How to plan an effective user research study.
A step-by-step guide for PMs from Coda’s Head of Research.
Head of User Research at Coda
New questions, big and small, emerge every day for product teams: will this feature improve the user experience? Where are people getting stuck in the onboarding process? How will technological advancements, like artificial intelligence, transform our product roadmap?
Blog > Product teams · 8 min read
That’s why, as Coda’s Head of User Research, a large part of my role is democratizing access to research. I spend as much time creating research workflows, creating educational content, and answering questions for our product, design, sales, and marketing teams as I do executing my own research work. After guiding dozens of Codans across multiple disciplines (from PMs to PMMs to designers) through their first-ever research projects, I’ve learned what makes the difference between a smooth experience and a frustrating one. Here’s a step-by-step guide for PMs on planning an effective user research study. While it’s rarely a bad idea to conduct user research, certain problems benefit from external insights more than others. A problem “worth solving” is one in which user insights will expand, clarify, or gut-check your ideas on how to address it, such as:
User research can help answer these questions and more by providing insight into the experience, desires, and opinions of real, everyday customers—current or potential.
Exploratory problems.When you’re facing an issue that could have a significant impact on the future of your company and feel uncertain about what to do (such as how to respond to an industry trend like AI), user research can help you identify “what you don’t know you don’t know” and inspire potential solutions.
Cross-functional problems.It’s difficult to facilitate decision-making when a problem spans several teams with different opinions on what to do. Research can settle internal debates by revealing what users (the ultimate stakeholder) think and feel.
Validative problems.If you already have a clear sense of the answer to your problem, user research can help gut-check (or “validate”) your beliefs. This is a great approach to take when you need to quickly ensure you’re headed down the right design or engineering path before sinking too much time into either.
Internal buy-in (or even better, participation!) is the difference between your teammates eagerly adopting the insights or simply head-nodding when you share your findings.
Once you have a research problem in mind, talk to your team to confirm broader interest before you invest time and energy into investigating it—and ideally, get a few team members to join in on the research itself.
Once you have a worthy problem in mind, the key to a smooth research experience is developing a plan to focus more on generating insights than managing operations. A comprehensive study plan includes:
Develop a study plan.
Research goals.What do you hope to discover about the problem you’ve identified? What are your in-going assumptions, or hypotheses, about what you will discover? (Even in an exploratory problem, you likely have rough assumptions.) Your research goal is the heart of your study and will guide you in developing questions, recruiting users, and picking the appropriate method and tools to actually conduct your research.
Research questions.These are your core questions for users that will either confirm or challenge your assumptions. Write down as many questions as possible and rank them by importance and uncertainty about the answer. The questions with the highest importance and highest uncertainty should be your focus.
Team roles.I recommend identifying:
- A research lead, responsible for study design and execution.
- A research support, responsible for data analysis.
- Key stakeholders, responsible for previewing the plan and reviewing findings.
User personas.When you try to solve a problem for everyone, you often solve it for no one. Create one or two descriptions (“personas”) of your target user(s) to guide your recruitment.
Methodology.There are multiple ways to conduct a study today, from creating a concept test to conducting a survey. Consider your options, timeline, resources, and desired depth of insights, and don’t be afraid to mix methods to get the results you need. Unfamiliar with the options? You can find a comprehensive list of methodologies in my article on core research principles.
Once you have your game plan ready, it's time to open your research toolkit. While research can be done with the tools that you already have (from tools like Zoom to any free survey tool, including Coda Forms), it can also be helpful to broaden your toolkit to suit different situations. There are generally two types of research tools I lean on: in-product and out-of-product tools.
In-product tools.In-product tools allow you to study users in-the-moment while using your product. At Coda, I recommend in-product tools when someone wants to:
- Ask users who are actively using our product about an action they’ve recently taken (e.g., clicking, filtering, making a button, upgrading, installing integrations, etc.).
- Understand a current user’s experience along the customer journey (e.g., consideration, adoption, onboarding, etc.).
- Recruit current users for longer studies, done at a later date and time.
- Gather mostly quantitative data with some qualitative data—think multiple choice questions, short answers, and a high volume of responses.
Examples of in-product tools include:
- Sprig inserts surveys directly into the product experience, collecting insights from specific users when they take specific actions.
- HotJar provides data on how users behave and feel on your site, predominantly through heatmaps and user recordings.
Out-of-product toolsOut-of-product tools allow you to study users who are not actively using your product. At Coda, I recommend out-of-product tools when someone wants to:
- Gather perspectives from people who may or may not be users of Coda.
- Ask current users to reflect on their experience using the product, such as net promoter score studies or concept exploration.
- Ask new users about topics that can be tested without prior knowledge of Coda, such as onboarding flow or pricing.
- Gather mostly qualitative data with some quantitative data—think live interviews or open-text responses, with just a handful of participants.
Examples of out-of-product tools include:
- Grain is an AI-powered meeting recording tool that automates note-taking, record-keeping, and highlight reels.
- Fable tests inclusive product design with people with disabilities.
- UserTesting is a video-first platform that allows you to see and hear the experiences of real people as they engage with your product.
- Calendly automates scheduling meetings.
Now, the most exciting part: You’re ready to start recruiting and engaging with users! Depending on your research tools, recruitment might be automated or manual. If you’re reaching out to participants yourself, write a simple invitation email (here’s a template from our research kit) and use a tool like Calendly to make scheduling and tracking interviews as seamless as possible. As you go through the research process, remember that users will often tell you what they think you want to hear—what we researchers call “social desirability bias.” Get creative with how you gather authentic feedback, and give users permission to be critical.
Conduct your study.
Continuously reference your study plan.
Remember: every action you take should ladder back up to your original research goals. Resist the urge to boil the ocean in a study.
The goal of any user research study is to develop a clear perspective on what you learned and how to turn these learnings into action. Strive to be diligently unbiased in your research process and decisively opinionated on how to act after your research. I think of analysis as telling a story: if you simply offer the raw data, the research is unlikely to stick with people (your teammates are busy!).
You want your team to understand why the research findings matter and move forward. While I encourage my teammates to hold standups after they have completed a research study, it’s also useful to develop a system to turn findings into company-wide value. At Coda, we hold quarterly meetings to discuss recent research and we also have a research repository (yes, in a Coda doc!), so people can see upcoming, in-progress, or completed studies to utilize insights from others running research on the team. Conducting research presents opportunities for reflection, ideation, and action—ultimately enabling everyone at an organization to make smarter, more customer-centric product decisions. I’m proud to say user research happens in every corner of Coda, every day. With the right knowledge and tools, the same can be true for your company.
Communicate your story through multiple angles.
Include video clips, direct quotes, and visuals—all with clear takeaways.
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