How to get started with user research in startups

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The startup world moves very fast. There is never a dull moment trying to catch up with the competition in the market, and there is always an urge to innovate and launch new features and products. After all, nobody wants to stay behind.

Yet, launching the “wrong” feature can lead to revenue loss as a result of low customer adoption. Many entrepreneurs rush to launch products based on assumptions without testing them, and that exposes them to more risk.

User research can help you to minimize risks, save money, and development time. It helps you get to know your customers better and check if your startup is on the right track with your next steps. At this point you might ask yourself “but what if I don’t have the resources to do proper user research?”. The good news is that user research doesn’t have to be complicated and expensive at all.

You can still build robust channels to get customer feedback without the need for a lot of resources. The key thing to remember is that different user research methods fit different parts of the product development cycle, either pre or post-launch. This article will help you with getting this process started.

User research in startups

1 - Refine your big ideas

At this stage, you need a better understanding of the problems your existing and prospective customers face before you start building a solution. Things such as their existing shopping habits, workflows, pain-points, and future aspirations can help you define the main problems you’ll need to find a solution to.

The easiest user research method to do it is to connect with customers by having remote live interviews. After all, this is the best, and the fastest way to get to know the future users of your solution.

For instance, if you are a fintech startup wishing to create an easy solution for Gen Z and millennials to invest small amounts of money in stocks or real-estate, you’ll need to learn about their existing interactions with banks.

To do that, you’ll need to target potential and existing customers who correspond to these age groups. Recruiting prospective customers can be done through services such as Usertesting or Teston. In addition, to ensure you get feedback from the right people, you can add a screening questionnaire to understand if their level of financial literacy matches your expectations (e.g. you might want to start with less financially savvy customers).

Aim for somewhere around 5-10 participants, and record the interviews using tools such as Zoom, Lookback, or UserZoom for further reference when you analyze the results. To make the interviews successful, have a script of questions ready, but remember that you can also go off-script if a participant brings up an interesting point you’d like to know more about.

Try to ask questions about workflows, pain-points, habits, and behavior rather than opinions. Customers aren't likely to predict their behavior in the future and opinions won't provide you with useful data. In the case of a fintech startup you can ask your participants questions about how they go about their banking in general such as “Which channels do you use to access your bank?” (e.g. online offline, how often, etc.), “How do they save money?” (if they do),  and “How much do you know about investments?”.

At the end of the process, you can use tools such as mind maps and affinity diagrams to summarize the main themes that come up from the data. Miro is a good tool for creating these diagrams. You can attach high level categories to the themes such as workflows, pain-points, etc.

Remember to focus on the common facts that were shared by most participants and not their opinions. By understanding these facts you’ll be able to find the main problem your customers face and get to a better place to start brainstorming potential solutions.  

2 - Discover impression and usability issues

At this stage, you have decided on a potential solution and you want to understand if this solution needs a few changes before you launch it. To do that, you can build a simple prototype and test it with potential users. There are several easy user research tests you could do at this stage.

For instance, if you are a small e-commerce fashion retailer you can use a prototype to test the readability of your copy, and the usability specific interactions inside your app or website.

Testing a low-fidelity prototype or a functioning prototype with about 5 people can give you more than enough insights to go in the right direction. You can sketch low-fidelity wireframes in Vectornator, and Miro, or build a functioning prototype in Figma, and Marvel. Using tools such as Usertesting, User Zoom, and Teston can help you launch these tests in an unmoderated fashion and save you time instead of moderating them yourself. Then, you can watch the recordings and do your analysis.

If you want to test the readability or the impression of a website, a low-fidelity wireframe would suffice. In the case of an e-commerce fashion retailer you can test the home screen and ask participants questions such as “Do you understand where the shopping cart is?” or “Do you understand the prices and what you’re paying for?”. Also, you can understand the users’ first impression of your idea by asking them “Does that look inviting enough for you to keep on shopping?” and ask them to elaborate on their answer.

If you want to test actual tasks such as navigating to a particular department and adding a product to the shopping cart, you can add interactivity to your prototype. This will also allow you to give your users tasks such as “Navigate to the page where we sell yellow sweatshirts for women, and add one to the shopping cart”. By testing these interactions, you can see where users get confused or get “stuck” in the process.

These tests with existing or potential users could give you invaluable insights into areas where users are likely to get confused in the future. It’s better to catch these problems before you launch new features because it will save you money, and development time in the long-run.

3 - Get continuous post-launch feedback

At this stage you’ve already launched a solution, and you want to make sure it is adopted by users, and that you learn about potential ways to improve it. A few user research methods could help you to do that, among them: interviews, simple surveys, contextual inquiries, click heatmaps, and Beta tests.

Booking interviews with actual users could reveal their workflow with your product, and how their habits changed as a result of using it. In the case of a fintech company you can ask questions around how users changed their money saving behavior since they started using your easy investing app (building on the example from earlier in the article).

A nice addition to interviews could be in the form of having a contextual inquiry, which is a process of letting users share their screen with you and walk you through how they use the product, including showing you the problems they face.

Once you have gathered enough feedback from interviews and contextual inquiries, you can get even more significant confirmation about potential problems from a bigger user group by using simple surveys. Tools such as Chameleon, and Typeform could be very helpful in launching short surveys inside your app or by email to gather feedback from a larger user base.

Another way to observe big trends is by setting up a tool such as Hotjar or Mouseflow to see click heatmaps and session replays. These two will allow you to see where most of your users click and if some of them click in the wrong places due to confusion.

If you still feel that you want feedback from your most dedicated group, you can invite a number of users to use your product for a few days via a Beta group. You can ask them then to use the product a few times (could be 3 times a week for 2 weeks), log their experience after each interaction, and send you their feedback through email or via an instant messaging app. This is an excellent way to gather a lot of valuable feedback fast.  

In short, user research doesn’t have to be complicated. Your startup could apply some of our suggestions and get a lot more confident about launching features and products customers will actually use and like.

If you need help with user research in your startup we can help you do it the right way based on our expertise in the field.

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