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Do we need User Research? UX, Design and Startups Volume 2




8 minute read

Following on from the first part of this series, Volume 1 - We need a UX Designer we're moving on to take a look at User Research (UX Research) and how it can impact your business. 

When working with startups we've found User Research to be both the most overlooked skillset and equally the hardest skillset to recruit for within the Design and UX Industry.

User Research’s impact on your business is simple, it will ensure that your product’s design, functionality and your business goals are aligned to your users’ wants and needs.

In this volume, I’ll talk about User Research, what it is, how it can impact your business and the biggest challenges or mistakes we’ve seen when it comes to this skillset. 

The what and the why:

At Confido, we’ve been working with a range of startups and hypergrowths and user-research is probably the most under-utilised skillset within design and UX that we’ve seen. Essentially, this comes down to a knowledge gap or the value a user researcher can bring to your business.

“Designing and developing a product without User Research is like getting in a taxi and saying just drive”

User research focuses on understanding user behaviours, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies, to in turn fuel the design process.

The most fundamental reason for doing user research is that it’s the only way to achieve an understanding of the people who are going to use your product and engage with the design decisions you’ve made. 

If you understand your users, you can make designs that are relevant for them. A design that is not relevant to its target audience will never be a success. If you want to know more, read this great intro to user research here.

Some key objectives of User Research include:

  • To build an empathetic, user-focused company that aligns the product and business strategy with the core needs and goals of users
  • To understand how people perform tasks and achieve their goals in order to design an effective UX that increases acquisition and retention
  • To create a shorter development time upfront, with a clear vision of what you are trying to build
  • To avoid costly fixes of development problems later down the road, after time and money have been invested in the “less than ideal” solution
  • To allow different teams to work collaboratively, ensuring a cohesive user experience across the entire product/service
  • To solve differences in opinion of “what should we do now?” by replacing it with the phrases: “let’s test it” or “let’s see what the research showed us”
  • By constantly employing user research, we can track the ROI of UX to see where our ideas and iterations are working, and where we need to improve

Why do startups overlook the importance of User Research? 

The main reason this happens, as with design direction, is that Founders position themselves as the user.

Why research what your customers want and need if you already know, right? 

Founders often fall into the trap of thinking they know what the user wants. Because it’s their product, their idea, they know what they are trying to solve within the market.

WRONG! A Founder will never use the product with the same mindset as a user.

In the last year, we have seen this playout with a client. They believe they had developed their solution (based on their perception of users' needs) and wanted to hire a UI designer to improve the visuals.

The reality was that they hadn’t engaged with their target customers, and the designer quickly realised this when he joined. There was no insight, user stories or qualitative research available to him. He started to work with potential users himself and took the reporting back to the Founders. They quickly realised their product had missed the mark and they had to go back to the drawing board.

As a startup in their infancy, this was extremely problematic to them, as funding was extremely tight. Had they partnered with potential users from the off and created an insight-driven design process, their product, solution and design would have shaped up very differently. 

Ask yourself - How can you truly know where to start with this without the insight from the customers or competitors? 

How have you validated your product? 

No business — irrespective of its size — is immune from product failure that stems from failing to understand what users want. 

User Research methods are expansive, and different types of research are going to be more suited to your business than others. Start-ups we work with will typically have validated the solution – looking at your product’s mission, brand and concept and potentially on the market research side. But few will have delved into the many expansive research methods defined as UX research... If you wish to delve into the key differences more, read this great blog.

We worked with a client who had recognised a perceived gap in their market. Unfortunately, they hadn’t done their due diligence with market feedback, or competitor analysis, and as such they had to go back the drawing board - it proved to be a very costly few months for them. 

Assuming you’re on the right track with the above, when seeking to improve your product’s usability, accessibility and develop its capability – you want to focus on behavioural-based user testing.

This will move away from attitudinal insight and focus more on what works for your customers and why. User testing, observations and recording user journeys can be key in unlocking what is working for your product’s look and feel, vs what isn’t, enable you to assess this and make informed continuous improvements on your products. 

Having an insight-driven design and development environment is going to ensure that your product is optimised for the user which, in turn, optimises your growth as a business. 

What is the most effective User Research for my business?

There are two core types of Research, and for any business, these two will prove valuable at different times in your product lifecycle. 

  • Quantitative research is any research that can be measured numerically. It answers questions such as “how many people clicked here” or “what percentage of users are able to find the call to action?” It’s valuable in understanding statistical likelihoods and what is happening on a site or in an app. It gives you a high-level overview of where your design is not working, but I don’t believe this is the most useful type of user research for startups that we encounter. 
  • Qualitative research is where I believe startups will get more value when analysing the user journey. The sole task of qualitative research is to observe design features and evaluate where they are successful and where they are not.  It answers questions like “why didn’t people see the call to action” and “what else did people notice on the page?” and often takes the form of interviews or conversations. Qualitative research helps us understand why people do the things they do. It is much more useful for a business getting a viable product to market, and then improving the conversion rate of successful customer journeys.

This is where you will typically see: 

  • Participant observation & analysing 
  • User feedback sessions 
  • Surveys and questionnaires

Taking a qualitative approach to your research with these techniques will create a more accurate report of your designs and is the preferred method to evaluate any challenges within usability and find the right solutions for them. It also enables your team to work with fluidity, offering flexible conditions to identify main problems means you can prioritise what tasks need the most immediate action. 

Do you fully understand or appreciate the value of User Research? 

A point I touched on in the first part of this series was that the cost of fixing usability problems is 10x higher after development, 100x higher after release.

Making changes like these are, statistically, almost 100x more expensive than design and developing with good UX practice from the off. The case for a strong UX function in your business as soon as possible is clearly measurable. This really does apply to User Research too. 

Research to a product is what agile is to a business process, it keeps you on the straight and narrow path (this path is often winding and bumpy) and ensures your product is constantly aligned, and subsequently evolving, to the user’s wants and needs.

Having that insight for your business to act on can impact strategic direction, product capability, engineering decisions and it can boost morale within an organisation. 

User Research is expensive, I have spent a lot of my time explaining that it is probably the most inflated skill within UX.

A lot of this comes down to inflated salaries for Government-based contracts, especially in London... but if you're looking to hire a UX researcher, these are the ballparks you can expect to pay:

Consultant – typically £500+ per day
It is hard to find a permanent user researcher at the senior level. This candidate-driven market is rich in high-value contracts for researchers. The volume of contracts being thrown out by government projects or consultancies vs. the lower barriers for entry in terms of experience and level is astounding. There are of course more contractors available as a result and it will be an easier hire, but a more costly one. 

Junior-Mid level hires – £50-75k
Again, typically more expensive than a designer at this level, these sorts of URs, will likely want someone above them from a support perspective, certainly at the £50-60k mark. These hires are competitive, but also harder as a startup with the limited support network.

Senior-Lead level hire - £80-100k
You will have the most success hiring as a start-up for a full-time researcher. You want someone at that senior-lead level who can, like a contractor, establish a solid foundation for best user research practice, work with autonomy and also articulate themselves at that strategic/business level both internally and externally – something of particular importance when you’re in the B2B space.

One of the best things you can do when competing for this sort of talent is provide that autonomy, but also flexible working.

User research on a qualitative level requires many guerrilla-type research tactics and it will give you a significant advantage in the market by enabling flexi & remote working.

If you are looking to run a testing session on the product as an initial one-off cycle, then hiring a contractor is the quickest and most cost-effective way to that without commiting to a full-time hire.

In this instance I would advise approaching your research like a project, scale your team up based on your needs and time constraints from a product development standpoint and use it as a case study to prove the value of user research within your business. 

Sound checking & Next Steps

“No product is an island. A product is more than the product. It is a cohesive, integrated set of experiences. Think through all of the stages of a product or service – from initial intentions through final reflections, from first usage to help, service, and maintenance. Make them all work together seamlessly.”

— Don Norman, inventor of the term “User Experience” 

I made this point in the first part of my blog and it stands up again here. We are under no illusion that startups are constrained to funding and budgets limitations, which can create nerves around this hire, so it’s imperative the timing is right.  If you are unsure about the strategic value of research to your business, here are some questions to get you thinking from the UX Studio Team:

  • Does the need for our product exist? How big of a potential market has it got?
  • What competing products have already entered the market? What market shares have they gained?
  • Who would we see as the customers for our product? What are they trying to accomplish? What pain points and motivations have they got?How do potential users currently solve their problems?
  • How likely will they buy our product? How much would they pay?
  • What features do they find the most important?
  • Does our product solve their problems? How intuitively can they use the product?
  • How do they use it? How satisfied does it leave them?
  • How can we get more of them?

With something like user-research, you can potentially give access to a UX designer when bootstrapping a product, as they will be able to engage with your customer base or target audience and conduct basic competitor analysis too.

However, an effective move could be to look at building a MVP and when it goes live, bringing a consultant on for 4-6 weeks to conduct wide-ranging UR processes and maximise the insight for your product, setting you up to correctly expand the product’s capability.

One of the biggest things to figure out, is what you’re trying to achieve with this hire as a startup and what value you’re going to get out of user research. 

If you are thinking of going out to market to scale a UX function within your business, then we are here to help. The UK is the most competitive market for talent in Europe and arguably the world. You are going up against huge tech brands, dedicated recruitment firms with established relationships and a hugely-interconnected community who are constantly introducing these businesses into their wider network.  

We are here to provide clarity and steer on this, and help you find the right User Researcher. I think with this type of hire there is a much bigger knowledge gap within businesses than there is with Design, so please do reach out to us if you’d like some more information, advice or example case studies of the lessons we’ve learned working with start-ups in the last 12 months. 

Don't forget to check out the first part of the series, which focuses onUX Design here.

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