A PM’s guide to user research design principles
Learn the fundamentals of user research to set your project up for success.
User Researcher at Coda
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.
Blog > Product teams · 7 min read
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.
Research can be as deep or as shallow as you need it to be, from hour-long individual interviews to brief, anonymous surveys.
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.
What kind of research questions do you have?
Validative researchValidative 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?
Generative researchYou 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. generativeIn 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.
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.
How will you gather data?
Concept testA 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 testUsability 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.
EthnographyEthnography 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.
ScenariosScenarios 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.
SurveysSurveys 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.
Who will you study?
Current usersWhen 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-usersAlternatively, 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?
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