Consulting

User Research as a Goldmine for Innovation

Innovation has been abstractly described as a practice or mindset that involves creativity and problem-solving skills in order to meaningfully impact the business. Scott Berkun provides us with one of the most elegant definitions: significant positive change.

Bringing value to people

When we talk about businesses that build products and services intended to be consumed by people, we are trying to change their lives for good. 

Many challenges arise at this point, as this kind of innovation involves complex and unpredictable human behavior. As if that were not enough, those behaviors are affected by their environment, which is constantly changing and is unpredictable as well. 

One single phenomenon happening somewhere around the world might significantly affect the way people from all around the world behave.  In other words, different variables that intervene in the process, along with the difficulty to measure the impact they are having, make innovation the wickedest of problems.

But it gets simpler if we go backward. By studying and understanding the end of the chain value, we certainly have more chances to direct our efforts properly and generate the expected impact from it. At the end of the day, innovation is about bringing value to people. The higher the value perceived by the customer, the more likely they will be to engage with our product or service. 

This is not complex at all, but how will we know what our customers value the most? How do we make sure that our product or service is solving a real problem?

At this point, we might fall into the false-consensus effect which, as explained by the Nielsen Norman Group, is the tendency to assume that others share our beliefs and will behave similarly in a given context. By doing so, we start to get away from reality, using our own biases to make decisions instead, which is extremely risky for any given project. The truth is that we, as stakeholders, service designers, developers, or UX specialists, are not our users. 

Here is where user research becomes extremely relevant to our innovation practice; the more we understand the humans we are creating value for; who they are, what they do and why, and what they value, the higher the probability of success. 

User research has become an essential part of the design process that will indeed help builders answer a wide range of questions during the ideation, design, and development phases of a product. Its importance lies in the need for real information from the people that will decide whether to use a company’s product or service.

Take the Fire Phone, for example. It was developed by e-commerce behemoth Amazon in 2010, after witnessing the massive consumer adoption of mobile devices, to start competing with Apple and its successful iPhone. Throughout the entire four years of feature development, guided mainly by founder Jeff Bezos’ hypotheses (such as including 3D displays and flashy hardware), there was no customer research in the equation. 

The result: $170 million dollars of unsold inventory for Amazon, which needed to sell the phone at 99 cents when the launch price was $199 USD. 

Jeff Gothelf responded that “there was no conversation with the market, only Bezos talking.”

Both qualitative and quantitative user research methods executed at the right moment will provide us with the desired visibility needed to reduce risk at whichever stage we are on within the innovation process. 

“I have to innovate, but no idea where to start.”

This is Stage Zero of any project. We are at that point where we certainly know the huge impact we want to have in our company, but we have no idea how to do that or where to start.

The answer is people. If our product/service will be consumed by people, and they are to decide whether or not to use it, we must start by understanding those people.

I often use the analogy of a birthday present to explain that bringing a product or service to people is like trying to find the perfect gift for them. Imagine how hard it would be to get it right based solely on hard marketing data such as statistics or demographics, but it will be much easier if we focus on their particular problems and needs, as well as their motivations. This is where User Research will help us. 

At this stage, we need to use the open mind of an observer or a scientist, who uses a microscope to get closer to the subject of study. This observer will follow people’s behaviors and context very closely, interrupting as little as possible. Then, they will ask key questions to understand the motifs behind those behaviors. 

One last thought to use on this stage: Inspiration tends to come from the world around us, and well-executed user research techniques will provide us with the tools we need to become the best observers of our potential users and clients.

“I’ve got a great idea, nothing more.”

Some time ago, while working with the key stakeholder of a given project, we had this conversation about a great business idea he had, and we were discussing how User Research could help him get it executed right. One natural fear, of course, was that he wouldn’t have the expected impact on the audience, but his truly deepest fear at that point was that, after the research and analysis, the brilliant idea for which he had fought so much to get support to execute within his company, would be proved to be wrong.

Our conclusion was that yes, User research may become that undesired radically honest friend. However, as much as it will help us by proving if our hypotheses were wrong, it will also provide us with what we need to know how to do it right. That’s why qualitative methods, such as ethnographic interviews or direct observation, are so important at this Discovery stage, according to the UX Research Cheat Sheet by NNGroup. We will understand the whys behind users’ perceptions and behaviors, and therefore, we will determine where the real needs lie, and how to approach them.

The first thing we should keep in mind is that any business idea that has not been tested, is mostly a hypothesis. Even if our idea was based on user archetypes such as proto-personas, real thing is that our bias as stakeholders is in. User Research methodologies will help us destroy that bias.

“It has worked well on competitors, I will try my own!”

It might seem to be a safe way to go. Nevertheless, we should keep two things in mind. The first one is the symbolic sphere of innovation. When a product/service already exists on the market, it indeed might prevent other similar solutions from surfacing. We’ve got to be aware of the meaning that current solutions have to people that are using them, and be prepared to solve the huge question: Why would these people want to switch to our solution? 

A UX competitive analysis will help us identify the strengths and weaknesses of our competitors. It will provide us with a general understanding of the features and attributes they are including as part of their solution. Relevant metrics such as current visitors or usability levels might help us as well.

Nevertheless, the closer our product is to a competitor’s, the more I would recommend executing User Research techniques with the competitor’s product as stimuli. Let’s say, for instance, that our product is a mobile app that will work similarly to Spotify, but with some key new features, we think that will make it better. Interviewing current users of Spotify to understand how and why they use it, and what their needs and pain points are, will point us in the right direction, and allow us to distinguish between core features and features that would add value. 

“I already have a product, and I’m up to improve it.”

While this is the most common scenario for executing User Research, we need to be extremely careful by not undervaluing it, User Research is not the same as Usability testing. There are several techniques, both quantitative and qualitative, that will be equally important to consider if we want to have a full understanding of what is happening, why it is happening, and what the impact of it is. 

Quantitative methods such as Analytics and Surveys will help us identify the red flags that arise according to the behavior of our users, as well as the size of these problems, and the impact it is having for the business. 

Take the following example. In an e-commerce platform, the web Analytics report will show that 76% of the users who abandon the purchase process upon reaching the registration form. Considering the probable sales revenue coming from those users, and the average percentage of users who complete the purchase after the registry, we will discover that we might be losing around 2.1M of dollars each month. Qualitative methods such as 1:1 interviews and moderated Usability Testing will help us understand why this is happening, and identify opportunities around it. 

Usually, we’ll get not one, but 10 things that need our focus to improve the experience of our product/service users, and User Research will help us prioritize them accordingly.

“What if everything is just fine?”

Even if we are lucky enough and our product is performing as expected, User Research will provide us with the insights that will help us take it to the next level in the UX design pyramid. Understanding why something is working is as important as understanding why something is not working. 

One of the most important outcomes we can take from a user research session is a better understanding of our business core value, which translates in identifying the aspects that we are delivering and that we can not stop deliver. 

Surprisingly, we will always find that there is room for improvement. No user research has been made where all users are 100% happy and satisfied with the stimuli. Even more, finding what is desirable for users will allow us to work on competitive advantages that will help us position ourselves before anyone else in the market. 

“I just conducted user research, what’s next?”

Remember that user experience operates at two levels: tactical and strategic

User research will support both; what this means is that, with the right strategy, it will provide us with the insights that make us better at the how, while also shining a light over the what?

When tracing a user research strategy within our company, it is important to keep the following into consideration:

  • Quantitative-qualitative balance, as both approaches are necessary to make sure we work on the right problems in the right way.
  • Broad-narrow balance. While we might focus on one particular aspect of a product/service (tactical level), executing User Research from a higher level (strategic) will help us understand how the whole user/customer perception is affected by that particular aspect. 

Cadence. No matter the size of your business, or the nature of your project, user research should not be viewed as an emergency pill, but as the healthy measurement that will help us avoid the need for one. For this to happen, it is highly recommended to keep executing both tactical and strategic research, in a way to track and demonstrate improvement. More important than that though is making sure that our product is in sync with the current needs of our audience, whose behaviors take place in an always-changing environment.

 

Thanks for reading! We hope you learned something new. If you are interested in working with Wizeline to conduct user research or leverage any of our design and UX offerings, visit www.wizeline.com/workshops or contact us at consulting@wizeline.com

Written by Clara Balderas, Senior UX Designer at Wizeline
Written by Clara Balderas, Senior UX Designer at Wizeline

Nellie Luna

Posted by Nellie Luna on October 1, 2019