When you’re responsible for the evolution of a digital product, you have to make a lot of decisions that can take you in a lot of different directions.
Making these decisions is hard. You have to find answers to a lot of different questions. The process is complex and full of uncertainties, and while you want to base your decisions on objective facts, gathering all the data you need to support every decision is usually neither feasible nor practical.
User research can help you find your way out of this fog of uncertainty.
It can’t answer all your questions, but it can give you some timely and spot-on insights that you need to help you decide which direction is the right one for you and your users.
In this article, we’re going to go over what user research can and can’t help you with, and talk about the three kinds of questions it’s most useful in answering.
Your users don't have all the answers
Before we go further, keep in mind that no one-fits-all method exists for product decisions. Different kinds of decisions require different methods, and many of them don’t require user research. Which is good — involving users is expensive, time-consuming and should be done strategically.
You don’t need to ask users what color and size of the CTA button on the new landing page should be — for that you’ve got accessibility guidelines, usability heuristics, and your design system. For other kinds of decisions, you might find the answers in your usage data, business goals, or brand guidelines.
Let’s say you’re facing a decision where:
- You need a deep understanding of users’ behaviors, habits, motivations and pain points — and cannot be found without directly observing and talking with them.
- You’ve encountered a new problem without a direct precedent, and collecting fresh data becomes essential, as existing data might not provide a complete basis for making a well-informed decision.
- The decision is important enough for your product’s success that the cost of research is justified by the extent to which finding an answer mitigates risks.
If all of the above is true then user research is usually the right tool.
Now, there are mainly three types of questions that have these characteristics:
1. What’s our next move?
2. Why are users behaving this way?
3. Are we building the right thing in the right way?
Let’s take a closer look at these questions, with some examples from our work at Belka.
Question 1: “What’s our next move?”
When to ask this question: You need to identify your next step to reach a business goal. Let’s say there is a segment of your user base that has a lot of potential for growing your product but is underserved. You don’t know much about these users, so you can’t quite decide how to approach this challenge.
How to formulate it: You can use research to generate new ideas, new knowledge about your users, their behaviors and needs. This means starting off with a very wide scope (“What are my users up to? What challenges are they facing?”) and looking for good problems to solve that can help both your business and your users.
What you get: A better big-picture understanding of how your users go about their life, the activities they focus on, the goals they set for themselves and the obstacles they face. At the end of the process you end up with a list of pain points that your product could address.
Example: Fatture in Cloud
With a growing user base and overwhelmingly positive product reviews, Fatture in Cloud, one of the most widely used electronic invoicing products in Italy, was thriving. But the team was already asking themselves questions about the future of their mobile app: How can we grow the product further? What will Fatture in Cloud look like in the future?
As Belka and Fatture in Cloud had been collaborating on design projects for a while, they asked for our support. They needed to find unexplored opportunities to bring new value to their existing users and attract new ones. They needed to go beyond bug fixing and minor improvements. We suggested collecting data from different available sources to generate new insights and ideas.
It went like this:
- We collected and analyzed all existing data about the product that could give us a complete picture of its current state. That included quantitative data about the user base and product use, as well as store reviews, support requests and emails from users with a variety of feedback and suggestions.
- We interviewed stakeholders representing each product team (marketing, business, customer support, etc.) to collect a broad perspective on the product and insights into where it was heading.
This led to an overview of the current state of the product and the opportunities already in sight. We decided to cross this data with fresh information coming from users, to check what users’ needs were yet to be addressed that the team was not seeing, as well as where users’ pains and business needs converged. This meant conducting interviews with a bunch of users, accurately sampled, to delve deeper into their experiences, pain points, and suggestions.
Our exploration ended up in a strategic vision for the mobile app that kept in consideration all perspectives we analyzed. The app would not replicate all the features available on the web version of Fatture in Cloud: it would have been a tailored toolkit, with only a few selected functionalities, but designed with precision.
There one thing left to do was prioritizing possible growth scenarios to create a product roadmap. The product team gathered in a workshop to vote on three possible scenarios based on users’ pain points to decide which one would be tackled first, to generate possible solutions and features that would lead to that scenario. This led to a roadmap that outlined all the steps necessary to implement the chosen scenario.
Question 2: “Why are users behaving this way?”
When to ask this question: You observe a behavior you didn’t expect in the way users interact with your product. Maybe you’ve been monitoring usage data and you’ve noticed that a significant number of users easily go through the necessary steps to buy your product … only to stop at the very end, right before checkout, abandoning their full carts for no apparent reason. What’s going on?
How to formulate it: Design a research plan that will help you find out the reasons behind this apparently inexplicable behavior. This means defining the exact goal you want to achieve (something like “identify the three main obstacles that prevent users from checking out”) and the methods that will get you there (“run interviews with users who dropped off the checkout flow”).
What you get: Actionable insights that you can use to reconsider the experience you’re offering to your users. This might lead to a redesign of part of the checkout flow, to a review of the pricing system, or some other intervention that you wouldn’t have thought of.
Walliance is a digital platform that combines investment and financing opportunities in the real estate sector, accessible through various financial instruments.
When they first came to Belka in 2020 they had just redesigned part of their signup process on their website. But things weren’t going as well as expected. Following the launch, a noticeable decline in the conversion rate prompted them to seek answers as to why users were abandoning the validation process before making their first investment.
The usage data Walliance collected from the signup process was clear: at several points in the flow, there was a drop in the number of users who kept moving forward. But what the numbers could not explain was why they were leaving.
So we suggested collecting some qualitative data to add depth to the quantitative information we already had. We wanted to test the existing flow with well-selected target users. The Walliance team was on board with the plan.
By selecting individuals with relevant investment experience who were new to the Walliance platform, they were able to replicate the experience of users encountering their signup process for the first time.
In an online testing session, participants were guided through the signup process and encouraged to invest in a crowdfunding project. We then proceeded to observe them while they went through the required steps. And what we found out was quite interesting.
The one insight that stood out was that users got stuck when asked to verify their identity. This step of the process required participants to provide their ID, either by uploading a photo or by scanning it through their webcam by using a third-party provider. The instructions provided weren’t clear enough. Users were confused about what the input options were, and the illustration shown on the webpage didn’t help as it displayed an action that did not match the one required from the user. Error messages didn’t help either as they didn’t provide practical solutions, so users couldn’t move on.
With this and other insights in mind, we were able to suggest some interventions that would address the issues we observed. Figuring out the reason behind the dropping metric was crucial to point us in the right direction.
This insight, among others, enabled Walliance to design interventions that addressed the identified issues head-on.
Question 3: “Are we building the right thing in the right way?”
When to ask this question: You’re building something new and you still don’t know how users will react to it. You know that going live with a new feature entails some risks and that finding out too late that something doesn’t work right can be very expensive.
How to formulate it: You can reduce some of the risk by having some users check out the new feature before release. This doesn’t necessarily mean running a highly structured research session, but rather defining some goals users should be able to reach through your product and inviting a bunch of people to try it out to see if they can actually do it. The conversations that will spark from this activity will give you plenty of material to decide whether you need to make some changes before carrying on with the implementation.
What you get: You can identify the biggest limits of the new feature before spending too much time and money on developing it. You will have enough information to make the changes that will improve your product before release.
Example: Purchasing flow for home delivery
We recently worked with a startup specializing in home delivery of consumer goods. They had decided that same-day delivery represented an opportunity for growth and wanted to add this new purchase modality to their mobile app.
Belka designed the new purchasing flow, applying best practices to make the user experience as seamless as possible. However, the challenge of communicating all the necessary information in the limited space of a mobile screen without overwhelming the user involved a lot of complexity. Also, introducing such a novelty in a working product held some risks: what if the flow was too complicated for the users to follow it? What if the users could not find the information they needed to complete the purchase?
Implementing the new solution with these doubts in mind seemed too much of a leap of faith. So we invited some users to the testing lab in our Trento office to try out a working prototype.
It turned out that our design still needed some refinement for users to be able to use it seamlessly. For example, we found out that the new purchase modality was not easily comparable with the classic one, as pros and cons of the two were not stated clearly in terms of benefits for the final users. Too much information was given about the mechanics of how the two types of delivery would be handled, but people were ultimately interested in delivery prices, speed and product availability, so as to pick the option best suited for their needs. We had to tweak the design to only convey the relevant information.
Interestingly, we also observed how participants would make sense of every step in the purchase flow based on their real life shopping experience. They also evaluated the app based on how cumbersome it was compared to the real life experience — a primary draw of the app being to bypass the hassle of visiting multiple physical stores in search of the ideal product. This allowed us to identify further improvements that would make the experience smoother.
Gathering feedback from users played a crucial role in stepping outside of our own perspective and understanding how new users would interact with our design. This step minimized the risk of adding features that they might find confusing (which would have damaged the product’s reputation) and saved us from costly post-release fixes.
Need help figuring out the future?
I hope this has given you some insights into what user research can (and can’t) do when done properly. It may not be the answer to all your questions, but in the right context it can help you find solutions, innovations, and opportunities you might never have spotted otherwise.
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Maria Sole Biondi is a UX Researcher at Belka. She is currently looking for answers to various questions. Wondering about the next steps or curious about the possibilities? Send an email to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want more good advice from Belka?
- Maria Sole and Sara wrote an article for UXInsight on 3 Types of stakeholders in UX research
- Development on your digital product suddenly slowing down? Why it happens and how to fix it.
- Ever wondered how to build a terrible product and make everyone miserable? Here's how.