So You’ve Never Done Research Before?

Don’t worry, until recently, I hadn’t either.

But even if you haven’t ever done research before, you NEED to do it when you are trying to build a great product or business. Research is what helps you understand the people you are building for and the problem you are trying to solve. Research helps you be empathetic. And it takes empathy to build something great. You have to sit in someone else’s shoes and feel their pain to be able to come up with a great solution to their problem.

Research can also be essential in making sure you are building the right product or feature before you ever write a line of code. Research will help you reduce the rework and the wasted that inevitably come with designing and building products. While it may be hard to take, sometimes research reveals that you shouldn’t be building that product or feature in the first place. Afterall, you don’t want to build something that no one is dying to have.

“In nearly every failed startup, the real problem was that customers didn’t want the product.” – Paul Graham

Lately, I’ve learned quite a bit about research and while I have only scratched the surface, I want to share some of those lessons with you. While talking through those different parts of research, I thought it might be helpful to have a hypothetical product concept to provide some examples.

It’s my first winter here in Colorado and being from Texas, I’ve never shoveled snow before. And as I learned pretty quickly, it’s not very fun. So based on this misery, my hypothetical product concept to help guide us is (drum roll please): Uber for Snow Shoveling! You can hail a snow shoveler with one touch of a button! (cliche I know)


Research Planning

Research, like many other things, starts with a plan. You need to sit down and think about the research you are about to do before getting out of the building and talking to people. Here are a few things I’ve learned to help yourself create a research plan:

(1) What do you want to learn? Write down what you would like to know about your product and your user. You are trying to learn about people’s behaviors – like how they use your product, how they are currently solving their problems, or what their frustrations tend to be.

Pro Tip: Get people from all aspects of your team together to get their perspective on what you need to learn. Plus when you do get insight from the research, later on, you will have more buy-in from everyone on the team.

So for our awesome Uber for Snow Shoveling business, some things I might want to learn if this is a new product:

I want to know how much of a pain it is for people to have to go out and shovel their driveways. 

I want to know why people shovel their driveways in the first place. Are they worried about safety? Does the city give them a ticket if they don’t shovel?

I want to know how many people currently shovel their driveways themselves versus having someone else do it for them. 

Some things I might want to learn if this is an existing product:

I want to know why some people sign up for the service but then never actually hail a snow shoveler. 

I want to know if anyone who lives with roommates uses the app and how they handle paying for the service.

I want to know how much of an incentive we would need to offer to have people refer friends. 

(2) Who do you want to reach? This will help you focus your research on the right people. If you go back to those things you or your team wanted to learn, then you can decide from there who are the best people to talk to about figuring out an answer. An obvious one is if you are trying to figure out something like why do people download the app, sign up, but then never hail a snow shoveler? Find those people that did exactly that and go talk to them!

Having a screening criteria can be useful as well. Think about who your target market is, or might be, and use their characteristics to screen out potential people to talk to. If you have a current product, use people that fit your personas. If this is a new product, create a hypothesis about who your target market would be and use this research to validate or invalidate that hypothesis. If you think single, working moms might be the target audience for Uber for Snow Shoveling, then get out there and see if you’re right. You might find out that single, working moms actually love shoveling snow because it helps them release stress from their busy lives while also getting a workout in at the same time.

(3) What method will you use? A great first question to ask when figuring out what research method to use is if you want to learn what someone is doing (more quantitative) or why someone is doing it (more qualitative). However, more often than not, you need to figure out both.

“The what’s are boring, the why’s are fascinating” – Sarah Doody

What: While the what’s may be less exciting, you tend to need to know what someone is doing in the first place before you can figure out why someone is doing it. A great idea for measuring what is going on is to look at metrics and analytics. By doing this, you can find out what people are actually doing with your product. Where are they falling off during registration? What feature do they use the most? In our Uber for Snow Shoveling service, we could use a survey to figure out the number of people who have someone else doing their shoveling for them. Or we could use analytics to figure out if people even use the weather forecast feature of the app (if there is one).

Here are some great methods (including how to perform them) for figuring what people are doing:

– Analytics


Observational/Field Research

– Heat Map Tracking

Usability Testing

– Market Research or Competitive Analysis

Why: Why tends to be the place where the best insights come from. The what gives you the problem, but they why helps you solve it. When figuring out the why you get to dig deep on people’s behavior. When you have an actual product, you get to see how people use it while also asking them to explain their thought process along the way.

If we find out the reason people are signing up but never actually hailing a shoveler is because they forget about the app when it actually does snow, then we know we need to do a better job of reminding them about it – maybe a well-crafted notification based on the weather! But if we find out the reason is because they just don’t think it’s worth hailing a shoveler when they could just do it themselves, then we need to be able to give them more value – maybe through a lower price or a faster response. Or maybe our service doesn’t really solve a true problem after all (research can help make sure of that in the first place).

Here are some great methods (including how to perform them) for figuring why people are doing things:

– Individual Interviews

Contextual or Observational Interviews 

Task Analysis

Empathy Maps

The 5 Whys


Performing Research

You can plan all you want, but eventually, you have to actually get it done! To help you perform those research methods above, I wanted to share some concepts that I have learned along the way.

(1) Research = Listening: I believe the most important thing that I have learned about research is that it’s all about listening. When performing research, we are there to learn about people and you can’t learn about them by doing the talking. Ask good questions and then sit back and let people talk.

(2) Research is about finding the problem: In the product design world, you could argue that too much time is spent on trying to come up with a solution instead of defining the true problem. To have a spectacular solution, you need to be able to find and define the problem first. So ask people about their problems. Find rants on social media. Listen to the customer service team talk about all of the complaints they hear each day. A great way to find out the problem is to ask the right questions.

(3) Ask good questions: Don’t ask leading questions that put words in people’s mouths. Instead, give them open-ended questions. Have them tell you a story about a specific past experience. Dig deep on why they did certain things and what their thoughts or feelings were while doing it. Remember you are probing for their actual behavior, not their intentions.

(4) Create a script: By planning out your questions beforehand, it will help guide conversations in order that you not only address what you want to learn but also so that you don’t accidentally ask bad questions.

(5) Make people comfortable: Just because you have a script doesn’t mean it has to be formal. Make it conversational if you can. A little small talk can go a long way. Remind them that there are no right or wrong answers and that you are there to learn from them not test their skills! Also, try and talk with them in their “natural” environments – whether it’s at their office, in their homes, or on their own devices.

(6) Be careful of symptoms: Sometimes the symptoms or the side effects of a problem might mask the true root of the problem. For example, a lack of people signing up (symptom) might be caused by a lack of perceived value (root problem). So don’t go trying to fix the sign up process when you actually need to do a better job of communicating the benefits of your product.

(7) Don’t present people with solutions: If you present someone with a solution they are likely to just go along with it and say it’s great – especially if it’s your Mom.

(8) Have two interviewers (if you can): It’s often helpful to have two interviewers so that one person can guide the discussion and the other person can take notes. It’s hard to ask carefully worded questions when you’re trying to write down what the interviewee just said.

(9) Record, Summarize, Analyze: Have a good record of the research so that you can listen or read it again later on. Make sure to summarize and then analyze your findings as you go. You won’t remember the minute details two weeks later that could give you a huge insight.

I hope this helps! Have any other insights about planning or performing great research? Please let us know in the comments below. I’m always trying to learn more each and every day so I would greatly appreciate your wisdom!




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