Best Practices

Resolve Product Evolution Uncertainty with Research

How to cycle through interviews and iterations and testing and so on and so on.

Ritika Puri
/
May 23, 2018

Your startup has achieved product/market fit through your core business, and now you’re looking to expand upon your core value proposition. Or perhaps, you’re working for a larger corporation seeking to develop a new line of business. No matter what type of business you’re in, you’re likely to run into indecision when confronting how to expand your product.

Take this 2014 Lean Startup Conference talk from Lauren Gilchrist, product director at Pivotal Labs DC, as an example. Throughout her tenure at Pivotal, a consultancy and technology companies that develops user experiences, Gilchrist has helped federal agencies and major corporations create more impact with their products.

 

In the talk, she shares a story about a time that she was managing a product for a client. Gilchrist was in charge of building a content management system that the end-customer planned to use for internal operations. The client wanted to see many features built. But with any new product, Gilchrist recognized that there was a degree of uncertainty as to whether the product would fulfill its objectives.

“I spoke about the difficulties we all face when getting a product out the door—namely, that we are worried we won’t get it right the first time, and that our reputation is therefore on the line,” she elaborates in a blog post about her experience.

Gilchrist’s experience isn’t unique. Launching a product or building new features is risky for any size organization. There is always the possibility of pursuing a wrong direction, which could result in wasted time and resources. Here’s how she and other research practitioners tackle this challenge in their roles.

Unleash Your Inner Scientist

You’re likely an expert in your role, but sometimes you need to put that aspect of your identity on the backburner, says Gilchrist.

Scientists are perpetual knowledge-seekers. No matter how experienced you are in your role, or how well you think you know your users, you’re always seeking to know more than you knew before, even if it means proving yourself wrong. Your expertise becomes stronger because you’ve challenged it and forced yourself to embrace new perspectives. You expand your field of vision.

When Gilchrist wasn’t sure how to trim down the CMS’s feature set, she turned to exploratory research to find guidance. You can skim through her process,  in the embedded slide deck, here:

 

In a nutshell, she and her team interviewed users to determine a minimalist feature set, just to get the product out the door. From there, the Pivotal team and client shipped a V1 product. Immediately after shipping the V1 product, they began testing with a process built on collecting objective user feedback. With this feedback, the team could ship a V2, V3, and so on—with a heightened degree of confidence that the product would be a success.

Taking smaller steps, and using research to guide the way, Gilchrist and her team were able to reduce the risks associated with uncertainty and build a more effective product, overall. In pure mathematical terms, the probability of success increases with “fewer invalidated assumptions,” according to Gilchrist.

“If you’ve tested along the way, there won’t be any uncertainty left, and there’s no reason to be scared,” she explains.

Getting comfortable with imperfect scenarios, just like the ones scientists navigate, can propel your strategy forward. But your path is also a shaky tightrope walk. How do you stay confident with each and every step, in making sure that your feedback orients you towards the right business goal? Imperfection only works alongside good judgment calls along the way. How exactly do you make those?

Keep Iterating, Interviewing, Iterating, Interviewing...

In Gilchrist’s process, the purpose of feedback collection is to brainstorm avenues for further experiments to run to then continue iteration on the product. Again, think like a scientist. In your research, you work through the steps of the scientific method to arrive at a hypothesis. This resource from The University of California at Riverside breaks down the core principles of the scientific method into digestible steps:

  • Observe some aspect of the universe
  • Invent a tentative description, a hypothesis, that describes the reason for what you observed
  • Make a prediction based on your hypothesis
  • Test the predictions and modify your focus as a result
  • Repeat the steps above until there are no discrepancies in your logic

User interviews and research offer valuable insights at all steps of the scientific method. They can help you form a hypothesis. They can help you test your hypothesis. They can also help you validate your hypothesis. Research is a versatile problem-solving tool.

Here’s are a few examples of how research can help at various stages of your product development.

You’re on a product team that has rolled out a new user experience. Suddenly engagement levels drop. Your hypothesis is that there is a link between the new UX and the low performance. Because you just launched the feature. And engagement is down.

But then you interview a few customers that have stopped engaging with the feature. After conducting 5-10 interviews, you realize it’s not the feature updates that are the issue. During your conversations, you learn that users relied on an integration with that feature and near the same time as your release your integration partner shut off an API. Now you know the problem and you can go talk to your partner so see if you can fix it.

Or let’s say that there was a problem with the new UI. Customers can quickly explain where they’re having trouble and you can work to address it.

Over the course of multiple interviews, you will see patterns. These patterns will help your team become more focused. You can hone in on what the exact challenge is. That was the case back in 2014, when Curiosity.com sought to refine their company’s call-to-action messaging. The company’s product team witnessed low signup rates for content and thought, ‘why is that?’ A series of customer interviews uncovered a communication mismatch.

User interviews can help you continuously validate your findings regardless of your company size or product type. Once you achieve enough clarity with your direction, you can show your research participants a prototype. You will receive tangible feedback that helps you further validate your direction.

GE followed this process when testing a new line of French door refrigerators. This effort was part of an experiment to see if the company could ship products, faster: the company can take 5 years to launch new products.

A small team came together, to meet a challenge of launching a product, with limited funding, in 3 months. The goal was to put this product into production. GE prototyped more than 75 variations of this refrigerator, making incremental changes based on customer feedback.

Speed is a competitive advantage. Research brings that mindset to life by helping companies build products incrementally. This approach reduces market risks and the potential for waste.

Final Thoughts

Research uncovers answers to tough questions quickly, and taps into new learning opportunities. With a clear connection between your research strategy and the organizational objectives that you’re pursuing, you can build a direct path to toward your business goals.

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Ritika Puri

Ritika is a writer, entrepreneur, and founder of Storyhackers. She has studied and practiced user research as part of her work for years and is excited to be diving into the topic here for User Interviews.

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