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Beth Koloski—a remote researcher—shares how to switch from a product-centric to a user-centric mindset, plus some "must-have" tools.
Over the years, Beth has worked with a lot of different companies and a lot of different product teams.
“Without a doubt, the biggest common mistake is that the focus inevitably becomes product or company-centric. People have the desire to learn, but it gravitates around their own stuff. So they start research with the aim to discover which features are important to users, or what people are prepared to pay more for. But all of this comes from the perspective of benefiting the company or the product.”
According to Beth, we can learn a lot from simply asking the right questions — and applying these insights to build a product or service that serves customer needs more intuitively.
To illustrate her point, Beth described her interactions with a Denver-based startup called OneReach. It’s an automation and bot creation tool, designed to be used with minimal or no code. They were struggling to get as many customers up and running with the solution as they wanted because a high proportion were dropping off during the onboarding flow. They wanted Beth to figure out why.
“Looking at the usability of the product itself is part of that equation,” Beth said. But focusing exclusively on usability and tweaking onboarding content would be too product-centric. Instead, she took a step back to investigate the user’s motivations. She wanted to answer questions such as:
She used user interviews to learn the answer to those questions. What she discovered was that OneReach’s technical audience was accustomed to learning that was aligned to agile methodology. The product designers hadn’t taken this fully into account when building the onboarding journey.
“One really common thing in software is that you’re given a ‘spike’ to learn something new. This is an arbitrary amount of time — usually two or three days. These agile chunks have become a cultural norm, so OneReach would benefit from reframing their onboarding learning within a spike-sized curriculum.”
Beth says she regularly uncovers human expectations that aren’t at all surprising. They make perfect sense, but they’re easily overlooked by the people building the product or service.
“Another thing I found was that developers want to see something working as soon as possible. They don’t really care if it solves the actual problem — they want it to be simple and working in order to be able to iterate on the solution themselves. If a developer is creating an SMS bot, they need to be able to get a phone number up and running before launch. They need the basics in place as quickly as possible, and that gives them confidence that the solution is usable. It’s a signal,” she explained.
These sorts of insights are buried in the characters, habits, and hidden cultural norms of any given audience group. Beth encourages us to dig deep, ask emotionally intelligent human questions, and understand: Why are people here, and what are their motivations for doing what they’re doing?
In the case of OneReach, these new user-centric insights could be applied directly to product development, because the product team could restructure their onboarding process, reframe the messaging, and (as a result) increase the number of new customers who became active solution users.
Cases studies like OneReach can increase buy-in from all stakeholders, but sometimes it takes a more hands-on approach to convince others of the direct benefits of user-centric product research. In order to highlight subconscious product-centric thinking within an organization, Beth draws on her background in education and her penchant for workshops.
“Rather than marching up to the Product Manager and accusing them of doing it wrong, I throw a workshop about ‘Design Thinking,’ which is totally separate from the actual product. As a group, we do generative research, ideate possibilities, prototype, and test an external sample project. People are less emotionally attached, so they can see the benefits of user-centricity and apply the lessons in their own work.”
It’s a tactful strategy with managers who are hesitant to change their ways and try something new.
The ideal process for doing user-centric product development involves a step-by-step progression from the very beginning of the company’s life. But the reality of Beth’s work is that she’ll often be commissioned later on, which means that her client’s generative research may be suboptimal or nonexistent.
“Often, the entry point will be a usability validation project — and then a company will open up to generative research, foundational research, and understanding more before starting further solutioning,” she says. But what would be the optimal process if Beth were in charge from the very start?
“The ideal method is to first do generative foundational research, then come back together as a product team to unpack the results and co-create possibilities. For example, if it were a solution for booking tennis courts — we might find that a major challenge is the weather. Next, we move to ‘How might we…?’ questions, e.g., ‘How might we allow tennis players to postpone their match for an hour due to the weather?’ — and we use that to brainstorm solutions in rough bullet point format.”
From there, Beth says the team would move ahead with low-fidelity prototyping and concept testing — straddling usability and foundational research simultaneously.
“These low-fidelity tests give you a quick insight into whether people are confused, whether the concept is terrible, whether the execution is poor, or whether you should actually move forward into higher-fidelity testing with certain concepts and ideas,” she said.
Beth sees the value of constant iterative research as opposed to the one-off project and doesn’t buy into the idea that you can only get meaningful results from a vast sample size.
“If you have a research budget, don’t put it all into one bucket. You want continuous findings throughout, even if it’s not huge populations of people giving you feedback. In fact, often it’s not that many people. But as long as you’re always checking in with end-users, you’ll end up at a wildly improved place than where you would arrive otherwise,” she added.
According to Beth, there’s no wrong time to do a research project (though there are wrong times to apply certain methodologies). This misconception arises because some companies have the mindset that it’s a job to be ticked off their list and forgotten. In truth, user research needs to be conducted continuously to ensure that iterative product development is structured with the user at the core of all decisions.
In order to do great user-centric research, you’ll need a great toolkit. Beth managed to work remotely from Guatemala for a year, something she says was only feasible with the wealth of online tools available. These are just some of the tools that make her life easier as a researcher:
She used to use dscout for diary studies, but recently discovered Recollective had higher quality features for a lower cost. She also had great things to say about how User Interviews changed her user recruitment process.
“In the past, I’d be doing brute force self-recruiting — buying Google Ads or posting updates on Facebook, using a Google Form screener. I’d often end up with a small and skewed pool. The other end of the spectrum was paid recruitment companies like Fieldwork, which is great, but it’s often overkill and too expensive,” she explained.
But by using User Interviews, Beth can recruit participants with demographic and geographic diversity, and she can find the required mix of people more easily than when using other methods.
“The fact that recruitment, data gathering, and payment functionality is all built together in one platform reduces my manual admin significantly. That has helped me on many projects. For example, one client had a campaign to save food waste and help families with meal planning. It involved fairly complex long-term diary studies, covering attitudes about food waste and meals. Without User Interviews, it’d have been ten times more challenging to build and run the study.”
The User Interviews platform also validates the seriousness of her work for potential participants.
“There’s also the trust side of things, which can be tricky. If there were just some random lady contacting people cold about a $200 diary study, it sounds a little fishy. It’s easier to recruit when all parties are vetted and verified by User Interviews as sincere participants,” she added.
Beth firmly believes in user-centric product research, but she also relies on a patient, educational, and communicative approach when working with stakeholders who may not perceive things the same way.
“Rather than getting all preachy and attacking product-centric thinking in an organization, you need to first understand why people are thinking that way, and what the effects have been until that point. You need to start from a place of curiosity rather than judgement. Smart people have good reasons for building products the way they do, and it makes sense to listen to them before suggesting any change,” she cautioned.
And while it’s fun to let this curiosity uncover unexpected new things during user research, Beth knows there’s a direct commercial impact of her work; after all, clients need to build an exceptional product to achieve success. This keeps her focused on the job at hand.
“It’s easy to wander off into different areas when doing research, but at the end of the day, it’s my job to help product development teams design a better solution for the customer. If I haven’t helped them decide where to go next, retain more customers, connect better with prospects, or plan the future of their business, I haven’t done my job properly. Sometimes it’s a big question, and sometimes it’s a little UI detail — but the role of research is to help them move forward with the product,” she said.
Note: Looking for a specific audience to participate in your UX research? User Interviews offers a complete platform for finding and managing participants. Tell us who you want, and we’ll get them on your calendar. Sign up for free. You’ll only be charged for people who actually take part in your study.
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