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Hackernoon logoYour Complete Guide to Meaningful User Research—Without Interviews by@makarov

Your Complete Guide to Meaningful User Research—Without Interviews

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@makarovDan Makarov

First, we need to talk about user research conducted with interviews.

When we think about user research we immediately picture a customer development interview.

Nonetheless, like any other type of research, interviews have their limitations:
  • They require significant skill and knowledge to conduct (consider reading The Mom Test and JTBD to level up on the topic); 
  • It's easy to misinterpret what your customers are saying; 
  • They take a lot of time to schedule, coordinate, document, etc. (Calendly can ease part of that pain); 
  • Your selection of interviewees might not be representative of your user base.

In addition to that, there are certain situations, where product managers and designers are limited in their ability to speak with an actual user. For example:

  • The product is very early and doesn't have users; 
  • Users are not willing to dedicate time for an interview (check out Talkative if you face that problem); 
  • The company is on a tight budget and can't afford to incentivize customers for a chat with Amazon gift cards.


So should you stop talking to users? No.

Should you explore other ways to learn about them? Yes.

We've collected a few of our favorite user research techniques to serve as inspiration for all fellow founders, product managers, designers and ethno-researchers. Let's dive right in. 

Take a course on your users' domain of expertise

In many cases you are building a product for users in the industry where you have little to no experience. With time, you will learn more about the topic, but this knowledge might not be sufficient. You won't have a full understanding of the area, you will not see it the same way your users do.

Solution? Take a course. It will help you relate to your users better even without conducting actual interviews. Thanks to a plethora of platforms (i.e. UdemyMasterclassMonthlyCoursera), you can learn anything online these days.

Personal example

We have 3 primary target groups for our product: Product Managers, Engineers and QA testers. The problem is that none of us has been a tester before, which meant that we were lacking knowledge in this domain. We decided to address that and took a course on manual and automated testing. Some of the things we learned there, would have taken us months to figure out with typical user research.

Tip: going through the course, try to focus on identifying the most basic low-level problems. As an outsider, you have a benefit of looking at things with fresh eyes. What experts take as a status quo, you will be able to question, and build a disrupting product as a result.

Try doing your customers' job yourself

If you are feeling adventurous and taking a course sounds too easy, you can actually try to step into your user's shoes yourself. It's hard to think of a better way to do user research, than to become a user.

In fact, if you are a founder of, let's say, a taxi ordering service, you should absolutely try being a taxi driver for a period of time. If you are an employee, it could be hard to get a buy-in from your management though. But you can show them this article and say that we approve :)

Personal example

We once had a chance to build a product that used satellite data to help farmers automatically create the so-called fertilizer application maps. These maps allowed self-driving tractors to spread the right amount of fertilizer on individual parts of the field.

As you might expect, our experience with farming prior to that was 0 (if not less than 0). We have therefore organized a few farm visits, got to drive an actual tractor and experienced fertilization first-hand. Needless to say, it was way more insightful than user research through interviews. It helped us uncover the issues that farmers would've never mentioned, since they naturally take them for granted.

Take a (brief) look at competition

That is something that you shouldn't normally do. Why? You might end up comparing your products based on functionality and be tempted to copy competitor's features. Problem 1: It makes you a follower. Problem 2: despite the fact that you might be in the same industry, their users are not your users. Would you want to spend time on someone else's customers?

If you approach this exercise in the right way however, it can be a really powerful user research technique. The key here is not to look at the implementation, but to try and understand what customer need they were trying to address. It's critical to remember however, that your users might not have the exact same problems. But it can give you new ideas that you can discuss with your customers in the next user research interview. It can also help product managers decide what notto do and which features not to implement.

Personal example

A bit of background first. Our Chrome extension allows Product Managers and QA testers to record their screen, while it automatically gathers technical data in the background. That way engineers can get better bug reports and troubleshoot faster.

Despite the fact that you can record your screen with our tool, we are not competing in the domain of general-purpose screen recording. (Side note: if you are interested in the topic of positioning, you should watch a talk by Ryan Singer from Basecamp.) Nonetheless, we do take an occasional look at "regular" screen recording tools. Partly because our user research showed that some of our customers used less specialized tools before. One of them is Loom.

When we tried Loom, we noticed that they allow users to leave comments and reactions connected to a particular second in the video. We can't know for sure the reason behind those features (especially time-based reactions). Our guess was that it is done to make the videos more "viral" and encourage communication between viewers.

It didn't sound like a feature our target audience would appreciate, but we decided to double-check that in the next user research interview. We were right. Our interviewee was not interested in that. BUT! They did mention that leaving comments connected to a specific technical log would be useful. That's how looking at other products helped us learn our own customers better.

See what your target audience is searching for

In a user research interview people are never their true selves, which makes interpreting what they say and mean even harder. You are also limited by time. This means that you cannot always dig as deep as you want and explore as many areas as you want. And it is you who is asking questions, so there will be a lot of topics that you just didn't think about. Yet, it's your job to figure out all the problems your customers have. And what do people do when they have a problem? They ask for help. And where do they ask for help these days? The Internet.

A lot of searches start with Google. So should yours. But Google itself is not the best place to understand what your audience is searching for. Not a problem. SEO tools can be surprisingly helpful for user research. For example, you could go to Ubersuggest (which is free) and type in a search phrase that your user might be typing into Google.

From that you will be able to see related queries and their search volume. Step by step you will diving deeper into the topic. With Ubersuggest you will also find top-ranked articles. Read those to learn more about what your users might be interested in. Get inspiration about what else they can be asking Google about. And then (you guessed it) go back to Ubersuggest and check the search volume.

The next stop would be various online forums and communities. There are a lot of them, so let's take a look at the most prominent ones: Quora and Reddit. You should also check the forums relevant for your specific industry.

Reddit

Reddit is all about specific communities. Join a few. Depending on the industry you are going after, you can start with one of these for example: r/programmingr/marketingr/design. You can then see what problems people ask to help them with and what solutions redditors offer. Make sure not to use Reddit as a self-promotion or marketing platform. You are here to do user research.

Quora

The best game plan for Quora is to find a few questions that you know your users can be asking. Next, take a look at the most upvoted answers and check out the profiles of their authors. An author would be usually active in only one domain, which is perfect for you. You can check which questions they've answered and understand which problems your target audience is trying to solve.

Study user behaviour

We saved that one for last as it's the most obvious approach to doing user research without interviews. Despite the fact that it's obvious we couldn't skip it. There are essentially 2 ways to understand user behavior in your product: analytics and user session recording.

Analytics

Using tools like Google Analytics and Mixpanel you can track events, build funnels and understand which actions your users perform inside your product. Many articles have been written on this topic, so we won't dive any further.

User session recording

There are a few tools (i.e. FullStoryHotJarCrazyEgg) that allow you to view videos of how people interact with your product. You can see their mouse movements and clicks, how and what they fill out in the forms. It's the closest thing to sitting behind your customer and watching them use your product. It doesn't take long to start seeing patterns in user behavior - even 50 sessions could be enough to learn something new. You can read a post by Oleg Yakubenkov of GoPractice on this.

There are a few things to keep in mind about user session recording:

  • GDPR and growing privacy concerns might affect the future of this user research method; 
  • Before enabling user session recording on production, you should really make sure that you are not recording any sensitive data, such as credit card details; 
  • Many Product Managers we talked to are not comfortable using this approach, because most users are not aware that their screen is being recorded. In addition to that, the script might impact the loading speed and performance.

To conclude

Talking to your users is essential! But every technique has its weaknesses too, so you should always use a combination of user research approaches.

We really hope that the methods covered in this article will help you learn more about your customers and solve more of their problems.

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