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How a researcher and designer handles consistent research as a team of one.
For a few months, I was an apartment listing junkie. I spent my evenings flipping through housing websites, desperately looking for the perfect place. My partner and I were moving back to Atlanta, GA after some time abroad and I was furiously searching for the perfect place. I had spreadsheets full of listings and would turn my phone to my partner again and again while we were sitting on the couch after work like it contained the secrets of the universe. It was my first apartment hunt in Atlanta, so I was obsessed. I wanted the perfect place—walkable location, big enough for both of us to work from home, ideally a duplex with a little yard, and most importantly, it had to be cheap. Spoiler alert: I only ended up with one of those things.
Most people have been where I was. Apartment hunting is a pain and it can be worse if you’re in what Abodo, an apartment listing company, calls a “Tier 2” city. On this episode of Awkward Silences, Erin and JH chatted with Chad Aldous, Head of Design and Co-founder at Abodo about how he talks to Abodo’s users to build the perfect apartment hunting product.
We sampled the great Sam Walton in his rural business expansion and when he took on Kmart. He called it big business ignoring big business. What he meant by that was Kmart was only in these big cities. So of course people who lived in big cities had the opportunity to go to Kmart and he wanted to provide that for other people and other cities that weren't necessarily in these metropolitan areas. Major metropolitan areas. So that was the analog for us when we started out. And like I said before, our original market was universities and college students. And so far we've expanded that to the markets that those universities exist in. We are pretty prevalent in Chicago as well, but that was the genesis of the tier 2 cities. It was just overlooked markets that clearly have renters and why isn't the technology or the software or the tools there for them.
For Abodo, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “but we are our users”, since everyone on the team has had trouble finding an apartment to rent. Chad stressed the importance of incorporating research with their users into their product shaping. It helps the team at Abodo learn more about what they’re building and who they’re building it for, without letting their own experiences take over the shaping process.
Your users can be a huge source of valuable information for your product team. In fact, our State of User Research Report revealed that 54.6% of people who do research conduct more than half of their research with their own participants. Since you already have access to your users, they can be much easier to contact for research. Your users can also help you learn about what’s missing from your current product, different use cases you may not have originally considered, and generate ideas for where your product can go next. In this post, I’ll combine some of Chad’s tips for great research with your own participants with some things we’ve learned over the years. We’ll cover how to run a research project with your own users, send research invites that get replies, and how to keep research going in your organization.
First things first, you’ll need to define why you’re doing research in the first place. Are you trying to gather ideas for a new product? Or testing the usability of a new feature? Depending on what you’re trying to learn, the scope of your research project will be different. Asking the right research question will help ensure your research is specific, actionable, and practical. It will help set the timeline of your project, what resources you’ll need, and help you choose the right methods to answer your question.
For Chad and the team at Abodo, they use research with their own users to shape new products, settle internal disputes, and test out new features. Shaping something new requires a bit of a different approach than settling an internal dispute or testing something that’s already built.
When we're shaping the problem, we do a lot of talking to the renters. We were doing it at a cadence of three to five times a week. So, half hour interviews, three to five times a week was enough to give us enough color on the situation. But now that we've shaped it, it typically doesn't really come back up until we have questions and we are stuck. "So let's just go talk to customers and see if we can stop overthinking this." And that's a one off basis.
Shaping the problem is when you’ll need to spend the most face to face time with users. In this stage, you’re not sure what exactly your users are struggling with or what you’ll need to build to help them. At this point in the process, getting a good cadence going can help teams space out the time they’re spending on research, which makes making time for research a little bit more manageable. If you’re a research team of one, or if you’re juggling multiple roles, like product management + research or design + research, it can make it feel less like something you have to sacrifice other tasks for and more like a normal part of your day. Then, once you’ve shaped your problem, keeping a research habit becomes a little bit easier since you’ve already blocked off time for research.
If you’re trying to test something, or if you want to settle an internal dispute over what to do next, it’s best to do some more concentrated research. These one-off kinds of studies can take less time and require less participants to come to a conclusion. Typically, you can complete a study with just five users, since participants tend to start repeating the same patterns at around five users.
Who are your users anyway? How you define “your users” will vary from business to business. At Abodo, Chad defines users as anyone who has submitted a lead form. This means they have put in their email or phone number to contact a property manager within Abodo’s system. This indicates to Abodo that they have started the apartment search process.
For us, “our users” is a little bit different. Since our business is different, we define users as people who have launched a project with User Interviews. This ensures that we’re talking to people who are familiar with our product and process.
Of course, you may have access to people who may not be “users”, but are still familiar with your product. This could include leads who haven’t yet signed up, old users who have churned, etc. These people can be just as useful to your product development cycle as bonafide “users”. Like your users, they come with the added bonus of contact information.
It’s important to zero in on the right users to interview. Chad narrows things down by combining the information in Abodo’s database with pointed screener surveys that ask questions about information that’s not in their database.
We use the date they sent the lead and the market they're tied to. That's really helpful for we want to know how X users in Y city are performing with this new test. So we can do some qualitative stuff with that by reaching out to them. For screening people, we need more information. In our database, we don't have age, we don't have “student”. So pairing those two things together is really useful. You can get the market information, the date information and how many leads they've sent. And then we pair that with User Interviews screening like, "Are you a student? Are you a working professional? Are you a couple? Are you in a relationship? Do you have a family?" And potential salary range and those things are really, really nice to pair together to get a clear picture of who you're talking to.
Zeroing in on the right users to talk to helps keep your research sessions productive. If you’re trying to figure out how to create a better product for young professionals, talking to retirees isn’t going to be helpful.
Since finding participants for research studies isn’t quite an exact science, it can be difficult to know how many people you need to invite to fill your study. There’s a fine line between inviting too few people and struggling to fill your study and annoying your users with constant invites.
Luckily, there are a few ways to make sure you’re respecting your users inboxes and filling your studies.
You can always invite more people to your study, so start by inviting a lower number than you think you’ll need. Inviting people this way also helps you find a more exact number for how many people you’ll need to invite in the future. If I’m conducting five user interviews, I usually start by inviting 25-50 people to participate. If there are enough takers within that first round, great! If not, scaling up your invites in 25-50 person increments can help you fill your study and learn more about how many people you’ll need to invite right off the bat next time. Give participants a day or two to respond to your invitation, take your screener survey, and choose a time that works for them. Then send your next round of invites. This obviously works best if you have some good lead time before your research sessions.
This is one of the best ways to ensure your users are plagued by constant research invitations. Storing dates that are important to their interaction with your product, the date they last participated in research, and the date they were last invited to a research project helps create a better experience for everyone. Hint hint: User Interviews does this automagically. Make sure you’re spacing out your research invitations as much as possible. This makes it feel more like an exciting opportunity to contribute to your project rather than a chore for your users.
An engaging subject line can be the difference between participants lining up for your study and your invitation being left unread. For Chad and the team at Abodo, they’ve had the best results with subject lines that mention recent activity. Something like “Based on your recent search, we’d love to hear your feedback,” usually works well for them.
We also recommend making your subject line personal and specific. Adding something as simple as their first name, job title, or field can help your research invite stand out as something just for them. Adding another humanizing factor, like an emoji or two, can also help your invite stand out 🎊.
As for the body of the email, keep it simple. Tell the participant what the study is about (without giving it all away), when the sessions are, what incentive you’re offering, and what they need to do to participate.
Though many users enjoy participating in research, you need to make it worth their while with an incentive that shows you value their time. Here’s our recommendation for incentives, based on the skills you’re requiring from your participants. The good news is, when you’re doing research with your own users you can also offer in-product perks as an incentive. Some users may not respond to cold hard cash as well as something special in-product, or you may not be able to offer quite as much cash as you’d like to. You can offer different product-related incentives, like a free month of service, brand swag, special access to new features, or premium support. At User Interviews, we often offer 3 free participant credits as research incentive with our own users. P.S. If you’re a new User Interviews customer, you can grab three free credits for your first project here.
The next step is to make sure your research happens. This means you’re doing ongoing research to help shape new problems and products, doing one-off projects at a regular cadence, or just establishing norms around when research happens and sticking to them. Chad said this switch clicked for the team at Abodo once they started setting aside budget specifically for research. When there was money on the line, it became more urgent to do research at regular intervals and establish norms about how and when research would happen. Chad also noticed that the more research his team was doing, the more the users experience was brought up in meetings. His team started referring back to research to make their points clear and they turned to research to settle disagreements or learn more when they were stuck.
If you don’t think you can wrangle a set monthly budget for research, just putting it on the calendar is a great way to make research a part of everyone’s routine. If you want to do ongoing customer research, set aside 30 minutes to make it happen every week. If your research happens on more of a one-off basis, work that into your schedule at the cadence that works for you team. It may be a two hour block once every few weeks or a few 30 minute ones once a month.
Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.
Leadership & Strategy
December 20, 2019
Read on for details on how Openroad’s Rafi Finegold uses Facebook ads and landing page conversions to drive user research on new products in development.