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

A strong product research process ensures product teams maximize resources, meet key business goals, and make confident decisions that will deliver successful products and features to create customer delight.

But, how do you conduct effective product research?

Just as there’s no single way to develop a product, no single research process fits all product teams. But there are key steps that will help you balance 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 desired outcomes 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 research process, product managers prepare their team. Take time to consider the why and determine how you can design the process to meet your unique product requirements. 

Reflect on:

Why you’re doing the research

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

Determine specific outcomes of the research process.

During the early product discovery stages, generating new product ideas for innovation and getting to know your users better will serve as a solid foundation throughout the research process. At later stages, look 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. 

Categorizing your users

Determining customer needs and segmenting users are crucial steps that impact the success of any product research strategy. 

You might use a random sample of potential or existing 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 insights can be tricky since many tools track users who’ve been paid or incentivized to click through to your website or product. Product experience insights software like Hotjar can help by providing organic, unbiased user data that gives you a clear picture of your customer experience (CX).

Pro tip: Hotjar Highlights lets you sort and curate user insights and attributes, and share them with your product team. You can also watch Session Recordings of users from specific countries or industries—or filter recordings to see only satisfied or dissatisfied user experiences, which can provide valuable information on what’s working (and what’s not).


A Hotjar Session Recording

Your core business goals 

The best product research processes overlap with the overall organizational vision, so update your research goals in line with company goals to ensure alignment. 

Designing your research process with cross-functional collaboration in mind is a great way to eliminate any communication issues, ensure all departments collect data that tests product profitability, business goals, and user satisfaction.

 Your team’s methodology

Different product methodologies emphasize different aspects of product research throughout its lifecycle, so it’s important to consider techniques that will fit your team’s working stages.

Teams who use waterfall methodologies usually rely on bursts of intense research before development and again during pre-launch. They also make a clear distinction between the product’s 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, infuse research into every stage of the product lifecycle to achieve business goals like increased revenue, acquisitions, and user adoption.

Choosing which research tools to use

When you’re deciding how to do product research, you’ll need to consider your budget and company size to pick out your tool stack.

Manual research techniques like user interviews can be time-consuming and cost-intensive, but 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 target audience 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 engage with your product. 

Which team members will contribute

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 on the expertise of your engineers. 

It’s also important to consider what research other departments have done before launching 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 smart research to unearth effective insights without getting lost in an information overload that derails your product workflow.  

Follow these eight steps to guide your product research strategies to achieve valuable, actionable product insights that will inform your product’s entire lifecycle, from ideation to execution. 

1. Define your research goals

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

Then, create attainable, specific goals or questions for your team to focus on during each stage of their research. This might include: 

  • Conducting market research for the product’s adoption before its launch

  • Identifying areas where key features can be improved after the product launch

  • Evaluating the product’s performance throughout the product lifecycle

2. Understand your users

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

Engage in user discovery—identify and understand your customer—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, and an essential step in determining product-market fit.

Then, when you have product proposals, prototypes, or a minimum viable product (MVP), you can start seeking more specific feedback. 

User research is all about interacting with your current or potential users and learning what they want and need. Developing a user-centric culture of ongoing research will help you gauge the market demand, position your product against the competition, and 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 Feedback widgets to gather user feedback in a non-invasive way. 

Hotjar’s Feedback widgets are integrated into the product interface, so users can give quick feedback and then carry on with their tasks. This means you can survey your users and gain valuable insights by learning what they’re thinking and feeling as they interact with the product.

#A Hotjar feedback widget

A Hotjar feedback widget

3. Do market research 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 to get stakeholder buy-in.

You can also use historical market data and trade reports to predict potential profitability and run keyword research to understand users and what potential customers are searching for to generate product ideas.

Once you’ve validated whether there’s a viable market for your product and determined how saturated that target market is, focus on your product’s unique selling points.

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 making assumptions because of your initial research processes can be a costly mistake. Work with your marketing team here to validate your ideas and avoid guesswork.

Evaluate your product regularly 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 product relevance, and get ideas for features you could add to increase user demand and open up new user bases.

Check out how Gavin increased conversions for his lead generation agency by 42% with Hotjar.

Next, combine your understanding of your users and market with research on technology trends that may affect user 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.

Pro tip: rigorously analyze trends and put them into context to understand what has staying power, as you avoid jumping on every passing fad. Create a learning culture that embraces experimentation and gives team members the opportunity to share their knowledge. 

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 early research, identify possible products, features, or upgrades that could meet user needs as well as business goals. Then, run concept testing to evaluate the user experience.

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 customer adoption.

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 reviewing answers to survey questions and the click-through rate, product teams can quickly validate ideas for new features or improvements with users.

6. Test your MVP

The next step in your product research process is to develop a Minimum Viable Product based on validated ideas and run tests to improve subsequent iterations. 

This is a critical stage in product research that you shouldn’t skip. Waiting for the fully developed product before running tests makes it harder to fix software and prioritize bug issues, causing major delays. 

Quality assurance (QA) testing, regression testing, and performance testing check the MVP’s functionality and show developers where they need to make product 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 your 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 allow you to easily compare where users click and scroll on different versions of the product.

#A Hotjar heatmap
A Hotjar heatmap

7. Continue research after the product 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

  • Finally, 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 their users and regularly analyze market trends 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 product lifecycle? 

8. Turn research into action

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

Curate your research into specific, actionable themes to cut through the noise and gather valuable, user-centric insights.

Then, use your research to establish a strong product strategy and roadmap to guide your product development process. Make sure you compare the strategy and roadmap with 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. 

Why creating a user-centric research culture is essential

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 the demands of an ever-evolving market, inspire customer loyalty, and increase their Net Promoter Score (NPS). With a learning mindset and a commitment to customer-centric product discovery, you can transform research into innovation and sustainable business growth.

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