One of the greatest satisfactions for a product manager, is to be able to launch successful products. By successful, I mean, a product that fits the user’s needs like a glove. To arrive at such a product, it is imperative to know and understand what the user wants by conducting user research. This is one of the reasons why sometimes product managers are called anthropologists of the product because they are supposed make sure that the product meets the user’s needs and track how the users interact with product to fulfil that need.
But how do product managers know what their customers are expecting from the product or what they value? Intuition? Guess work? Or still more dangerously assume that they know the end user needs (when they most likely don’t). It’s very convenient to see oneself as the end user of the product and make “what would I do” decisions, but that kind of attitude leads to solutions which need a problem to solve.
For a product to be successful it is always important to keep the user at the centre of design and development. Fellow engineers and designers who are on the team, regardless of how smart they are or how involved they may be in the product being developed, are not the product’s end consumers. Therefore it is imperative on product managers to rely on user and customer research in order to understand what they value – not what the product manager and the team think they value.
I have compiled a set of resources for user research which helped me to streamline my thinking and hope you will find them helpful too.
What exactly are you trying to find through user research
Reduce the risk of assumptions in the business model
Research is essential to reducing the risk in your business model. The risk is incurred by relying on assumptions that can turn out to be wrong or by failing to focus on what’s most important to the business and the users. One way to figure out how costly the assumptions can be: It is better to ask for yourself, if 4-5 months from now:
- You figure you are solving the wrong problem.
- You are working on features which don’t matter to your most important customers.
- You failed to take into account what is actually most important to your customers.
- You missed a key aspect of the environment in which the users use the product.
Those assumptions turn out be more costlier the farther you are in the development cycle. The information you gather during user research will continually be useful to you grounding all the decisions on real user needs and behaviours.
To make the best use of the limited time and resources available to do just enough research, try to identify your highest-priority questions—your assumptions that carry the biggest risk. If you are familiar with Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas (if not check this and this) you are figuring out the fit between your value proposition and the customer segment your product wants to serve. Check this video from Alex Osterwalder @ strategyzer.com which elucidates the point.
Know what is the job the product is trying to accomplish on behalf of the customer
In this seminal article Clayton Christensen says : what user research should home in on is the progress that the customer is trying to make in a given circumstance—what the customer hopes to accomplish: What is the job he is asking the product to do. A fantastic read to set the tone for user research.
Same principle with an insightful example in this video:
Save time and money by allowing to collaborate effectively and taking decisions quickly
In this article, Erika Hall, Co-founder of Mule design says:
“The difference in individual perspectives will rear up to wreak havoc on your project plan whenever you need to make a decision. Arguments will break out. Not the good kind of arguments. The really annoying kind about priorities, requirements, constraints, or user needs. These are the arguments that indicate you lack a shared basis for decision-making.
Research is necessary for a successful design project because it gives you a shared basis for decision-making, grounded in evidence rather than in sheer authority or tenacity. And this saves time and money.”
During what phase of my product should I do research?
Research should be planned for all the phases of the product development cycle to validate assumptions. Discovery phase consists of defining the market for a product, its potential users and product requirements. Design phase involves bringing a product to life through product or user interface design and refinement. Understanding the different challenges you’ll need to address during these different phases allows you to plan your user research effort throughout a development cycle.
What different research methods should be employed in different phases of product development?
Depending on the phase the product is in, multiple research methods can be used to bring clarity to the decision making process. It is a good skill to master the art of using most apt methodology in each phase to get clarity from the users. Whether you are in preliminary research phase discovering the needs and behaviours of the users, developing user personas and user stories based on those personas or in the usability testing phase where you are using both qualitative and quantitative methods(A/B testing/multivariate testing) it is a good practice to keep users at the centre of all your development effort.
User Research quick and dirty
Do take a look at the above video by Google Ventures for a quick overview on Usability testing and talking to customers. Note: This video is more than two hours long.
Is user research for Enterprise and B2B products too? Are there any challenges in carrying out user research in a large enterprise?
In this resource by Rian Van der Merwe, He tackles this question on how to navigate the problems of doing research in large enterprises and how to pitch the idea to the top management. This is an excellent free e-book and a very good read.
What are User Personas? How do I arrive at user personas for my product?
A persona is a fictional model you create from the data gathered by talking to real people during preliminary research phase of the development cycle before the design or development starts. Personas allow for product managers to advocate user needs. Personas exist to represent the user in a user centered design because one cant’ design everything for everyone. They embody the behaviour patterns and needs of real people and act as a reference point for decision making. A persona helps the product manager to keep an empathetic mind set towards the users for whom the product is created for. A truly useful persona is the result of collaborative effort following first hand user research. Check this article for more on user personas.
I am not good at talking to people, How should I go about it and what are the pitfalls to avoid?
Here is an excellent post by Erica Hall, co-founder of Mule design as to how to go about interviewing the users.
Another article by Smashing Magazine gives the steps on how to conduct user interviews.
Another excellent resource is this book: The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. An excellent resource on how to ask the right questions, dodge compliments, and how not to get carried away by conversations which seem to be fruitful but, in reality, are not. I cant recommend this book highly enough.
And here is a video putting things into action
What are the common excuses and myths regarding user research?
In this article at Google Ventures, Braden Kowitz, addresses multiple such excuses: Customers don’t know what they want; we don’t have enough time for user research and lots of other stuff like that.
In this article at UXMatters, Jim Ross, clarifies and refines the user research process with precise definitions as well as helping product managers to think through the process and what it is intended to do and what it isn’t.
Are there any case studies of companies doing and not doing user research?
Here is a positive one by Jared Spool: The $300mn button
Here is a negative one: How Color already blew it
Google Ventures has a list of tools for interviewing users as well as for usability testing – both qualitative and quantitative. Scroll down to the end for the tools.
Blogs to follow
UXMatters: An excellent source of articles with elaborate set of articles on different phases of research
Google Ventures Blog: This blog is a resource treasure trove of quick and simple methods for user research and recruiting.
Nielsen Norman Group: Fantastic blog and resource centre for articles on user research and mini courses for design and research.
UserFocus: This consultancy publishes multiple articles and e-books on usability and research
UxMag: A great resource for design and research articles
Just Enough Research: This one by Erika Hall, Founder of Mule Design, is an excellent resource regarding the what and how of user research during all the phases of product development cycle. Very highly recommended.
The Mom Test: Rob Fitzpatrick’s excellent book has useful techniques as to how to ask the questions and how not to get carried away by conversations which seem to be fruitful but , in reality, are not. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Interviewing Users: Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users provides invaluable interviewing techniques and tools that enable you to conduct informative interviews with anyone. You’ll move from simply gathering data to uncovering powerful insights about people.
Talking to Humans: This book by Giff Constable gives a quick introduction to the best way to talk to users and customers and draw insights from those conversations. At $0.88 kindle version this is a steal.
Four Steps to Epiphany: Steve Blank pioneered the customer development model and this book is a great resource for new start-ups and product managers and emphasizes the importance of getting out of the building and talking to customers.
Also published on Medium.