Any research is better than no research

When thinking about product research, you shouldn’t be asking yourself, “Can we afford this?” It should be, “Can we afford not to do this?”

All product companies, particularly startups, feel the twin squeeze of time and costs. But neither variable carries the same risk as designing something new without the thoughts and experiences of real users. No matter how simple or complex your product, without research you are designing it based on assumptions.

This doesn’t mean you will always get to conduct as much, or as in-depth, a study as you would like. There are going to be development cycles where you are stuck for time, lacking in resources or have burned through your research budget. Any of these scenarios can leave you in a position where you have to select a less than perfect research method. But in the end any research is better than no research at all.

Here are a few ways to collect insights, while staying within your means.

Dealing with time pressure

Product teams need to be able to move fast, and research is often side-tracked as a seemingly time-consuming activity. Yes, research can take significant time, but this should only be the case when you need to be very precise with your measurements (e.g a competitor benchmarking study). Not all research needs to be approached in this way.

Say you have some usability concerns about a product in development, but a usability study would hold back your release date. A good alternative is going straight to a beta instead. While it isn’t ideal, it still gives you an opportunity to tease out some of the issues – provided you make sure to collect as much beta feedback as possible. If you’re an Intercom user it could be as simple as asking your beta users one open-ended question via an in-app message. Ask this question whilst they’re actually using the feature to yield the most valuable responses, especially if you’re interested in how easy it is to use. Tools like Inspectlet or FullStory can also help you get a full picture of the product performance.

Balancing costs and deadlines

In many startups the perceived high cost of conducting research is often used as a strong justification for not doing any research. This is a total misconception, especially with all the low cost research and collaboration tools at our disposal these days. The question of “Can we afford this?” should instead be replaced with “What’s our deadline?”

At Intercom we regularly conduct customer interviews via Google Hangouts and use lots of different remote research tools. For example, we recently redesigned our marketing pages and tested comprehension of these pages using What we learned enabled us to iterate on the designs in a quick turnaround, at a low cost.

The graph below is an example of the decision making process our product researchers go through before tackling a research question. We start by asking our team “What’s our deadline?” before even considering what the next step should be. Thinking about time as your primary constraint ensures you don’t waste any of it deciding on the perfect research method, only to find the project timelines don’t allow you to implement it.


Keep the bar high

Making trade-offs in method (short interview, survey question, etc.) doesn’t mean compromising the quality of your research. Rather, you need to be flexible and creative with the methodology you do end up using.

No matter what approach you choose, if you follow these seven tips you’ll still be able to conduct reliable and trustworthy research.

  1. Decide what you want to learn, and what you will do with the answers, before doing anything else.
  2. Sanity check your research approach with another member of your team. Research projects need to be designed. What are you going to say? What will you ask them to do? As with any design, collaboration is the key to getting it right.
  3. Speak to the right users. You should already know who you are building your product for. The next step is figuring out how to contact them. Think about the data sources you have about your users, and how you can extrapolate which users are already using your product for similar jobs. This is surprisingly easy if you’re already an Intercom customer.
  4. Don’t waste your user’s time. Use people outside of the project team as pilot testers for your research. This will help you refine your questions or tasks, so you get the most out of the time you have with actual users.
  5. Don’t ask leading questions. Never phrase a question in a way that prompts or encourages a certain answer (e.g. What frustrated you about this design?). This is the number one mistake made by novice researchers.
  6. Be mindful of your bias, and don’t seek out validation. It’s important to remain impartial, otherwise you might as well make up the findings yourself.
  7. Never rely on just one set of data – pull together all your sources. For example, analytics data can tell you what customers are doing, but not why. Consider this data as a great starting point for figuring out what you want to learn.

If the above seems daunting and unachievable, hire a full-time or freelance researcher to teach your product managers and designers how to do research. If you can’t afford a researcher, read a book about how to interview your customers and learn about the different research methods. There are literally hundreds of ways you can gather customer feedback. There really is no right or wrong research method – there is only the one that is right for you, at a particular moment in time.

Next time you think about skipping research because you think it’s too expensive or you’ve run out of time, consider making some trade-offs instead. A handful of insights from users are infinitely better than none at all.