The Art of Conducting Research for Product Innovation

The concept of “get out of the building” has been hammered home in entrepreneurship and product management circles so often and so loudly that it’s become a cliché. But in the world of innovation, research takes on a slightly different form.

Research is the bridge between an innovator’s dream and the real world. For that digital product to actually live and thrive, it needs more than just code. For it to actually solve pains, hook users, provide delight, become minimally viable, and capture imagination, it needs something that’s not inherently hard to create, but definitely challenging to get right: context.

We must understand and model the world the product is going to live in, from the user’s perspective as well as the buyer’s perspective. So how does research build context for product management, design, and product marketing?

Context for Product Management

Every innovator wants to build something that changes the world, but what are the right features that will solve the right person’s problem? At its simplest, research helps product management figure out what to build, for whom, and how to prioritize.

What are the right demographics to target out of the gate?

People experience a given problem in different ways, and research can help reveal whether a problem is more or less painful for a given group of people. Because demographics determine who we’re actually researching, we need to identify the hypothesized factors up front and plan research candidates accordingly.

Gender and age are obvious factors for a more consumer-oriented solution, but there are endless ways to slice up potential users or buyers. For example:

  • User Geography
  • Job Type
  • Urban vs. Rural
  • Experienced vs. Novice
  • Education Level
  • Family Size

How do users experience the problem and how often?

A new innovation is essentially a hypothesis that a given user has a problem that needs to be solved. We need to determine how that hypothesized problem actually surfaces for users.

With research, we can explore in concentric circles around the problem: They might not even realize that they have a need for a solution. However, most of the time, they will recognize that they are affected by the negative side effects of a given problem.

What do they do about it now?

Anything that a buyer or user uses to solve a problem today is competition (and inspiration) for the new innovation. Research should probe into the steps users take today, the tools they use, what they enjoy about that process, and what’s frustrating or expensive about that process.

What’s their environment like? Do they have access to wifi? A mobile device?

Digital solutions have to fit into a specific environment with specific requirements, and research will help determine the final form a solution should (and will) take. Research should help determine which tasks a user is completing, and in which environments they will occur.

What’s their dream for a magic tool?

Users often have some idea of their ideal world, even if it’s not practical. Giving users or buyers the freedom to dream will help to reveal creative solutions or features. Focus on why they’re asking for it, not what they’re asking for.

Imagine you are Dropbox, and you hear customers asking for larger storage plans. As you learn why, you discover they want more storage because they save a new document copy for every version they make of a file when collaborating with their team. By digging deeper into the why, you prioritized building better collaborative document collaboration (Dropbox Paper) and file versioning (Smart Sync).

Caution: It’s tempting in this type of research to describe the potential solution and ask, “Would you use this?” Nine times out of ten, the answer will be YES because people are generally nice and want to be helpful to you. It’s fine to ask questions around a potential solution, but save it until the end when you’ve exhausted all other questions, and make sure you’ve gotten good information:

– Have they used anything similar in the past?
– What would their concerns be about using a solution like that?

Looking ahead: Beyond the product itself, research helps determine a model the innovator can use to expand and scale, whether the user vector is demographic, geographic, or something else.

Context for User Experience

Knowing what the user’s world is like now will help establish some pillars for the user experience:

What is their exposure to and relationship with technology?

You might think of this being an issue just for particular demographics – maybe older people don’t have as much attachment or experience with technology.

The truth is, even for B2B solutions, different industries approach technology differently. Certain industries have been slower to pick up newer UI patterns and SaaS conventions, so it’s good to find out how new innovations might affect their experience.

What are the key workflows and metrics that matter most to them?

At a minimum, research should show the steps users take to accomplish a task today. It should also reveal what is most important to the different roles who might interact with the new solution:

  • What are they measured on and held accountable for?
  • What do they do to be successful?
  • What is keep them from being successful now?

What’s the right tone for this product?

Friendly vs. clinical, cheeky vs. serious – research can help show the most effective tone for this particular set of users.

Cautions: It’s important to remember that a given product might have very distinct user groups which interact with the product in completely different ways. This is particularly common with B2B2C products where the consumer may interact with a completely different product than that back-office users. As a result, you may end up with vastly different tones and workflows for one product.

Looking ahead: As this product grows to encompass more functionality, research will help to reveal and plan for the ways the UI needs to scale to accommodate more modules or menu items.

Context for Product Marketing

Developing the right positioning, messaging, and visual identity for a new innovation requires insight into the buyers’ frame of mind, particularly when the buyer persona is different from that of the user.

What are they measured on?

The metrics that matter to the buyer are often very different than the ones that matter to the user, and research here will empower product marketing with the right information to speak effectively to those metrics.

How does the user’s problem surface for the buyer?

What are the negative effects that a buyer experiences? While a user might have a tactical problem that we can solve with a solution, getting a buyer to purchase that solution means that we have to learn the buyer’s language for those problems, how it helps (or hurts) them, and what they ultimately care about.

How does the buyer approach purchases?

Research is also a great opportunity to find out potential barriers to making a purchase – what are some common objections? What is the process they have to go through to make a purchase? How long is that process?

Most Importantly, Aim for Action

Research can be paralyzing and keep you from making progress, so it’s important to recognize when you start seeing diminished returns. The key, as with any agile process, is to do just enough: document just enough, communicate what you learn regularly with stakeholders and the team, and iterate often.

But most importantly, turn what is learned into concrete progress. While research sets you up for success, it’s actually bringing a product to market that will determine success. The truth is, every new product and innovation is just an educated guess, but research will arm you with the proper knowledge to eliminate most of the wrong or misleading information in your way. By using the right research techniques to build context, we’re making the most educated guess possible.