Unblock product decision making with user research

Collecting the right information to make great product decisions can often feel like a pandora’s box - user research can help.

Mikaela Larkin
March 5, 2024
5 min read

The core function of a product manager is to make timely, strategic and high-leverage decisions. Maybe not the sexiest job description (try impressing people with that at your next barbecue), but at heart, decision making is so integral in your day to day that it should feel like it's all you’re doing. So, how on earth can we be better decision makers? 

I believe that to be a good decision maker, you need to master two things: 

  1. Ability to choose which type of information to collect
  2. Ability to gather the necessary information as quickly as possible

Point 2 could honestly be an article on its own, focusing on how to identify points of high leverage, calculating risk and impact and making decisions quickly. But today I'm going to focus on point 1. More specifically, when to use one form of information collecting - user research - to gather the insights you need to make effective product decisions. If you ever find yourself asking:

  • ‘What should our next move be for this quarter?’
  • ‘Why on earth are our customers behaving in this way?’
  • ‘Are we solving this problem in the right way?’ 

then read on…

Before we jump in, it’s worth mentioning that when it comes to collecting information to make decisions, there is no one size fits all (wouldn’t that be nice). Different types of decisions will require different methods, and often, will require multiple methods. And many decisions won’t require user research. User research can be expensive, time consuming and requires much analysis, so it needs to be used strategically.

Q1.  "What should our next move be for this quarter?"- begin with user research. 

You have just successfully shipped new product features, brought value to your customers and the first thing you are asked is ‘So, what's next?’. Whilst this can often make you feel like a hamster on a never-ending wheel, it's a really valid and helpful question. Working in product is about constantly delivering value to your customers, whether big or small, so the question stands - what’s next? 

User research is a perfect starting point to answer this question. You may have your own individual hunches or have been told by leadership about new initiatives they want you to explore, but either way, start with your customers. Aim to talk to as many people in your target segment as you can, asking them questions like:

  • What has your experience been like with the product recently?
  • What is frustrating you the most at the moment?
  • If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the current product?
  • What other tools are you using today within your workflow?

The more customers you do this with, the easier it will be to start identifying patterns and trends within their feedback. And as you learn more and more about a particular problem space, you will start to learn more and more about the solution. The problem and solution space are intrinsically intertwined and so will often evolve together as you discover more.

One thing to note is that ideally you already have close contact and a good feel for your customer base, so scheduling calls with a cohort of customers is doable, however this may not always be the case. If you are launching a new product or entering into a new market where you don’t yet have customers, chatting to them is going to be a bit harder. If this is the case for you, find the communities and pockets of the internet they potentially live in. Reddit is a great place to go for all sorts of sub-topics and sub-cultures. I’ve uncovered huge amounts of insight just through scrolling Reddit threads. Alternatively find Facebook community pages, or if none of those work, reach out to your own network to see if anyone can put you in touch with the sort of customer you need. The product and tech community is incredibly generous with their time and network.

Q2. "Why on earth are our customers behaving in this way?" — close the knowledge gaps with user research.

You may be analysing usage data or have noticed your customers aren’t getting through a particular funnel like they previously were. Or maybe the conversion rate of a particular feature or product is dropping week on week. This sort of question needs to be tackled with a range of approaches, one being user research. Alongside user research, you will need to do some deeper data analysis, dig into whether anything has changed in the wider ecosystem (e.g Google changing their algorithm), as well as do some deep usability testing to ensure everything is working as it should. 

Alongside this, make talking to your customers top priority. Identify a cohort of relevant customers and make it your mission to chat to as many as you can. Set a research goal and an objective (e.g “Identify the top 3 reasons causing users to not complete the onboarding process”). As you are trying to uncover the underlying problem in a key area of your product, you want to be a bit more targeted with the questions you ask your customers. Try questions such as:

  • Talk me through the last time you used [product area]?
  • What do you love most about [product area]?
  • What do you hate or find most frustrating about [product area]?
  • If you could change one thing, what would it be?
  • If you were going to use another tool for this particular task, what would it be?

Most likely, the outcome of this sort of research will be varied (unless there is a really clear underlying problem), so you will need to take an iterative approach to this style of discovery, bringing in multiple forms of insight gathering vs just using user research. Keep this sort of discovery project scrappy and iterative, run experiments, monitor usage and make fast decisions to keep the momentum going.

Q3. "Are we solving this problem in the right way?" — refine with user research. 

You’ve done a bunch of discovery on a particular problem, your stakeholders are on board and now it's time to get the wheels turning on your solution. You are feeling pressure from all sides - from your engineering team, your leadership team, sales, designers - the list goes on. How can you ensure that you have invested enough time upfront in discovery and know that your solution solves your users problem?

If you have the time, invest a week or so with your designer in creating prototypes. These are a great tool to use when you aren’t yet confident enough in your solution, and you don’t want to invest engineering effort until you get that validation. Test these prototypes with real customers, asking them to move through each prototype, verbalising their thoughts as they go. You’ll get a pretty clear gauge by doing this on whether your proposed solution is usable, solves a real problem and adds value to their current experience. 

If it’s too late for that, and you are already building your solution, consider launching the new feature in a sequenced, iterative approach. If you are able to create a cohort of active customers, who would be willing to be part of a closed Beta group - then you’re onto an insights goldmine. This approach allows you to test in production with customers who are already engaged and using your product. You’ll most likely receive an onslaught of feedback, and it will be your job to prioritise where to spend the time to iterate, but you will also come out the other end with the confidence and validation you need to decide whether to keep building, pause and regroup or go back to the drawing board (hopefully option 1!).

Collecting the right information to make great decisions can often feel like a pandora’s box - especially if you are working within a huge product, have a massive customer base from a multitude of industries or contexts, or you have varied opinions within the business itself. User research is one way to collect more information, usually out of your very own customers' mouths, to help guide where to focus your time, energy and resources. It’s a muscle that needs to be exercised over and over again until discovery and talking with your customers becomes infused into every aspect of your development process. Product teams make decisions every day. The goal is to integrate user research into those daily decisions with as much customer input as possible. As Teresa Torres puts it: “The beauty of a continuous discovery process is that we can always course-correct as we learn. So as you assess and prioritise the opportunity space, relax. Make the best decision you can, given what you know today, and know that, if you got it wrong, we’ll simply revisit the decision when we need to.” How's that for reassurance?

Share this post