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January 6, 2022

Marty Cagan Shares 6 Important User Research Trends

If your users feel undervalued, unheard, or stagnant, leaving for an alternative option isn’t a decision they’ll ruminate over.

Yes, customer churn is on the rise, but so is customer loyalty—for a great product.

And great products come from great product teams. And Marty Cagan, partner at the Silicon Valley Product Group who is also a thought leader of modern product management, has spent his entire career studying and working with great product teams.

In Cagan’s books, Inspired and Empowered, he shares his approach to building great products and product organizations. For Marty, it all starts with understanding your customer.

As Marty Cagan points out, it’s easy for PMs to forget that customers are more invested in a product than they are - literally! Product teams are “paid to work there, but your customers are paying you.” emphasizes Marty. Customers probably expect more from your product than you - so your product had better be excellent this year!

Cagan sat down with us in a recent episode of our People Driven Products Podcast, and he shared 6 important trends in user research. Not surprisingly, each one of these trends involves valuing and using user experience research with the full product team.

Trend #1: Measuring product value will be recognized as more important than measuring usability

OK, this one isn’t actually a trend - it’s been important for a long time. But we’re sharing it first because of how central it is to the value of user research.

When talking about the importance of measuring product value, Cagan believes that many teams are comfortable asking about usability, but not asking about value.

Usability is really not the hard part," says Cagan. "The hard part is value.” If it’s a new product, the question is “would you buy it?” And if it’s a product that you already have, “then the question is, if we build this new capability, would you use it?”

Value of usability

If a customer were to cancel their subscription to a meal box service, it might be due to usability issues, but it is more likely due to value issues. Maybe it’s super easy to use, but the problem is that it’s still not better than going out, or doing meal preparation themselves.

To know this, you need to search for evidence, early and often, that your product's direction aligns with your users’ experience.

And Marty believes that teams should look for all the reasons customers wouldn’t use a product, instead of trying to prove why they would.

This is where using tools like Sprig can help you to understand the value users are - or aren’t - getting from your product, in real-time as they use it. Being able to identify unmet needs as they arise gives teams the insight they need to maintain and grow loyalty, and reduce churn.

video question

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To really understand how users measure value, and ultimately success, you’ll need to reorient your mindset from just focusing on usability and spend time evaluating value.

If you’re a PM that’s not sure where to start in measuring product value (or a researcher who wants your PM counterpart to measure product value more often), you can use Sprig’s measure product value research template.

Trend #2: The best teams focus on solving problems, rather than just testing and rejecting ideas

role of product teams

If you’re doing good research, you’ll find that some ideas are just not as good as you thought they were - or not as good as your exec team thought they’d be! So what should you do when you have to tell your leadership team that their big idea is just not testing well?

Marty recommends that you be a strategic partner, and come up with alternate solutions that DO test well. “Our job isn’t to say that an idea is bad - it’s to come up with an idea that is good. Our job is not to tell stakeholders that they are dumb. Go back to them, yes, but bring them a solution that really does work.”

It is great that your team has the opportunity to use research to test ideas from leadership. To keep that trust and collaboration with executive stakeholders, when research suggests that their ideas aren’t resonating with users, providing alternate, research-informed solutions is a best practice.

Trend #3: Rapid learning will be heavily informed by qualitative user research

Cagan believes that qualitative user research is the heartbeat of every great product team.

“I advocate that every company developing user-facing products do this kind of testing every week. If not, you’re waiting too long to try your ideas on users again. This is the heartbeat of the product team,” says Marty.

He notes that it’s also important to distinguish between evaluative user research (solving a defined, agreed-upon problem) and generative user research (finding out new things that could change the course of your product, and your company).

While most research is evaluative, the occasional findings from generative research can be powerful. Marty says, “In either case, I always encourage teams to share their major insights immediately with product leaders, because in addition to helping to discover a strong solution, it may impact the product strategy.” Generative learnings from qualitative research, while less frequent, can represent major leaps forward in learning and product strategy.

Avocating testing

Trend #4: Researchers will incorporate more in-product (or “intercept”) research methods

One research method Cagan is particularly excited about is what is often referred to as “the art of the intercept.”

Intercept testing asks researchers to approach users who are already engaged in an activity, get real-time feedback, and use their insights to make data-informed decisions.

Marty Cagan mentions the trap of “Starbucks testing” that many product teams fall into. He says, “You can go up to anybody, you can always find people” to test your product. But those friendly strangers in Starbucks might not be the right people, at the right time, to provide the most useful feedback on your product.

As Marty says, “Asking somebody “would you book travel this way?” is not the same as asking somebody who’s booking a trip right now.”

Because of this challenge, Marty notes, “I don’t even like using user research firms anymore. We can do so much better now - we can get people in the moment” with intercept testing. “That is so much better”.

At Sprig, our platform helps all companies (and especially large enterprise companies) facilitate this type of research, while ensuring the experience feels natural and unobtrusive. Marty notes, “This is actually better for your users too, because they’re in the moment”.

With any in-product research method, your outreach should always be triggered by a specific user event that then makes the insights you gather more accurate and relevant to the experience the user just had. But make sure your in-product research platform can facilitate these hyper-specific triggers and let you filter by specific user attributes.

In-product (or intercept) research methods will be used more and more as context and research accuracy become non-negotiables among user researchers and product teams.

Remember: Questions based on past experiences have a high probability of distorting the way users remember experiences. So being able to ask targeted questions as users experience your product helps you understand what’s going on with a much higher degree of accuracy.

targeted questions

Trend #5: For Product Managers: Collaboration will drive more continuous discovery

Marty’s book Inspired is required reading at Sprig and listed among the top of lists you’ll find online of recommended books for PMs.

In speaking about what motivated him to write this book, Marty put it like this, “In every example I know, great products come from great teams. There’s lots of good books for engineers. There’s even good books for designers... But what bothered me was that there was so little discussing the techniques of good product managers and good product teams.”

So Marty set out to share the techniques of great product teams. And one of the biggest techniques utilized by those teams was continuous discovery.

Continuous discovery is a method of user research applied throughout a product’s lifetime. It happens alongside product development, as teams conduct small research activities through frequent touch points with their users.

It’s a process that allows PMs to:

  • React fast to the most relevant user insights.

  • Detect emerging patterns over time.

  • Reveal new potential opportunities.

The more time a team spends collaborating together, understanding each other’s perspective, problems, and priorities, the easier it is to learn from your users. Because you have more context into the overall business and the challenges each team is facing. So you can then easily identify the most important questions to ask your users, and when to ask them those questions.

“What we’re really looking for is, are you solving problems collaboratively?” says Cagan.

He adds, “Are engineering needs informing the design and functionality? What we need to focus on is not output, but outcomes. Have you solved that outcome?” This requires engineering, design and product management working together, informed by user research.

But just wanting to have a culture of continuous discovery is often not enough to ensure it happens consistently. Instead, including your full product team in the research process - yes, the engineers too - is crucial.

focus on the end goal

Trend #6: PMs, designers, and engineers will conduct more research firsthand

Marty believes that by getting the entire product team rallied around user research, magic can happen. He says, “If you have engineers that are empowered to help figure out the solution…that’s the most important thing. The magic happens...when those empowered engineers see real users and customers”.

Product managers, designers, and engineers, and the researchers that support them have so many individual responsibilities that it often feels like the day is over before it even begins. It’s easy to see how workflows can become siloed as teams rush to deliver and keep up.

But user research has a special way of bringing everyone together, by sharing user and customer insights to provide a common understanding across the team. The only problem is that it can be hard to make time for it.

In many companies, user researchers are overwhelmed with requests, both big and small, from their product and design colleagues. But ask most researchers, and they almost always wish they could support more research needs across their company, and even more importantly: be invited into the product development process for research earlier.

Yet another challenge researchers face is ensuring that product teams embrace their research findings and implement them.

Democratizing the research process can help with both of these challenges. By including the whole product team - from engineers, to PMs, to designers - in the research process, you can address these challenges, by ensuring that everyone experiences user insights firsthand. This also makes it possible for the organization to ensure user insights get absorbed and implemented.

Curious to see how research democratization can work in practice?

Senior UX Researcher for Squarespace Eli Goldberg performed a “community organizing” experiment to get his team involved in user research.

Throughout the process, the team discovered usability issues, found opportunities to improve the product, and continued talking about their experience for months afterward.

And surprisingly, the engineers, designers, and PMs LOVED it.

The shared experience made the user insights more “sticky” and memorable.

More than anything: including the full team in the user research process created an empowered, effective product team.

At Sprig, we know that democratizing research can be both exciting for product teams but sometimes nerve-wracking for user researchers, who spent years perfecting their research craft and learning how to ask non-leading questions that prevent bias.

That’s why we’ve built Sprig to help product and research teams work together in a compliant way (using admin tools and customizable templates) that makes everyone comfortable.

Wrapping Up: Using These User-Led Trends

There’s no denying the importance of customer-centric product development.

Like Cagan says, “What’s the prize that your team is working for?”

Customers can tell when you’re working on your own agenda, focused on competing in the market before focusing on solving the real problems they’re facing within the product.

But if you focus on living these 6 trends, you’ll be on your way to creating products that are incredibly valuable for your users:

  1. Focus on researching product value, not just product usability.

  2. Focus on solving problems, not just validating product ideas.

  3. Use qualitative user research as a way to learn —fast.

  4. Capture the most useful insights “in the moment” with intercept testing.

  5. Use collaboration to drive more continuous discovery.

  6. PMs, designers, and engineers will experience more research firsthand.

One of Cagan’s most valued and long-held beliefs is that empowered teams are motivated by the chance to solve real problems and show what they can do.

User research helps give them that chance.

And if your company doesn't believe that yet—bring up this article and tell them that Marty sent you.

Get your team excited for user research with Sprig.

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