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How to Do Quality UX On a Shoestring Budget

by Joseph Dickerson
5 min read
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You don’t need a big budget to bring experience design into your project, you just need to be more resourceful.

Say you have a project that requires experience design, but you don’t have a lot of money to spend. The idea of recruiting test participants, buying the latest UI design tools, or renting a usability test lab: those things just aren’t possible, so what do you do? Well, you can give up—throw your hands in the air and cry “I can’t work in these conditions”—or you can apply free or low-cost tools you already have at your disposal.

The following hints and tips will help you do quality user experience work without having to lay out big bucks for tools or expensive design agencies.

Assess the Talent You Already Have

This first step is one that many teams neglect to do, to their detriment. Whether your team is two or twenty, there is likely a lot of untapped talent that you may not be aware of. You may have a good visual designer or a competent researcher just sitting there, even if their titles don’t reflect what they are actually capable of.

I recently found out that one of my team members was incredibly good at creating animations and motion graphics, but if I hadn’t had a conversation about it with him, I would have never found out. Talk to your team and find out what they are passionate about. You may find that you have untapped resources right in the room with you already.

Chunk the Work

When you look at a design project, even if it is a small one, many people get intimidated. So much to do! So little time! This can be scary, and an easy way to get over that fear is to break the design needs of a project into chunks. By “chunking” the work you can focus on one thing at a time, get more things done, and timebox the work. Need to design a whole new mobile application? Focus on the navigation. Once that’s done, focus on one screen at a time. It’s like the agile process, but much simpler.

Another benefit of this approach is that it makes you prioritize what’s important: the stuff that you know is a “must have” usually rises to the top of the list. This also allows you to “knock out” the key features so that if you run out of time budget you will still be producing a minimum viable product. This is also known as Micro UX, and here’s a good article about it.

Do Guerrilla Usability Testing

“You need to rent a usability lab and hire a test team to test your designs with users … You need to hire a recruiting firm to find participants.” This is the kind of stuff many UX consultants will tell you … because that is what they do. Their business model is to sell usability testing services, so of course they are going to tell you that you need to spend a lot of money testing designs. While having an impartial third-party test designs is the best way to do it, there is another (cheaper) way.

It’s called guerilla usability testing, and it involves testing designs with friends and family

It’s called guerilla usability testing, and it involves testing designs with friends and family. You can take paper sketches and review them with people and use that feedback to inform revisions and improvements. If you are not comfortable asking questions, ask another team member or a friend to do so.

Again, it’s not the best way to do it, but getting design feedback is a key way to make the design your team is working on better—and some imperfect feedback is better than none at all.

Don’t Buy Expensive Design Tools

So you can’t afford a copy of Balsmaiq, Photoshop, or Axure RP. What do you use to create your designs? Well, you can do what I do, and what scores of designers have done for many many moons: use pencil, pen, and paper.

Paper is a “friction-free” tool that allows you to quickly sketch an iterate a design. It supports multiple undos and requires no power supply. It is also extremely mobile, and supports multiple environments. All kidding aside, using paper and a whiteboard to design is the best way to create a design and can be incredibly collaborative.

When you need to formally document the design, you can do what I (often) do: Use a presentation tool such as PowerPoint or Keynote. You don’t even need the full version of PowerPoint, the free version will allow you to draw and document UI designs. PowerPoint also has the benefit of being fairly ubiquitous, so you won’t have file compatibility/sharing issues.

One additional point to keep in mind: no expensive design tool will make you a good designer. Only practice, skill, and effort will.

Hire Freelance Design Resources Online

You can hire designers and writers, and get design reviews through services such as fiverr (each “gig” starts at $5), Upwork, or freelancer.com. Your results will vary, but you will also be able to use these services to negotiate with some topnotch talent. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for, so don’t expect an amazing next-gen interface when you pay $5.

Use Online Tools for Remote Usability Testing

If you are not comfortable doing guerrilla usability testing, you can always use online services to do the testing for you. One I have used with some success is Usertesting.com, which offers a $49-a-month plan that provides user testing services and the users to test it with. Another online service is Loop11, which is more expensive ($350 per project) but will provide you with 1,000 users per test: more than enough to find out what may be wrong with your design.

One of my favorite tools for testing information architecture and content navigation is TreeJack, offered by Optimal Workshop. It’s $149 per survey, and you will have to provide the users, but when you want to make sure your site structure is right, it’s an invaluable tool. When it comes to remote usability testing services, be sure to do some research and planning before you commit to a service provider to ensure you get the most value out of your investment.


Hopefully these tips will help you look at your next design project with a fresh perspective. The key point: Design matters, and it’s always better to apply some UX rigor to whatever you are doing … even if you don’t have a big budget at your disposal.

Image of shoestring spaghetti courtest Shutterstock.

post authorJoseph Dickerson

Joseph Dickerson, Joseph Dickerson is a writer, technologist, and user experience lead who specializes in "next-gen" experiences and products. A designer of multiple mobile and Internet applications, he has worked to make technology easier and better fo users for over a decade. The author of several books, including a primer on user experience design, Experience Matters, Dickerson is a regular contributor to many websites as well as editor of This Week in UX, This Week in Geek and The Twin Peaks Gazette. He recently completed his second book on UX, UX 101.


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