Whether you’re buying a bagel or booking a vacation, it’ll always be better if it’s been made with your needs, tastes, and goals in mind. The same goes for websites and apps. A product designed to meet a specific group’s requirements will always be more popular than one that isn’t.
This is what product research is. It’s the art of getting to know your users incredibly well so that when you design something, the finished product is exactly what your users want and helps them accomplish their goals to a tee.
The alternative? Making a product or feature that no one needs or wants or not doing your research fully and getting the product half-right. You’ll also waste time and resources trying to fix things. Definitely not ideal!
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what, exactly, product research is. Then we’ll dive into how you can make it an integral part of your product design process — whether you’re creating something new or redesigning something that already exists. Let’s dive in.
What is product research?
Product research is a broad term that basically means ‘getting to know your users.’ Essentially, it places the user right at the center of your design universe. Every decision, solution, and evaluation is made with their needs in mind.
Product research encompasses a variety of methods, all of which fall into two categories: quantitative research and qualitative research. Let’s unpack these terms.
Quantitative methods involve measuring user behavior in a way that can be used for statistical analysis. The results are usually numerical. For example, how many users like the color green or what percentage of respondents use a certain social media platform. User information is gathered indirectly, which makes it possible to gather large sample sizes instead of interviews, which require more hands-on facilitation. Here are some popular quantitative research methods:
- Surveys: These are structured questions sent out to your target audience. They’re often low cost and can be an effective way to gather large data sets relatively quickly.
- Web analytics: Website analytics sites, like Google Analytics, gather user data. This allows you to see how users interact with your website. They can provide valuable insights, including how users move through the site and where they drop off.
- A/B testing: This method lets you compare two different versions of a web page, so you can see which one has the higher conversion rate. Once you know that, you can see which design your users prefer. It’s a great way to test things like button placements, colors, and banners.
- First click testing: This is a test designed to help designers uncover which element on a web page a user clicks on first. This can be done on an existing site or at the wireframing stage.
- Eye-tracking: This tracks user gaze, so designers can see where their eyes go while interacting with the site. It can help with things like button placement and menu arranging.
- Heat Mapping: A cheaper alternative to eye tracking, heat mapping shows where users click on a site or prototype.
Qualitative methods are more abstract and in-depth. Interviews are one type of qualitative research because answers are long and non-quantifiable. Usability testing is also considered a type of qualitative research because it’s explorative and gives deeper insight into the user’s behavior. Here are some popular methods:
- Interviews: One-on-one conversations that follow a set of predefined questions that encourage the user to open up about their thoughts and experiences about the product or service.
- Card sorting: Participants group cards into logical criteria that makes sense to them. This should, in turn, give designers insight into how their typical user will interact with the site and its hierarchy.
- Focus groups: Groups are led through an open discussion. During the session, participants can participate in activities or tasks, then share their thoughts with the leader and wider group.
- Guerrilla testing: This low-cost method involves asking strangers what they think. It’s often carried out on the street, in the field, or using online usability testing tools.
- Field Studies: This method involves recording observations while the user interacts with the product or service in their own environment.
- In-lab testing: Users are invited to interact with the product or service in a controlled lab setting where their thoughts and actions are recorded for later analysis.
There are pros and cons to all methods, so it’s best not to rely too heavily on just one. Obviously, the type of project, along with time and resource constraints, will define how much you can do, but generally speaking, the more, the better.
Why should you do product research?
Product research helps you design a product that answers your audience’s needs. The better it does that, the more they’ll use it. If you’re working in a commercial environment, then this could give you a competitive advantage. It also makes it easier for users to accomplish their goals without needing your support. According to the Interaction Design Foundation, user research (a part of product research) essentially does three things:
1. To create designs that are relevant to the user
The main reason for doing user research is so you can find out how to make designs your users want. If your design isn’t relevant, it will fail due to a lack of interest, and all your hard work will be for nothing. If it’s relevant, it’ll get plenty of use and help you stand out from the crowd.
2. To make designs that are easy and enjoyable to use
If your user experience isn’t good, people will move on to a different website or app (unless you work in a field with no competitors). Making sure you have a product that’s a pleasure to use will help ensure commercial success.
3. To understand the return on investment (ROI) of your design
Making sure your users love your product isn’t something you can easily prove before putting it out into the wild. And by that time, the die has already been rolled. If it’s not suitable, it’ll need to be brought back in and redesigned, costing the business money. Even so, stakeholders often don’t see the value in product research because the benefits aren’t immediately obvious, nor as initially crucial as something like bug fixing. Unfortunately, though, if budgets are cut, product research is often the first to go.
This is where being able to show value comes in handy. To do that, you need to measure your results. Any change you make, measure the metrics that show it worked. This feature reduced the bounce rate or increased visitors to the site (and the revenue this generates). You could also show improvements in efficiency to prove the effectiveness of product research.
Tips and tricks
Here’s how to get the most out of your product research.
Choose your testers carefully
Take care when choosing the people you run your tests on. Make sure they’re the right type of person (i.e., your intended audience) and can provide reliable, well-thought-out answers. Check out usability.gov for some advice on things like candidate screening.
When usability testing, you might want to use people on your team to save time and money. This is absolutely fine for initial tests, but it has major limitations. People who have worked on the project will know what it’s about and probably have the same blind spots you do. Using a person who’s never seen the product before will give you fresh insight. They’ll also be able to spot things you may have otherwise missed. Cognitive walkthroughs are a fast, straightforward way to put yourself in your user’s shoes and are definitely worth time investment.
Ask the right questions
To get good answers, you need to ask the right questions. Short, open-ended questions are best for eliciting detailed responses beyond a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
Watch out for groupthink.
When people get together, the opinions of some might influence others. Or you may find that more outspoken people dominate the group while the quieter voices go unheard. There are a few ways you can avoid this scenario from happening. The K-J Technique helps participants reach an objective group consensus while brainstorming games — both in-person and run remotely — can yield good answers if carefully managed (and everyone’s allowed to speak).
Make research ongoing
Great product design should be iterative in its improvement, and never really be finished — even when the product’s been released into the world. Testing allows you to see whether your design worked and highlights areas for improvement. Once you’ve made those changes, testing again allows you to see whether they worked.
Repeating this process means your product will continually improve — something that’s vital if you want to compete in a busy marketplace.
Use the right tools
From wireframing to user story mapping and collating quantitative data, cloud-based diagramming software can be a huge help.
Choose a tool that comes with pre-made templates that save you time, and look out for features like version control and shared commenting features that make it easier for the team to collaborate. The more organized you can keep all your user research data, the easier it’ll be for everyone to focus on the user and their goals.
Match the research to your project
Time and budget constraints will shape your choices to some extent, but in an ideal world, you’ll include a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods. They work together as a pair: test your qualitative insights quantitatively.
Build on facts, not assumptions
You know what they say about assuming… Making assumptions is bad. If you build something on guesswork, the chances of it being wrong are high. It’s a gamble and one that rarely pays off. If you build something based on carefully researched insights provided by your audience, the chances of them liking the finished product are massively improved.
Make product research non-optional
Your user should be at the center of your design, so to skip the research part would be a huge mistake. Even a little research can yield far better results than a product built on guesswork.
Empathy sits at the center of good design. And combining well-researched evidence with thorough analysis is the surest way to see the world through the user’s eyes. Once you have this perspective, you’ll be well on the road to creating a winning product.