I want to share an effective quick-and-dirty research approach I stumbled upon recently.

Not long ago, I got an urgent request for data about people’s habits and needs related to watching online video. (I’ve changed the real topic to protect the innocent.) How, when, and where do people watch online video? What do they watch? How are people using Product X? How has the launch of Product Z affected use and perceptions of Product X?

These are big discovery-research questions. Quickly finding users of Product X wasn’t going to be easy. And I needed results in just a few days.

As a shortcut, I first looked for relevant research that had already been done. Then I created a screener questionnaire to recruit Product X users and collect interesting survey data from a very large sample. Here’s how I did it:

Step 1: Quick review of existing research

I first spent a few hours scouring the web for relevant data and research that already exists. You can usually find loads of helpful articles and reports (and articles about the reports) by firms like Forrester, Pew, Gartner, and Nielsen. Google Scholar is another great source for relevant academic research. I also like to search for product reviews and comparisons. I collected and summarized key data and charts I found about usage patterns and industry trends.

(Update: I wrote a post describing how I review existing research.)

My quick review provided valuable data and prognostications about patterns and trends, but it didn’t answer our detailed questions about people’s viewing habits, especially for users of Product X. I needed to find some Product X users to talk to right away.

Step 2: Draft a recruiting questionnaire that’s also a survey

To find users of Product X I could interview over the phone, I drafted a recruiting questionnaire. (See “How to find great participants for your user study.”) In addition to standard questions about demographics and product use, I included a few more exploratory questions. For example:

  • When watching video over the Internet in the last week, what types of programs did you watch? (multiple choice)
  • Which one video app or website could you not live without? Why? (open ended)
  • In the past week, where have you watched video over the Internet? (multiple choice)

Step 3: Advertise widely

For just $25, I posted an ad (“$50 usability interview”) with a link to my recruiting questionnaire to Craigslist’s “et cetera jobs” category in a big city.

The response was overwhelming! In two days almost 400 people — including dozens of Product X users — completed my screener questionnaire and answered my additional survey questions. I had quickly flushed out the Product X users I needed and collected really interesting survey data from a large sample. I quickly completed ten 30-minute interviews and reported all of my results to a very appreciative team. Grand total? Three days and $525.

Next time you need to quickly gather information about users and products (especially products that aren’t your own), try using or adapting this scrappy hybrid approach to get the answers you need.