Product Management: User Research

What is user research?

User research is the discipline of learning about users’ needs and thought processes by studying how they perform tasks, observing how they interact with a product, or by using other data-driven strategies.

Although the term is sometimes confused with usability testing, user research encompasses a broader range of methodologies, some of which are quantitative (such as surveys or multivariate testing), while others are qualitative (such as in-depth interviews).

Objectives of user research

A business might conduct user research for a number of reasons, but ultimately the goal is to help an organization create products that offer the right solutions to its target user persona, and to design and develop these products in ways that will resonate with users and persuade them to buy.

Here are three strategic reasons a business might have for conducting user research:

1. To design solutions that are relevant to users

No amount of studying or reading about a specific user persona in the abstract will give a product manager or UX designer enough insight to confidently design a real-world product that its intended user will find relevant, intuitive, and enjoyable to use.

In most cases, developing solutions tailored to the needs, priorities, and behaviors of a specific persona will require working extensively with those people beforehand. Failing to conduct user research can lead to a product or solution that misses the mark with its intended users.

2. To build products that users find intuitive and even fun

Given the ever-increasing competition in many industries, a product built today must be not only functional but also easy and even enjoyable to use. If users find a product too time-consuming or mentally taxing to operate, they will likely abandon it and search for a better alternative.

This is why another important strategic benefit of conducting user research is that it can help the product team learn how to make products users will find intuitive and even fun to use. The more closely a solution’s design, layout, and functionality match the thought processes and behaviors of its users, the more likely those users are to quickly become comfortable with and loyal to the product.

3. To develop more relevant and compelling messages for the market

Finally, user research can help an organization learn not only the most compelling ways to develop and design a product for its intended users, but also the most powerful ways to communicate the product’s benefits to those users.

By using the right types of user research—perhaps surveys asking users to rank features by priority, or by conducting several in-depth user interviews and looking for common themes—a product team can often uncover ways to articulate the benefits of their products that users will find most compelling.

User research methods

There are many methodologies for conducting user testing, so we’ll discuss just a few common frameworks here. Reviewing the list below should give you a sense of the wide range of available approaches, and the fact that the most appropriate methodology for your team will depend on the types of insights you are hoping to glean.

A review of this list might also spark your team’s creativity and help you devise your own user research strategy suited to the specific answers you are looking for.

Task analysis

In its early days, Google conducted user research sessions using a task-analysis model. A researcher would sit down beside a user in front of a computer. The researcher would then open a browser, navigate to google.com, and pass the keyboard to the user.

The goal was to see what people did when they encountered Google’s homepage. This was a classic task-analysis method of user research: Give users a chance to interact with some aspect of your product, and just observe them in action.

Funny story: Researchers repeatedly found that the first thing users did on google.com was… nothing. They just stared at the screen. When the researchers asked what they were doing, users said they were waiting for the page to finish loading. Google’s original homepage was so bare that people assumed there was still more of it that hadn’t appeared yet onscreen. It was this user research that led Google to add links, such as Privacy Terms and Settings, across the bottom of its homepage, as a signal to visitors that the page was finished loading.

User surveys

Surveys are questionnaires sent out to a list of target users. Because this method does not allow an organization to talk directly with users, the survey questions need to be crafted strategically to give the company the greatest amount of insights as possible.

Contextual interviews

These are interviews conducted in the users’ own environment, such as at their workplace. The goal of these sessions is to observe users in a setting that is natural to them, to learn firsthand how they work, how they interact with your solution, and what if any issues they have with it.

This type of interview can lead to deep insights about your user personas that might not surface in their answers to an online survey. At the same time, however, these sessions will not yield the type of measurable, statistical data that you might receive from more quantitative user research, such as a review of your product’s actual usage data.

Looking for tips for conducting better customer interviews?

Free Customer Interview Guide ➜

Who is responsible for user research?

Ownership of the user research role varies from company to company. At some organizations a product manager will take the lead on this initiative. In other companies, the responsibility will fall to a designer or UX strategist. Still other companies employ full-time user research professionals whose sole job is to manage this function.

UX strategist Adam Nemeth has this to say about who should be responsible for user research:

“It boils down to these three factors. Who [in the organization] is able to argue the best for the user against a product choice? Who is able to notice a product error? Who is responsible for the product? Whoever that person is, they’re the one who should be responsible for research.”

For successful product development, user research is a must

Organizations can no longer afford to create products in isolation. Users have become highly sophisticated in conducting their own research into products before deciding to buy. At the same time, the barriers to entry in most industries have fallen sharply, meaning more products than ever face many competitors.

This means product teams today need ongoing guidance and feedback from their target users if they hope to develop products that will resonate with those users. In other words, for any organization hoping to bring a successful product to market, user research is a must.