Learn / Guides / Product research basics

Back to guides

A step-by-step guide to the product research process

How can product teams ensure they use resources efficiently, meet key business goals, and feel confident that new products or features will bring about customer delight? 

There’s one clear answer: a strong product research process. 

Just as there’s no single way to develop a product, no single research process works for all product teams. But there are key steps that will help you find the sweet spot between understanding business goals and user needs for actionable product research. 

This article takes you through the factors you should consider to tailor product research to your specific needs and provides a step-by-by-step guide to doing research right.

Use Hotjar to streamline your product research process

Hotjar offers product teams a rich stream of quantitative and qualitative data that keeps you connected to user needs at every stage of research.

What to consider before starting product research

Before jumping into the product research process, prepare your team. Take the time to consider the why and determine how you can design the process to meet the unique needs of your product. Reflect on:

Why you’re doing the research

Get connected with the deep purpose of your research: what you need to understand to make your product maximally profitable and effective. 

Determine exactly what you want to get out of the research process. 

At early discovery stages, you may just want to generate new ideas for innovation or get to know your users better. At later stages, you may be looking for concrete feedback on a new product or possible upgrades and feature updates for an existing product. The why behind the research should guide your process. 

Which users you’ll research with

You’ll need to determine which users to target with your research based on the stage of your product and what you want to find out. 

You might use a random sample of potential or current customers; or segment users according to region, industry, or other criteria to spot patterns across different demographics.

Trial users can give immediate product feedback, which is usually incredibly easy to implement (a new theme, for example) or incredibly difficult, like an entirely new functionality or platform for your product. Your long-time users can give nuanced feedback, but they overlook what doesn't work due to their expertise.

Finding that middle ground of users who like what you offer but aren't stuck to your brand is essential. These users appreciate being treated like their insights matter most—because they do.

Nate Tsang
Founder & CEO, WallStreetZen

Finding impartial user information can be tricky since many tools track users who’ve been paid or incentivized to click through to your site or product. Product experience insights software like Hotjar can help by providing organic, unbiased user data that gives you a clear picture of what your customers are experiencing.

Pro tip: use Hotjar’s advanced filters to sort insights according to user types. For instance, you can watch Session Recordings of users from specific countries or industries—or you can filter recordings to see only satisfied or dissatisfied users’ experiences, which can provide valuable information on what’s working and what’s not.

Your core business goals 

The best product research processes are connected with the overall organizational vision, so check your research goals against the company goals to ensure alignment. 

Designing your research process cross-functionally with other departments is also a great way to ensure you collect data that tests profitability and other business goals, as well as gathering user satisfaction data. 

Your team’s methodology

Different product methodologies emphasize different aspects of product research at different points in the process, so it’s important to think about what will fit your team’s working stages.

Teams who use waterfall methodologies usually rely on bursts of intense research before development and again pre-launch and make a clear separation between research and development phases. 

Teams who use agile, lean, or DevOps methods usually integrate research with the broader product development process, engaging in continuous discovery methods. 

Whatever your methodology, ensure you infuse research into as many parts of the process as possible.

Which research tools you’ll use

You’ll need to consider your budget and company size when determining which research options are a possibility. 

Manual research techniques, like user interviews, can be time-consuming and cost-intensive, but can be useful to forge a personal connection with users and ask improvised questions based on their responses.

Automated research tools (like Hotjar 👋) increase speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness, and reduce human error. They allow you to reach a larger sample size of customers and ensure you’re getting clean, unbiased product feedback—in person, users are more likely to feel pressure to compliment your product or underplay their concerns, but with tools like Hotjar, you’ll get genuine, in-the-moment feedback from users as they use your product. 

Which team members will contribute

Engage in cross-functional collaboration to ensure your research collects all of the data needed by different departments and team members. 

Involve different team members at each stage of the product workflow. For example, when you’re validating product ideas, you may want to include marketing and technical departments; and when you’re testing product usability, you may want to rely primarily on the expertise of your engineers. 

It’s also important to consider what research other departments have done before starting your own process, so you don’t waste resources duplicating generic market research. 

8 steps for amazing product research

Amazing product research is all about doing the right research at the right time to unearth effective insights without getting lost in an information overload you can’t put to use.  

There’s no single 'correct' way to do product research, but following—or adapting—these steps will put you well on your way to unearthing powerful product insights. 

1. Define your research goal

First, set your high-level goals, which should test business objectives as well as customer-centric discovery. These are often drawn directly from the product vision and strategy.

Then, create small, specific goals or questions to be answered for each chunk of research. This might include: 

  • Determining market acceptance for the product

  • Identifying areas where key features can be improved

  • Evaluating the product’s performance 

2. Start by understanding your users

User needs are at the center of effective product research processes. 

Engage in user discovery as early as possible, even before you have definite product or feature ideas. Open-ended user research is a key source of product inspiration and innovation. 

Then, when you have product proposals, prototypes, or MVPs, you can start seeking more specific feedback. 

User research is all about getting close to your current or potential users and learning what they want and need. Developing a user-centric culture of ongoing research will help you generate customer delight.

To create a user-centric research culture, conduct user interviews and create user personas. You can also connect more passively with your user demographic by looking at forums, Facebook groups, or sites like Reddit that are used by your customer niche. 

The more organic the research process, the better. It’s ideal to catch users in situations where they answer by instinct instead of having carefully crafted answers. It's what they say instinctively that leads to better product solutions.

Roy Morejon
President and Co-Founder, Enventys Partners

Pro tip: use Incoming Feedback widgets to gather user feedback in a non-invasive way. 

While many survey tools take users away from your product—which is distracting and increases the chance users will drop off before completing the survey—Hotjar’s Incoming Feedback widgets are integrated into the product interface, so users can give quick chunks of feedback and then carry on with their tasks. This means you can survey your users on the go and gain valuable insights by learning what they’re thinking and feeling as they interact with the product.

3. Research the market for your product 

Run thorough competitive and comparative analyses to test the business potential of your product against other solutions on the market and engage in opportunity mapping. 

You can also use historical market data and trade reports to predict potential profitability and run keyword research to understand what potential customers are searching for to generate ideas. Where possible, work with your marketing team at this stage. 

Once you’ve validated whether a market exists for your product and determined how saturated that market is, focus on whether the market is viable and how you can differentiate your product from competitors.

Pro tip: even if you already have a product established in a specific market, make sure to assess the market periodically. Markets and competitors change, and assuming you still know the market because of your initial research processes can be a costly mistake. 

Periodically check your product against the industry by creating a value curve. The value curve plots the product offerings currently available in the market on one axis, and the factors the industry is competing on and investing in heavily on the other.  This can help you spot market opportunities, ensure your product is still relevant, and get ideas for features you could add to increase user demand and open up new user bases.

Next, complement your understanding of your users and market with research on technology trends that may affect users’ expectations of your product or its long-term viability. 

Stay on top of trends by regularly engaging with tech cultures—read trade magazines and news sites, listen to tech news podcasts, and follow key trendspotters on social media and specialist forums. You can also use tools like Google Trends, Trend Hunter, and PSFK. 

Another key source of tech trend information is your engineering team. Chances are, you have plenty of techies on your team who are up to speed on different aspects of technology and what’s forecasted to change. Create a learning culture where team members have the opportunity to share their knowledge.  

Note: Hotjar’s developers share key tech insights in their blog—take a look

Remember that researching trends requires a level head; you don’t want to jump on every potential fad. Rigorously question trends and put them in context to understand what has staying power.

Analyze the latest trending topics and projects in mainstream open-source communities across the Internet such as GitHub. These communities are an incredible resource for identifying tech trends that are sustainable, disruptive, and have immense staying power. 

It's also important to subscribe to prominent tech publications and leading technology platforms such as Azure and AWS to get the latest tech news and new feature announcements delivered directly to your inbox. This way, your product team is always in the know about the most important tech trends that are shaping product development and product markets.

Eric McGee
Senior Network Engineer, TRGDatacenters

5. Validate ideas with current or potential users

Once you’ve developed a strong sense of your users, market, and technology, it’s time to start testing concrete ideas and solutions. 

Based on your initial research, identify possible products, features, or upgrades that could meet user needs as well as business goals. Then, run concept testing to check how users respond. 

First, identify key users or user types to test. Recruit participants for customer interviews or focus groups or deploy Hotjar Surveys, Incoming Feedback tools, and Session Recordings to test ideas with existing users. 

Then, ask questions or set tasks and observe user responses. You may just want to explain concepts to users at this stage—or you can use wireframes or mockups; or, at later stages, prototypes or MVPs. 

Make sure you account for confirmation bias and false-positive responses from users when designing the validation process. Include open- and closed-ended questions and use measures like purchase intent to determine whether customers would invest in your product.

Pro tip: use fake door testing to gauge interest in new features across your existing user base. 

In fake door tests, you show users a call-to-action for a product action that doesn’t exist yet. Once they click to perform the action, they’ll be taken to a page that explains this feature isn’t available yet—you may also choose to include a short survey on this page to learn more about their interest. By looking at answers to survey questions and the clickthrough rate, product teams can quickly validate ideas for new features or improvements with users.

 6. Test your MVP

The next step is to develop a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) based on your validated ideas and run testing to improve subsequent iterations. 

This is a critical stage in product research that you shouldn’t skip over—if you wait for the fully developed product before running tests, it will be harder to fix software issues and can cause major delays. 

Quality assurance (QA) testing, regression testing, and performance testing check the MVP’s functionality and show developers where they need to make changes. 

User tests are also key at this stage. Different types of product testing, like tree testing and card sorting, can confirm whether users can easily navigate the product to find the functionality they need. 

A/B tests and multivariate tests, where you split your user base into groups and give them different versions of a product or feature, can help you decide which iteration to run with. Hotjar Heatmaps can be especially useful here by allowing you to easily compare where users click and scroll on different versions of the product. 

7. Continue research after launch

Consider doing a soft launch—or even canary deployment—where you release new products or features to a small group of users, gather data to weed out bugs, and adapt the product based on user responses. Then, you can roll it out to all users. 

But even once you’ve launched the final product, your research isn’t over. The best product teams stay connected with the people who use their products and regularly analyze market and tech changes.

After the product is released, either through a soft launch or a regular launch, implementing a data-driven approach to the go-to-market strategy is crucial in parsing consumer reports and validating trends and customer opinions.

Ninh Tran

Continuous research ensures that your product stays relevant and successfully meets customer needs, which will boost user metrics and business metrics alike.

So how can you continue your research throughout the whole product lifecycle? 

  • Watch session recordings to spot blockers and bugs where users are rage clicking or dropping off the product journey

  • Use heatmaps to understand which product elements are most popular—and unpopular—with users

  • Measure product analytics like click-through rate (CTR) and product conversion rate

  • Stay up to date on industry and market trends 

  • Incorporate regular opportunities for cross-team discussions to get different research perspectives

  • Schedule regular user and customer interviews

  • Use product experience insights tools like Hotjar to give you a steady stream of user feedback through Surveys and Incoming Feedback widgets

8. Integrate research into action

The final step in any research process is to organize your research and turn insights into action. 

You can synthesize different strands of research together into specific, actionable themes to cut through the noise and pull out the information you need. 

Then, draw on your research to establish a strong product strategy and roadmap to guide your product development process. Make sure you check the strategy and roadmap against new research at regular intervals and update where needed, though it’s important to strike a balance: these documents should be dynamic but relatively stable touchpoints.  

Your product research should also drive your day-to-day decisions and product backlog management, and form the basis of your product storytelling to help get stakeholder buy-in. 

Creating a user-led research culture

Strong research is crucial to product management: it helps you weigh up options, make confident decisions, and hit your business and user targets. 

But a culture of research is also the best way to keep the product team motivated and connected with the user experience. The more the team understands the why behind the product, the more engaged and committed they’ll be. 

Remember: at heart, all product research is user research. 

Product teams who are endlessly curious about their users—who they are, what they need, how they experience your product—can better meet user needs. With a learning mindset and a commitment to customer-centric continuous discovery, you can transform research into innovation.

Use Hotjar to streamline your product research process

Hotjar offers product teams a rich stream of quantitative and qualitative data that keeps you connected to user needs at every stage of research.

FAQs on the product research process