It’s All About People: User Research

December 21, 2017

User research is the key to connect business with customers, consumers, and users but it is often overlooked. Whenever I ask “Have you done any user research to understand what your customers/users need now?”, I would hear the following responses:

“I know my customers/users.”

“We did research last year for another project, and it showed the same need to add the chat feature.”

“Demographic research shows that female Millennials spend a lot of time on social media, and our users fall into this group.”

“This is a leadership decision to create a gamification function.”

“Why don’t we just do it? I’m sure our customer will like it because this plan has been thoroughly discussed.”

Okay… so the truth is: You don’t know your customers/users. You might have heard about how other similar customers look like, but they are not your customers. You might think your plan is perfect because a group of people (or consultants) had spent weeks in a closed meeting room jamming and debating ideas among themselves. But they don’t know your customers/users, either. As a result, you have brilliant ideas and sophisticated plans to bring ideas to life — but those are not what your customers/users want. Failed.

Why is it so important to do user research?

Human preferences are constantly changing. What was popular 12 months ago may not be applicable (think about Pokémon Go). Customers who participated in your retail service study may not the be the same people who use your mobile app. And your leadership may not know what the customer wants just because they are “more experienced.”

It is never enough mentioning about the importance of understanding your customers or users. You don’t want to spend months creating a product or service or content that looks amazing, but no one cares about it (besides those who created it). Small things can cause fatal harms. The Agile approach is one way to test your product and adjust based on the feedback rapidly, but “starting it right” is equally important as “fixing it right.”

Mindlessly doing a user research will not lead you to meaningful insights. If you ask the wrong questions, you can get answers that trigger investment and activity to a wrong direction. Lacking rigorous research design and analysis to ensure a robust understanding of the problem can cause bias. The real question you need to ask is: Whether there is enough value to trigger successful customer acquisitions, and therefore product adoption?

Whys of doing user research

UX Booth has a comprehensive user research guide explaining different research methods. Below are some methods that are commonly used:

Interview: Interviewing gives you an opportunity to speak directly with the people who can help you make informed decisions. You’ll gain a better sense of people and their true feelings, desires, struggles, and opinions through a few carefully crafted questions.

Observation: People are likely to say or do things that they are not aware of or would not be able to articulate when they are left to their own. It’s a good way to capture people’s natural behavior by watching and listening without interfering.

Immersion: It’s a way of building empathy through firsthand experience. You immerse yourself in other people’s environment and feel what it is like to live in the world as someone else. If you can begin to understand people’s motivations, you will understand their needs better.

Focus group: Unlike interview, focus group allows members of the group to interact and influence each other during the discussion and consideration of ideas and perspectives. It’s a good way to understand how preferences would shift based on influences.

Survey: A great way to gather unbiased, quantified data through a large number of audiences. You’ll have data that is easy to measure, compare, and benchmark.

Usability testing: When there is a product, you’re likely going to do a usability testing to learn things like ease and effectiveness of navigation, usefulness of content, effectiveness of UI, and task successfulness.

A/B testing: It can be used to test everything from content to UI design to promotion and so on. It allows customers and users to decide for you while having a statistical way to prove the impacts, conversion rates, and bottom-line you name it.

Persona, User Experience, and Customer Journey

The next thing you can do is creating personas. Persona is a summary of the mindset, needs, and goals that guide decision making in the interest of the people you are serving. It is an important north star that everyone should keep in mind throughout the process.

Building a relationship with your customers and users is a journey itself. Each touchpoint creates an experience determining how your customer perceive your product or service. Accumulatively, we have a customer journey.

In the exploratory stage, the journey needs to be broad enough to cover what happened before and after where customers interact with us. For instance, if you are an e-commerce site, you want to understand how your customer hears about your brand, how does he/she find your online store, and what happened after he/she left your site. This 30,000ft view gives a sense of your customers’ behavior to identify pain points and opportunities to improve your relationship with them.

When you confirmed that the e-commerce site has the most significant potential to bring impacts (not customer service or delivery or anywhere else), you look into how your customers use your site and generate another journey map just for it. You will see how different personas use the site, where their pain points are, where they drop off, and identify the areas that you’d like to tackle.

Size matters, and SMBs needs to do more

Large corporates have higher likelihood to form a research team to understand customer insights. Not the case for small and middle size companies (SMBs), not even to mention startups. Nevertheless, SMBs and startups can significantly benefit from user research (or hurt from not doing so). SMBs and startups are very sensitive to sales performance, which normally tied to customer satisfaction. However, in today’s market, lots of SMBs and startups are technology-driven or sales/growth-driven, sometimes with tide resources, and thus ignoring the value of conducting a regular user research and testing to understand the constantly changing customer preferences.

Results need to be shared

Sometimes we have done quality research that is well documented. But it sat on the shelf and got forgotten as the process moves on. On the other hand, people outside of the design/product/research team are hungry to learn more about their customers and users but aren’t getting the information they need.

Every team in the organization needs to embrace human-centric mindset, and it would be unrealistic to require everyone to interview a customer in order to learn their needs. Due to that, sharing the knowledge about your customers can be highly beneficial for people who are not in product or design teams (finance, sales, for example) but are connected or have a direct impact on the customers. You can learn more tips about communicating your user research results from this UX Mastery article.

Last, keep in mind the difference between what people say they need, what they actually need, and what they don’t know they need.