The Future Of Product Research

Creating better products means you’ll be on a journey of endless discovery and rediscovery. After all, a founder’s first idea for a product can be amazing in theory, but without the right market and user validation, it’ll stay an idea.

In today’s digital product landscape, product research may not necessarily be easier to accomplish. Knowing what questions to ask, when, and of whom is a challenge for all product teams—and that’s all before you make decisions about how to apply what you learn.

As we discussed on the Better Product podcast, the way we think about product research itself, not to mention the tools now available to us, has changed radically. But the future of product research is clear: there’s a lot to be excited about if we stay attuned to why we do research in the first place.

From Waterfall Research To Continuous Research

For context, the product research discipline experienced one major shift already.

Research once focused primarily on what happened after products made it into the world, a trend we call waterfall research. The questions product teams asked focused more on how users responded to existing experiences or metrics like conversions from the buying audience.

Today, research happens continuously and tends to be the first step after a product idea is born. That’s because early research does two major things for your product:

1. It pressure tests the underlying idea so you can determine if you have a product worth building. A research phase in ideation can help you understand the most important question of a product business—whose problems will my product solve, and will they care enough to buy it?

2. It uncovers new directions that can accelerate your growth. Conducting market research at the very beginning can be disruptive and feel time-consuming, especially if you’ve created a product that responds to an audience you know from experience or were part of yourself. But how much more painful would it be to build an MVP, only to realize what you’ve created would best serve another group you didn’t consider? Intentional research can show you opportunities that would typically take months or even years to discover otherwise.

Good Research Principles That Shouldn’t Change

Product research is foundational. The changes we’ve outlined above shouldn’t be taken as waves that are rocking the path product research already offers companies. The main shift is about when research should be happening.

Some underlying principles of good product research—namely the questions we ask and why—should never change. Here are a few that Christian and Meghan identified in their experience working with digital products:

1. Seek insights, not data. Jumping into a research phase just because you can will lead to confusion at best, and wasted resources at worst. With today’s tools, you’ll probably gather all the metrics your heart desires. But without a clear hypothesis to test, how will you know what any of the data mean? How will you know what’s important to your product’s overall growth and reception? All good research starts with a clear research question and some justification for why that question should be answered.

2. Measure twice to cut once. Let’s imagine you’re a health tech startup trying to understand if a feature on your mobile app is hindering your users’ understanding of data that’s important to them, like their sleep cycle. You’re an early-stage company, so you don’t have resources or time on your side. You may not even have a dedicated product researcher. But you know you need to test the critical data visualization feature to know if that alone is worth building.

Once you commit to a research project, you can’t end up with a half-hearted finish. You need to expand your pool of research subjects, and maybe test a concept repeatedly. Otherwise, you run the risk of making a decision prematurely.

Similarly, this principle also reflects the need to verify any data you gather. You have to trust that the best results for your product come not only from answers to be found in your user base and target market. You have to look at the results with an expert lens, as people who want to affect a market and introduce something people might not know they need. Validation is the key.

3. Don’t over-index customer voices. “The customer is always right” isn’t so for every part of your product’s development. As the adage says, sometimes the loudest voices in your audience are the easiest to access, drowning out crucial feedback that’s more representative of the people you’re serving. Any research results must be critically examined by your product team before making decisions.

The Future = Research Tools + Research Minds

In many ways, the future of product research is already here. An entire generation of product research tools is emerging now to help teams of all sizes better grasp their research goals.

For founders and early-stage product teams, tools like Maze and Dovetail can accelerate research opportunities by offering research support and templates before you hire in-house researchers. For larger teams, these tools support the work being done by your product researchers, getting you to needed insights faster.

As more parts of the product research process become standardized, though, we must remember only your team and company leadership can make the right calls about the insights you reveal in your research. Great product research outcomes emerge when you use tools to empower the people who know your product best, especially when the goal is to hear from your users directly.

Summary

As product research becomes more continuous, teams should remember to use clear processes to get the most return on their effort. If you start a research project without a clear hypothesis in mind, you can set yourself up to collect a lot of data, but not know how to apply it. Trust in the process and consider the tools available to you to make product research more effective.