UX research for startups: yes, you can (and should) start now

Stephanie Knapp
August 25, 2021
UX research for startups: yes, you can (and should) start now

If you could see into the future of your business, you could magically make all of the “right” decisions. Until we’ve cracked the code on time travel, though, customer research is a founder’s next best thing for making informed decisions.

If customer research can bring you closer to coveted and elusive goals like product/market fit, then why put it off? A lack of market need accounts for 42% of failed startups, so you’d think founders would be all-in on understanding customers.

But the truth is that research often feels like something reserved for the big dogs—the Fortune 500s who can run elaborate focus groups or the unicorns with dedicated UX teams.

We’re here to tell you that effective customer research doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.

We want to show you how.

What is UX research?

User experience (UX) research is the process of learning how target users interact with your product and how it relates to their goals and preferences. This research considers how people use your current app, what they’d like to do with it in the future, and how they feel about the process. A related term you often hear in the same conversation is usability testing, which researches how easy it is to use your app.

It’s important to note that there is a difference between market research, UX research, and UI research:

  • Market or customer research informs marketing decisions
  • UX and usability research informs product decisions
  • User interface (UI) research informs design decisions

Understanding the difference between research methods and what they can teach you helps you choose the best process for the task at hand. This guide has general research best practices, but mainly focuses on UX research.

When you should start using UX research (hint: it’s now)

What does a company need to have in place to start UX research? Is it a dedicated research team? Nope. Do you need a big budget or advanced analytics tools? Also, no.

Your company can benefit from UX research as long as you have a product and a customer.

You can begin talking to customers (or potential users) as soon as you have a beta product. Doing research early and often can help startups make the most of their limited resources. Andy Su, founder & CEO of Pry, shared that:

Startups don't have infinite resources to build everything. You only have enough runway and motivation to take a few shots at the problem—customer research helps you take the right shots.

-Andy Su

How to run an effective UX research project

Customer research can help you identify opportunities and validate your hunches. To make the most of your efforts, though, you need to go into it with a research plan.

Pick an objectiveIf you want to use

UX research, you need to start at the end. That is, understanding what you want to learn or having an idea of the questions you want to ask. Some of the things that UX research can teach you:

  1. What price your customers would be willing to pay for your product or service
  2. What features or benefits your customers, or segments of customers, care about
  3. What other products your customers use alongside yours, and how you might expand your offering
  4. What parts of your product roadmap get your customers excited
  5. Why customers convert, but also why they churn
  6. How customers use your product
  7. What keeps users from converting or sticking around

Not sure how to start integrating research questions into development? Take a look at the next decision you need to make, and make a list of assumptions you’re working under. Is there anything you can confirm with research?

Choose a research method

After you have an idea of what you want to learn, you need to choose a research method to match. Here are the four research methods we recommend for startups:

Customer interviews

Sometimes, it pays just to ask users what they want. You can use customer interviews to hear about their problems, goals, and preferences. This research method is useful when trying to fine-tune product positioning or add context to something you see in the data, such as changing churn rates.

Adrienne Barnes, Founder of Best Buyer Persona, noted that,

The only way a startup can ensure they aren't producing or building based on their assumptions and bias is for them to speak with their customers. A good set of interviews can validate benefits, inform product features, and become website copy and content. Each question in the interview can directly translate into solving a particular problem for the startup.

-Adrienne Barnes


Need a little more scale for your customer research? Sending out surveys makes it easier to quantify customer sentiment and understand how widespread issues you heard in interviews are.

Some of our favorite surveys include:

Usability testing

If you want to know how easy your product is to use, turn to usability testing. This research helps you understand how customers use the product, what they like about the interaction, and what confuses or frustrates them.

There are behavior analytics tools, but you can start with moderated calls with customers. A simple Zoom call where you ask them to complete certain tasks within the app or watch them work shows you where people may get caught up.

Usability tests to try include:

  • Prototype test. You can research with just a prototype! Learn what customers do and don’t like about a prototype before you build it further and find where people get stuck.
  • Preference test. If you are trying to decide between a few workflows or designs, you can talk to customers about their preferences or observe users interacting with each.
  • 5-second test. No, not the five-second rule. This research test discovers what customers remember after seeing your product or landing page for only 5 seconds. That way, you know what stands out and what fades into the background.

Product/market fit survey

Yes, a product/market fit survey is a survey, but it deserves its own section. When you achieve product/market fit, you have a product that meets market demand.

Assessing how close you are to that mark is a useful gauge for your progress and making sure you’re going in the right direction. Rahul Vohra, founder and CEO of Superhuman, felt that most product/market fit surveys were lagging indicators. So he reached out to Sean Ellis, who has helped companies like Dropbox and Eventbrite grow.

Rahul shared,

The product/market fit definitions I had found were vivid and compelling, but they were lagging indicators — by the time investment bankers are staking out your house, you already have product/market fit. Instead, Ellis had found a leading indicator: just ask users “how would you feel if you could no longer use the product?” and measure the percent who answer “very disappointed.”
-Rahul Vohra

Sean found that once 40% of customers said they would be very disappointed if they could no longer use a product, that the company had achieved product/market fit.

How to start today: Check out the Product/Market fit survey by Sean Ellis and GoPractice

Find research participants

Once you know what you want to research and how you’ll uncover answers, you need participants. Research recruitment can feel like a daunting task, but breaking it down into parts makes it easier.

Make sure your goals align with your audience

There is such a thing as the right participant for your research. For example, current users can teach you about product usability. If you want to understand why people churn, then talk to past customers. Prospective customers can teach you about how you and your competitors are perceived.

Choose a recruitment channel that works for you right now

Once you know who you want to talk to, you need to go out and find them. Leveraging your existing network through an email list, in-app popups, or social media is the most cost-effective. If you don’t have an existing customer base or following, you may need to use earned channels like Facebook groups and subreddits or turn to a paid third-party recruitment service.

Screen participants, so you don’t waste their (or your) time

A screener survey is a set of questions you ask potential research participants to find people in your target demographic. For example, you might want to talk to current customers whose business has a certain annual revenue. In that case, you could put a call out to customers to participate in research, and then narrow interested people down by their responses to a screener question about company revenue.

Offer an incentive

Typically, you’ll need a research incentive to encourage people to share their time and perspective. Your three core decisions are:

  • Amount: How much should you pay participants? You need to consider where your participants live, whether they hold a harder-to-find role, and how long the task will take.
  • Format: Will your incentive be cash, gift card, company credits, swag, or something else? You’ll have to weigh what’s enticing for participants and what they’re allowed to accept.
  • Delivery: What will you use to send payments to participants? You can send payments manually with a tool like PayPal, use an e-gift card service, or use a tool like Great Question + Tremendous to pay participants automatically.

Conduct research

For some, conducting customer research could be the most intimidating part of the process. Making a plan and recruiting participants is one thing, but nailing a customer interview is a whole other challenge.

If a customer interview isn’t going well, you may realize you’re doing more talking than them. Here are our top tips for nailing your research:

  1. Avoid leading questions that point to the answer you want, like “how satisfied are you with the product?” Instead, use open questions like, “what are your thoughts on the product?”
  2. Follow a script. Having a set of questions ready keeps you focused and makes sure you get all the information you need.
  3. Have a way to capture notes, and if possible, the entire interview. Small details like the words a person uses to describe an issue add context. Make sure you take notes and/or record the session so you can replay, review, and share with your team.

Use what you learn

When you’ve finished your user research, it’s time to make sense of it all.

First, it helps to have a mix of quantitative and qualitative data. Tracking survey responses as totals or percentages is straightforward. To quantify interviews, tally topics or ideas that come up often. This will give you a sense of what’s most important right now, and you can use individual responses for more context.

Second, you need to share your results with everyone on the team who could use them. If you do product usability testing, the results aren’t just for the product and engineering team. Share it company-wide since it could affect multiple decisions. To take it a step further, think about each team member’s role in acting on what you’ve learned instead of just sharing bullet points.

Andy Su also recommends being selective about what insights you act on. He shared that it’s essential to know “how to ignore some feedback and prioritize the asks of your most engaged customers. Product requests from prospects or non-engaging customers are nowhere near as valuable as the simple requests from your favorite customers.”

Make continuous research a habit with Great Question

There are two possible outcomes when you use research to validate an idea—you realize you were right or correct your path. Either way, you learned something about your customers and market. Testing early and often means you catch mistakes sooner and make critical updates faster.

Taylor Ryan, a six-time startup founder, shared a lesson about evolving as a startup on the My Worst Investment Ever Podcast:

You have to be flexible as an entrepreneur because your product and your brand will evolve. Whatever you are building will pivot or take a completely different trajectory. So be open to such changes.

-Taylor Ryan

If you want to make user research a regular part of your startup and not an ad-hoc idea, you'll need efficient systems. Great Question simplifies the research process by helping you recruit participants, schedule research, automatically pay incentives, and continuously share what you’ve learned with the team.

Learn more about how Great Question can help your startup.

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