User research at Intercom (1)

You can’t always get what you quant: Bringing numbers to life through user research

Main illustration: Kristin Raymaker

At Intercom, research, analytics, and data science informs everything we do. We build a deep, holistic understanding of our customers, employing user research to unite quantitative and qualitative insights.

Every tech company wants to be more “data-driven”, to ensure their decisions are shaped by a robust customer understanding – a picture of their customers’ past, present, and future needs that can inform long-term company strategy.

“Researchers acknowledge and invest in the what’, but often forget to slow down and understand the why’ – the people behind the numbers and emerging trends”

To achieve this, researchers capture online movements, behavioral changes, and customer information (with customer consent, of course!). They acknowledge and invest in the “what”, but often forget to slow down and understand the “why” – the people behind the numbers and emerging trends.

What are customers’ underlying reasons for spending more time on a specific page? Why does the bounce rate increase after a tiny change to a landing page? Data is a robust starting point, but it only addresses one side of the coin. It can’t tell us whether the content is compelling or the experience intuitive. For that, we rely on user research.

User research is the practice of understanding people – the “why”

In short, the practice of user research consists of:

  • Talking to customers – recruiting a representative sample, scripting questions, talking.
  • Listening – letting the customer lead, practicing active listening, offering undivided attention.
  • Watching – observing the flow, subtle cues, micro expressions.
  • Collecting – taking notes, gathering existing data points, studying relevant past research.
  • Analysis and synthesis – clear findings, actions, decisions.

The qualitative practice of user research brings to life the customers behind the product, offering insights into their evolving needs and influencing product direction accordingly.

“User research plays a proactive role in your customers’ success while including them in the journey”

It’s designed to add context and clarity to the hints given by quantitative data that’s collected in parallel, surfacing salient points to guide product improvements. Ultimately, user research plays a proactive role in your customers’ success while including them in the journey.

The value of user research

However hard we try, we bring our own biases and beliefs to the assumptions we make and solutions we come to. Talking to your customer and listening to their needs is an opportunity to uncover surprising insights that may not have occurred to you.

User research can add value by:

  • Helping design effective, delightful UX: Our Product Research team dove into our users’ “aha moments”, pinpointing incidences of customer delight and value within our product. This research changed the way the team framed problems, and later supported the design of our Product Tours feature.
  • Disproving assumptions.
  • Providing an unbiased perspective.
  • Helping to build a robust customer understanding: An example of this is our customer fact sheet, developed by the Product Research team to bring our target customer segments to life and deepen our understanding of their needs.
  • Helping to create valuable products that solve actual needs and pain points: We created Internal Job Boards, an initiative that explains the jobs our customers buy and use Intercom to do. It allows us to keep the customer at the center and build a product that directly addresses the problems they’re facing.

Applying user research in practice 

Here’s how you can apply user research in your organization:

Step 1: Begin by understanding the problem you’re solving for, asking yourself ‘Why now?’ and “What’s the potential for longer term impact in the work?” Avoid coming up with solutions or diagnosing symptoms at this point.

Step 2: Start pulling together your research questions, and empower your team to get involved. Reach out to your stakeholders and capture their thoughts and questions with the aim of deducing and refining them later.

Step 3: Define your objectives, asking “What do we aim to get out of the research initiative?” This adds clarity and structure to the work before you jump in with both feet. 

Step 4: It’s time to select your methodology. Depending on your timeline, you may want to start small by conducting internal interviews, reaching out to the customer service or sales team. Beginning internally gives you an opportunity to pilot your research, refine your research questions, and provide clarity to support action.

If you don’t have much time or you’ve already tested your processes, this step might mean reaching out to customers to pencil in interviews. 

“Share your findings early, often, and widely across your organization”

Step 5: Share your findings early, often, and widely across your organization. The output of your well-formulated and organized work will be hugely impactful. Make sure to make this practice a regular part of your research process.

Bringing quantitative and qualitative research together

Together, quantitative and qualitative research provide a holistic understanding of your customers, their needs, and their product behaviors. Combining these practices provides clarity into not only what is happening, but why. 

Intercom is hiring data scientists and researchers at various levels across Dublin, London, and remote in the UK and Ireland. Help shape the future of the Research, Analytics & Data Science (RAD) team at a fast-growing company that’s on a mission to make internet business personal → Here’s a link to our open research and data science roles.

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