Moving beyond guerrilla research

Many startups are hooked on guerrilla research methods which aren’t healthy for them in the medium-long term.

  1. Coffee shop dwellers are probably not your target users.
  2. It’s an approach with limited value
  3. You need to do research beyond usability testing

Why guerrilla testing works

Guerrilla testing works because at first pass, some of the issues with a design can often be found with just about anyone outside of your team. When constraints like budget and time exist, then doing this is better than nothing.

Testing is about CAN, not WILL

Usability testing is a technique for discovering the extent to which people can perform tasks with your product, with a focus on uncovering usability issues. It doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s actually going on when they do. It doesn’t tell you what they will do with your product or what they need from it. It’s quite common to mistake the behaviour you observe in usability tests for the behaviour which will happen in real life.

The 3 types of user research

I often find myself quoting Will Myddleton’s explanation of the types of user research quite a lot. I believe this explanation is easier to understand than many others. They are…

  1. Testing the things the team has built
  2. Working out what the team should build next
  3. Understanding potential users and their lives

Why bother with the other two types?

It’s perhaps more important for startups to focus on types 2 and 3 over 1. I’ll try to explain why with a made-up example.


This imaginary startup you and I both work for is called Cook4U. It’s an app which allows consumers to buy a week’s worth of wholesome home-made cooking direct from other people who love to cook.

But they aren’t our users

The internal conversations we have refer back to things we saw in coffee shop testing. But nobody is accounting for the fact that these people aren’t our users, they are customers of the coffee shop, not our app.

Who are you actually targeting?

Startups are usually challenging the status quo, so they are often trying to shift people toward a new behaviour by adopting a new solution. Your eventual market for this new approach is approaching the problem your product solves in a different way. You think their lives will be better if they use your product instead.

Learning about your real users can take time

Learning about your users and their world is a longer, continuous process than sporadic usability tests. But the payback can make the difference between life and death for a new product.

“I feel so stupid, like we should have discovered this 6 months ago.”

They are being unfair on themselves to think like this, because the path to the discovery had several steps. There was little chance they could have found what they needed to know quickly and without talking to specifically the right people for this stage of the product’s adoption.

How UX research is imagined

The general mental picture of how UX research works involves someone talking to a bunch of users, analysing the findings and then coming back with a load of things for the team to work on.

Lack of priority

Companies which rely solely on guerrilla testing are ones which don’t prioritise user research highly enough to spend time and money on a more thorough approach. When time and budget are both tight, I admit that it’s debatable whether that is a good call or not. Many successful startups got away with it, others didn’t.

About the author

I’m David Hamill. I help organisations take better decisions with lean but meaningful UX research. If you liked this post, you can read some more below.


User research

Product management



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