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User research techniques for product managers: what should I be looking for?
User research is the driving force behind product experience insights and UX improvements. But where do you start?
Last updated18 Aug 2022
Reading time8 min
If you don't know what you’re looking for—or where to look for it—user research turns into an overwhelming game of “find the conversion needle in the data haystack.”
So let’s talk about how to find the right data the first time.
Decide on a goal before you start (3 questions to ask yourself)
If you tune into a movie halfway through, you might get the gist of the story, but you'll miss some critical details. User research is the same, which is why you should resist the urge to jump into testing too quickly.
Deciding on a goal in advance and laying out a clear plan sets you up to:
Work smarter instead of harder:
you know what info you need so you can get in, and get out.
Get buy-in from the team and stakeholders:
you can convey where you’re going, how you’ll get there, and why the team should care.
Easily find insights:
narrowing your approach means you have less rogue data to sort through at the end of the project.
Aly Abel from Moonpig put it best when she said, “the consequence of [not defining the research process is] research requests come in last minute, questions aren't properly defined, answers are needed now, which means work is rushed.”
“Great, great,” you say, “but how do I plan user research?”
Here are three key questions to ask yourself before starting any project.
1. What's the topic?
Prioritizing the research process starts with deciding what to look at. You might have a list of research ideas that include finding out:
Why users make certain choices or take certain actions
Which pricing and packaging performs best
How to drive upgrades and increase retention
Why users behave a certain way on your website
Who your different users are
All of these are worthy endeavors, but you can’t do them all at once—you need to rank their importance and tackle one at a time.
It can be tempting to only focus on the big roadmap items, but spending too much time on long-view projects puts you at risk of missing out on ways to help your customers right now. On the flipside, tackling a lot of small goals and changes could make the user experience (UX) feel scattered.
The solution? Fill your schedule with mostly intermediate goals that balance catering to the company’s current strategy and user’s needs today.
If you’re still stumped over which project deserves your attention, try running a cost of delay analysis, which considers how much potential revenue you lose by waiting. This comparison between timelines and impact can help you identify which projects have the most potential payoff.
No matter which user research topic you pursue, simplify the question you hope the research will answer.
Josh Morales, Lead Product Researcher here at Hotjar, says, “Normally the first research question is too generic, packed with topics to research and not too well informed with the information available. The first thing is to bulletproof the research question by simplifying it, break it into pieces, and then prioritize the right question.”
2. Why is it important?
Clarifying your user research project’s why helps you:
Communicate the importance of the task at hand:
set yourself up to win team and stakeholder buy-in by clearly explaining the purpose of your user research project. Include expected outcomes, potential impact, and the results of your cost of delay analysis. Oh, and… skip the jargon.
Decide which testing methods to use and what metrics to focus on:
when you know the purpose of your user research and have identified potential impact and expected outcomes, you'll have a better idea of how to measure success, and which key results to share with your team.
3. When will it happen?
In a perfect world, your research projects would fit nicely within your company’s sprints. You could even create an annual research roadmap like the one Aly Abel shares here:
Laying out all of your research projects this way makes it easier to ensure you have a mix of topics and project sizes, and helps you align with company-wide goals or OKRs.
Reality isn’t always so cut and dry, though.
If you can't align your research with sprints, you may have to rethink what it means to be done—instead of reporting on a final research project, share new findings like early conclusions or further questions you want to explore.
Choose user research techniques to match your goal
Now you have a user research goal in mind, you need to decide how to reach it and which user testing tools will get you there.
Here's how to choose the right technique based on your goal:
Quantitative and qualitative research: the perfect pair
The best research method for your project could be a blend of approaches. Quantitative research uses numerical data to let you know what is happening, while non-numerical insights like user feedback from qualitative research tell you why it happens.
To get a well-rounded picture of what’s happening on your site and in your product, use quantitative and qualitative data together.
Different research methods and tools each bring something unique to the table, and combining different types of data broadens your view so you don’t miss the context of any UX or PX issues.
Here are three ways quantitative and qualitative data work well for user research projects:
1. Learn how users make decisions
By learning why users behave a certain way in your product, you can understand what’s working—or what could be improved by your product management team.
For example, imagine you want to figure out what’s holding people back from starting a free trial. You can look at scroll heatmaps of your landing page to find out what information most people are seeing—or missing.
Then, you can use an open-ended question survey to ask users whether they have questions before starting a free trial. Their responses can help you decide where clarity, customer education, or different positioning is needed.
2. Find out why users leave
Let’s say web analytics data tells you the session duration for a particular page is low, and at the same time you've noticed more incomplete signups than usual from the same page. You could assume those two metrics are connected… but how can you be sure?
Start your research by watching session recordings to see how users interact with and experience the page and at what point they exit. Recordings can reveal broken elements or other UX issues that are driving people away, which you can use as the basis for customer interviews to dig deeper into product and user experience.
3. Understand how different user segments behave
To truly understand user segments, you have to go beyond demographics to learn their preferences and motivations.
To kick off user segment research, you can conduct a heatmap analysis to compare what catches different users' attention. When you see that certain elements are getting more attention than others, use an Incoming Feedback widget to let users share their opinions and comments—in their own words—on the elements in question.
🤔 How well do you know your users? Customer personas used to be rooted in demographics like age and ethnicity. We know that humans are much more complex than that, though.
To really understand why your customers choose you, consider these psychographic factors during your user research:
👉 Read more: learn how to use psychographics and personas to get to the truth about why people buy.
Consider your constraints
When you’re planning research, start with your ideal scenario. What tests would you like to conduct, and what questions do you have? Then, consider your constraints. You may have limited:
After you know your constraints, you can work backward from the ideal scenario to find a feasible middle ground.
For example, if you need to work out a conversion issue before a fast-approaching launch date, the impact of the research and resulting technical debt could warrant a higher budget and an all-hands-on-deck effort.
If, on the other hand, you want to monitor how user preferences change over time, you can conduct smaller research projects over the entire year to gain perspective.
How much are people going to care about information they weren't expecting or didn't ask for? If you wait to involve stakeholders until you've already finished your user research, you risk misalignment and low adoption of the outcome.
Let your team and stakeholders know early on in the process what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and where the data is coming from.
💡 Remember: you can set yourself up to win stakeholder buy-in by clearly explaining the purpose of your user research project. Include:
Cost of delay analysis results
Keep your eye on the insights
The point of user research is to answer questions and challenge assumptions about your users’ preferences, goals, and experiences.
So, now what? Uncovering user insights is one thing; actually putting them to use is where the real work (and payoff!) comes in.
Here are three quick tips to help you keep your eye on the insights, and make use of your user research:
1. Evaluate results in phases
Rather than conducting a ton of user research and evaluating everything at the end, take a phased approach: review data as you go, so you can decide whether a question is worth further exploration. You may find that you have enough information already to make a decision, or that research has brought up ten more questions.
2. Align metrics with OKRs
What should you measure once you have research data?
It pays to align your metrics with team or department OKRs. For example, if your company wants to increase account upgrades, focus on ROI in your research. If you’re trying to build the case that a site redesign is in order, basing your usability testing metrics on things like error rate at a specific stage of the user journey can help.
3. Translate findings into challenges
After you’ve done the hard work of researching and analyzing user behavior through UX and PX insights, you have to translate your findings into an actionable report.
A mere write-up won't do. Turn your results into challenges to be solved, and involve the right people to work together on a solution. Showing how others can get involved generates awareness and gets the issue in front of the decision-makers.
The right tools can improve your research
User research is a mix of art and science, but one thing remains constant: the right tools will give you the in-depth insights you need.
Behavior analytics and product experience insights tools like Hotjar give you ways to discover, consolidate, and communicate user needs—and then make the changes that matter most.