For a vast majority of the product and user research teams we’ve spoken with, time is the limiting factor that stops them from speaking to their users. Speaking to your users takes too long.
Every successful product or service starts with a brilliant idea. Entrepreneurs who come up with million- and billion-dollar ideas have visionary gifts that kickstart the world’s great inventions. But it’s more than just one person’s vision that grows a successful product. It’s essential to understand the humans – otherwise known as users or customers – who use a product. It’s vital to become an expert on their needs, frustrations, and delights, and understand how this experience changes for them over time. Deep understanding of one’s users is at the heart of every successful tech product.
Committing to knowing one’s users is where User Experience (UX) comes in. The philosophy of UX is, at its essence, to ensure that a product or service meets the needs of the user. A company built on a solid and skillful UX foundation will be better set up to reap priceless benefits, both externally with the success of product or service, and internally, with curious, engaged employees.
A user-centric perspective is not something that was created along with the UX discipline. It draws its viewpoint from the age-old tradition of human scientific research. If we want to understand why humans think and act in certain ways, we have to talk to them or observe them, and we have to do this in a structured, systematic way. We cannot draw actionable conclusions about a population with assumptions. This principle is where the often-heard phrase You Are Not the User originates from.
“Of course, we talk to our users!” If you’re a small company, you probably do have intimate contact with your customers. There’s time, there’s space, there’s necessity. This is a great starting point! But as a company grows and becomes more successful, more employees are brought on board to do the work. These employees need to talk to each other and learn to work together, so they start to depend on each other’s knowledge of the customer to move the product forward. So begins the myth of “we know our customer so well”, because that original knowledge still perks up in conversations. As a company grows, so does its user base. Geographical expansion or societal changes (like Covid!) mean that we always need to keep our finger on the pulse of our user’s experience.
A deep understanding of users is essential to your service or product’s success. But who is the user? A user can be the user of a product. They can also be someone who fits the profile of a potential user. This lines up neatly with the two broad categories of research conducted by UX researchers: Generative research aims to develop a deeper understanding of a user group, often in order to make informed choices about innovation, prioritization, or provide insights into the creation of concepts or solutions, and evaluative research tests these newly created concepts or solutions with users.
Let’s start with potential users. Say you’re a startup, or working on an innovative product or service inside a larger company. You have a great idea but no customers, yet. If you have a product in mind, you have a user group in mind. A “user group” is, essentially, users that fit the profile your company wants to attract on a larger scale. They have the characteristics of potential users of your product or service. These characteristics can refer to demographics (age, interests, education level, etc.) but this knowledge isn’t sufficient. To understand these users, it’s important to also look at both attitudinal measures (what users say) and behavioral measures (what users do).
Let’s say you have a well-defined user group. Your researchers have produced a solid body of generative research, and you feel confident that you are making insights-driven decisions about how your product or service is strategically shaping up. Here’s where evaluative research comes in: It’s also important to test developing concepts or features with your users, to make sure your design decisions are intuitive and even delightful. But first, you must have that deep knowledge of what they need. It doesn’t make sense to ask them to help you tweak your offering if you’re not sure it’s meeting a need in the first place.
Establishing a culture of insights-driven decision making is beneficial to everyone – not just users, not just for the financial success of your company, but also for your own employees. A great deal of what we’ve covered here has been about the importance of looking outward and determining with absolute certainty that an idea has mass potential to succeed, and then routinely testing the solutions that are made possible through research insights. But as a company grows, it also has to look inward and build up a team of talented individuals to make their product come to life. Applying the principle of user centricity is also relevant to building a quality company culture. Not only will your product or service be more successful because it addresses an actual user need, but such an approach will also improve your company culture overall.
Imagine an insights-driven approach to all decision making, from strategy down to the tiniest feature tweak. Company leaders that embrace insights-driven decision making are doing more than ensuring their product is innovated and built with the user’s perspective in mind: They are also sending the message that their expertise is not the end-all to the company’s success.
Imagine a roadmap planning session where product and tech leadership make decisions about prioritization based on user needs, gathered by a robust UX research team that has stayed in close contact not just with users but all their stakeholders. This means that the majority of the professionals hired for their expertise in product management, development or design have also had contact with users. Making decisions about what to innovate or what to tweak based on these insights send the message to the team that their input is also valuable, and the direction the company is moving can be united until a user-centric mantra. Employees stay motivated because they feel they are contributing to this culture.
Success doesn’t just mean success in quantitative terms like financial success or a rapidly scaling company. Success also means success in qualitative factors like a culture of user centricity, which can result in both happy users and a healthy and productive company culture. Knowing the user and committing to a company culture that turns to these insights is essential to the success of any digital product company. It’s not too late to get started.