How to conduct user research when you can’t reach your users


If you are a product manager, you have almost certainly heard about the importance of conducting user research before. Quantitative data can point to where a problem exists, but nothing beats qualitative research for learning why that problem occurs. Large datasets can obscure individual usage patterns, making it hard to “get into the user’s head”. User research helps you understand the conceptual models of your users and to build personas around them.

Normal user research methods involve getting users into a room and watching them interact with your product. But what do you do if you can’t reach your users as easily? What if your users are in different countries, or speak different languages? These factors certainly make user research more difficult, but also simultaneously make it even more important.

One solution I’ve been playing with recently is a combination of Olark live chat and Inspectlet. Inspectlet is a tool that records the cursor movements, clicks and scrolls of your users, and then rebuilds them into a video of the user’s session. At first it almost seems as if you are “spying” on users, though in fact the videos are all assembled post-hoc. Inspectlet is, of course, not as interactive as true user testing, but it does allow you to get surprising insights on user behaviour.

What is really powerful is when you combine these two together. Olark is primarily a live-chat tool, but when you are offline it reverts to a feedback box, placed on a targeted part of your website or product. Here is how I chain the two tools together:

  • Place the Olark feedback box on a specifically targeted element of your website where you expect there will be user frustration. Olark’s premium plan offers targeting, or you can roll your own DIY targeting by firing the Olark tag through Google Tag Manager.
  • After some time, read through the responses Olark sends to your email. If you are tracking foreign-language users, you can translate most messages right from within Google Chrome.
  • When you find a user response that interests you, grab the IP address from the message and filter for that IP in Inspectlet. Unless your product has massive traction already, you’ll probably find a single session that matches that IP address.
  • Watch the user session to learn the process the user went through before leaving the corresponding piece of feedback.

Inspectlet preview

This combination is the most effective solution I have found so far to bridge the user research gap on hard-to-reach users. However I wouldn’t say this is a replacement for conducting real user research. If you can, nothing beats an in-person session.