User Research Methods for Each Stage of Product Development
Learn how to start product development on the right foot by understanding your audience through proper user research.
As Ralf Speth, CEO at Jaguar, says: “If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design.”
In all business decisions, failure to anticipate a customer’s expectations can end in disaster. For example, do you remember New Coke? Tropicana’s 2009 package redesign failure?
Both were costly mistakes due to misunderstandings of the customer’s point of view. Without proper user research to back their product design decisions, these companies built products that customers didn’t want.
User research involves investigating your audience’s needs, pain points, and behaviors, so you can design the best product for them. Comprehensive research consists of multiple tactics, such as interviewing your customers and running prototype tests to collect feedback.
However, the user research methods you choose for each stage of product development — discovery, concept development, and product testing — need to fit the needs of that stage. That way, you can easily go from product ideation to building a functional solution for customers.
User Research for Product Discovery
At the product discovery stage, you learn more about the market, the needs of your audience, and whether you’re trying to solve a big enough problem for customers. The user research methods you’ll be using during this stage focus on getting customers to open up about the challenges they face that your product might be able to solve.
Talking directly to customers about their experiences, either face to face or remotely, is a great way to find insights you might not have considered as a product manager. Conduct your user interviews with a clear hypothesis by asking the right questions and actively listening to your customers.
Guide the Interview With a Hypothesis
Before starting the user interview, make sure to have a set of assumptions ready to test based on user insights, such as feedback forms and product reviews. It serves as a starting point you can use to better guide the user interview. Follow this framework to create your hypothesis.
- “We believe that [creating this experience] for [persona] will [achieve this outcome].”
So, if you’re managing a virtual event platform and trying to develop ways to make users feel more secure, your hypothesis might look like:
- "We believe that [including two-factor authentication] for [meeting participants] will [make users feel more secure by only allowing expected participants to join the call].”
Ask Customer Discovery Questions
To run effective customer interviews, you need to stay objective. That means avoiding leading questions that can unintentionally push your customers to the answer you want, rather than the truthful answer. Otherwise, you risk believing to have found the perfect product idea, only to build a solution that the market doesn’t want.
“Leading questions are those which create a bias in the users’ mindset while answering,” says Pooja Dhaka, UX Researcher at SkipTheDishes, in an article for Flipkart Design. “Hence, they should be avoided while conducting interviews.”
Instead, the conversation should focus on validating the pain points you’re trying to solve. That means focusing on the user’s future actions rather than on hypothetical situations. Good discovery questions are open ended, leaving room for the customer’s point of view:
- “Can you describe the last time you experienced [a problem]?”
In our example from above, that might look like:
- “Can you describe the last time you experienced [a security problem during a remote meeting]?"
The goal here is to listen to your customer, not to sell them on your product idea. If you’re too focused on pitching a product that’s not even out yet, it distracts you from listening to the customer’s pain points.
Out of politeness, some customers might even validate your product idea, even though it’s something they don’t really want. Instead of pitching your product, let the customer do most of the talking. Eventually, they’ll mention valuable insights about their challenges. You can use these insights later to determine solutions to the customers' pain points.
For more tips on writing good interview questions, check our article on the 11 best customer discovery questions you can use for your next user interview.
Be Open To Negative Feedback
Harsh feedback can be hard to swallow, but it prevents you from building a product the market doesn’t need.
“Asking the hard questions should give you the most excitement if you’ve fallen in love with the problem, but getting defensive is a sure way to stop learning in its tracks,” says Angela DeFranco, Head of Product at SevenRooms, during an interview with Founder Playlist.
The whole point of the user interview is to investigate your hypothesis. If what customers want doesn’t align at all with your initial assumption, then it’s best to move to another product idea.
Customer surveys offer a quick way to collect feedback on your customers’ experiences, their needs, and challenges. You can then leverage those insights to find the best ways to address any difficulties with your product. Here’s how to structure your customer surveys to get the best results:
Use Open-Ended, Task-Driven Questions
Like user interviews, include questions that give customers a chance to tell you what they think. That means avoiding questions that prompt a desired action from the customer and confirming your bias. Questions should be open ended, and task driven.
Let’s say that you’re managing a social media monitoring tool like Buffer, and you’re in the process of redesigning the app. Here are examples of questions to help collect accurate feedback from your users:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the onboarding process?
- What do you like the least about our current social media monitoring tool? What do you like most?
- How would you judge the usability of our tool, and why?
- Which features do you use the most within our app? What features could you live without?
- What features are currently missing that you’d like to see?
Maximize Survey Responses
Send the Survey at the Right Time
The time you send your survey can significantly impact its response rate. According to research by SurveyMonkey, users are more likely to respond to customer surveys around 9–10 a.m. The day of the week and device type matter as well, so make sure you’re considering all angles before you send your survey.
Make Your Survey Easy to Complete
To maximize your survey completion rate, you need to ensure that it’s as straightforward as possible. Another study by SurveyMonkey shows that surveys longer than 7 minutes have completion rates that are 5–20% lower than those of shorter surveys.
Include an Incentive
To drive the most users to complete your survey, you can offer an incentive, such as a small gift or a chance to win a larger one.
According to Staff Product Researcher Andrew Rajaram at Shopify, financial incentives such as gift cards are one of the best incentives to offer to users because they are easy to transfer or adjust. You can also offer ways for users to save money, such as a free trial period, suggests Rajaram.
A diary study is a long-term research method in which target customers log their experiences using a product or completing an activity. This technique gives you a glimpse into a user’s habits by asking them to track their behavior.
Financial software company Intuit often uses diary studies when conducting user research to improve their product. According to Intuit CFO Neil Williams in an interview with Business Insider, diary studies give their product design/development team a glimpse into the pain points that their customers experience, such as how often they are interrupted doing their taxes.
“Many people are probably not even mindful of how many interruptions they get or how many things distract them as they work on finances.”
Here’s how to run effective diary studies in four steps:
Something to think about when conducting diary studies is when to trigger participants to write down their feedback. You have two different triggers to choose from:
- Interval-contingent trigger: The participant has to write their log at specific intervals that you assign, such as once a day or once a week.
- Signal-contingent trigger: The participant writes their diary entry at any time that’s most convenient to them or after completing a certain task, such as doing their taxes.
Use Diary Study Tools
Third-party apps can make the diary study process more efficient and reduce the manual work involved in monitoring participants.
Indeemo allows the users in your diary study to record audio and video as they complete tasks remotely. The app will also allow you to schedule tasks and run studies across different countries. You can also interact with participants via comments, reminders, and push notifications.
Dscout is another remote diary study tool that helps run your user research. Once you launch the diary study on the app, you can sit back and wait for the feedback from participants to come. As a bonus, it comes with an “expressiveness” feature that identifies your most eloquent participants, whose comments and responses you can use in highlight reels.
Another perk of diary tools is you can set up weekly reminders, so customers remain accountable and keep their diaries up to date. You can also push reminders to email or SMS.
Analyze the Data
Don’t just wait until the end of your study to analyze your data. Follow up with your participants throughout the process and observe how the behavior of your target audience evolves throughout the study.
After the study is done, sit down with your team to identify critical patterns from your customers. To do this, use the data to create a user journey map to understand the steps your participants took during their experience:
It will provide you a clear view of their needs and expectations, which you can use for product ideas.
User Research for Concept Development
Once you’re in concept development, you can use the customer’s perspective to understand if your information structure makes sense for the customer. From there, you can use these insights to build a functional prototype you can test.
Card sorting involves asking customers to organize information from your website or app into categories that make the most sense by using virtual or physical note cards. It’s a way to identify the best way to design the information architecture of your prototype.
There are three types of card sorting methods — open, closed, and hybrid. Each type of card sorting focuses on different elements and is used at different stages of product development.
Open Card Sorting
With open card sorting, each participant receives a set of cards with topics or keywords on them. You ask the participant to create categories that describe these different topics and then organize the cards into those categories.
Open card sorting works best if you’re looking for fresh ideas for categories or a new way to organize the content in your product.
Closed Card Sorting
With closed card sorting, instead of allowing participants to create their own categories, you provide them with a predefined list. Participants then have to organize their cards into those categories.
Closed card sorting is great for understanding if your current structure is easy to follow.
Hybrid Card Sorting
With hybrid card sorting, participants (and you) get the best of both worlds. Users can sort items based on a predefined set of categories and create their own categories.
Use hybrid card sorting when you want to be sure your planned structure aligns with customer expectations and get suggestions simultaneously.
Usability testing helps gauge whether your design is easy to use by asking customers to complete a set of actions and collecting their feedback. That way, you can identify potential errors before building a prototype.
Nick Babich, Editor in Chief at UX Planet, says you should always test usability on real people. “The feedback from the testing session will help you understand what part of your design requires improvements,” he says. For a successful usability test session, follow these tips.
Record Customer Feedback
As the customer goes through your usability test, take notes of their recurrent feedback. Here are the various ways that you can record the feedback:
- Vocal recordings
- Surveys that you can send to users
- Video recordings of users going through the product in action
Whichever way you decide to record the customer feedback, you can then share the data with other stakeholders on your team.
Analyze the Data and Prioritize Usability Issues
Go through your data and identify the problems that you must fix. During this stage, you want to sit down with all the critical stakeholders involved in the product development process and look for patterns in usability issues that you must overcome in the final prototype.
The next step is to prioritize those identified issues based on severity. It helps you get an exact idea of which ones you should tackle first. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, you should group usability issues into these five different levels:
- 4 – Usability catastrophe: These severe issues block the user from achieving the intended task and must be fixed immediately.
- 3 – Major usability problem: Problems in this group create significant frustration in the user experience and should be assigned high priority.
- 2 – Minor usability problem: These are usability issues that may not prevent users from completing their tasks but create a bit of friction.
- 1 – Cosmetic problem only: Cosmetic problems are minor issues that don’t negatively impact the user experience, such as a misspelling.
- 0 – No issue: Problems in this category are issues that some users may report but do not need to be fixed now.
From there, use this data to determine the next steps you should take to improve your product concept.
User Research for Product Testing
After doing research on your customer’s needs and measuring to see if they can understand your product concept, it’s time to get started on a prototype and test your audience’s reaction. This is different from usability testing, which measures how easy it is for people to use your product concept.
One of the goals of beta testing is to ensure your customers are happy with your software before its official release. This type of research will tell you whether customers will actually want to use your software. According to Luke Freiler, CEO of Centercode, in an article with Forbes Magazine, successful beta testing needs a plan with clear goals and a specific timeframe.
“Build a plan with your goals as your core. Without it, you risk your project unraveling,” Freiler said.
Get the most out of your beta testing session with beta testing tools and feedback analysis.
Integrate Beta Testing Tools
Beta testing tools make the process of testing your software and collecting user feedback much more efficient by reducing manual work. They help you get the best results for your beta test so that you can prepare yourself for a successful launch.
TestFairy is a mobile testing tool with features such as video recording, in-app feedback, and integration with issue management platforms. That way, you can easily monitor your user’s experience with your beta test, keep track of complaints, and improve the quality of your beta test reports. It also keeps all of your beta testing data secure through features such as encryption and private cloud hosting.
Another beta testing tool you can use is Ubertesters. The platform comes with the unique aspect of having access to professional beta testers worldwide to get feedback on your product. Professional beta testers have a lot of experience under their belt with running technical tests, which means they can accurately identify defects and guarantee a clean product lead.
Collect and Analyze Feedback
With your stakeholders, take a deep look at the suggestions and feedback of your beta users. What do users report as a missing part of the product experience? What features do they want to see? Based on this data, you can make design changes to your product before its final launch.
On the other hand, you also want to identify the features within your product that excite users the most. What positive feedback about your beta product most frequently pops up? It helps you understand which features contribute the most to user satisfaction.
As a final question, you should ask beta users to give you an NPS rating, which measures their level of enthusiasm around your product. It’s a score out of 10 that rates how likely the user is to recommend the product to others.
Like surveys, it’s considered best practice to offer an incentive to your participants. A discount or promo code works great.
Build the Best Product for Your Customers
Product development will always fail without proper user research. User research will help you build a product that aligns with the customer’s needs, which will improve your retention and customer lifetime value.
To begin the user research process, you can start by setting up customer interviews, which you can do without a lot of hard data. That way, you can start the product development process by accurately understanding their needs and pain points. You can find customer interview participants through third-party platforms such as User Interviews.