Researchers often have concerns about what will happen when “other people” go out and do work with users. But the demand for research far outweighs the supply of researchers, and everyone wins when more people are enabled to do research themselves. At #mtpcon San Francisco, Steve Portigal, Principal at Portigal Consulting, tells us how to quickly level up our research skills as product managers across the lifecycle of a research effort.
Steve tells us how to be more effective in the three main elements of research: planning research, conducting research, and acting on research.
Ultimately, our goal is to learn from interactions with our customers. However, we typically focus on researching only if our product is usable or if people like the thing we’re making. In research we should be looking at broader questions, and proper planning will help ensure we are getting the answers that we need.
What are we Trying to Accomplish?
Research planning should include three areas:
- Business question: What challenge does the business face?
- Research objective: What do we hope to learn to help us answer that business question?
- Participant questions: What questions can we ask customers to help us achieve that research objective?
We often skip straight to writing participant questions without addressing the other two areas, and end up with unfocused interviews that don’t fully get us the answers we’re looking for.
How are we Going to Accomplish it?
Steve highlights a few considerations when planning how to go about research.
- What method of research should I use? It is easy to conflate “research” with “testing” and only focus on validating what we already have. But there are many research methods we can use.
- Who should I learn from? You don’t have to focus only on the people who are already using your product. Think about who else in the customer journey might have insights that could have an impact on your understanding of the customer’s needs.
- How should I interact with them? Remote work is easier than ever, so it is tempting to think using collaboration tools like Zoom or Skype are enough. But you learn so much by pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and interacting with people in their environment. Make sure you spend at least some portion of your research in the field.
Steve provides some tips for talking to your customers once you’ve planned your research.
- Specific questions are better than general questions. The more specific you can be, the better a user will be able to answer.
- Don’t ask users what they do. Ask them for an example of a time they have done something, and then ask if it was typical.
- Ask follow up questions to get to specifics. If a user gives you general answers, asking for stories or examples will help you move beyond surface level and into deeper insights.
He also highlights some common mistakes we make in understanding our role as an interviewer.
- Don’t provide the answer in the question. You may want to try to provide some examples to help guide the user, but this ends up tainting their response.
- Don’t try to build rapport by telling the participant ways you are just like them. This removes the focus from the user and pulls it back to you. Hold off on sharing your experiences and just continue asking them questions.
- Don’t become the expert. Users will often ask questions like: “Is this feature going to be in the next version?” Answering this, even if you know the answer, will change your role from researcher to expert and it is very difficult to get back into research mode. Ask: “Why is that important to you?” instead.
- Don’t correct the user. You’ll have users mispronounce your product name, or ask for features you already have, or any number of things that you will want to correct them. Don’t do it. This, again, makes you the expert and harms the research.
- Use the language they use. Don’t add acronyms they haven’t mentioned, or try to sound smart by using terminology they’re not using. Let them be the expert.
Your goal in interviewing is to make the user comfortable. Your aim should be to move from “Question-Answer” to “Question-Story”. Continuing to ask questions and follow ups will help you build that rapport.
Steve also recommends recording your interviews. We can’t take notes fast enough to capture everything, so our notes become filtered versions of what we heard. Having a recording to return to gives you the full context and allows you to revisit the interview with fresh eyes.
When interviewing, it is important to avoid bias and try to look to new situations as learning. We also need to have empathy for the people we’re interviewing. But we are all human, and our own feelings can creep into our interactions. When you feel yourself moving into a judgmental mode:
- Hear your own judgement
- Refute the assertion
- Use new data to flesh out your new thinking
Stress also hinders empathy. So make sure you plan your research in a reasonable manner so you’re not trying to do too much in too short a timeframe.
Acting on Research
Once you talk to people and write up your key takeaways, you are not done. Truly getting to new insights is a combination of analysis and synthesis.
- Analysis is breaking out larger pieces into smaller pieces, such as breaking out the insights you heard in interviews.
- Synthesis is combining those smaller pieces into larger ones to gain new understanding, such as taking the insights from multiple interviews and bringing together common themes.
When doing synthesis, you should go back to your business problem and what your stakeholders were looking for in the beginning. This will make sure you’re pulling the insights that will help answer the questions you were trying to understand. You should also make sure you’re presenting the information in a way that your stakeholders can consume to avoid research being dismissed.
Research is very important, but also very difficult. Being intentional in how you plan, do, and act on research will help to ensure you are get value out of the time you spend on it, and help you truly to understand your customers, and build products that solve their problems.