How to carry out user research when users aren't available

Michael Brown

Two  signs: one red saying "road closed", one yellow saying "diversion" on a closed road.

Photo by who?du!nelson on Unsplash

The gold standard for all types of design research is to work directly with people who are impacted directly by design decisions. For user research, this means users or potential users.  For process research, it means the people actually involved in the process. However, this approach isn’t always feasible - you may not have time to recruit users, they aren’t available, or what you’re researching simply doesn’t translate well into direct research.

All is not lost - there are plenty of ways to do user research indirectly, and while none are as good as direct research, using a combination of them will give you plenty of useful insight and provide a powerful tool for decision making. This blog introduces some of the most effective methods for indirect research that I’ve used over the years.

Proxy Participants

If you can’t research with the most relevant people, then identify the next best thing. This approach could mean you focus on subject matter experts, people who work closely with your ideal participants or just people who share similar key traits with them. With these participants you apply the same methods you would usually use - interviews, user testing, workshops, ethnography etc. It’s important to make a note of which ways they are representative of your target participants and any concerns you have about using these proxies, and make sure you interpret your findings in reference to these factors.

Expert-based research

Closely related is the concept of expert-based research methods that are designed to rely on expertise over direct user contact in order to gather insights and test ideas. Cognitive walkthrough and heuristic analysis are two of the most popular methods, each focused on the systematic evaluation of a prototype service or product.

Exploiting existing knowledge

Previous research and experience, if well designed and documented, can be a rich source of information that is easy to obtain. The key here is understanding where this knowledge comes from. You should detail not only what people ‘know’ but what evidence they have to back this knowledge up. Timeliness is an important consideration here as, depending on the domain, research findings can quickly become out of date and irrelevant.

Desk Research

Not all knowledge has to be hard won. Depending on what area you're researching, many online information sources can help you; academic research, market reports and even blogs can contain valuable insights without needing direct access to users. Again provenance is important - online sources are notoriously unreliable, so make sure you do the hard work to make sure you understand if you can trust what you find. 


Probably the most difficult part of this approach is bringing your findings together into insights and recommendations. Because you must use multiple methods to make sure you reduce the disadvantage of each, analysis is particularly difficult, especially if you get conflicting findings from each approach. There is no easy answer to this problem - with experience you learn the types of bias each method tends to produce and when conflicting results are likely to be due to the methods used or genuine complexity.

I hope this whistle stop tour of what I’ve called indirect research methods will provide some help and guidance to those struggling with recruitment or unable to research directly with the people they want to. I’ve been in that situation many times and there is almost always an approach that will get the results you need.