While working on a customer experience project, you’ve probably heard someone say: “We don’t have the time (or money) for customer research. We already know our customers. Let’s just get started.”

No doubt you know your industry and have a lot of interaction with your customers. You may also have a good sense of what people are doing (and not doing) on your website via analytics, but do you know why? How well do you understand what’s motivating visitors and what’s missing in your customer experience?

You always get better, richer insights when you hear directly from customers. And those insights lead to better solutions – with more needs met and goals achieved. But the time and money constraint is also real. How can you gather valuable customer input without a six-figure research budget and three-month discovery phase? Here are five ways you can conduct scrappy customer research.

One-on-One Interviews

One of the most useful customer research techniques is in-depth interviews. By asking customers to verbally share what they’re thinking as they attempt to use a website or mobile app to accomplish a specific task, or to provide real-time input and feedback on focused topics, you can gather rich insights that can’t be understood from analytics alone.

Interviews are especially helpful to understand the why, and the how, behind the quantitative data, customer analytics and campaign results. They provide an opportunity to explore topics like how they make decisions, the usability of conversion paths, and reactions to prototypes.

What’s great is that a small number of interviews yields solid directional findings. Even after speaking with only a handful of customers, you start to see patterns and themes emerge. In fact, according to NNGroup, after five interviews you typically realize ~85%+ of relevant findings.

So, interviews are efficient in terms of the number of sessions required, but they are also an efficient format. People are now so comfortable with video calls that you can easily conduct interviews over Zoom. Additionally, through virtual interviews, scaling for both increased quantity and geographic locations can be easy and efficient. Gone are the days of flying somewhere to talk to 8 people. Sessions can be recorded (with permission) for detailed analysis and sharing among stakeholders. Assuming that you’re recruiting from your own customer database, the biggest requirement is time, to design the discussion guide, analyze findings and brainstorm solutions.

Online Surveys

Online surveys are another useful tool for gathering customer data. Unlike the qualitative input you get from interviews, surveys help gather quantitative input from larger sample sizes. This approach can substantiate interview themes and conclusions to give the team confidence heading into prototyping and design.

Simple tools like Google Forms or Microsoft Forms are free and can be used to deploy and analyze surveys with a budget-friendly, DIY approach. Additionally, other tools like Survey Monkey or Qualtrics have now enabled self-serve capabilities on methodologies that previously required an outside firm with a proprietary tool. They can allow you to conduct concept testing, conjoint analysis, create segmentation schemas, gauge satisfaction and more with tiered subscription pricing that ranges from free to multi-user and enterprise levels.

An alternate approach to sending a survey link to a list of customer emails is to execute site surveys. Low-cost tools like Qualaroo launch an unobtrusive question modal to learn about the intentions and profiles of people visiting the site. You can configure the tools to target specific traffic sources or entrance pages to target the most relevant audience segments. We recommend limiting the experience to 1-3 simple questions to start (e.g., what are you trying to accomplish today?). This will help you gauge response rate and avoid survey fatigue. Over time you can move on to additional or sequential questions and focus areas.

Keyword Research

A valuable proxy form of customer input is keyword research, i.e., the database of human intentions represented by customers’ search queries. Analyzing search behavior provides useful signals about what people need, their motivations, and what questions they are trying to answer. Understanding these signals helps you develop the right content.

Subscription tools like Ahrefs and Semrush provide robust data on search behavior and competitive trends, but free tools like Google Trends and trial versions of Answer the Public also provide solid data to identify the most important keywords and questions to address.

Once you do this, reviewing the corresponding search engine results pages helps you understand what types of content – from which sources – are seen as authoritative and rank highly. Beyond understanding customer needs, this provides bonus value for SEO and content strategy planning while you work to answer important customer questions

Secondary Research

If you can’t conduct your own research, use other people’s. Secondary research is exactly that – other organizations’ first-party research that is made publicly available or can be accessed via subscriptions.

Sources like eMarketer and Forrester publish studies from reputable sources that address important topics for marketers.

Of course, don’t overlook Google as a secondary source. You can often find reputable survey findings in public-facing sites such as Forbes or McKinsey and Company to get a fast reference point for the challenges you’re trying to solve.

Organizational Knowledge

Another indirect avenue to the customer is through your own front-line sales and customer service teams. Troves of organizational knowledge built on direct interaction with customers likely exist. The issue is that teams are siloed, and the knowledge isn’t shared. The result is incomplete data that forces teams to make assumptions and act on an incomplete view of the customer.

A great solution is to conduct stakeholder interviews or cross-team work sessions to build customer personas and journey maps that identify gaps and opportunities in your customer experience. This is a great way to compile the information that is distributed across team members. It also helps get everyone on the same page with a shared sense of customer needs and priorities. Along with knowledge transfer, this process builds trust and teamwork that can elevate everyone’s performance.

The Takeaway

Start Small and Feed the Iteration Cycle

Customer obsession separates top performers from the crowd in your highly competitive industry. Getting direct customer input leads to insights that inform better solutions. Resist the temptation to fall back on what you think you know in the face of budget and time constraints. You can get scrappy and gather valuable insights efficiently and quickly.

A great way to do it is by starting small. Focus on one phase or step in the purchase journey—maybe it’s the most important step, or the one in most need of improvement. Talk to customers about their motivations, needs, and barriers. Get their reactions to your experience and identify the most impactful changes you can make in the short term. This approach helps you avoid a “boil the ocean” project and the inevitable swirl that comes with it.

As the team works on refinements, you can decide what to focus on next. Just as design stays a sprint or two ahead of development, you can build a customer insights practice that proactively fuels release trains based on prioritized gaps and objectives.

Over time you get better at gathering input. If it’s working, you can keep it low-cost, efficient and simple. You may also want to progress to more sophisticated research techniques to answer bigger questions. Either way, you leverage the power of customer insights to move the needle in the places where it matters most, leading to a better customer experience and top tier market position