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September 7, 2022

Research Twice, Build Once: How to Know Your Users as You Grow

This blog post first appeared on a16z's Future blog.

Far too many products still fail because there’s simply no demand for them. How does that happen? Or, how do so many startups launch entire businesses without realizing users didn’t need their products?

By overlooking user research.

Every tech company has to build and ship new products to continue growing. And, whether there are 10 users or 10 million users, the key to building successful products is understanding who the users are and what they want. User research is the unsung hero of determining a product’s viability and the secret ingredient to its success.

And while an Amplitude or Mixpanel account is often the first software license purchased by a startup, these same startups often neglect to implement user research software or processes. This is despite the fact that product managers at these companies spend roughly 30% of their time on user research related activities. If knowing what users are doing within the product is so important, knowing the why is even more essential: It guides the follow-on decisions that make or break product experiences.

Before founding Sprig, I was a product manager at five different successful startups, and I learned firsthand how user research can guide the right product decisions. What became clear to me, however, is that although most founders and product teams already know research is important and impactful, not all product teams understand how to prioritize user research in the early stages of company building (especially given the breakneck pace of a startup) or how to evolve a research function as a company grows. This article provides a blueprint for investment in research at every stage, so teams can focus work on the right products and features, and build them with their users in mind.

What is user research?

User research is the process of studying users’ needs, customer journeys, pain points, and processes through questions, surveys, observation, and other methods. Good user research goes beyond simple feedback, adding structure and process to gathering insights from the right users. Anyone can ask questions. The key is knowing how to ask the right questions to help guide the product roadmap and having the right tools to get answers efficiently and effectively.

There are multiple types of research that suit different situations. Understanding when to use each method is an important first step in creating a research program. Here are a few of the different research methods and categories:

Strategic vs. tactical

Tactical research answers the questions that help move the business forward today. For example, “What should we name this new feature?” or “Which product concept is more effective at driving the desired action?” Strategic research looks at long-term initiatives, such as “Should we expand into a new market?” or “Is there enough demand to layer on a new persona?”

Most startups begin with tactical research and move on to strategic research over time. Tools like in-product surveys can enable quick answers to tactical questions about an existing product, such as why users are dropping out of onboarding or not engaging with a new feature.

Moderated vs. unmoderated

Moderated research requires time and energy to supervise the user, while unmoderated research allows users to provide feedback on their own. Moderated research gives rich detail and the ability to ask follow-up questions, so it’s useful when deciding larger, strategic decisions and there are still a variety of unknowns. Moderated studies are ideal for strategic questions, like “Should we build this new product area?”, or to glean insights into a new persona.

Alternatively, unmoderated studies are best for tactical questions, when an unbiased perspective is valuable. Use unmoderated research to understand if a product concept makes sense to users or gauge overall satisfaction with a new feature.

While most moderated sessions are fine to conduct via Zoom, unmoderated research tools can help teams get more insights with less effort, and answer critical questions much more quickly.

Quantitative vs. qualitative

Quantitative research answers questions about customers’ attitudes and behaviors — at scale and across measurable metrics — while qualitative research goes in depth with a smaller group of people to understand the why behind those attitudes and behaviors.

However, techniques such as in-product surveys can also enable teams to generate qualitative insights at the scale of quantitative surveys. This is particularly helpful when, for example, teams glean a new insight from a user interview but aren’t sure if a statistically significant portion of users express the same sentiment. Instead of wasting weeks of valuable development time exploring the issue, an in-product survey can quantify the demand and provide direction in a few days.

While all research is not available — or even practical — at all times, it’s useful to create a plan early to determine research investment at future growth stages. This helps allocate resources and de-risk decisions from Day 1, and sets the stage for user-driven growth.

How research can fuel the right decisions at every stage of growth

From early stage through scale, user research is critical to knowing your users. But early stage teams may not know where to start, and companies on the path to scale aren't sure how to integrate and evolve research, particularly when they don't have a researcher on the team yet. The key at this point is embracing tools and technology that allow small teams to conduct meaningful research on their own, and understanding that sometimes that's as simple as a 4-question survey to determine product-market fit. It doesn't need to be perfect, but it does need to get done, and it's critical to guide next steps.

Companies starting to scale up may start to wonder about best practices for integrating research into a growing organization, or how to retrofit a research function into a product and design team that’s been conducting some form of research on their own already. There could be budget to add several researchers at this point and put a research plan into place. Teams can now focus on asking the right questions of the right users at the right time, and a well-timed in-product survey can generate impactful insights on a larger scale.

And, for those companies already at significant scale, usually post-IPO, user research becomes a key competitive advantage as smaller tweaks and changes make a larger impact. At this point, research is conducted systematically across the entire product development lifecycle, and multiple teams are invested in research. These teams rely on tools and technology to scale and disseminate research and keep them aligned around the user experience. Continuous measurement is also critical at this stage, and that can range from simple surveys like Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) to customized measures that measure the product’s impact on business-specific KPIs or OKRs.

Chart showing stages of research maturity

How to incorporate user research across the product development lifecycle

Even the best-laid plans and well-developed strategies can fall victim to bad execution. So, how does user research actually play out in practice? Regardless of stage and size of the research team, the framework to incorporate user research across the product development lifecycle remains generally the same.

It always starts on day one, with customer discovery. This exploratory research helps shorten the product lifecycle by identifying pain points before they become a problem in the live product or revealing issues that are preventing users from completing an action.

Next, with an idea in hand, it’s on to concept testing. This gives you an opportunity to consider multiple possible concepts before investing time and resources into building.

Those concepts are then narrowed down to one option and shipped to usability testing, which allows you to test the actual functionality and user experience before launching. The purpose is simple here: does it work?

Of course, user research is continuous — the work doesn’t end with a product launch. Post-launch evaluation includes measuring satisfaction and comparing the results with previous data to ensure the product works as intended. Closely related to this is continuous measurement to monitor the user experience to identify unknown problems that aren’t already on the product team’s radar and keep track of user metrics like net promoter score (NPS) and customer satisfaction score (CSAT).

Product development lifecycle diagram

And, following all these steps, the cycle continues. Using learnings from continuous measurement and post-launch evaluation insights, an organization will continue to uncover new pain points. There will always be new problems to solve and send you back to discovery with the goal of optimizing growth initiatives, launching new features, improving product adoption, and more. And companies that build this into their roadmap from day one are in a better position to keep up with users — and keep them 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.

Ryan Glasgow headshot

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