What we’re talking about

If you’re building a product, you need to make sure it’s something your customers want and need. User research is the process of understanding the behaviours, needs and attitudes of your customers by observing or talking to them and collecting feedback. It’s a key part of product development that’s useful throughout the process – whether that’s landing on the initial concept, creating a prototype, or refining your product. 

There are two types of user research that you can use to get that crucial info: qualitative research and quantitative research. Qualitative is all about the why: drilling down into people’s behaviours, emotions and opinions using focus groups, one-on-one interviews and observing people using the product (ethnographic studies). Quantitative research, on the other hand, is all about how many, and involves collecting data and crunching numbers, usually with the aid of surveys. A really robust research process should incorporate both qualitative and quantitative research.

Why it’s important

Developing a product is an incremental and collaborative process; it’s not simply sitting in a room, assuming you know what people want and getting to work. You need to fully understand the pain points of your target customers in order to create a solution and design a product that’s relevant to them. The only way to do that is to gain a strong understanding of their point of view. Using user research to really delve into the problems that you’re looking to solve with your business will help you develop the best solution possible.

Things to note

The level of rigour and sophistication your user research has will depend on the resources you can dedicate to it. But even if you can’t afford to survey hundreds of people, it’s worth doing something – even chatting to a few people in your target market will provide valuable insight.

Qualitative research often comes first. In-depth information about customer needs, habits and wants is usually most useful when you’re developing a product. Then, once you’re a little farther along, you can use quantitative research to test your prototypes or validate some of your hypotheses around things like pricing.

There are often differences between what people say and what they actually do. Observing what people do (behavioural research) can sometimes be more useful than simply asking questions (attitudinal research) because people don’t always say what they mean or behave the way they think they will. If you can’t watch people in person, try watching them over video, or even having them record themselves doing a particular activity and sharing that recording with you to analyse.

Market research specialists can help. You can make a solid start in-house when it comes to user research, but if you want to add an additional level of rigour or get input from a lot more people, a market research agency or consultant can source the right people to interview or survey, help you ask them the right questions, and turn all that raw data into actionable insights for you.

How to conduct qualitative user research in-house

1. Clarify your objectives. Come with a few hypotheses and assumptions you want to test or validate using your research. This will help you focus your line of questioning so your research has a clear direction.

2. Come up with the right questions. Based on those hypotheses, create a list of the framing questions you need to ask at this stage of your product development journey. Make sure those questions are open rather than closed, and try to go a level deeper than you normally would to fully test your assumptions. 

3. Nail down your method. Decide how you’ll get to this information based on your budget, time frame and other limitations on your business. This might be one-on-one interviews, focus groups or observing users using the product or carrying out a task in their home environment. Determine what stimulus materials you’ll provide for the user to interact with, if any; that might be competitor products or even prototypes of your own product if you have them.

4. Decide who you’ll speak to. Think about who you should include in your research and who you have access to. You want to make sure you’re speaking to the right demographics, ideally the kinds of people you’re looking to target with your product. If you’re sourcing people yourself, make sure not to pick people who know too much about your business in case that information biases them. Friends of friends with no strong link to your business can be a good place to start sourcing candidates – just make sure to get a mix of genders, ages and lifestyles.

5. Conduct the research. Guiding a conversation is a skill, and there’s plenty of best-practice advice around interviewing (see below) to follow. During this process, don’t be afraid to change tack and go in different directions if it seems natural or if your initial questions don’t elicit the depth of answers you’re hoping for. Equally, be careful not to let customers start dictating solutions – remember, they’re constrained by what they know. Focus your questions on the problems they’re facing and come up with the solutions based on the insights they share.

6. Analyse the results. Filter, condense and organise your findings. Be methodical about this to make sure you’re able to easily interpret and analyse what your research has dug up. Test these findings against your initial hypotheses. Ask yourself questions like: what are we learning? Did we prove or disprove our initial hypotheses? Are there any patterns that should affect the product’s development? What are the implications of this on what we’re designing? What further gaps are there in our knowledge that we’ll need to pick up on in the future?

7. Consider whether you need quantitative data. Though you might have all you need to aid your design process, it may be that you need to graduate to quantitative research to test and validate some of the conclusions you’ve drawn, and find patterns within a larger sample size. To do this in-house, you can create surveys using simple online tools or work with specialist agencies.

Key takeaways

Carrying out user research is crucial to understanding the pain points of the customers you’re hoping to attract.

Quantitative and qualitative research both have their place, but the latter is often an excellent starting point for small companies.

For your research to be really useful, you’ll need to spend time outlining your hypotheses and assumptions. This will influence your questioning and, in turn, allow your findings to give clear conclusions that will then aid the design process. 

Learn more

Discover a user research method that can help you achieve your goals using this comprehensive list of user research methods from Nielsen Norman.

Understand the power of user research in product development with this article about how Samsung has made decisions about it.

Learn how to conduct a focus group with this article from Interaction Design

Learn how to conduct an effective user interview with this video from CareerFoundry.

Develop your questioning techniques with this podcast episode from Mind the Product.

Conduct quantitative research by developing a survey using an online tool like Survey Monkey or TypeForm.

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