How to discover hidden user problems

A research funnel helps me continuously identify pain points.

Matt Woods

Product Manager at Coda

Blog > Product teams · 7 min read
I know the Coda product like the back of my hand. While that’s helpful as a PM on our growth team, it can also be a disadvantage when it comes to understanding my core customers: people who are starting to use Coda for the first time ever or upgrading to access new features.
I’m a big believer that the closer you are to your customers, the more likely you are to make product decisions that actually help them.
When I first started as a PM, I knew I wanted to invest time in user research. But the traditional approach to user research felt like prepping for a big trip. I had to develop research questions, craft user personas, set up a process, and analyze insights, which meant I often went weeks between actually talking to my core customers. They started to feel like distant relatives I only saw at family reunions, rather than people I bumped into around my neighborhood every day. A few months into my role as a PM, I decided I needed a different research process—one that was low-friction, high-value, and set me up to talk directly with users on a day-to-day basis. Drawing upon my experience as a former growth marketer, I put my own spin on the “marketing funnel” to create an always-on “research funnel.”

My research funnel

A research funnel helps me continuously identify pain points.

The result? Instead of an in-depth, independent project, research became a simple, scalable habit: I now have a daily stream of user feedback at my disposal, and I can decide when and where to dig in further. The funnel has strengthened my intuition around customer pain-points and even caught issues that were initially overlooked by “official” user research. As an example: I was recently on a call with a user—an entrepreneur who ran a recruiting agency—who had a seemingly simple question about an integration. He was considering paying a software developer $10,000 to create a custom integration with a recruiting tool using one of Coda’s competitors, but wanted to check if Coda supported the integration. The surface-level answer was, “Yes, we can integrate,” but when I dug into his situation more, I uncovered multiple other pain points. I learned he hadn’t understood how to find integrations, how our tables structure data, or how to utilize the extent of our filtering features. Certain product features seem intuitive to our team because we're in it all the time, but this call made me realize they weren’t intuitive at all: this user was considering paying someone tens of thousands of dollars to create an integration that he could access using Coda for $30/month. In response, our team was able to make our integrations much clearer and easier to set up. Curious about how to set up a research funnel for yourself? Here’s how. Before you begin, identify the high-priority users whose feedback you value the most. What qualifies as a “high-priority user?” That depends on your business goals. Based on my role as a growth PM, my goal is to reach people who are most likely to buy our product or upgrade to access new features. Once you’ve identified your high-priority users, start to segment the group into the narrowest subsets possible. I often focus on users who have recently converted from free to paid, or users who have reached a key milestone (such as sharing a doc with their team). My research funnel mirrors the basics of a marketing funnel: it’s a filtering process to identify high-quality leads. When applied to user research, the funnel leads to 1:1 user research conversations. Keep in mind: you can learn something from every stage of the funnel, but the specificity of information and the time it takes to gather this information increases as you move toward the bottom. Here’s how to set up and get users into your funnel:

1. Create a survey.

I start by creating a simple user feedback survey using a tool called Typeform. When I say simple, I mean 2 to 4 questions at most. At Coda, I use questions such as “Have you made a doc that solves a meaningful problem?” and, “What were the most difficult or frustrating moments that held you back while making the doc, if any?” The survey should take less than 60 seconds for a user to fill out and, at the end, there’s an optional invitation to book a call with me to discuss their feedback further.

2. Set up call booking.

I use a tool called Calendly so users can automatically add 10-minute calls to my calendar during pre-set days and times. This also makes it easy to “turn up” or “turn down” the volume of calls. On a busy week, I’ll decrease my availability and on a light week, I can open up new time blocks. In addition to adding the Calendly invite link to the survey, I put it in my email signature, too.

3. Circulate the link.

I share the survey link with Coda’s support team, salespeople, and others who talk to users directly day-to-day. I’ve also asked our growth marketer to include the link in existing Net Promoter Surveys or lifecycle emails, so I’m not chasing down users myself.

An existing Coda email

I added a link to Calendly in our existing emails so that users could schedule time with me.

Ten minutes might not seem like a lot of time for a user research call. But with preparation, I promise that you can get lots of value out of a short conversation. Before each call, I review basic info about the user from their survey answers and customer onboarding information. I’ll look at our customer database system, such as Intercom, to find information such as their sign-up date, how they found Coda, or any recent significant actions (e.g., integrating with third-party tools like Slack, upgrading to paid features, etc.). This allows me to skip basic questions on the calls and instead keep our 10-min focused on high-value, personalized questions. An intentionally focused, yet open-ended question early on in the call is often the difference between uncovering a goldmine of actionable insights and gathering a disparate collection of surface-level comments. When developing opening questions, I focus on four general question categories:

1. Push questions.

What is pushing you to try this solution right now?

2. Pull questions.

What is pulling you in the other direction or adding friction?

3. Habit questions.

What is suboptimal about the way you’re currently doing things?

4. Anxiety questions.

What could break if you try this solution and don’t like it? At the beginning of the interview, I typically try to ask an open-ended question that encourages the participant to hit on both push and pull themes in their answer.

For example, I’ll prompt with: “Tell me the story of how you got started in Coda like we're playing back a movie scene-by-scene. Start with how you decided to start using Coda and what you hoped to accomplish. And tell me about each step along the way during your first few days, especially any moments that held you back or felt frustrating.”

It’s a hefty opening. But it provides the participant a clear starting point and direction to start sharing. As they tell their story, they'll often say things that can be mapped into each of the four themes above. Then I can decide which themes to spend more time unpacking with them.
This is the most important part of the process! Listen carefully to your user and let them guide you to the most important feedback.
Don’t stick to a rigid script. It’s better to ask “why?” five times in a row to fully unpack a single game-changing insight than to bounce between several shallow insights. When it comes to note-taking, I think of user feedback like freshly scooped ice cream: the longer you wait, the messier it is to clean-up. I record each user research meeting using Grain, an AI-powered meeting recording tool that automates note-taking, record-keeping, and insight capture from customer conversations. Grain automatically transcribes the conversation, but I’ll also take brief manual notes to mark key points in the conversation. After I hang up, I quickly write out the top three takeaways and use Grain to stitch together a highlight reel of the recording. If I’m short on time, I’ll turn to Coda AI to summarize key themes and action items from the transcript.

I keep detailed notes from each call

I organize my notes from each call in Coda so that my teammates also have access.

Once I have my distilled notes, I share the highlights with my team in Slack so everyone can review. This often sparks a follow-up discussion or prompts us to pull in other teams, identify next steps, and ask new questions to build a useful “model” for how users experience our product.

I share my notes with the team in Slack

I also keep a full record of my calls in a Coda repository doc, so I can also go back and revisit certain themes, features, or conversations. User research can and should be part of every PM’s daily work routine. With the right tools and process in place, an always-on research funnel will help you uncover new insights, build stronger relationships with your customer base, and make smarter, more informed decisions to enable a winning product experience—and, ultimately, a thriving business.

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