Want fast answers to big questions about your market, competitive products, or customers’ behaviors and attitudes? First look for existing research.

When companies start exploring new features, new products, or new markets, they often need to answer big research questions. For example: How has Internet radio changed the way people listen to FM radio? When and why do consumers rent cars vs. use other transportation options? What are people’s use and attitudes towards online security? Or cloud services? Or online coupons?

As a user researcher, I’m often asked to answer these kind of tough questions, which can require time-consuming and expensive market research. Since I’m naturally lazy and startups are impatient, I first look for research that someone else has already published (and often conducted with more academic rigor than I would have time to do myself). Depending on the topic and my luck, I can usually track down some helpful articles in less than 30 minutes, and a pile of them in 1–2 hours. Here’s how:

Start with Google

Sure, it’s obvious, but Google can give you a great lay of the land. Try both a regular Google search and Google Scholar. Don’t hesitate to just type in the question you’re wondering about. At first, don’t be too picky. Glance briefly at any results and articles that seem even slightly relevant. As I review search results, I look for different terms, phrases, ideas, jargon, authors, and names of research companies I can try as keywords for additional searches.

As I find interesting articles and quotes and charts, I copy them into a Google document (along with titles and links to the articles). I don’t worry too much about organizing it at first. It’s easier to do that later after I’ve seen and learned more.

Skim abstracts, conclusions, and bibliographies

Don’t avoid academic articles — but don’t waste your time reading them, either. If the abstract or intro look interesting, then scan the conclusions or discussion section at the end. The goal is to quickly triage articles to find the ones that are most relevant and useful. If the article is interesting, Google the author’s name or visit her site to see if she’s written anything else useful. And don’t forget to scan the bibliographies of good articles for interesting references.

Search research centers and organizations

Two of my favorite sources are Pew Internet and ACM Digital Library. Even if I find an interesting article locked behind a registration wall, Googling the exact title will often reveal the full text elsewhere, such as on the author’s personal site.

Search for syndicated research

Depending on the topic, I try searching sites like Forrester, Gartner, and Jupiter, as well as any domain-specific research companies I’ve uncovered in my Google searches. If you don’t want to pay for the companies’ expensive reports, search the Web to find newspaper or journal articles that summarize key parts of the reports.

Take advantage of less-obvious sources

  • Look for product reviews and comparisons in industry and consumer publications (including Consumer Reports). Reviewers often do a good job of summarizing key differences between products and highlighting features that are important to customers.
  • Sites for industry and professional associations often include links to research, white papers, and various publications. And associations exist for just about anything you can imagine, as you can see from the Yahoo! Directory of Trade Associations and Weddle’s Association Directory.
  • I’ve also found great statistics and infographics on Pinterest. Just try searching for your topic + [stats] or [statistics] or [infographic], etc. For example, look at these results from searching Pinterest for “Facebook stats.”

Reach out to experts

If your searching turns up anyone who seems like an expert in whatever you’re investigating, you have nothing to lose by trying to contact them directly. A brief conversation with an expert can usually give you a good overview of the area you’re exploring, highlighting key issues to consider.

Summarize and synthesize

After an hour or two of hunting and gathering relevant quotes and charts and data, I find it useful to stop and review it all, organizing my clippings into some kind of meaningful subtopics. I try to draw some conclusions and implications about what I’ve learned so far. Then I assess which areas — if any — require additional searching, or if it’s time to turn to other research methods.

I’ve used this process many times to quickly investigate a market, a product landscape, and customers’ attitudes and behaviors. Unfortunately, many companies don’t think to take advantage of all the existing research that’s out there. I hope this will make it easier for you to find those hidden treasures.