Can I do user research without users?

What are some common excuses for skipping user research? "I don't have access to users." "The project has tight deadlines." Even under these circumstances, some quick yet effective user research is still possible.

I sat there scratching my head wondering what to do. I just got assigned to design a new product - a dashboard for monitoring factory operations, that would be used by people called "process engineers". I had no idea what process engineering was and, to make the matter worse, I couldn't get access to any process engineers to talk to. How do I create user-centered designs when I don't understand my users? 

After all in-person user research efforts came to a dead end, I turned to the all mighty internet for my rescue. As it turned out, there was a wealth of information about process engineering readily available with a click of a button!

  • YouTube
    • There were many "Day in the life of ..." videos featuring process engineering.
    • Some companies post promotional videos featuring the work of process engineers.
  • Wikipedia
    • I started with the "process engineer" entry and that led to all kinds of interesting and relevant links.
  • Competitor case studies
    • Some of our competitors' websites had neatly organized case studies that went into details of process engineer's work.
  • Job postings
    • Process engineer job qualifications and responsibilities helped shed light on their work.
  • University programs
    • Some universities offered process engineering programs. Their websites contained useful program overviews, curriculum, alumni interviews, etc.
  • Textbooks
    • A brief scan at the table of content and intros gave a good idea of what process engineers do.

Reading and watching these online materials helped me gain a good understanding of what process engineering is and how process engineers goes about doing their work. You may wonder, is online research inferior to in-person user research? I think they each have pros and cons and it's a toss up as to which one is better.  In-person user research gives you more in-depth knowledge about a small number of users, whereas internet research provides a wider representation of users from different background and industries. If you do not have access to users or are short on time, I recommend giving internet research a try. 

I condensed the information I learned into a journey map, that walked through a process engineer's typical day. I shared the map with the product manager and engineers, and referred to it often through my design iterations.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. This resource-poor project ended up teaching me a brand new way of doing user research. Lack of users? Shortage on time? These are not excuses for not understanding your users. The worldwide web and a little creativity are all you need to take advantage of a wealth materials already available and help keep your designs user-centered even in the tightest projects.