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5 Ways to do Rapid Research
Easy and fast methods for conducting meaningful user research frequently.
This article details 5 examples of rapid usability research and 6 tips for conducting rapid usability research on your own. You’ll come away with ideas about how to conduct rapid usability research for your next project.
The Problem
Sometimes it’s hard to find time to do usability research. While there’s no replacement for comprehensive research studies, conducting rapid usability research can be time-efficient, affordable, and fun.
What is Rapid Usability Research?
Rapid usability research is a way to quickly get feedback on preliminary designs and concepts. It’s not meant to replace more comprehensive research techniques and it should be used to gather qualitative (not quantitative) data. Rapid usability research can theoretically be used at any point in the design process, but works best early on.
Image 1: Google employees work to assemble layout puzzles. Image source: Maple / Google Design.
Method 1: Layout Puzzles
Value Proposition
This method can help you learn how others prioritize the features of your product. It can also help you identify missing features.
A Google team was redesigning a product dashboard. They printed and cut out all the pieces of their current dashboard and placed them on a table. Then they set up one-on-one meetings with team members and asked them to redesign the dashboard while talking aloud to explain their thought process. People could add new features using post-it notes.

You could create a remote or contactless version of this method by breaking your interface into maneuverable pieces in a whiteboard tool.
Quote From the Team
“This was tremendously useful... I was able to see what each person identified as pain points without them being biased by anyone else. This made it easier for me to identify recurring themes. For example, every single person focused on improving filters and improving the information hierarchy. I also learned from the developer relations team which features were difficult to use and find.”
More About This Method
Read Advocating for a Complete Product Redesign by Google Designer Maple on Medium.
Image 2: Paper prototypes created by designers at the New York Times. Note that the prototype on left is layered and mimics a scrolling experience. Image Source: NYTimes Open.
Method 2: Functioning Paper Prototypes
Value Proposition
This method can help you learn how users interact with your product in the context of physical interfaces.
The New York Times wanted to rapidly test initial concepts for their home page. They built cardboard device models quickly with the intention of testing assumptions. They made several crude wireframes to add to the faux devices and tested them with a small panel of readers. Once they gained confidence with paper and cardboard models, they made higher-fidelity digital prototypes.
Image 3: A cardboard prototype being used at Nintendo. Inserting paper into the top "changes" the interface display. Image source: Nintendo.
Quote From the Team
“The more prototypes we built, the more confidence we gained. We knew we probably weren’t going to get everything right the first time (spoiler: we didn’t). But we also knew how much we could learn when we got things wrong.”
More About This Method
Image 4: Research-focused mad libs created by Clarissa Ishak. Image source: Clarissa Ishak personal site on Wayback Machine.
Method 3: Research-focused Mad Libs
Value Proposition
Gather contextual information about a user journey, learn how users feel and what they think at each step of a process, and make a formal and intimidating questioning process light, personal, and engaging.
Research-focused mad libs are short fill-in the blank exercises that describe a user journey or experience. Unlike a conventional Mad Lib, participants are asked to fill in the blanks for accuracy, not humor. Each blank has a label to help the participant understand how to accomplish the task.
Image 5: You can also send research-focused Mad Libs via email. I find it easy to distribute them as part of video interview invites. Image by the author.
More About This Method
I discovered this method by reading about work Clarissa Ishak did for the Port Moody Ecological Society Water Quality Team. The project is no longer online, but I was able to find it on an internet archive. You could try reaching out to the Port Moody Ecological Society or Clarissa Ishak for more details.
Image 6: A replica of a tear card scale survey created for an event I organized. Image by the author.
Method 4: Tear Card Scale Survey
Value Proposition
Get immediate feedback from people who attend an event or complete a process while key details are still fresh in their minds. This allows you to report on results quickly.
I discovered this method while attending a Nielsen Norman Group Workshop. A card similar to the one shown above was placed on auditorium chairs before a keynote speech by Jakob Nielsen. After the speech, attendees were asked to rate the panel by tearing on a specific number. Note that the scale was labeled to help participants.

I used this method for an event and found that it’s helpful to ask people to leave the paper slip in their chair after they have completed the rating process (asking people to drop slips in a bucket on the way out of the session could create a bottleneck.) Have extras on hand to pass out for people who misplace theirs.

You could create a remote or contactless version of this method by showing the scale in a video conference and asking attendees to add a number to the video chat. This would be most effective if video conference attendees were logged in anonymously.
Image 7: A tear card survey I was given after attending a Nielsen Norman Group workshop. Photo by the author.
More About This Method
Learn more about the Nielsen Norman Group at the Nielsen Norman Group website.
Image 8: Wizard of Oz testing done manually. In this setup, researchers are out of sight reading voice assistant prompts to learn about how a user might respond. Source image: Henry Cooke / Pilot.
Method 5: Wizard of Oz Testing
Value Proposition
Get your voice interface dialogue off of paper and into the real world to see how it works in practice. Gather dialogue responses from real people and quickly identify user flow issues.
This is specifically for testing with voice interfaces. Set up a smart speaker, but don’t plug it in. Using a simple program called SayWizard, play responses to user queries as they interact with the smart speaker. If you’re not comfortable opening a code editor, you can simply say the responses from out of sight.
Quote From the Team
“A Wizard of Oz test is a great activity early in your [process]; it will help you quickly identify where the problems in your imagined dialogue are, and how people respond."
More About This Method
Read more about this method in the article Ask a UXpert: How to Prototype Voice Experiences that Delight Users by Oliver Lindberg on Medium.
6 Tips for Conducting Rapid Research
Now that you've seen a few examples, here are 6 tips to help you conduct rapid user research during your next project.
Tip 1: Don’t Show Users Information That They Haven’t Acted Upon
Don’t show all the screens. If you're working with a wireframe or a prototype, keep all screens out of sight. Only show participants screens that they have navigated to. Similarly, don’t show a participant what others have done (Ex. dot voting results or other inputs.) Examples others have provided may influence decisions a participant makes. This will skew your results.
Image 9: Stencils for prototyping. Image source: uistencils.
Tip 2: Use Tools to Help You
Drafting stencils can help you quickly draw repeated interface elements by hand. Mobile size post-its make it easy to draw mobile-sized mockups while considering the context and limitations of a device. They're also great for sticking to a wall when brainstorming with your team.

Use transparencies and post-it notes if you’re testing wireframes. Post-it notes make it easier for you to simulate modals. Having users write inputs on transparencies with sharpies allows you to reuse the underlying wireframe and save individual responses for later analysis.

For more tools and ideas, see this article by Cameron Chapman.
Image 10: creating unrealistic rigs for testing can impact the way users behave during testing. Source image: likely Sean Melchionda.
Tip 3: Context Influences Results
As the above images from the New York Times and Nintendo show, how a user interacts with an interface can depend on the device they use. You should test designs using a device format that mirrors how your product will be situated in the real world.

Choose a testing location wisely. A loud or crowded location may be distracting. Additionally, if you want feedback from a specific audience try sourcing participants from a location that audience frequents. For example, a friend of mine was improving the usability of a museum website. She conducted rapid user research with ticket holders inside the Smithsonian Museum in order to better understand her audience.

Try to make the testing setup feel as real and authentic as possible. For example, If you place twenty cameras around a participant they will probably act differently than if they were using your product organically. This would likely skew your results.
Tip 4: Use Real Content for Tests
The fidelity of your prototypes will reveal the fidelity of your ideas. Too little design work makes it difficult to test a realistic user experience. Too much design work makes it difficult for you to change your product based on testing results.
Tip 5: Complete a Test Run Before Running a Session with Participants
Test the test! This will make sure you are gathering desired information when working with participants. It can also help you identify any errors or improvements before you engage your target audience.
Tip 6: Finding people to test your designs isn't hard
Buy them a coffee, or consider sending them a gift card. If all else fails, ask nicely; you'll be surprised by how willing others are to help.
In Conclusion
Share Your Favorite Rapid Research Methods
I hope these methods help you test designs frequently. If you’ve used a method for rapid research and would like to share it, feel free to send that my way; I may add it to the list so others can benefit from it, too.