Think about some of your favorite products of all time. Maybe it’s your new pair of noise-canceling headphones. Maybe it’s a favorite skin care product, or a pair of really well-designed insoles for your running shoes. Or maybe it’s a particularly amazing project management app a colleague told you about.
Now, think about WHY those products are your favorites. While your reasons—like your favorite products—will come in countless forms and flavors, they are likely to have one primary characteristic in common: Your reasons will be connected with the problems those products help you solve.
In other words, you love the headphones because they drown out the endlessly droning tones of the overly talkative guy who sits in the cubicle next to you. You love that skin care product because your acne-prone skin has never looked clearer, and you love those fancy insoles because they keep your feet from hurting while you run. And you love that app because it helps you organize, streamline, and strategize your work in ways you’re fairly certain you never would’ve figured out yourself.
The best products come from solving the problems that people have. Does the product you want to build solve a problem for which people crave a solution? If the answer is yes, that’s a fantastic place to begin.
Crucially, however, you can’t be content with simply solving the problem. Your product has to solve the problem better than any other product out there. Which leads us to the all-important question: How do you design ‘“better”?
Unless you’re the only person who will ever use your product—not exactly a formula for resounding business success—you yourself don’t get to be the one who decides if a solution is “better.” Instead, you need to understand and embrace this product development truth: Defining what’s “better” lies solely in the hands of the users your product is designed for. After all, we only fall in love with solutions that work specifically for us.
Building Your Product’s Foundation with Research
As a Product Manager at Distillery, I’ve encountered many startup and enterprise clients who arrive with genuinely great ideas for web and mobile apps, websites, and other digital products that will solve users’ problems. They’ve identified problems worth solving, but they need help to figure out what “better” looks like for their end users.
So how do you do that? Simple. You do the right research to help you identify your product’s competition, as well as to identify and understand your product’s users. Then, you build a “better” product than your competitors by understanding the problem better than they do.
Research is integral to any successful product development process. In overview, two primary kinds of research are used to support software product development efforts: comparative and competitive research and user research.
So how does this all work? Read on as I run through the basics, helping you know what to expect when doing the foundational research required for your product development process.
Comparative and Competitive Research
You can’t understand what constitutes “better” until you first understand what else is out there. Accordingly, to support your product development process, it’s important to first undertake comparative and competitive research in which you:
- Identify competitor products. Take a long, hard, and thorough look at the market for your product. What products are already out there? Is your proposed product a true innovation on the products that are already available?
- Analyze competitor characteristics. How do the competitor products describe or perceive themselves and their products? How does the market describe or perceive their products and their brands? What kind of App Store ratings and reviews have they received? What kinds of features do their products offer? What is the perceived value of those features?
It can also be a worthwhile endeavor to explore ideas about brand promise. As you assess how competitor products are marketed (e.g., as the “best,” “cheapest,” “easiest,” or “most comfortable”), where do gaps exist in which you can position your own brand?
- Perform an element analysis. With these activities, you’re specifically analyzing the competitor products’ UX and user interface (UI). For example:
- For a UX competitive analysis, you look at the various things that go into how each competitor product “feels” to users, including how navigation works, how things are displayed on a page, existing workflows, and mental models (i.e., users’ beliefs about the product). In particular, competitor products may have established certain expectations for users; it’s important to be mindful of those expectations as you develop your product’s UX.
- For a UI competitive analysis, you look at how competitor products use typography, color schemes, types of images, and other components that make up the products’ UI.
After all, there’s no point in building a product that already exists. In addition, if your product is to succeed amidst the modern world’s already overcrowded marketplaces, it’s crucial to identify opportunities to set yourself apart from—and innovate past—what’s already out there. In particular, your research can be pivotal in helping you identify new features or better ways to solve users’ problems, differentiating your product from the competition’s.
It’s worth noting, however, that striving to achieve feature parity with competitor products can be a dangerous road. Competitor products may have features that aren’t worth emulating (e.g., features that users find unimportant, or features that aren’t successful). Working through a long checklist in the hopes of achieving feature parity may delay the release of your product… for features nobody actually uses.
If you’ve fully researched the market and no competitor products exist, that’s excellent news. Of course, it was necessary to complete comprehensive research to verify that.
As you dive into your comparative and competitive research, you’ll begin to gain a better understanding of your product’s users. At this point, you’ll already have a hypothesis about what your users want from your product. But it’s important to undertake user research that goes much further in helping you understand the goals, needs, wants, and preferences of your users. In this way, you start to test your hypotheses, validating that you’ve made the right assumptions and helping you correct course where needed.
In addition, user research gives you the opportunity to discover user needs that remain unmet by competitor products. With user research, you can explore what those needs may be (e.g., needs related to tools they may use in conjunction with your product, triggers for product use, or product inputs and outputs). This is a step that not all product development teams remember to take—meaning that it can be a key opportunity for differentiating your product.
User research takes a range of forms. The user research approach that’s right for you will depend on the nature of your product, as well as the nature of the problem it’s trying to solve. For example:
- If you are designing an internal app for use by a known pool of people in your company, you can proceed straight to qualitative analysis. In cases where you know specifically who your users are, qualitative analysis is nearly always more valuable and appropriate. Qualitative analysis helps you answer the all-important question of “WHY?”
- Interviews (individual or group) are the most common form of qualitative analysis undertaken during a product development process. Interviews are sometimes done contextually, such that users are observed working in their natural environments.
- To understand the bigger picture of your users’ needs, however, quantitative analysis can be helpful. Quantitative analysis lets you cast a wide net across a group of individuals who fit your target demographic (e.g., moms between the ages of 25 and 45). Quantitative analysis helps you fill out the picture of “WHAT” your users want and need.
- Surveys and questionnaires are the most common form of quantitative analysis employed during a product development process. By surveying a large group of people, you are able to identify trends and statistics that help you better understand your user group’s overall preferences.
- Some forms of user research can be either qualitative or quantitative. For example, while surveys and questionnaires are often used to gather quantitative data, they can also be used to gather qualitative data about the “WHY” behind individual users’ wants and needs.
Ultimately, it’s best to employ a mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis in your user research efforts. Quantitative analysis can help you quickly assess the needs and preferences (the “WHAT”) of a large user group, but it doesn’t really help you understand the specific issues users face in using your product in different scenarios (i.e., the “WHY” behind their task completion times, successes, errors, and satisfaction).
Qualitative analysis, on the other hand, helps you gain exactly those specific, detailed insights into the “whys” behind individual users’ responses to and interactions with your product.
Building on Your Research: Creating User Personas
In learning more about your users, what matters is identifying the problem(s) specific to those users. That’s precisely what all of this foundational research is designed to do for you. By clarifying the problems you’re solving and striving to better understand the needs and wants of your users, you create the foundation for a strong product.
The primary deliverable that results from all of this research and analysis is the persona. A persona is a research-based representation of your archetypal user. Essentially, it (or they) are an amalgamation of all the research you’ve done.
Some products will have multiple personas; some may have only one. Regardless of their quantity, think of your personas as the highly important fictional characters at the center of your product development story. Identifying personas—and keeping those personas central to your product development process—is a vital way you help ensure that the product you’re creating genuinely solves the problems experienced by the users you’ve identified. The personas serve as guides to help you make the right decisions during the product development process.
For example, if you’ve identified a persona and named her Sheila, you can continue thinking of Sheila’s goals, needs, wants, and preferences as you continue to make choices about the features and functionalities of the product you’re developing. Your oft-repeated question becomes, “What would Sheila think of this?” Because if Sheila wouldn’t find benefit from whatever’s being suggested, then it’s probably not the right choice for your product.
Unsurprisingly, as a Product Manager, I’m always focused on keeping users like Sheila firmly at the center of the product development process. But I—and the UX Designers I work with—wouldn’t play such a central role in the product development process if research wasn’t such a crucial foundation for any product’s success. As powerhouses as diverse as Apple, Google, PayPal, Starbucks, Yelp, and Airbnb have long known, if you put the user at the center of the experience/product you’re designing, you give yourself the best chance possible at finding success.
Product Development Is a Journey of Discovery
So what does this all mean? As you decide on a product development partner to assist you in developing your web or mobile app, website, or other software product, it’s absolutely imperative you make sure that their proposed approach incorporates a strong foundation of research. If a development partner isn’t going to help you assess your product’s competition, test your assumptions, and do the research required to gather input and feedback from real users, they’re not genuinely focused on helping you—or your product—succeed.
I wish I could tell you it doesn’t happen. But it does, and far too often. I’ve heard the horror stories. I’ve read about the misfires and failed app launches. I’ve even helped to rescue clients who started their journeys with development partners who were leading them nowhere.
Based on my experience, it’s best to embark upon the product development process as a collaborative partnership and journey of discovery. The ideal approach is thoughtful, transparent, consultative, and genuinely tailored to meet the needs of your product and your business. The ideal approach also incorporates a focus on using research to increase your learning and make progressively better decisions as you move forward.
That’s because software product development isn’t a linear process. It’s iterative and cyclical, drawing heavily on research and data to find the right path forward or correct a course headed the wrong direction. Without research, you can’t determine what “better” really looks like for your users. And, in product development, maximizing ROI is all about ensuring adoption. Truly, if you can’t make “Sheila” happy, you won’t get anywhere.
Don’t let your product development efforts fall apart. Instead, build your product on a strong foundation of research. Research not only ensures that your product genuinely solves your users’ problems, but also that it’s something they’ll genuinely want to use. Research helps us create the products that become people’s favorites. What’s not to love about that?
Author: Product Manager Andrew Reinstein has been with Distillery since 2015. With a background in business, user experience, and product strategy, Andrew brings a balanced perspective to product development focused on addressing the needs of the business as well as the user. A Certified Scrum Master, he loves the process of creating a new product from nothing more than an idea. In his free time, he loves trying new foods (he’ll eat just about anything), traveling (Greece is a favorite, and Iceland is next), watching sports (NFL, MLB, NBA), and spending time with his family.