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After <ahem> years of doing product consulting, I would like to say I’m shocked about the misconceptions surrounding user research. But, honestly, these misconceptions are so common that I assume by default that clients will have some resistance to doing user research.

Often, they have some very specific objections—and just as often, these objections are wrong. User research has never been easier, faster, more accessible to anyone, and more valuable than it is today. Let’s discuss the most common myths and misconceptions surrounding user research.

Myth #1: Since I Have Worked In This Field, I Already Know My Users

Many product leads or founders create apps because they have experienced the problem they are solving. For good reason, they believe they have a great understanding of their users and their problems.

But, they don’t.

Remember that no matter how much you know about a space, you are still a sample size of one.

This happened to me about a decade ago: I started a winery with a friend in 2001 and felt the pinch of being a small-batch winemaker. It was from this experience that my startup, Vinzy, was born. The aim was to make it easier to sell wine directly to consumers, effectively skipping out all the middlemen and allowing the wineries to greatly increase their margins.

My main concern was creating the marketplace—would consumers be willing to change their purchasing patterns and order online instead of buying at the grocery store or local wine shop? Our research showed they would! And since I knew the wineries would want to increase their margins, it was a go!

One problem: I was actually not like other winemakers in that I was very open to technology and innovation and trying new things. What I found was that these winemakers were extremely reluctant to “go around” their distributors, even though they were selling their wine for ⅓ of the price.

I have seen this happen again and again in user research. The more we think we know about a market, the more likely we are to be wrapped up in assumptions or are too wrapped up in our own experience to see the full picture.

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Myth #2: User Research Is Costly And Requires Special Skills Or Training

I can’t count how many times someone has told me they aren’t planning on doing user research because they don’t have the budget. I understand the concern, given that a contract with—for example—a design agency can cost thousands or even tens of thousands. But the reality is that most teams can do many types of user research without UXR training, skills, or experience.

DIY User Research Tips

Your first crack at user research is bound to be a little scary until you talk to someone who has done it before. Here are a few things you can think about to plan what you will ask your users:

  1. Make a note of the top risky assumptions you are making. Maybe you are assuming that all winemakers will want to sell their wine on your site, for example.
  2. Think about a few things that you might want to know about your users. What their role is, how many kids they have, what car they drive—basic things that have something to do with the subject matter of your application or the user’s mindset going in.
  3. If you are just trying to understand your users, you could think about mapping out their user journey. What is the first thing they do when trying to solve the problem? For example, if you are building a payroll app, have them walk through the process of creating a new employee and entering their information, all the way through creating a paycheck. Document everything they do, even if it’s using non-technical tools like walking to the library or whatever.
  4. If you are testing an existing app, use the power of screensharing. Have the user go through a particular flow and talk through what they are thinking as they do it. This is a usability test.
  5. Think of anything else you might want to know about your users. Document your questions in a centralized place so you can refer to them when you get an opportunity!

Once you have all that, decide if you are going to do quantitative or qualitative research.

Quantitative means you want to answer one or a few questions definitively and requires recording those questions, and then sending out a survey to as many qualified users as you can. There is an art and science to what interview questions to ask and how to ask them. There are lots of great articles out there—but the real trick is really to not ask leading questions. You don’t want to bias the research, and people naturally want to please others, so they will often tell you what they think you want to hear. (For example, I would love to use this app!—even if it’s not true. So don’t ask that.)

If you want to get to know your users and problem space more, the go-to tactic is to conduct user interviews. You can write a loose script or outline. Start with easy questions to put the user at ease, then get into your background information, then the meat of what you want to know—like their journey, info about the problem, or using your app—then give them some time to ask you questions or tell you anything you didn’t ask. The same goes for conducting surveys.

Whether you do qualitative or quantitative, remember the trick is not to ask them what they want but to understand their problem better by understanding who they are and what they need. A typical user won’t be able to come up with or envision a feature you are contemplating—that’s your job, not theirs. But they can certainly tell you about their frustrations and how you might be able to solve for them.

But What Will It Cost?

Your only expense should be some kind of incentive. If it’s a consumer app, you can give them money or a gift card—$20 to $100 is usually sufficient, depending on the time involved. If it’s B2B, you can also give money, and the higher up you go in an org, the more you will want to pay. It’s not uncommon to pay $500 to talk to CXO-level execs for an hour. You can also get more creative with businesses—maybe buy them a book in your industry, tickets to an event, or send them something special.

The first study will be the hardest, but you'll see that, once you get going, people are happy to be interviewed and it’s actually fun to go through this process. Record it so you can concentrate on the conversation, then go back later to watch the recording and read the transcript.

One more note on price...

The time and money you spend will easily pay for itself by helping you build something that is needed, helping you avoid building things that aren’t needed, and getting you to product-market fit faster.

Myth #3: User Research Will Slow Us Down

So many startups are doing the best they can to be fast and agile. Part of that means that they (often) skip the user research part. Taking a couple of weeks to interview users and interpret the results is sometimes perceived as "slowing down the process."

Au contraire.

This is the best use of time. What will actually slow down development is building features that users don’t want, or that are ill-conceived because you don’t know your users. There is no time better spent than getting to understand users and the problem space.

All in all, user research is an invaluable tool for helping product managers understand their users, the problem space, and ultimately what to build. It is also extremely accessible for anyone, you just need to take the time to plan what you want to learn.

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By Drew Falkman