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Know Thy Users: User Research in the Age of Startups and Entrepreneurship


Grace Lee '13
Grace Lee '13

When people hear “User Research”, they think “expensive” or “focus group with the weird two-way mirror situation”. While the latter is a viable option, user research does not have to be expensive, time-consuming, or involve a two-way mirror. I like to think user research as more of an applied science as opposed to hypothesis that requires stringent processes like the scientific method. It can be scrappy like cold calling your customers and asking questions or it can be more formal like an in-person interview. All user research entails is understanding user or customer behaviors, motivations, pain points, needs, and expectations through analytical and investigative approaches. Insights from the research are then used to create useful products or solution that benefit your users. When the user experience is not optimized for your users, you end up losing them.

As a product designer at Handy, user research is a vital part of my process because it helps me understand how our customers and professionals go about performing tasks and achieving goals on our products. Insights from user research help me create or improve designs that will make it easier for users (customers and professionals) to accomplish their goals and fulfill their needs on our products. For that reason, it’s important to know thy user. Whether you want to start the next unicorn startup or improve your company’s product, user research should be in your toolkit. Otherwise, what are you building and who are you building for?

I can probably write an entire book about different user research methods and when to use them. But in this post, I’ll write about how to conduct a user interview because it’s one of the easiest ways you can get to know your user.

Step 1: Create a research guide

In your research guide you’ll need a few things:

Objectives - What are you trying to learn?
This may sound obvious but you need to know what questions you’re trying to answer.

Hypothesis - What are your assumptions about your user?
You probably have an assumption. Write them down, see if your interviews proves or disproves it.

Script - What questions are you going to ask?
Have a list of questions ready to go. That way you have a standard list of questions you’re asking (for posterity's sake). Here are some tips for writing questions:

  1. Don’t ask leading questions.
    Leading questions can often influence the answers. As an interviewer, you need to be as impartial and unbiased as possible. The purpose of conducting an interview is to get real, truthful answers to questions that you have.

    Example: “How happy do you feel when you find the best deal online”

    This question assumes that the person you are talking to feels happy when they find a good deal online.
  2. Ask about specific incidents or anecdotes.
    It’s more effective to ask your respondents to remember real scenarios than to answer based on imagined circumstances. When respondents speak from real experiences, the answers will be tied to real motivations. To get better data and insights, answers should be less dependent on a respondent’s imagination.

    Example: “Walk me through the last time you were shopping online and found a great deal”
  3. Ask open ended questions.
    It’s good to cast a wider net, your respondent might say something you didn’t know you wanted to know!

    Example: “Tell me more about the last time you found a great deal while you were shopping online”
  4. Don’t ask them if they’ll buy or use your product.
    It’s awkward. Most likely you’ll have everyone say yes and that won’t help you!

Step 2: Interview

  1. Stay Silent
    It’s everyone’s inclination to fill up silence by talking because it’s weird to sit in silence! However in a user interview, use that to your advantage. Durings bouts of silence, your respondents will feel awkward and fill up the space by giving you more information. Also some respondents may need some time to think. Give them space to think so you get the best answers!
  2. Keep Neutral
    Be conscious of how your own behavior affects the person you are interviewing. By nodding a lot, you convey to the respondent that they are saying the right thing. So they’ll continue saying things that they think will make you happy. Or if a respondent is disagreeable, reactively negatively to them might spur extra negative feedback, skewing their answers.
  3. Analyze
    1. If you recorded the conversation or had someone take notes for you, transcribe those notes in a spreadsheet or a document for easy consumption.
    2. Create personas or documents that reflect what you learned.
    3. Debrief and ask yourself these 4 questions:
  • What did I learn?
  • What assumptions were proven correct?
  • What assumptions were proven wrong?
  • How will my learnings apply?
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After you interview, you’ll have a ton of insights and ideas on how to improve your product or how to begin building your product. When you understand how your users think, you’ll end up building something people want to use. While it might seem like a lot of work upfront, it’ll end up being worth it because you are more informed. Imagine taking a guess and building something that doesn’t work! It’ll take even more time to get it right. It’s important to always be learning.

If you are a student or alum interested in a career in tech, product, or design and/or want to chat more about user research, you can drop me a line at gr.lee91@gmail.com.

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