It doesn't matter how good you think your product is if your users don't like it or find it useful.

Ignoring the needs and desires of your users is like ignoring your product. The better you know your users, their environment, their needs, and the value they derive from your product, the better you can craft rewarding, satisfying, and engaging experiences for those users.

This is what user research is all about—understanding our users' goals, the actions they need to take to achieve those goals, and how your product can help them do so.

Despite its importance, true user research remains a rarity at many companies. Customer support personnel and account managers are often tasked with gathering user feedback, which isn't necessarily the most effective way to guide product development.

Let's take a look at how to conduct better user research so we can build better products.

User Research Roadblocks: Cost, Mindset, and ROI

One of the most common mistakes made by executive teams is assuming that market research is the same as user research. Although there is some overlap between the two, user research is distinctly different from market research in both form and purpose.

The two most common objections to conducting user research are cost and feasibility. Inviting customers on-site to conduct thorough user research can be time- and resource-intensive, and asking product leads or researchers to actually do the work can be disruptive and interrupt already time-sensitive projects.

The mindset that market research equals user research can be especially difficult to overcome. Market research is best suited for capturing data about prospective users, not existing users, and tends toward opinions and trends rather than the actual behaviors of real users.

If you want to cultivate a customer-focused mindset on your team, it's crucial that everybody on that team is on the same page about why the product is being built in the way it is. Developers who lack insight into users' needs can't possibly hope to develop product features with any real empathy for understanding product decisions. This lack of understanding, in turn, often drives up costs and wastes time and resources.

User research rarely offers instant results, which is why it's so difficult to secure executive buy-in. One way to mitigate this is to focus on what conducting user research will accomplish in tangible ways that executive teams will understand, i.e., reducing errors, lowering maintenance costs, or maximizing employee productivity.

Real Examples of Solid User Research

Before you can effectively pitch management on the benefits of user research, it pays to see examples of it in action and the kind of impact it can have on product development.

Buffer: Validating Feasibility

Whether you're aiming for a minimum viable product (MVP) or gearing up for your product's beta release, it's crucial to get your hands on actual user research data as early as possible. Why? Because the earlier you can identify flaws or design possibilities based on what users actually want, the more time and resources you can allocate to developing features you know will resonate with your users.

Think of it another way: it's much easier to steer clear of an iceberg than it is to stop a ship from sinking.

Many startups opt to develop an MVP before ramping up production. Dropbox, Groupon, Twitter, and Zappos are all examples of companies that tested the waters with an MVP before committing to producing a fully fledged application. Although the degrees of user research conducted by these companies varied, one thing they all did was validate the feasibility of an idea before committing resources to developing those ideas.

Social media management platform Buffer did precisely that before its launch. To test the commercial feasibility of its product, Buffer created two minimal landing pages: one with two steps and another with three steps.

The two-step landing page allowed users to sign up for the service before it launched by entering their email address:

The second landing page was designed to test whether users would be willing to pay for the service. To do this, the second landing page included an additional step that included some provisional pricing information that users had to complete in order to register:

Users who went through the additional step proved that Buffer's pricing hypothesis was valid and worthy of additional tests. It might not have been the most rigorous test, but that's not the point. Remember—you don't have to reinvent the wheel if you just want to test a simple idea.

Uber: The Value of Field Testing User Constraints

Ride-share app Uber has mastered the art of user research to discover real challenges faced by drivers in the field that would be almost impossible to account for in a production or testing environment.

During one such field test, Uber's researchers discovered that, for busy drivers, navigating to the contact information of their next ride was cumbersome. The information itself was easily found but navigating to and accessing it while on the road was difficult, forcing drivers to pull over to plan their next ride.

One driver in particular had set his device to save the number of his next ride in its own Contact card called “Muppet.” When the driver needed to contact his next ride, he used his phone's voice commands to “Call Muppet” instead of manually navigating to the rider's contact details.

This insight was crucial to Uber's product team. The field research revealed a user constraint that would have been very difficult to identify in a lab environment. This use case also highlighted the dangers of making assumptions about how our users interact with our products; there was nothing “wrong” with the navigational flow of Uber's app per se, but the product team simply had no idea that hands-free contact navigation was something drivers wanted very badly to improve their efficiency.

Choosing the Right User Research Methods for Your Project

So, now that you and your team are suitably excited by the incredible possibilities offered by comprehensive user research, how do you go about actually gathering it?

There are several ways to collect and act upon user research data:

  • A/B testing: for evaluating how users respond to and interact with different page designs for the same action
  • Card sorting: for understanding the navigational efficiency and information architecture of your product
  • Eye tracking: for observing which elements attract and retain the user's gaze most effectively
  • Online surveys: for gathering user responses to specific questions
  • Usability testing: for recording and analyzing how users actually interact with your product
  • User interviews: for gaining greater insight into your users' problems, needs, and goals

While all of the research methods above can be useful, it's important to know when and how to use each method depending on the type of user behavior you're trying to understand. Does your onboarding UX need refining, or do you need to determine why people are abandoning their shopping carts? Do you need to figure out why a page's bounce rate is so high or why the average dwell time is so short?

The Nielsen Norman Group developed a three-dimensional research framework that can help you determine which user research method to use in a range of scenarios:

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Something else to consider is the level of interaction necessary to get the research data you need. For example, an unscripted observation of a user interacting with a product removes a lot of the control the research team has over what the user does but could provide you with a broader range of data about multiple aspects of your product. A scripted contextual user interview, on the other hand, gives your researchers much more control over what data to pursue but also keeps the focus tight, potentially revealing invaluable insights into specific product features.

Contrary to a common misconception, you don't need vast audience samples to gain valuable, actionable user research data. In fact, according to a co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, Jakob Nielsen, “The best results come from testing no more than five users and running as many small tests as you can afford.”

Nielsen's own research data suggests that testing around 15 users would be sufficient to reveal virtually all usability problems with your product. Alternatively, after each design cycle, you could run three tests iteratively on a test group of five users to achieve similar results with fewer resources.

Whichever way you slice it, you don't need enormous test groups to get solid, actionable insights into how your users are interacting with your product.

Use Data to Improve Your Products AND Your Research

One of the most valuable aspects of user research is that it allows you and your team to track progress and evaluate feedback over time. Regardless of your methodology, your user research data should show you conclusively what's working and what isn't.

User research data can also help you determine whether your original use cases for your product are actually working or not. If the data you've gathered isn't useful, there may have been errors in identifying the correct segment of your audience or in how the tasks themselves were designed. Put another way, if you're not learning anything from your user research data, your underlying assumptions or hypotheses might be wildly off-base.

Get Closer to Your Users with User Research

User research might seem like a dry, academic discipline, but it's actually one of the best ways you have to get closer to your users and learn more about what they really want—not what you think they want.

Design thinking and user-centric design are stepping out of the shadows and becoming integral to many product development teams. Having a customer-focused mindset and outlook help align the goals of your business with the goals of your users, which can translate directly into happier customers, more revenue, and ongoing growth.

As one of the very first companies to embrace a culture of user research, Amazon took a lot of criticism for investing in what many perceived as quack science or the latest UX fad. As time has proven, Amazon was once again ahead of the curve, and now those same disciplines are moving into and defining mainstream approaches to product development. As Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, once said:

“…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.” — Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon

Products built on a solid foundation of user research will help users do what they want to do and appease executive teams that insist on tangible business growth. The question, then, isn't whether you should be conducting user research but rather how you can make your user research process better.