The Best User Research Methods for Every Stage of Product Development
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The Best User Research Methods for Every Stage of Product Development

There are many user research methods to choose from, but it’s important to know which method is best for each stage of the product life cycle.

Intuition and experience will take you only so far when building user experience designs in your product. User research is vital to the development and long-term success of your product. 

To optimize your research budget, an experienced UX researcher will consider your product’s life cycle stage and your goals when developing a research strategy. A typical product goes through four stages during its lifetime: 

  • Introduction
  • Growth
  • Maturity
  • Decline 

This product life cycle assumes you’ve already built your product, so it starts with you introducing your new product to the market. However, if you don’t have a product yet, you need to spend some time planning and building it first. Employing the right types of user research while you plan and build will ensure you’re building the proper product for your market.

An experienced UX researcher will also combine qualitative and quantitative studies into a comprehensive research strategy. Qualitative data is descriptive — think demographics, colors, feelings, location, etc. By contrast, quantitative data provides numerical metrics, e.g., 36 seconds is the average time on page, 70% of users require feature Y, 30% of new users skip onboarding, etc.

In this article, we’ll discuss common types of quantitative and qualitative research studies and the best stage in your product’s life cycle to use each of these testing methods.

User Research Methods for Planning

User research methods: Team looks at wireframes

During planning, user experience research will reveal future users’ needs and wants, helping you define or improve your product’s value proposition. You’ll learn which features are necessary to be competitive in your market and those that will give you an edge over your competition. Best of all, user research lets you test your UX design before you build, saving you time and money.

Qualitative Research Methods for Planning

Observation

One of the best ways to learn about your target audience is to observe them in their natural environment. Watch how they accomplish tasks, the order they do things, what frustrates them, and what makes the task easier and/or more enjoyable for your subject.

As you’re observing, take note of your subject’s:

  • Behavior: what they do
  • Attitude: how they feel about what they’re doing
  • Casual remarks: spontaneous comments about what they like or don’t like

While going on location is best, users can also be observed virtually or in a lab setting. The point is to gain a deep understanding of what it will be like to use your product from your end user’s perspective. 

The results of an observational field study can be used to help you develop personas, or profiles of your customers. These personas are then used throughout the entire design process and shared cross-functionally, helping develop user empathy across the entire product team.

Competitive Analysis

Reviewing the most successful products in your space is a great way to take advantage of others’ research. Your competitors are successful because they’ve already found a winning combination of usability and features. Learn from their success, and then build on it through your own product.

Researching competitive products gives you the information you need for an MVP, or minimum viable product, and helps you identify market differentiators. When completing a competitive analysis study, include the feature set and pricing options but also look for:

  • Branding elements like tone, imagery, and market position
  • Customer reviews, both positive and negative
  • Support options and help content
  • Industry or complementary information
  • Partnerships or integrations with other companies

Analyzing both industry leaders and up-and-comers will help you refine your value proposition, ensuring your product will stand out from the crowd.

Quantitative Research Methods for Planning

Surveys and Questionnaires

A carefully crafted survey with mass distribution is a fast way to get the lay of the land when you’re entering a new market or to gain deeper insights into a market where you’re already a player. 

Use online surveys to:

  • Quantify the value of individual features
  • Evaluate price sensitivity in your market
  • Measure the market’s perception of your competitors 

While surveys are relatively easy to execute, don’t underestimate the importance of the wording used in your questions and answer options. An experienced UX researcher will avoid hidden biases and ensure your respondents are answering the intended questions.

Clustering Qualitative Comments

Clustering provides insight into motive and reasoning by combining qualitative and quantitative research. Because qualitative results are often smaller in number, the overall significance of each response is easily exaggerated. By grouping comments of similar content or tone and then plotting those groupings on a graph, you can see trends of similar reactions that would otherwise be hidden.

User Research Methods for Building

Group meeting in an open-air office

Once you’ve completed your planning research, you’re ready to build your product. The user research studies executed during the build validate the UX team’s deliverables before investing in the technical development.

Qualitative Research Methods for Building

Building includes creating both UX artifacts, like design comps and UI components, and developing the actual product. With wireframing and prototyping work well underway for your new product, this is a great time to get some initial user feedback with a couple of common UX research methods.

Desirability Studies

Desirability studies get the work of UI designers in front of users before technical development begins. These studies shed light on potential design flaws early in the process. This helps the visual and UX design team to ensure their designs are evoking the right emotional and attitudinal responses from users.

Desirability studies create an opportunity for you to validate design decisions before passing them on to the development team. For example, you can show users the same feature in multiple layouts to see which design they prefer, or you can allow users to share their desired workflow and potential clickstreams. 

Focus Groups

Generally involving 5-10 participants, focus groups include demographically similar individuals. Unlike desirability studies, which can be completed individually, a focus group is just that — a group. The study is set up so that members of the group can interact with one another. 

Besides learning about the participants’ impressions of your product, focus group findings also include users’ experiences with other products, both good and bad. The conversational style of a focus group appears free-flowing and natural. However, an experienced UX researcher is needed to moderate the group. Your moderator presents the correct series of questions, in the correct order, and guides the conversation to get the results you need.

Quantitative Research Methods for Building

User research methods: team looking at sticky notes

Card Sorting

If you’ve ever built a website or a digital product, you know the importance of information architecture (IA). While field labels, contextual help, and search functions are part of information architecture discussions, navigation structures are the most commonly debated IA topics.

Card sorting is a user research method that allows a UX designer a peek into how their users think. By placing words or topics on cards, users are asked to categorize and order the cards as they would expect to find them in your product. Card sorting tells you where your users expect to find certain information or complete specific tasks. This is especially useful for products with complex or multiple navigations.

Tree Testing

While card sorting shows you what users think is the appropriate categorization and order of our navigation, tree testing is putting the card sorting results to the test in a prototype or similar presentation. Instead of grouping words and topics, users are asked to find a particular item using a prototype built from the card sorting study results.

Card sorting and tree testing are often used together. First, a card sort is completed to define the navigation in theory, and then a tree test validates (or not) the card sort through practical experience.

User Research Methods for Introduction

Woman stares at a screen full of charts

You’ve launched your product, and you’re ready for your first users. Now it’s time to optimize your product experience and establish your position in the market. To accomplish this, you’ll need to understand how your new customers actually use your product. 

Examples of how you’ll use this information include:

  • Driving the development road map
  • Reducing churn
  • Encouraging upgrades/add-ons

Let’s talk about how to do that.

Qualitative Research Methods for the Introduction Stage

Usability Testing

Whether in person, virtually, or through online UX testing tools, usability testing is an excellent research method. The best usability tests allow you to see how a user moves through your product to accomplish tasks and hear what they think as they go along.

Because your product is still acquiring new customers, you need to perform usability testing on existing and potential users. Existing customers are familiar with your product and may have already found ways to work around pain points. They are a great source of ideas for new features or enhancements. Potential users have never used your product and can offer a fresh perspective on your current user flow and design. 

User Interviews

Another user research method for both existing and potential customers is the interview. This is a one-on-one conversation where you gather insights into how your product works and where it’s lacking. Existing customers share their experience using the product, while potential customers share their expectations and specific drivers that will influence their purchasing decision.

Quantitative Research Methods for the Introduction Stage

Co-workers discussing user research methods

A/B Testing

A/B testing is commonly used to evaluate product attributes like price, plan features, onboarding steps, and workflows. 

You need both a valid test plan and an appropriate sample size to achieve definitive A/B test results. Did the A side perform better because of the content or the placement of the buttons? Did each side have enough users to represent your entire customer base accurately? An experienced researcher will prevent testing mistakes and ensure you obtain meaningful results. 

Eye Tracking

UX teams are responsible for guiding users through your product experience. The user interface, workflow, and content must work together to lead a user naturally through the process to accomplish the task at hand. 

Eye tracking is a technology that allows you to see if your users are focusing on the right areas at the right time. If not, you’ll learn what is drawing their eye, and thus their attention, away from where it needs to be.

User Research Methods for Growth and Maturity

If you’ve reached the growth stage, congratulations! You’ve built a great product that’s been embraced by your market. Take some time to celebrate, but get ready because you’ve got more work ahead of you.

Next on your to-do list is growing your product by increasing your customer base and then eventually reaching maturity and making a profit on your hard work. Luckily, some of the same research methods you used to plan and build your product are used during the growth and maturity stages, too.

Along with a robust marketing plan, growing your product involves building new or advanced features to satisfy specific customer segments. As you plan and build these enhancements, go through the same research and testing process you used to create the first release. The same holds true for enhancements as well as a new product build — user research ensures you’re building the right thing in the best way for your customers. 

Qualitative Research Methods for the Growth and Maturity Stages

Competitive Analysis

Conducting competitive analysis studies at least every quarter is the best way to maintain your edge over the competition and keep your product relevant within the market.

Especially in the maturity stage, innovating and adding new technologies will help your product remain profitable. Assessing your competition will keep you current on their innovations and may give you some ideas for your own product improvements.

User Interviews

Never stop talking to your customers. During the growth stage, your interviews will focus on how your product is working or if it’s missing any features. You’ll want to ask about what features they’re not using. If your customers aren’t using certain features, it might be time to stop supporting them. This will reduce costs and help you grow your profits during the maturity stage. 

While you’re talking with your customers, don’t forget to ask for a review or if they will give you a testimonial. This type of customer feedback raises your brand perception and invites new customers to purchase.

Quantitative Research Methods for the Growth and Maturity Stages

Surveys and Questionnaires

Before you invest in advanced features or innovative technologies, conduct quantitative studies like surveys or questionnaires to make sure these features will not only pay for themselves but will bring in additional customers and revenue for your product.

A/B Testing

Common A/B testing during growth and maturity occurs within your sales and onboarding processes. You’ll want to test different prices and offers to optimize your margin on each sale. Making sure you have a smooth onboarding process increases your conversion rate and reduces waste in marketing spend — improving your bottom line.

User Research Methods for Decline

Co-workers in a meeting about user research methods

The decline stage of a product is when your product has reached the end of its useful life. Either the need no longer exists, or it’s been replaced with new techniques or technologies. While user research can help during this process, most companies prefer to execute this phase as quickly and inexpensively as possible. 

Some areas where user research can help during this stage include:

  • How to transition existing customers out of your product
  • Data and information users need to take with them
  • The best way to end the product: a gradual reduction of features or a single shutdown

Especially if you have a large customer base or have loyal, long-term customers, you owe it to them to make the transition out of your product as painless as possible.

Let the Product Life Cycle Guide Your Research

While we’ve shown you some common qualitative and quantitative user research methodologies, and the appropriate time in the product life cycle to use them, it’s important to know that user research strategies are unique for each product. For the best results, consult a senior UX researcher to help you define a strategy best suited to your product. 

December Labs has experienced professionals with a proven history of helping companies navigate the complexities of UX research and determine the most appropriate research techniques. We’d love to be part of your UX research team and help you reach your goals. Call or email us today!

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