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The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it

10 min read
Halyna Kovalisko
Halyna Kovalisko
26 May 2021
The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden

A short story and case study about our user research experience at Cieden

You have a great idea. Fantastic! They say a good idea is a core for any business success.

What’s next? Let’s find a designer that will make the user interface of this product shiny and “the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them”(c). But you are a smart and mature client, you know that shiny and pixel-perfect UI is not enough. You need a strong UX competency on board so that the interface is easy to use and intuitive. Good! 

The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden

In the last few years, we have successfully completed more than 100 design projects. That is a lot of experience that we want to share with you. Hopefully, it will help many of our future clients to take the right direction without many unnecessary twists and turns that other product founders did.

They say many products fail because they try to solve problems that do not exist. The truth is almost all products solve “some” problems but these problems are not big enough or not painful enough for the target audience. Users are not really ready to solve these problems. The hard part is understanding the magnitude of the problem, size of the possible gain and user efforts required to solve it or achieve the goal. 

A typical flow for a first-time product owner

So how does a flow of a typical product owner look like? They have an idea. They even probably have a few designs that some third party was working on. But now that a lot of time is lost, they are in a hurry to revamp their product because what might have looked great yesterday looks outdated today.

Or a product might have already been launched some time ago and now the design looks somewhat obsolete. It may seem like a refreshed design is the only step that separates them from success in the eyes of the target audience.

We totally understand this need for speed. It seems like time is flying and something needs to be done right now. Any putting off is dangerous. We hear you and we understand the urgency. 

But what if I tell you that great design is not enough? Must be strange to read something like that on a design studio blog. 

You can have a brilliant design and fascinating user experience…but! But your users don’t use your product. How could that be? Maybe the design is not beautiful enough? Maybe the interactions are not smooth enough? Maybe it is not as seamless as you expected it to be? Maybe it is missing some good onboarding? But so much time and money have been spent already… It is already launched after all.

The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden

And what if your target audience, your users, don’t think your product is useful at all? What if the problem is not usability but usefulness. 

A successful product, above all, must first and foremost satisfy a need, be useful, or even better soothe a pain. If a product’s functionality does not solve users’ problems, they will hardly need it. 

The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden

Much like Maslow’s hierarchy, Aarron Walter’s hierarchy of user needs defines basic user needs that interfaces must fulfill before more advanced needs can be addressed.

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/theory-user-delight/

Maybe there is a new competitor out there in the market that your team has missed, or your product doesn’t bring any big new value to motivate users to switch from the one they already used to the new one. That seems like a disaster, isn’t it?

Let’s do a small retrospective. What could you do to avoid this frustrating situation, or at least to minimize the risk of producing a product no one wants to use?

Identify your Points of Difference

The answer is — differentiation. To differentiate — is to identify your Points of Difference. There are plenty of success factors when it comes to launching a new product. And there is no silver bullet there. In this article, I want to focus on identifying the value that your product should bring to your users and whether this value is what you assume it is.

The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden

Differentiate 

This sounds so easy but how do you know what is the exact way you need to be different? You may risk guessing. You might trust your gut instinct. And you may learn it from your users. The latter sounds more reliable than guessing, doesn’t it?

This is when User Research or Customer Development comes into play. 

The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden

Your product needs to generate profits. This is what a business is for, isn’t it? One of the major factors that impacts the success of digital products is matching user needs. Users are the oxygen of business. We need to know our users in order to be able to serve them. We need to serve them to bring value so that they are ready to pay you or use the product extensively for free in case you settled on a different monetization model.

You need to know your users. But what does it even mean “to know your users”? It means to be aware of their goals, issues they face while pursuing those goals, their needs and their pains. We need to make sure whether they even have the problem our product aims to solve in the first place, whether they are already putting any effort into solving this problem. We need to know how big the problem is for them and how much energy, willpower and money they are willing to invest to solve the problem. 

The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden

It is a lot. A mass of unknowns and tons of uncertainties. The main goal of the research is to minimize uncertainty and the risks of failure. How can we do it? There are plenty of methods for user research. When it comes to learning about users’ problems, their needs, and pains the major technique is user interviews.

The word “interview” may sound like “a simple conversation” but it is not the case at all. User interview — is a structural research method that requires thorough preparation, execution and analysis. Additionally, it is crucial to remain unbiased and not to turn an interview into a sales pitch. The goal here is to learn about the user rather than convince them that our product is awesome and keep asking for compliments.

A self-check exercise

Can you recall yourself asking your potential users the following questions? If so, this is a surefire indicator that you were doing interviews wrong and it would be better to delegate it to an expert:

  • “Do you like it?”
  • “Would you use it?”
  • “Would you buy it?”
  • “It’s useful, isn’t it?”
  • “What other features are you missing here?”
The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden

What if you slow down and allow yourself to do the research. What happens then? What may you learn?

Yes, you will need to spend some time, and postpone the actual “designing”. This is true and this is inevitable. This is the price – an investment, I would say. First of all, you will learn whether the users have a problem you are trying to solve. You will learn how painful the problem is. You will learn what other problems they possibly have. Maybe you will learn that there is no problem whatsoever and you need to do a major pivot being wiser with all the learnings.

User Interview

Typically, for effective and reliable user interviews we need 12-15 users per one user type/persona. Not only do we need to dig for new insights, but we also should identify repetitive patterns to be sure we found a gem not just “some interesting ideas”. 

Recently a customer approached us with a typical simple and straightforward task to redesign and revamp an old design that was outdated and had multiple usability flaws. It was a tool for creating interactive content and training materials. After a quick look at the product we realized what was missing Point of Difference — a strong differentiator among other similar products on the market. There were multiple stronger competitors out there. A quick dive into the product uncovered multiple usability and visual issues. We, of course, could just easily fix them, but would it help this product to succeed on the market? Highly unlikely.

Instead, we interviewed 12 users (instructional designers) using a semi-structured interview method. After a thorough analysis of these interviews we have identified:

22 Findings (both user pains and user needs) and 3 Patterns (findings that are repetitive across 3 or more user interviews)

A major pain point for users, when working with any learning materials, is using multiple tools and storing data in multiple places. We called this insight the All-in-One Tool.

“The bottom line is I really would rather not be using the separate tool for it. I really wish that the screen capture and the video capture was integrated into the authoring tool, I don’t like using a separate tool. [Adam: 53:21].

«My biggest issue is having to jump between multiple applications. [Ian: 32:11].

“The fact that it is not all in one place. You know, I’m recording the videos using Camtasia, converting them, then uploading them to Wistia, creating the embed code, then embed code in Wistia and ZenDesk. So it’s in multiple places, it’s kind of the hardest part. ll[Sean: 4:15].

Now that we knew our users, we knew their needs and pain points as well. Moreover, we established huge empathy and knew what can bring real value to our users, i.e. instructional designers who create learning materials and documentations. We had a group of people we could validate our design solution on later and a sense of satisfaction that we did our homework and there is a much higher chance of success.

After the research phase together with our client, we agreed on what functionality will be included in the MVP and prepared an estimate for the design phase. Some of the initial client’s requirements were not included into the MVP while significant and repeatetatibe findings from the research were heavily prioritized in the MVP.

The next stage was rapid low fidelity prototyping. Low fidelity wire-framing allowed us to save a lot of time and quickly move to the validation phase. After that, we moved on to the user testing stage — a design validation phase that entails validating or discarding our hypotheses and assumptions based on users’ feedback. We employed a remote moderated user testing method. It is a pleasure unlike any other for both designers and clients to hear a lot of positive feedback about the value the new features brought to the table.

At this stage, the product is at the final stages of development and soon will be launched.

You can learn more about the product here.

The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden

And yes, user research does not guarantee success. It is not a cure-all, its goal is to lower the risk of building something nobody wants. By conducting research we make sure that at least one of 4P’s (Product, Price, Placement, Promotion) is implemented properly.  Effective marketing starts with a product that fills a significant unmet customer need or better yet a product that soothes users’ pains (when the product is a pain killer as opposed to candy or vitamin). Choosing the right monetization model, as well as proper promotion and marketing strategy, are vital for product success in equal measure. 

Of course, there is always option #2. You can always skimp on research. Most products do so. Most products never succeed. 

 

P.S.

To get an idea of what deliverables you get as a result of the user interview service you can review the following report. It is white labeled, of course, and all key findings are blurred but the general idea is clear. If you have any questions about our process we would be more than happy to explain everything in detail on a short call.

Video version of the article:

The Value of User Research Phase and What You Lose if You Skip it Cieden
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Halyna Kovalisko by Halyna Kovalisko

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