Startups

Why User Research Is Important (and Why Startups Don’t Do It)

User research is fundamental to building products that are centered around people. It helps figure out what users really want, and deliver meaningful products and experiences that they will embrace. User research not just informs design, but it drives change.

In early 2000s, Samsung’s flat screen TVs were languishing in the market. Despite the technological breakthroughs, the products failed to get consumers excited. Together with ReD Associates, the company set out to understand consumer behavior and the role of TV in the modern household.

Hundreds of hours of customer interviews led to a surprising discovery. To most people, TVs weren’t electronics. They were furniture that needed to blend with the setting and not look like clunky technology. This essential insight brought about a tectonic change in Samsung’s product design strategy. In just a few years, the company’s market share doubled in the TVs segment.

How not to do user research

User research can help you view user experience as a whole and minimize the risk of pushing products on an unwilling market. It is especially vital for startups limited by resources.

In fact, the lack of user research is one of the key reasons why hardware startups fail. Yet, a lot of startups undermine its benefits.

Here are six reasons why you may not be conducting user research and why it matters.

1. You already know what users want.

The notion that you know your customers’ desires is a fallacy and can set you up for failure. When Apple launched its ill-fated Newton device, people didn’t understand what problem it solved. Network World’s list of failed tech products substantiates that no business – irrespective of its size – is immune from product failure that stems from failing to understand what users want. Therefore, supplement your perception with user feedback to test your assumptions, understand ever-changing user needs and translate those needs into useful products.

2. User research is expensive.

“If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design”. — Ralf Speth

Lack of user research increases the probability of failure, as in all likelihood the design and usability may not be optimized for the target consumers. User research works like a springboard to the design phase, reduces iterations and saves time and resources. It can be conducted even while you’re on a shoestring budget.

3. It’s daunting.

Talking to users can feel unnatural to many. The criticism and unpleasant revelations can be hard, especially if you are further along product development. But it may not be intimidating if you are well-prepared. User research helps uncover flaws in a product early on, and correct them before they become costly. Therefore, get out of the building (and your comfort zone).

4. You’re not the best communicator.

The objective of user research is to understand the people that you are designing for and their environments. Good communication starts with listening. It’s all about shutting up! Successful interviewers are empathetic listeners and keen observers. They let user stories unfold without getting in the way.

5. User research is complicated.

User research is expansive and offers multiple techniques to understand user behaviors at different stages of product development and for different objectives. For example usability tests may rely on understanding stated beliefs of people (what they “say”), whereas methods that seek to understand behavior gather insights on what they “do”. Various other techniques can be mapped to the context of product use. Learn about various user research methods.

6. You’re still perfecting your prototype.

Stefan Thomke and Donald Reinertsen conducted a study (published by Harvard Business Review) of 391 teams that designed custom integrated circuits. They found that teams that conducted early and frequent tests outperformed teams that tried to get their design right the first time. While they made more errors along the way, but because they used low-cost prototyping tools, they were able to discover critical problems early and save time and effort.

In 1990s, Procter & Gamble (P&G) spent millions into developing and marketing Febreze – a product that could eradicate bad odour (smoke, pets, shoes etc.). But sales numbers soon established that Febreze was a dud.

Extensive user research highlighted that people had become habituated to bad odors. They couldn’t smell any foul smells to banish, thereby rendering Febreze meaningless. And consumers who bought Febreze were using it to spritz freshly-done beds or laundered clothes, i.e. after a cleaning ritual. Armed with pivotal insights into consumer habits, P&G re-positioned Febreze as an air freshener used after things are already clean, thus successfully turning around a failing product.

“You cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people” — Dieter Rams

OXO Products

Sam Farber, the founder of OXO noticed that his wife was having trouble holding a vegetable peeler due to arthritis. He wondered why ordinary kitchen tools hurt and resolved to redesign and create a more comfortable vegetable peeler. In 1990, after extensive user research, several iterations and tests, OXO Good Grips kitchen tools was born. It included the improved vegetable peeler that was more comfortable. There was more give in the handle and it had bevels to provide for easy grip. Additionally, there was a rotating blade which meant that your wrist didn’t have to do as much work.

Thus, in order to create products that people will love, you must try to understand people by observing them and put yourself in their shoes to feel what they feel.

In summary:

– You are not your user. The false consensus bias can result in failure.

– During user interviews, don’t just interview, have conversations.

– Develop empathy.

– Dissenters aren’t just troublesome outliers or idea-killers. They can be key to filtering out bad ideas that look good.

– Users don’t always know what they want. If you ask them if a product works well, they may respond with a yes. Therefore, ask the right questions, listen and observe them as they use your product to get real insights.

– Observe users in their real environments, that may be chaotic, distracting and imperfect at best. Don’t conduct any product testing in ‘sterile’ environments.

– Quality trumps quantity. Find the right users, not a whole lot of users.

– Focus more on extracting insights from your user research than designing the perfect experiments and techniques. The important thing is to learn the users’ contexts, pain points, motivations, needs, behavior and aspirations.

– You may never have ‘enough’ insights. Know when to stop.

– Develop simple prototypes to give to users and keep improving along the way. Aim for base hits, not home runs.

– Be resourceful and you can conduct quality research while still on a budget.

– Lastly, don’t overestimate the impact of user research. It may not always present startling findings. Its purpose is to help you validate what you may already know and draw inferences.


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