András Füzi

User Research – The method which never hurt anybody

Imagine your product is ready. You put hundreds of hours of design and code into your app. It’s release day and now is the time to shine. Except you won’t because people won’t find your product useful or valuable. And you wonder what could be the problem? Most apps and services fail because the product doesn’t address real user problems. Sounds familiar? If only you would have asked your users before you started. That’s why we start every project with user research.

There are several great books and other articles to read on user research, so this isn’t the one and only guide, but it gives you an overview and perspective on the topic and hopefully also convinces you that in the future you won’t ever try to build something without asking the users first.

Ready? Let’s dive in.

1. Why do we need research?

Beside the mundane fact that personally I like to speak to people about their habits and behaviours – from going to malls through donating blood to how they exercise regularly – there are a number of other reasons why this is useful. Most importantly: you are not the user. You don’t have the same mindset, you don’t necessarily have the same problems.
You are biased because you are developing a product and you want it to be successful – and that’s okay. But always remember that there are people in the outside world you are developing for. Do you know them? Their pain points, their motivation, their goals? You need to know what they think, how they feel in order to offer the right service for them. So research is about making sure that you don’t throw your money and work out of the window.

2. What methods can we use?

There are at least 20 different methods for user research, and probably just as many opinions on when and how to use each one. Every project is different, and there are no silver bullets – though there are certain methods which are more suitable for idea validation and others that work better when you already have a product ready to ship.

We’ll follow the product development phases (1) discover, (2) explore, (3) test and (4) listen to go through the different techniques. I wish we came up with this structure, but actually this is the one also used by the Nielsen Norman Group. The end of one phase is the beginning of the next and it’s more important to start with something somewhere than it is to execute a list of thousands of methods in a certain order. Remember: your goal is to understand people and to address their needs!

So early in the product development process (discover phase) it’s ideal to gather as much information on the market, on the users and on existing solutions as possible. To do this, the following methods always come handy:

  • BEST PRACTICE AND COMPETITOR (MARKET) RESEARCHI f you want to play a game, first you need to know the rules and playing field, right? Well it’s quite the same with product development. Know the basics and get familiar with the market, gather information on your competitors and their users and see what you can learn from them. What features they have, what are people saying about the service? How they communicate, etc. What are their strengths and weaknesses? What do you do better or differently? When there is no competition, be suspicious! Probably someone somewhere has already thought about the idea, but for some reason it wasn’t successful.
  • FAKE DOOR TESTING This method is very useful when you want to measure actual demand before deciding to go along with the development of a feature or a service. All you have to is create a dummy landing page or interface element for the theoretical feature/service, and you observe how many people would still inquire or subscribe. This might come off as being dishonest to the users, so be careful when conducting this research method! It has its own rules, but can be very effective and useful.
  • INTERVIEWS AND FIELD STUDIES Interviewing the users (and stakeholders, including customer service and sales teams) and getting first hand information seems the obvious choice, and it is very valuable, but I won’t lie: it’s hard and it needs commitment. It’s quite an art itself to be a good listener and to ask the right questions, so preparation is a must. This is one of the methods we love the most. Go out, watch, ask, listen and observe people where they are, in their context to understand their needs and behaviours. During this method we also speak to the stakeholders to understand business requirements and constraints. This knowledge becomes very important later on when the design process starts.

You might wonder why we didn’t list surveys above. The thing is that we don’t like them that much. It seems easy to write some questions, but actually it’s really hard to come up with the good ones, in the right order. While conducting a survey there is no room for empathy, which is not a good practice, since we are creating for people. And last but not least numbers can create false validation. So be careful with surveys if it’s not necessary don’t use them.

During the exploration phase your aim is to have an understanding of the pain points of people and to be able to address their needs. The following methods usually work very well:


As before looking at your competition always helps. Map out the features they use, when you already know what user problems you’d like to solve. Check their features, onboarding flows, user flows.


After conducting user interviews, and looking at analytics data you most probably have enough knowledge to map out your ideal users. So build your personas and write stories for them. This will make your prototyping efforts a lot easier.


At this point you should have enough knowledge on the users to be able to start prototyping. Don’t be afraid to go out and test them on real users and then iterate accordingly. Again this is an art itself to do, so obviously there is a lot to take into consideration while doing this, but if there is one thing you need to focus on is that you don’t want to study opinions and assumptions, but to see and note what people do.


Card sorting comes very useful when you need to find out how people structure information. This will help you to create the information architecture for your site or app.


After you have the personas you can also map their journey through your app, or service. This is very useful to realize risky areas, and to identify opportunities for the users.

Looking at analytics data is also a must. It shows you what people are doing, but never answers the why question. But when you are doing user research for an already existing service it’s inevitable to look at analytics data.

Anyhow, there are more methods to use in this phase, but when you think about methods consider that your aim is to have an understanding on the pain points of people.

During the testing and listening phases, your goal is to check your design if it works well for the users, and understand how they use it, what problems they face while using your service. These are the phases where usability testing comes in. Also check analytics regularly to see what people are doing. Talk to your customer service, and if possible talk to your users again, you can also gather relevant info from comments, forums, social media and even from search queries on your site.

3. Research Plan

As you see above it’s quite easy to get lost among the different methods. To avoid that uncomfortable feeling of not having a grasp on what you are doing, a research plan helps. This is a document to which you can always come back and see what you do and what’s happening in a particular project. Also very handy to get all participants on the same page, so everyone knows what is happening. So planning helps, and a research plan does this. In this particular document you describe:


So now that you know what to do and how to do it, the only thing remaining is to actually do it and once you’ve done it, you have to apply your findings and insights to the design and development process. We’ll cover that in another blog post.

If you want to read more on which UX research method to use there is a highly recommended article on the NNg blog, which covers the topic from different perspectives.