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