Startup Weekend NYC: Guerilla UX Research

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Last weekend, I was lucky enough to participate in Startup Weekend NYC as a Mentor for User Experience. The pitches were judged on three categories: Business Model, Customer Validation and Execution. The team with the winning pitch receives a package of products and services to launch their new idea.  Startup Weekend participants include Product Managers (Business), Designers and Developers. There was incredible talent in the room itching to make their ideas a reality, but User Experience was a new concept to many teams. There were a lot of open questions around Customer Validation after participants were encouraged to go out into the field and talk to potential customers.

Many UX Designers will spend weeks, sometimes even months, conducting both qualitative and quantitative research to inform their design synthesis and product development. Using the traditional design research process, a designer may spend a week or more just recruiting study participants who are likely users of the product. How do we take these time-consuming skills and apply them to the rapid pace of Startup Weekend, when teams have only 56 hours to pitch, research, design, build and present a new product? The answer: Guerilla UX Research.

What is Guerilla UX Research?

Todd Zaki Warfel & Russ Unger, authors of the upcoming book. Guerilla UX Research Methods, described the concept in a recent article in UX Magazine:

Guerrilla research methods are faster, lower-cost methods that provide sufficient enough insights to make informed strategic decisions… there tends to be just enough rigor to determine that a problem or opportunity for improvement exists.

I am a strong proponent of what Zaki Warfel and Unger are trying to bring to the UX field, that “some is better than none.” Otherwise, designers are making drastic assumptions about the product that go much deeper than design. Sometimes, a designer will discover during user research that the demand or need for a product doesn’t even exist at all.

Guerilla UX Research @ Startup Weekend

I suggested that teams use a hybrid of ethnography and non-directed interviewing and spend two hours talking to at least 10 research participants. Ethnography is the practice of observing people in their natural environment, and often participating in their activities. Non-directed interviewing is asking prepared questions that do not introduce bias into the answers. Both are qualitative research. The short time frame for Startup Weekend does not provide the time required to gather a large enough sample for quantitative research methods like surveys.

I worked with four different teams to train them on Guerilla UX methods and suggested the following process:

  1. Plan: Create at least 10 questions and review them with your teams. Do not to ask the users directly “My product is ____. Would you use it?” Ask at least one question you think you know the answer to.
  2. Go Into the Field: Spend 2 hours in the field interviewing at least 10 participants. What is the field? Somewhere within 1 mile of General Assembly where your target audience will likely be. For NoteHub, the collaborative notetaking application, that meant student centers at Cardozo and NYU. For, I suggested the team stop people getting in and out of taxi cabs in front of popular destinations like Eataly.
  3. Take Notes: Bring at least two team members out into the field. One person will ask questions and have the conversation, the other should take notes.
  4. Record Audio: As long as you notify your research participant first, record audio or video of the interview, but be sure to take paper notes as a backup.
  5. Take Photo: Use images of participants as a memory refresher later (and perhaps in your pitch presentation).
  6. Have a thick skin: Know that you will likely get dismissed or ignored by many New Yorkers on the street. Normally, I would suggest not wearing identifying clothing to be more approachable, but I suggested team members wear their Startup Weekend t-shirts.

Validating Assumptions & Debriefing Research

When creating research plans with teams, I asked, what assumptions have you made about the use of your product? That question got many puzzled looks. For NoteHub, the collaborative digital note-taking app, there were two assumptions: students want to take notes digitally and students are interested in seeing their peer’s notes during class, not just afterward during a study group. After talking to potential users, NoteHub’s team learned that Business school students taking math and finance courses have little to no interest in digital note-taking when writing down formulas and symbols, but for law students and some undergraduates (pending more research), the assumptions do hold true. was designed for friends in social networks to plan shared taxi rides, assuming that users are not comfortable sharing rides with strangers. On the otherhand, the research revealed that many people are in fact willing to share cab rides with strangers, if the value adds are safety and savings.

Declaring your assumptions during a product pitch is a sign of maturity and that you have thought through the use of your product from beginning to end. Were I to make a final pitch at startup weekend, I’d frame it as: What we’ve assumed, What we know from research, What we need to research further.

How We Conduct UX Research at AppNexus

We’re not creating startups from scratch at AppNexus, but we use a variety of research methods and create customized research plans for each major product. The methods we use include ethnography, interviewing, usability testing and contextual inquiry. Thanks to our large and growing client base, we have a long list of users to involve in our research (and usability testing) process, here in New York and all over the world. Our users are working with our product all day and are always ready to give feedback. Last year, our team participated in the LUXr residency in Lean UX. Read more about this process in Suzanne’s post Autotagger: A Case Study for Lean UX.

Additional Resources on Research in the Lean UX Process

Complete Beginner’s Guide to Design Research [UX Booth]
Can You Say That in English? Explaining UX Research to Clients [A List Apart]
Nondirected Interviews: How to Get More Out of Your Research Questions [Adaptive Path]
Bringing User-Centered Design to the Agile Environment [Boxes and Arrows]
Essential UX Layers for Agile and Lean Design Teams [User Interface Engineering]

Join the AppNexus UX Team!

Don’t get to do research at your UX job? We’re hiring User Experience Designers and love to do research and talk to our clients. Read the full job description and apply today.

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