Product-led User Research. Featured image for blog post.

In a recent discussion I had with Paulina Wójciak, CEO at Qualaroo, she shared with me that nine out of ten (9/10) product managers don’t do user interviews. This astonishing percentage shows us that—in many cases—SaaS companies build products without actually knowing what users think of these products.

According to Jennifer Winter, content writer for UserTesting, “what users say isn’t necessarily what they do.” This is why—most of the time—research through Net Promoter Score (NPS) or Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) surveys is not enough. You need to dig deeper to find out what users really want and think of.

Thus, we have to face two realities here: a) Most companies don’t invest in user research and b) Even if they do, they use tactics that won’t give them a clear understanding of how their users actually feel about their products. In this guide, I am going to explain what is product-led research, why it is essential, and how to use it for your software company.

Contents

Chapter 1: Why User Research Is Important

Chapter 2: What is Product-led Research

Chapter 3: What to Pay Attention to When Doing User Research

Chapter 4: Final Thoughts

Chapter 1: Why User Research Is Important

For the last two years, there has been a buzz around the term product-led growth. Product-led growth is a revolutionary approach as to how modern software companies can attain growth through a series of go-to-market strategies that involve pricing, user onboarding, value metrics, and user research.

This last past—user research—is often overseen by SaaS companies for various reasons. As Braden Kowitz, Co-Founder for RangeLabs, put it a while back in a Medium story for Google Ventures Library, some of the most common excuses when it comes to conducting user research are:

  1. Customers don’t know what they want.
  2. We don’t have enough time for user research.
  3. We can’t hire a user researcher right now.
  4. It’s not done yet—we’ll test it later.

Here is what is the reality, according to Braden, for each of those excuses:

  1. Customers know a lot—if you just know how to ask.
  2. User research makes you faster.
  3. Your team can learn user research (or you can outsource it).
  4. You need feedback more than you think.

User research is an integral part of product growth—it gets us one step closer to the user with the lowest cost possible. According to a 2018 survey of 1,700 product managers by Pragmatic Institute, respondents spend 8.5 hours per month talking to customers, while at the same time, they spend 32 hours responding to Emails and 43 hours attending meetings.

Software companies nowadays don’t have the luxury of time, which means that the timeframe from the moment a user signs up until the user decides whether or not she will stick with the product is very short. For Atlassian, that timeframe was 30 minutes, which means that users would spend only 30 minutes in the product before they decide if this was the right solution for them.

Jira Homepage
Image Source: Atlassian

Shaun Clowes, currently the SVP of Product at Mulesoft, but back then Head of Growth for Atlassian put it: “Effectively, we learned that if someone was a daily active user (DAU) on any day during the first week—except day zero, which was the first day—that was a pivotal moment for us.”

This shows us that we really don’t have too much time to identify the users’ needs, friction points and to ask them if they’ve found what they were looking for. If a software company like Atlassian has 30 minutes to figure out what the user wants and needs from the product, then imagine what the reality for most SaaS companies out there is.

According to UserTesting, developers spend 50% of their time fixing issues that could have been avoided (through user research). This indicates the need for doing user research before committing product cycles that last several weeks or even months. As you can see, very few software companies do that.

All this indicates the need for understanding our customers better, or as Bernadette Jiwa would put it, “to get closer to our customers.” One of the ways to achieve that is through user research—research that will allow us to understand the needs, pain points, and decisions of our customers better. Let’s see how product-led research can help us in that direction.

Chapter 2: What Is Product-led Research

In this chapter, we’ll see what is product-led research and how it compares to other types of research. Even though we believe that any kind of feedback from users is important, we’ve seen that some research types—such as user interviews—are much more effective than other types and have more value for the company using them.

Types of User Research

When it comes to user research, we have two main categories: a) quantitative user research and b) qualitative user research. Each of these categories includes several types of research that can help us get closer to our customers. According to Nielsen Norman Group, some quantitative types of user research are:

  • Quantitative Usability Testing (Benchmarking)
  • Web Analytics (or App Analytics)
  • A/B Testing or Multivariate Testing
  • Card Sorting
  • Tree Testing
  • Surveys or Questionnaires
  • Clustering Qualitative Comments
  • Desirability Studies
  • Eyetracking Testing

In these user research types, we can also add field studies, participatory design, and focus groups. It is imperative to understand that there isn’t a user research method that is better than the others. All of them can be useful and effective depending on how we use them and what are the resources we have.

However, these methods can give us quantitative feedback, which means that we can’t get deep into what users think and feel about our products and services. This is where qualitative user interviews come in. User interviews are a great way to learn more about our users, which lead them to use our product in the first place, as well as what they expect to see from us in the future.

Question for Quantitative Feedback

What is the difference between usability testing and user interviews?

A common mistake among many software companies is the belief that usability testing is the same thing as user interviews. The truth is that—even though usability testing and user interviews are both very powerful user research methods—they are not the same thing.

So what is the difference between user interviews and usability testing? According to Sarah Lee, UX designer at ACL, “user research gives you a deeper understanding of users’ needs and behaviours. Usability testing helps you find the usability issues in your design that you never expected.”

When can you conduct user interviews?

Most software companies seem to value user interviews only during the customer development process or before launching a new product or feature. Even though user interviews can help us identify the needs of a group of people before launching a new product, they can also help us uncover opportunities for optimization for the users we already have.

Thus, user research through user interviews can be used at any time. However, we always recommend SaaS companies to conduct user interviews at least once constantly. And even if you can’t do it yourself, there are user research services that can handle the process for you.

Jobs To Be Done (Switch) Interviews

One of the best frameworks use when it comes to conducting user interviews is the Jobs To Be Done framework. This is a powerful framework that helps you “connect the dots” by understanding what your customers want and how you’ll deliver it to them. According to Alan Klement, the stages users go through until they sign up for your product are the following:

Jobs Interviews Stages
Image Source: Jobs To Be Done

Ideally, you’d want to know how the user felt in each of these stages, what she was thinking of and what lead her to make the decisions she made. This is something that you can achieve through Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) interviews. According to Val Geisler, user experience and research expert, the following 12 questions can help you achieve exactly that:

  1. How would you describe your role?
  2. What are some of the projects you have going on right now?
  3. Tell me about your workflow as it relates to {Product}.
  4. How did you go about looking for it?
  5. Do you remember talking with anyone else about the decision? Who? What did they say?
  6. Did you look at other solutions? If so, why did you pick this one over something else?
  7. Did you use any other solutions before this one? Dig deep into each one: what worked well, what didn’t, why they tried something else, why they switched again
  8. Before you made the purchase, how did you imagine life would be better with {Product}?
  9. Why did you finally stick with this one?
  10.  So now, what’s working well about {Product}?
  11.  What isn’t working well about {Product}? What gives you the most anxiety and stress?
  12.  Lastly, do you read content related to work or hang out in online groups of your peers? What topics do you typically read about and/or where are those groups?

How can user interviews help SaaS companies

The truth is that user research—and user interviews in particular—can help a software company in various ways. Below, I’ll outline the three most important ways: a) activation and product engagement, b) customer churn, and c) user onboarding. Keep in mind that the effectiveness of your JTBD interviews, the results are based on how well-designed and executed your user interviews were.

Activation & Product Engagement

The first two metrics that can be affected by user interviews are activation and product engagement. With roughly 66% of today’s software companies not having clearly defined activation, you can understand how important it is not only to define but to improve activation for any SaaS company.

Questions like the following can help you easily identify areas of improvement when it comes to product engagement and activation:

→ Why did you finally stick with this one?

→ So now, what’s working well about {Product}?

By knowing what made your users research the first meaningful outcome (the Aha! moment), you can optimize critical aspects of the journey to activation. Moreover, you can increase product engagement by emphasizing on the features or actions that resonate the most with your users.

Customer Churn

As you already know, churn can be a huge pain point for any software company. According to ProfitWell, churn correlates with company age. This means that especially if you are in the first stages after finding a product-market fit (PMF), you should expect a relatively high churn rate.

Churn Correlation to Company Age
Image Source: ProfitWell

However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take action to improve your retention. In his book, The Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen suggests asking questions related to all the stages of retention using the whys, hows, wheres, whats, and whens that will lead to meaningful answers that will help you reduce churn and improve retention.

Also, something critical here is that when it comes to retention, you should conduct interviews both with active users and with users who have just churned. After all, who is better to answer questions about churn than a user who just churned? Here are two examples of questions related to churn and retention:

→ What isn’t working well about {Product}? What gives you the most anxiety and stress?

→ Why did you decide to cancel your subscription? What didn’t work well or didn’t go as expected?

User Onboarding

According to a study, 82% of companies without a free offering (i.e. freemium or free trial) admit that their in-product onboarding is either non-existent or is lacking. But even though most software companies know that their onboarding is lacking, they don’t seem to ask all the necessary questions to their users so that they can improve it.

In Product Onobarding
Image Source: OpenView

With the help of user interviews and by asking the right questions, SaaS companies can improve their user onboarding and improve their overall activation rate and retention rate. Once again, the deeper you dive, the better the understanding of the friction points and areas that need to be improved in terms of your user onboarding process.

Now that you know why user interviews are important let’s take a look at what you need to pay attention to when conducting your user interviews, or when outsourcing them to a vendor.

Chapter 3: What to Pay Attention to When Doing User Interviews

Conducting user interviews isn’t an easy process. Creating a user research strategy, designing the questionnaires, scheduling interviews, talking to your customers, and analyzing the results are only some of the tasks you need to accomplish. According to Andrea Hill, when it comes to running successful JTBD interviews, it all boils down to the following three things:

  1. Talking to the right people
  2. Under the right circumstances
  3. Focusing on the right things (during the interview)

These three aspects can determine the success of your user interviews and thus should be taken under serious consideration from all the people involved in the process. Let’s break down each of these three aspects, according to Andrea’s analysis in a blog post she published in 2017.

1) Talking to the right people

Talking to the right people comes down to a) talking to the decision maker—the person who made the decision to buy your product, b) talking to people who made a switch (from another provider) in the last 90 days and c) talking to people one-on-one, which means that no one else should be present during the interview.

2) Under the right circumstances

Conducting user interviews under the right circumstances comes down to a) dedicating at least an hour for each interview (so that you don’t rush things), b) create an environment that helps users open up and talk to you with honesty and c) ask permission to record the calls so that you—or any other member of your team can get back to it and listen to the details.

3) Focusing on the right things (during the interview)

Lastly, focusing on the right things during the interview means that a) you won’t provide details on how the product works (this is not the right time for that), b) you will focus on the “turning point,” which is the point where the user made the decision to use your product and c) try to learn if the product met their expectations and how quickly they came to realize the value of the product (Time to Value, TTV).

Some other things you need to pay attention to are:

  1. Come up with a user research strategy
  2. Lead the conversation, do not impact its outcome
  3. Ask the right questions
  4. Collect both qualitative and quantitative feedback
  5. User research or experience tools (e.g. UsabilityHub, Hotjar) are not enough
  6. Analyze the results and make the right decisions

Chapter 4: Final Thoughts

According to the book Software Engineering: A Practitioner’s Approach by Roger Pressman, fixing a problem in development costs 10 times as much as fixing it in design, and 100 times as much if you’re trying to fix the problem in a product that’s already been released.

Many of the problems that software companies have in terms of activation or in-product onboarding are problems that could have been avoided with user research. Thus, the cost of maintaining and growing a successful product would have been—in most cases—significantly lower if software companies used user research as a way to collect feedback before they make releases or optimize certain aspects of their product.

This explains why roughly 80% of companies without a free offering admit that their in-product onboarding is lacking or why 66% of SaaS companies haven’t yet defined activation for their product. User research can be the solution in all these problems, and it can be a solution that is both cost-and-time-effective at the same time.

Software companies must acknowledge the benefits of user research and adopt a mindset that puts the user first, by identifying the user’s needs, pain points, goals, and objections through user research. This is your opportunity to learn from your customers—all you need to do is listen.

People Who Read This Article Also Read:

  1. What Is a Product Lead Magnet?
  2. Why Product-led Growth Isn’t for Everyone
  3. What Is Product-led Growth & Why Should You Care?

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About the Author: Aggelos M

Aggelos M
I have over 8 years experience in Digital and Growth marketing. Currently, running Growth Sandwich, a London based Product Growth Lab. Before turning in Growth Marketing and Product Growth, I had the chance to pass by head marketing and head digital positions in Athens and London, work with numerous tech startups but also build and run companies. In my spare time, I am consulting ambitious startups about their Growth and Business strategy.