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Guidelines to conclusive user research

Do you have a great idea? Super! How sure are you that it will be picked up by millions of others? You do research!

Research in the startup sphere is often misunderstood with asking people about their ideas on what should be built or with one of those Starbuck sessions where mockups are shown and people give their feedbacks. The former is a flat-wrong research activity, and the latter is only one method amongst many with which research can be conducted.

A board meeting with a director asking how they can compete with Google.
Credit: David Fletcher

Before we even begin, let’s repeat together three times: We should not ask users what to build. We should not ask users what to build. We should not ask users what to build.

Unless you are speaking with an expert in the field who happens to build products, you should not ask users what to build. Your customers probably don’t have time and the right expertise to help you design the product for you!

Instead of asking users what to build, try to see the problem from their point of view and perceive what they think is problematic. In return, this understanding helps you develop empathy for the users which shields you from deviating from your primary goal, that is, to serve your customers.

1. Choose the right research topic

Picking a proper research topic is imperative. The ideal research topic should not be vague and rely on too many variants. The questions such as “I want to know how much people will pay me for my product,” although alluring in essence, might not lead to any tangible results.

Choosing the right research topic leads to understanding what a particular group of people is doing and why they are doing it. The research should reflect upon a large group of people’s problems, experiences, and learnings. In return, the findings will bulletproof the product team from their own biases which are often the case for failure.

Imagine you are asking 100 people about their problems and find a repeating pattern amongst their inputs. This level of understanding of the users’ pain automatically puts you in a unique position to be the right candidate to solve the problem and consequently lead to a successful business.

For example, some research topics worth pursuing are:

1. I want to know how easy it is for German consumers to find sales on online fashion shops.
2. I want to know the problems HR managers face in the way of managing their organization.
3. I want to understand the user flow of the first time user from when they land on the homepage.
4. I want to know how many companies have successfully on-boarded and uploaded their employee’s data.
5. I want to know what percentage of customers we loose weekly to churn.

The above research topics are limited in scope and inherently answerable by choosing the right research methodology.

2. Understand the nature of your research topic

To pick the right research methodology, you first need to have a clear understanding of the DNA of your research topic. Get yourself a pen and paper and answer these questions as clearly as possible about your topic.

1. Do you want to learn about users or the product?
2. Do you want to evaluate some hypotheses or generate some ideas?
3. Do you want to know about what’s happening or why it is happening?
4. Is this a one-time research or a frequent one?

By choosing the research topic such as “I want to know the problems HR managers face in the way of managing their organization”, you are exclusively interested in how specific group of people deals with a particular situation. You often tend to use ethnographic research methods for this type of research.

3. The characteristics of the research on the user’s side

The research topics that are about getting to know users seek to understand both what and why. What problems users are having and why they are happening. Here are some of the research methodologies that you can use on the user’s side:

Why: Contextual inquiry, customer development, market research
What: Landing pages, surveys, contextual inquiry

4. The characteristics of the research on the product’s side

The research topics about your product are more straightforward and might merely include what is happening or why it is happening.

Digging into what’s happening is mostly about employing quantitative research methods. On the contrary, to learn about why users behave in a certain way in a particular case, we should leverage qualitative research methods.

By choosing the research topic such as “I want to know how many companies successfully on-boarded and uploaded their employee data,” you are specifically measuring how efficient your onboarding process is, an important action that occurs frequently.

Quantitative research methods such as funnel analysis, cohort analysis, and A/B tests can help you gather insights on what’s occurring. After forming an opinion on what’s happening, you will be able to formulate the right research topic to get to the bottom of why you are getting such results. Here are some of the research methodologies that you can use on the product side:

Why: Contextual inquiry, customer development, five-second tests
What: Funnel analysis, landing pages, usability tests, A/B tests

5. Frequency of research

The last topic is whether you want to conduct research once or on a frequent basis. At early stages, where you want to get as much user inputs as possible, you usually research in batches with some interval time in-between.

At later stages, when you have the working product and customers, most of the questions are related to the usage behaviours and require constant probing. For example, if you want to know how users interact with a social media app, the prerequisite to conducting this research is to understand that users might use the app at any time of the day. They might use the app on weekends more than any other time. In the case of B2B apps, the app might hit heavy traffic at the end of each month.

Understanding your users and product use-cases enable you to define the product usage interval. If you are building a product with a weekly usage, then you should set up your analytics to fetch weekly data.