You have probably heard that user research is a great way to limit risk. But more importantly, it’s a competitive advantage for your company. Too many product companies chase feature parity with competitors. While they waste time catching up to competitors, those same competitors build new features that give customers even more reason to choose their product. Feature parity is not what we need to leapfrog the competition. Instead, we need innovation. To attract new market segments and new customers, we need fresh ideas to solve new problems or existing problems in new ways. Exploratory user research is the best way to do this. Research also allows us to understand customers deeply enough to build something that actually impacts their lives. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Field Studies Reveal a New Way to Buy at Kaplan
Kaplan is well known for its test preparation materials. When we started working with them, they needed new, groundbreaking ideas beyond their typical incremental changes. They found them through research.
Before we performed this research, Kaplan offered their high-end learning materials with few configuration options. Through exploratory research around the customer’s buying journey, we found customers did not prefer this way of buying. Customers felt they were purchasing content they didn’t need. This evidence gave the team confidence to test a new buying experience, allowing customers to purchase different topics à la carte. With this new experience, Kaplan saw a 60% conversion rate! To put that into context, the median conversion rate for education-related landing pages earlier in the year was only 4.5%.
“If you do research right, it’s like cheating.”
— Matt Heady, Director of Product Design & UX Research at Kaplan
Empathy Interviews Uncover Our Debt Manager’s Secret Sauce
Modus worked with a national non-profit to launch a product to help people get out of debt. We knew people struggled with repaying debt, but we didn’t know why. One popular theory was that people didn’t have the discipline to keep their spending in check. However, our user research showed this wasn’t the case. We interviewed people struggling with debt, and they were already cutting back as much as they could — canceling their cable subscriptions, making their own meals, and even selling assets.
Even after cutting back spending, they still didn’t have enough monthly income to meet all of their minimum payments. This insight became a key differentiator for our product. Existing debt management tools assumed users had enough money to make their minimum payments. Our tool tells users which payments they should skip if they can’t make them all. It limits the harm to their credit score until they can get back on their feet. If we hadn’t done user research, we would have built yet another tool to help people cut back on their spending. Thankfully, our research led us down a different path that made our tool unique and delivered a big competitive advantage. And it only took 10 empathy interviews and a week of time!
Finding the Biggest Opportunity for a Patent Software Company
Sometimes user research won’t deliver groundbreaking innovations, but it will instead highlight serious user experience issues driving customers away from your product and into the arms of a competitor. As an example, Modus worked with a patent software company to do exploratory research around how to improve their document management system. However, when we interviewed customers, we discovered an adjacent issue that was rendering document management essentially useless — customers were struggling to upload documents into the system to begin with. The biggest surprise was that our client already knew about this issue, but they did not know how much it was harming their customer’s experience. Only by witnessing their customers struggle firsthand did they decide to prioritize fixing document upload ahead of other work.
Many teams have a misconception that customers will eventually alert them to anything drastically wrong with a user experience. This reactive approach is never successful, for a few reasons. First, customers have better things to do with their time than inform you your product experience is broken. It’s much easier for them to find a better tool than it is to get you to fix the issue. Second, even if customers do complain, those complaints often go to the wrong people who aren’t empowered to take action. Third, even if leadership knows about complaints, they might not understand the severity of the issue. Nothing motivates leadership to take action like seeing the pain a user experiences first hand.
Thus, without proactive, exploratory user research, this issue would have gone unresolved and driven customers away from the product.
Getting Buy-In For User Research
Getting buy-in to do user research is often the biggest obstacle that researchers face. I’ve been trying to convince product teams to do more user research for years, sometimes with more success than others. For a while, my main selling point was that it limits uncertainty and the risk of building something that no one will use. I thought the business-minded people who often led these product teams would eat this up. Who wouldn’t want to avoid the fiasco of wasting large sums of money?
It turns out, this is not always the best approach to convince stakeholders that user research is worth pursuing. Many successful product managers have made a living building products based on a mixture of experience and gut instinct, with little or no user research. To suggest that following their gut instinct is risky is to suggest that their gut instinct is wrong. This is a rather aggressive stance to take, especially if you are new to a team or industry.
In fact, this approach could challenge a long-standing culture within the organization. In 2018, I attended Kim Goodwin’s talk about diagnosing and changing organizational culture. She explained that each organization has a different culture around whether wisdom comes from internal sources or external sources. If your organization’s culture is to trust external sources, then getting buy-in for evidence-based user research should be easier for you. Similarly, if your organization is relatively risk-averse, they will love the idea of using research to reduce uncertainty. However, if your company’s culture is to trust internal sources of wisdom — employees’ thoughts and experiences — then your proclamation that user research reduces uncertainty will fall on deaf ears. They are already certain, for better or worse. And these organizations usually don’t incentivize people to be right; they incentivize them to ship software.
But there is an additional layer to incentives in these organizations. While shipping software means success, shipping software that drives significant revenue means a boon for your career. We need to steer the conversation around user research towards this incentive. Rather than focus on user research as a safety net against uncertainty, we should describe it as the best tool to blow the competition out of the water.
User research is not just for limiting risk; it’s also for innovating. It reveals insights that open new doors of opportunity — opportunities that your competitors haven’t thought about. You can’t be sure what you’ll find until you ask users the right question(s).
If you need help convincing your stakeholders that user research is worth the investment, feel free to use these examples. Or better yet, reach out to us at Modus and we’ll take the world by storm together!
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