User Research and Execution

Summary

User Research is a vital element of creating products. But how do we prevent it from slowing down concept creation and getting something live?

Disclaimer

I have a product management background, not a UX one. This blog is based on my observations. Please feel free to disagree and let me know your thoughts!

User Research

User Research takes many forms. We might undertake diary studies; conduct interviews with users; observe users; and more. This research provides insights into user needs and the degree to which our product satisfies these (or doesn’t). However, it isn’t the work of a moment. Diary studies may take place over a period of weeks and genuine user personas will be created from extensive research.

There’s also user research that takes place while building hypotheses. If we have a data insight that certain user segments behave differently to others we are likely to wish to investigate why. User research and testing may also be conducted in order to validate concepts that we are thinking of taking forward to the build process.

And Usability Testing is yet another level of research. Not only do we validate prototypes and designs, but these sessions often throw up new findings that can be added to an insights catalogue.

Contrasting Two Projects

On one product I heard of, the UX team required that user research take place before any product decisions were made. While this appears sensible, the research subsequently took several months with little if anything in the way of deliverables during this period. While ensuring that the user is understood is a laudable ideal, this level of detail was clearly not optimal; it’s essentially a fall-back to Waterfall days of performing big up-front analysis before moving to design. Most products can ill-afford to research anything and everything to do with the product.

The second product team has taken a more pragmatic approach. They wanted to learn more about their users but had agreed a regular cadence of delivery. So they are placing more traditional user research alongside experiments which were initially guided by gut feel of what “better” might be. Over time this guidance will become driven by the insight they discover from both directed research and the results of their experiments.

Looking at what Works

This second product team has a clear view of the research that they will undertake and have proposed working on a “Gold” and a “Bronze” path. The Gold path is their vision; the idealised picture that inspires and informs design. The Bronze path is the live site; at present a world away from the gold one although these will become closer over time.

The original Gold / Bronze illustration, by Carl Kim
The original Gold / Bronze illustration, by Carl Kim

There are many advantages to this approach.

Firstly, there is the acknowledgement that knowing everything about users isn’t practical or necessary. Research needs to be directed by what will add business value, moving the agreed metrics.

Secondly, we only truly learn when we go live. User research gives insight but the live site is where we learn what works. So research without execution is mere theory.

Thirdly, having two paths means that we focus on both. We don’t neglect the product vision and have a forum for exploring new concepts and ideas. Equally, we remain rooted in reality and the achievable. So concepts are applied to the bronze path and learning is reflected in the gold path.

While the image suggests that the paths should converge, my feeling is that convergence would imply that there has been insufficient work on the vision (gold path). Equally, too much divergence suggests that we need to get on with improving the site as the bronze path has fallen too far behind.

Furthermore, the research going into the gold path is directed by the business value that is driven. If insights are catalogued effectively, we know where we need to focus. Thus effort is not duplicated and is directed to those areas that are the highest priority.

Bronze and Gold paths
Bronze and Gold paths

Conclusion

User Research is a vital part of the product management framework. It allows us to understand user needs and should inform better product decisions. However, it needs to be directed and focussed effectively to ensure that we are not wasting time.

Creating gold and bronze paths allows us to create and update a product vision while maintaining a high cadence of delivery.

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Author: Stuff Rich Writes

Cyclist and Product Manager. I blog about both.

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