quickly. Here are five tips that have saved us time while conducting research and allowed us to fit it into various projects:

1. Use social media and pow wow to make recruiting faster

Does your client have a large and engaged audience on at least one social media channel? Recruiting via social media may be a fast and easy option for you. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Put together a screenerWe like SurveyGizmo for screeners since it allows conditional logic.
  • Set up appointments in pow wowOur homegrown tool makes scheduling appointments easy.

Pow wow makes scheduling easy by pulling in your appointments from Google Calendar [in gray] and letting you set appointment slots that people can sign up for [in pink].

  • Link to pow wow at the end of the screener – Qualified participants can sign up for appointments without additional correspondence.
  • Write copy for your social media post – Explain what you’re recruiting for, what compensation you’re offering, and when testing/interviews are taking place.
  • Post to social media – Have the client post this to whatever social media channels you specify.

Time estimate: About 4 hours to put together materials; 2 – 3 days for participants to sign up.

2. Don’t conduct a survey when you should conduct interviews

Sometimes, we get pushback from clients who want us to conduct a survey instead of conducting interviews. They assume that conducting a survey will be faster, and they generally have a misperception around how hard it is to put together a good survey. Furthermore, they fundamentally don’t understand what kind of information is best gathered by a survey, and what is best assessed by interviews.

Surveys are great if you’re looking for information that’s straightforward and easily quantifiable. In this case, a survey is going to be much faster than interviews. However, if you’re trying to gather in-depth insights on goals, needs, motivations, and behaviors, conduct interviews. If you try to gather this via a survey, you’re going to end up wasting a lot of time trying to make a survey do what you can do much more easily in interviews. In this case, save your time and the client’s money by conducting interviews.

Time estimate: 8 hours for interview question prep and review with your team; about 60 – 90 minutes per interview (including prep/follow-up time).

3. Use lightweight prototypes for testing

Built-out prototypes are rarely needed for testing. Most of the time, a lightweight prototype will get the job done. Here are some options:

  • Paper prototypes – Use these for informal testing with coworkers, family, or friends and to get feedback before moving into wireframes.

This simple paper prototype I used a couple years ago to do some usability testing helped me to greatly improve the overall flow of the app.

  • Keynote – Keynote is great for putting together animations and creating clickable prototypes.
  • Invision – Creating clickable prototypes in Invision is fast and easy, and they’re great for user testing and sharing with clients.
  • Hype – Hype is great for more nuanced animations.

Time estimate: Anywhere from 0 hours (if you already have sketches you can test, or an Invision prototype you’ve created) – 4 hours to put together one of these prototypes.

4. Don’t be afraid of coffee shop or hallway testing

People have been talking about coffee shop testing for years to mixed reviews — like surveys, coffee shop testing is limited in what it can accurately assess. My personal opinion? If you’re working on a tight budget, coffee shop or hallway testing is better than doing no testing at all as long as you’re aware of the limitations.

Time estimate: About 2 hours to go to a coffee shop and test 5 people. Hallway testing with coworkers will take less time.

5. Utilize unmoderated testing

If you have a small research budget and coffee shop/hallway testing won’t cut it, unmoderated testing is a great option. Here are a few tools that will get your work in front of your target audience:

  • Treejack – Part of the Optimal Workshop suite, Treejack tests information architecture by pairing an outline of your IA with a series of questions.
  • Chalkmark – Also part of the Optimal Workshop suite, Chalkmark allows you to upload screenshots and ask a series of questions (i.e., where would you click to find more information about X?).
  • Usabilia – With Usabilia, you can add a Feedback tab to your website that lets people answer questions or send feedback about the pages you’ve selected.
  • Usertesting.com – With Usertesting.com, you can get videos of people using your website or prototype.

Time estimate: 4 – 6 hours to put together the test; a few days for feedback (depending on where you distribute the survey)


Research takes time, but it can provide significant value and may not take nearly as much time if it’s well planned and lightweight.

And, remember, research may save you time overall if it’s going to ease decision-making, persuade the client, and avoid multiple iterations of something. In that sense, research is more of an investment in your project’s budget, not something that detracts from it.

Samara is a user experience designer in Viget's Falls Church, VA, HQ, where she works with clients such as Catholic Charities and the White House Historical Association. She enjoys sketching, creating information architecture, and teaching UX to fresh industry faces.

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