A PM’s guide to user research design principles

Learn the fundamentals of user research to set your project up for success.

Alissa Doose

User Researcher at Coda

A PM’s guide to user research design principles

By Alissa Doose

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Blog > Product teams · 7 min read
One of the core expectations of a product manager (PM) is to make customer-centric product decisions. But how do you know what customers actually want? Every employee holds biases based on their own use of their company’s products, but PMs are the people most familiar with them. You notice the small nuances and you know the stories of the bigger design decisions. PMs often view products through the lens of an advanced user. Why does this matter? When making product decisions, you can end up accidentally over-indexing on advanced users’ needs. User research can help check these biases by staying true to the spectrum of users—from novice to advanced—who use your product day-in and day-out. And the good news is that not every project requires a User Experience Researcher (like myself) to actually conduct research.
Research can be as deep or as shallow as you need it to be, from hour-long individual interviews to brief, anonymous surveys.
A basic understanding of how to conduct research is helpful for almost any role within a company, from PMs to marketers to designers, engineers, and more. When it comes to tackling your first research project, here are the foundational research principles and terms you need to know. The key to user research starts with choosing a study type that best serves your research goals. Below are two key types of research you can run.

Validative research

Validative research is exactly what it sounds like: it validates existing theories, ideas, or beliefs about your products or customers. This type of research is applicable when you already have a solution to your problem in mind, such as an idea for a new feature, and you want to confirm it’s worth investing in further. Validative research often looks to assess
  • Desirability — do your customers want this idea?
  • Viability — can you create value for the business out of the idea?
Sometimes, validative research investigates both. For example, before launching Coda AI, our team wanted to test the desirability and viability of integrating artificial intelligence into our product. We knew it was feasible (we could build it), so we started by creating an alpha AI product. Then, we conducted research with users to understand if they found the alpha product desirable (or not) through product-market fit surveys and live interviews among early adopters. After establishing desirability, we explored the viability and potential business value of Coda AI through pricing and monetization studies.

Generative research

You don't know what you don't know. If you need to go investigate what customers want, then you need to conduct a generative study. These study types are usually sparked by customer or industry trends. For example, when several of Coda’s customers were demonstrating explosive growth in their use of Coda (our product was being adopted at a high rate within these organizations), I wanted to figure out what was driving that growth. So we set out to uncover the success stories behind the growth to better understand and replicate it.

Validative vs. generative

In order to figure out which type of study to conduct, ask yourself:
  • Is our team gut-checking our ideas? Are we in a low-uncertainty phase in which we need to quickly summarize findings? If so, plan a validative study.
  • Is our team in an exploratory, high-uncertainty phase? Do we have time to parse out insights and evaluate evidence? If so, plan a generative study.

Study Methodology

How will you gather data?

User research study methods refer to how you actually gather information. There are a range of methodologies you can use, depending on your time, resources, research objectives, and context. Here are a few common study methodologies to consider when you’re thinking about how you will actually uncover data.

Concept test

A concept test is when you put a mock in front of a study participant to imply an idea or experience. This can be as simple as a hand-drawn sketch or as high fidelity as a Figma, Adobe, or Invision prototype of your idea created by your designers. Concept tests are most often used in validative studies.

Usability test

Usability tests assess the effectiveness of minimally functional products or recently launched products, such as a clickable prototype or an alpha product. While concept tests seek to understand a user’s reaction to the idea, usability tests seek to understand whether the product’s functionality actually serves the user’s needs. Usability tests allow you to see what users actually do in a concept vs. what they say they will do. Similar to concept tests, usability tests most often enable validative research.


Ethnography is the art of observation. It involves getting out “in the wild” to see how users behave without the back-and-forth of questions. For digital products, this often comes in the form of diary studies (where users keep notes about their experience in a diary, log, or journal), heatmaps, or even quantitative data that tells a story about what users are doing in your product. Ethnography is often the jumping-off point to ask “why” questions in other types of research, and mostly enables generative research.


Scenarios invite users to imagine a hypothetical situation, so a researcher can explore product ideas without a tangible concept (like a prototype). For example, researchers might ask users, “You’re planning an editorial calendar for your blog. How might you go about deciding what information to include on the calendar?” Scenarios can enable generative or validative research, and are often used in tandem with the above-mentioned methods.


Surveys allow researchers to gather higher volume and more quantitative feedback on a given topic. If your team is driven by “seeing the numbers,” this methodology can offer a proofpoint. Surveys can enable generative or validative research, and are also often used alongside other methods.
Tip: Your goal is to listen, observe, and form opinions and ideas as a result of research—rather than asking the user directly how to design the product.
As Nathan Furr, author of Nail it and Then Scale It says, “Entrepreneurs innovate, customers validate.” Let customers help you understand the problems, and let your teams do the hard and exciting work of solving those problems.
The target users of your study are the people you will talk to, observe, survey, or otherwise collect information on. There are two main groups of user personas: people who use your product or service, and people who do not.

Current users

When you’re interested in studying specific features or pain points, you want to work with users who have some context or history with your product. At Coda, I’ve recruited current users to explore research questions such as:
  • What’s driving account growth among users?
  • What’s compelling free users to upgrade on our pricing page?
  • How do some users adapt our product templates to meet their needs?
  • Where do advanced users encounter friction in our product?

Potential or non-users

Alternatively, you should turn to non-users in research when you want to learn about the experience of your product from someone unfamiliar with it, want to study competitors, want to study a prospective segment, or don’t want to disrupt the current user experience to gather insights. In research projects at Coda, I’ve recruited non-users to explore questions such as:
  • How well do new user tours and educational content resonate with our target audience?
  • What do productivity tool enthusiasts find compelling (or not) about our tool vs. competitors?
  • How well does our messaging explain our features to users unfamiliar with Coda?
I’ve learned through practice and endless iteration about the difference between a smooth, insightful research project and a bumpy, inconclusive project. The secret lies in identifying your research goal and creating a clear plan. With the above design principles in mind, you’ll be able to plan how to answer your research question with the right study type, methodology, user persona, and tools. If you’re ready to tackle your first research project, Coda can help. Our team created a free Research Kit to guide you through designing, running, and synthesizing research studies all in one place—so you can save time, generate meaningful insights, and ultimately transform your product for the better.

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