Chapter 3 — User Research – Learning about users & their needs


[ Previous: Chapter 2- Developing Market Understanding — Idea Conceptualization, Incubation & Validation]

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User research is the most critical part of the whole product development lifecycle. It is the single most link that helps you empathize with your users and their list of wants and needs, which serves as a basis for your product.

User research would help you:
— Identify user needs and requirements
— Validate your hypothesis about your idea or product
— Guide product refinements through coherent iterations

The 5-step process for conducting user research is –

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Conducting User Research

1. Objectives — What are we trying to know?

Objectives for a user research might vary depending on the stage of the product. For a product that’s still in ideation phase, you would want to identify unarticulated user needs that you would want to solve.
However, your goal might also be to validate a prototype, MVP or simply test out a feature.

2. Hypothesis — What we think, we might know?

Start broad in an opportunity space, then narrow down to set of the specific hypothesis you want to investigate, validate, or refute.
A good hypothesis is important because it leads to good experimental design. Good experimental design is important because you need it to properly validate or invalidate what you’re doing.

For hypothesis catering to initial stage of product/business, structure your hypothesis this way –

I/We believe [target market] will [do this action / use this solution] for [this reason].

Going back to the previous example of live chat using Facebook Messenger in the previous chapter, the hypothesis would be –

I believe that businesses (target market) would like to use facebook messenger to provide customer support (do this/use this solution) because it is more effective in terms of cost and provide a better experience to customers (reason).

For hypothesis catering to an existing product/solution, your hypothesis should have the following format –

I/We believe that [change] will [impact] for the [target user] by [how much] in [this much time]

Example, Reducing the sign-up steps from 3 to 1 [change] will increase signs up [impact] by 25% [how much] for new visitors [target user] after 1,000 visits to the sign-up page [in this much time].

3. Methods — Decide what method to use, what framework to use & how to find the right participants?

3a — Decide what methods to use

Once you have a defined research objective and a set of hypotheses, you’re ready to consider which research methods would be most appropriate to achieve your objective. You can as well combine methods to get a better understanding of your users.
A lot depends on the current stage of the product. Within the entire product lifecycle, developing a new product is quite different from refining the existing product.

There are two stages in which we can broadly categorize the product stage –

0–1 stage involves building a new product from the ground up and coming up with the first version.
1-n stage denotes incremental changes — addition or removal of features — in an existing product.

User research differs for each of these stages. In the 0–1 stage, user research is done for validation of your product idea and getting feedback on the ideas. In the 1-n stage, the objective of user research is to get feedback on the features of a product.

0–1 & 1-n Innovation
0-1 stage

For 0–1 stage, you should focus more on running discovery interviews. You could use 5W2H analysis to frame your questions to get an understanding of the problems your users face, how they tackle the challenge now and the perceived benefit that they might get from your product.

For example, 0–1 stage user research for OLX app (place to sell & buy second-hand goods) would be –
1. How users search for second-hand items?
2. What are the things user consider while buying a second-hand item
3. Condition (via Photograph)
4. Location
5. Review
6. Price
7. Conversation with the buyer

1-n stage

However, a 1-n stage user research relies on data collection for usability and feedbacks for the feature.
Example, how can we improve the search for a second-hand item. How can we improve the filters to show more relevant results?

It is essential to focus your questions on –
— What the user understands from the benefit (communicated by you)
— How would the product help the user (need to write down the benefits order wise)
— Does the user finds the product valuable
— Reasons for user thinking the product is/is not valuable

Research Methodologies

You could use one of the following methodologies to conduct your user research –

i) Surveys:

A series of questions which gives you quantitative information from a large sample set.
In order to conduct a survey, a very important factor is determining Sample size. You can easily calculate sample size using various online calculators. For instance, this calculator by SurveyMonkey can come handy.
You need to provide Population Size (of you study), Confidence Interval (Margin of Error) and Confidence level (typically 95%) as input. You can read more about these values on the same page.

ii) Interviews:

One-on-one discussions with users with the primary focus on the hypothesis. It is important to revolve the interview around –

  • The problem faced by the user
  • The frequency with which the user faces this problem
  • The last time the pain point occurred
  • What the user has done to solve the problem
  • What the user like/disliked about the solutions
iii) Contextual Inquiry (Ethnographic Field Study):

The idea is you observe your participant in their “native habitat” and ask them to show how they conduct day-to-day activities. You also use the observation to prompt inquiries into certain behaviors to uncover insights.

iv) Focus Groups:

Groups of 3–12 participants are lead through a discussion about a set of topics, giving verbal and written feedback through discussion and exercises.

v) Concept Testing:

A researcher shares an approximation of a product that captures the core value proposition of a new idea to determine if it meets the target user’s needs; it can be done one-on-one or with larger numbers of participants.

vi) Diary/Camera Studies:

Participants are given a mechanism (diary or camera) to record and describe aspects of their lives that are relevant to a product or service, or simply core to the target audience; diary studies are typically longitudinal and can only be done for data that is easily recorded by participants.

vii) Customer Feedback:

Open-ended and/or close-ended information provided by a self-selected sample of users, often through a feedback link, button, form, or email.

viii) Desirability Studies:

Participants are offered different visual-design alternatives and are expected to associate each alternative with a set of attributes selected from a closed list; these studies can be both qualitative and quantitative.

ix) Card Sorting:

A quantitative or qualitative method that asks users to organize items into groups and assign categories to each group. This method helps create or refine the information architecture of a site by exposing users’ mental models.

x) A/B testing:

It is a quantitative way to compare two versions of something to figure out which performs better (using statistics).

The following matrix would help you understand what technique to use depending on your goal or the phase the product development is in –

Source — NN Group (
3b — Decide what framework to use for the research

Once, we have decided on the methods of research, next step is deciding on the frameworks which would be used to develop questions/artifacts of the research. This would help you analyze and modify your results into a consumable format. Two well-known frameworks available for analysis are –

1 — Journey Mapping
A customer journey map is a diagram that illustrates the steps your customer(s) go through while engaging with your company. Whether it be a product, an online experience, retail experience, or a service, or any other combination.

2- Strategyzer Value Proposition Canvas framework of pains, gains, jobs –
Pains: What are people’s primary pain points?
Gains: What are people in love with?
Jobs: What they trying to accomplish?

Value Proposition Canvas
3c — How to find the right participants

You need to articulate what kind of person you are looking for. This is where you should create a participant profile. This profile should have enough detail to help guide in the identification process of interview candidates. Developing a set of required qualities would help you find relevant participants for the research.

4. Conduct — Gather data through the selected methods

Develop an interview guide and stimuli, and test draft versions of your activities on co-workers.
Creating a facilitator cheat sheet which would provide outline on the goal of the research, the framework for findings, and the key questions you are trying to answer
Using Google Doc or Sheet are best for note-taking.
Once all is set, you are ready to go into the field to conduct your research.

While conducting user research, you should ask open-ended questions.
Open-ended questions are questions that allow someone to give a free-form answer.
Closed-ended questions can be answered with a “Yes” or “No,” or via a limited set of possible answers (multiple choice).

Closed-ended questions are good for surveys because you get higher response rates cause users don’t have to type much. These closed-ended answers can easily be analyzed statistically.

However, in one-on-one usability testing, you want to get richer data than what’s provided from simple yes/no answers. If you test with 5 users, it’s not insightful to report that (say) 60% of users answered “no” to a certain question. If you can get users to talk in depth about a question, you can derive valid information from 5 users. Not statistical insights, but qualitative insights.

Open-Ended Question v/s Close-Ended Questions

5. Synthesis — Process the data

Convert raw notes into bite-sized findings. Create a sheet summary for each participant so that the data can be easily re-visited.
To further refine your data, you could make use of affinity mapping.

The affinity diagram is used to organize data, ideas, and findings into groups. Each item is written on a sticky note such as Post-its and these notes are sorted into categories.

Steps involved in conducting affinity mapping
  1. Write the data points gathered during research on sticky notes
  2. Start placing the sticky notes on a wall or a whiteboard
  3. Group the sticky notes with data points that have a similar theme
  4. After all the notes have been placed, you can see the different categories formed by the data points

For example, let’s say a team needs to explore why few businesses struggle with sales. Affinity Mapping would help you go organize like this –

Affinity Mapping

You could also use spreadsheet or Trello for organizing your ideas.

Affinity Mapping using Trello

Once, you have processed the data, it’s time to dwell deeper into user insight about needs.

We’ll again refer to the model by Dean Olsen –

The user can rank importance on the following scale –
Not at all important
Somewhat important
Moderately important
Very important
Extremely important

Similarly, satisfaction with current solutions can be ranked by the user using the following scale –
Completely dissatisfied
Mostly dissatisfied
Somewhat dissatisfied
Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
Mostly Satisfied
Completely Satisfied

Assigning values to these scales would help you plot the needs of the graph above.

It is important to note that Opportunity to add value to customer would be
Importance * (1-Satisfaction)

Finally, you should proceed to build artifacts for the product.

In the next chapter, we’ll understand how to develop user persona and user journey.

Previous: Chapter 2 – Idea Validation and finding Product-Market Fit]

[Next: Chapter 4 – How to Create Product Artefacts – User Personas & Customer Journey Mapping]

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