It does not matter how great you think your product is if your users do not agree.
Ignoring the user, then, would be as good as ignoring your product or app. Taking the time to understand the subtleties of your user’s environment, the limitations of using the app, and the kind of value they derive from the experience can help improve user experience and core functionality.
That is the essence of user research—understanding what the user’s goals are, what actions they are taking to achieve those goals, and where in this process does your product help them achieve their goals.
Being able to anticipate a user’s needs will help your team innovate more by understanding what causes friction and prevents users from achieving value.
Yet real user research is still rare. Often customer support teams, account managers, or go-to-market teams will gather feedback from customers, which is not necessarily the best format for guiding product development.
Roadblocks to user research: mindset, cost, and return on investment
Upper management often questions the rationale behind user research when they are doing market research already. Their worry often lies in cost and feasibility. Bringing customers on-site can be resource intensive, and taking the time out of the development schedule to conduct research can be disruptive.
The mindset of market research = user research is especially difficult to tackle. Market research is best suited for capturing information about potential users, not existing users. It focuses on trends and opinions more than real-life user behavior.
To build a customer-focused mindset into teams, everyone must be on board with why the product is being built the way it is. Developers who are unaware of user needs and goals are automatically setup to lack the empathy for understanding product decisions. That can translate to greater costs, in terms of effort as well as time.
Jared Spool, co-founder of the usability research and consulting firm User Interface Engineering, discussed how he worked with management in his article about why he can never convince executives to invest in UX. Instead he advocates focusing on the notions they already believe in, like increasing revenue or getting more customers, and then using UX to help with those areas.
User research doesn't produce instant results, but one approach is to consider the long-term potential ROI in terms of cost of errors, maintenance cost saved, and employee productivity enhanced:
User research examples from fast-growing products
How Uber learned about user constraints with field tests
Uber’s team realized the importance of user research when they conducted field tests with driver partners. One of the tests led to the discovery that a driver had set up his phone to save the number of the next ride as ‘Muppet.’ Whenever he needed to call a rider, he could simply use the voice command ‘Call Muppet’ instead of physically navigating to the call screen and making a call.
Such learning would not have been possible for the Uber team had they not undertaken field tests to see what constraints the driver partners were working in.
One of the hallmarks of user research is formulating a hypothesis or an assumption and the corresponding learning that comes from it. Assuming that the user has to complete certain tasks to get to the goal they want can lead to either the assumption being proven right or wrong. Either way, your team comes away with valuable insight into the user’s behavior.
By formulating a hypothesis, you move your testing in a decisive direction rather than letting your team wander around for bits and pieces of information collected from user behavior. This learning can be used to enhance development on the next iteration or the next feature of the product.
How Buffer validated feasibility with early feedback
One of the biggest reasons to do user research is to get feedback from your users in the initial stages of development. Whether that’s a minimum viable product (MVP) or a beta release to test the waters, get feedback from your users as early as possible. Correcting course in the beginning is much easier than saving a sinking ship, which is exactly what developing features and functionality without validation will do to your plans.
While these organizations might not have undertaken the most extensive forms of user research during the MVP phase they did get some form of validation before moving along with their process.
In Buffer’s case, it was as simple as creating a landing page for the product and seeing how many people signed up. A two-page promo was all of what was first released.
To further test whether users would be willing to pay for such a service, Buffer introduced another page so that users would have an additional step and click to go through before they registered. Users who were still willing to go through the added friction and sign up indicated the potential feasibility of such a product.
Choose the right user research methods and tools
If your team is convinced of the importance of user research, the final jigsaw in the puzzle is choosing what kind of tests to conduct. It is necessary to understand what purpose a user test serves before employing it.
Here are a few common user research methods:
Card sorting: for understanding the information architecture and navigational efficiency of the app.
Eye tracking: for observing and understanding what catches the attention of the user first/most.
A/B testing: for assessing response of the users to different page designs for the same action.
Online Surveys: for gauging user response to specific questions about and related to the product.
User interviews: for understanding first-hand the needs and pain points of the user. They can be conducted while users interact with the product or without it as well.
Usability testing: for observing the user while they accomplish specific tasks with the product. Guerrilla testing is also a kind of usability test, which involves approaching potential users in their normal environment and asking them to try either the product or specific features.
This post will help if you’d like to get a more detailed understanding about each of these user research methods.
The right kind of test will depend on the aspect of user behavior that you are trying to understand. Is it onboarding that needs improving? What is the reason for shopping cart abandonment? What is the cause for the bounce rate on a landing page?
Nielsen-Norman Group also created a helpful 3-dimensional framework that can help teams understand what user research method would work in what case.
Questions that deal with ‘Why’ and ‘How’ need qualitative tests, while those aimed at ‘How many’ or ‘How much’ need quantitative tests.
The level of interaction with the app or product during research would also vary based what level of specificity the team wishes to delve into. An unscripted use of the product would give lesser control to the team while a scripted contextual interview would give specific insights on particular features.
There is also the possibility of remote testing. It would allow users to interact with the product in their natural environment without any interference from the user research team. Tools like Hotjar, Fullstory, zipBoard, UserTesting.com, and WhatUsersDo, help with remote testing and examining how users perceive a website or an app.
Once you've settled on your method and target user, it takes a fairly small sample size to start understanding their needs and issues.
According to Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of the UX pioneering Nielsen Norman Group, “The best results come from testing no more than 5 users and running as many small tests as you can afford.”
His study indicates 15 users would be able to reveal almost all of your usability problems. Or you could run three tests iteratively after each redesign cycle on 5 users and save resources. This gives you optimum balance between number of users to include and the number of tests to run.
Use data to make product improvements (and research improvements)
User research provides teams with data to concretely track progress and evaluate feedback. Whether you’re gathering NPS or conducting A/B tests, the hard data retrieved in the course of user research tells you what is going well and what is going wrong. The good parts should, of course, be retained but can also be developed further in later iterations, while the pitfalls and bumps in the product should be trimmed or re-thought.
Having data to go along with also tells whether your test cases are valid or not. If there’s not useful data at the end of your user tests then there could be mistakes in identifying the user segment or designing the tasks. If the data is not contributing to any new learning, then your assumptions may be out of place and not decisive enough to get insights into specific areas.
User research helps you get closer to the customer
Design thinking and user-centered design are increasingly becoming common concepts for product teams and organizations. Having a customer-focused outlook helps align goals of the business with the goals of the user and that can directly translate into revenue, user engagement, user retention, and customer delight.
Amazon is an example of a company that invests heavily in user experience, and research. While it was initially doubted for investing in such aspects, in the long-term their investment has been validated. In the words of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos,
“…I think long-term thinking squares the circle. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.”
Products that deliver value to users and are in line with their needs are bound to do better.