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December 13, 2022

The 5 Critical Stages of User Research Across the Product Development Lifecycle

Continuous Measurement

Research isn’t a one and done project. It’s not something that’s conducted only before you begin work or once you already have a prototype in place. It starts on day one and it continues through launch day and beyond. In my work as a product manager and now a CEO and founder, I’ve learned research is a continuous circle, and it’s never finished.

At Sprig, we’ve broken this ongoing research process into five distinct phases. It starts with customer discovery, before you’ve even written a line of code or dreamt of a design prototype.

After identifying opportunities and issues and settling on a direction, it’s on to concept testing and usability testing.

Then, each time you launch a new product, feature, or added functionality, it’s important to evaluate the effectiveness of those changes and to put continuous measurement metrics into action. Finally, the cycle begins again and looks to optimize growth initiatives, launch new features, improve product adoption, and more.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these five phases and how they can apply to your next launch.

Phase 1: Discovery research

Discovery research, also called exploratory research, identifies pain points before they become a problem in the live product. Or, if the product or feature has already launched, it can reveal issues that are preventing users from taking a desired action. Discovery research can help shorten the product lifecycle by avoiding unnecessary work later on and getting to the most effective solution in earlier iterations.

For example, Sprig worked with a popular real-estate technology company that noticed onboarding drop-off was much higher than expected on its “Get a Quote” page. The team had a few options to understand why this was the case:

  • Conduct a variety of A/B and multivariate tests to adjust content on the page and remove fields.

  • Take an educated guess based on past learnings and assumptions.

  • Conduct user research.

The first two options would take a few weeks to several months, and likely result in significant waste because only about 1 in 7 A/B tests results in a clear winner. By conducting user research with a few simple in-app surveys, the product team could go right to the source — and learn from users completing the “Get a Quote” page in real-time. In this case, the team learned that users were hesitant to provide their phone number so early in the quote process, and that many visitors to that page were not actually planning to get a quote at all. They were just shopping around and in a completely different part of their customer journey.

When the phone number field was removed from the page, the conversion rate increased 10% almost immediately.

Phase 2: Concept testing

Improving conversion and fixing critical growth funnels is only one way to use discovery research. More often, there will be several different concepts that address product issues, especially related to engagement and adoption. The goal is narrowing it down to one — quickly — and getting it right before investing significant time and resources into building.

Let’s say, for example, that while researching the “Get a Quote” experience in the example above, the team finds out that obtaining a mortgage is confusing for users and prevents them from moving forward in the home-buying process. The team comes up with some ideas to address the issue, and lands on an interactive mortgage calculator as the solution. That might be the best option, but it will require significant engineering and marketing resources to build and launch the feature.

This is why it’s important to de-risk the project by creating several product mock ups and testing them with users before starting to build. Unmoderated concept testing makes it easier to test a few options and gain insight into the viability of potential solutions. When testing multiple prototypes, limiting the options to two or three will lessen the cognitive load for test-takers.

Phase 3: Usability testing

With the most compelling mortgage calculator concept selected, it’s time to make sure the design actually works. With usability testing, participants complete a set of tasks, using either a prototype (sometimes called “prototype testing”) or a live website/app, to identify points of friction and surface opportunities to improve the user experience. Participants are asked to “think aloud” as they complete tasks, explaining what questions, hesitations, or challenges they are having. For the mortgage calculator, test questions might include, “Can you easily adjust your down payment?” or “Select your rate to be 30-year fixed.”

Best practices for conducting usability testing suggest including at least 5, and up to 50, participants. There’s no need to overcomplicate usability testing (it’s the simplest of the research techniques described in this article); the point is simply to make sure your design is functional and users can complete the intended actions.

Phase 4: Post-launch evaluation

User research is continuous — the work doesn’t end with a product launch. After launching new features and flows comes the job of measuring satisfaction and comparing the results with previous data to ensure the product changes worked as intended.

Coming back to the mortgage calculator example, we’d want to compare the metrics from the previous onboarding experience with the latest iteration. A team can run the same in-product survey before and after the new calculator is implemented to see if the enhancements are providing an improved experience and driving the right behaviors. The team might ask, “How confident are you in the results you received?” to help gauge if the calculator is delivering on its promise of improving buyer confidence. If not, open-ended responses will clearly outline why and what next steps should be.

It’s not uncommon for this process to be iterative, with multiple rounds of researching and solutioning.

Phase 5: Continuous UX measurement

Not all research is related to a specific, identifiable business problem, such as poor onboarding conversion or a dip in engagement. As companies set up and scale up research, it’s beneficial to continuously monitor the user experience to identify unknown problems that aren’t already on the product team’s radar. This type of research doesn’t need to take a long time or be complex. Adding simple in-product surveys on common pages that measure metrics like net promoter score (NPS) and customer satisfaction score (CSAT) can lead to some of the most important “aha moments” within a business.

Back to phase 1: Begin the cycle again

And the cycle continues. With the continuous measurement and post-launch evaluation insights, an organization will continue to uncover new pain points. In business, and especially in tech, there are always new problems to solve — and they need to be solved quickly. This is especially true in the era of agile development, when — unlike the quarterly release schedules of a decade ago — teams are working on continuous release cycles and, in some cases, shipping products every few days. Companies that understand user research are in a much better position to keep up with all this change and keep their customers happy.

About the author

Ryan Glasgow

Product guy. Early team member at Weebly (acquired by Square) & Vurb (acquired by Snapchat); UCSD alum. I founded Sprig to help others build the best products possible.

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