My Product Management Toolkit (7): learning about user needs

A key thing I’ve learned as a product manager is to validate a proposed product strategy or user assumptions before committing a lot of time, money and effort to a specific product idea.

I believe there’s a lot you can learn as a product person about user behaviour without having to rely on a dedicated UX researcher. In fact, lots of the startups I’ve worked at didn’t have a dedicated UX researcher. I thus learned simple ways to learn from users and validate my assumptions. “User research” is a very broad concept, but for me it’s all about user behaviour and feedback throughout the product lifecycle. Let’s start with the first question to ask: “What are the needs of my (target) users and why?”

What’s user research? – I’ve noticed how people tend to use the terms ‘user research’, ‘user testing’ and ‘usability testing’ interchangeably. I’m personally not a big fan of using the term ‘user testing’ since it sounds like you’re testing the user. In contrast, you want to learn about your users; how they, think, feel and act. It’s easy to sit behind your desk and make all kinds of assumptions about your users and their needs, but these remain guesses until you actually get in front of your users. “Validating Product Research” by Tomer Sharon covers the key questions to ask of your users and provides lots of techniques to get answers. Sharon’s book is a must read for anyone wanting to learn more about how to best do user research.

What does it mean to be learning about user needs? – Too often I see products or features being launched based on a ‘hunch’ or on something that a competitor is doing. UX and product management consultant Melissa Perry refers to this as ‘the build trap’: companies going straight into build mode without taking a step back to find out whether a product idea actually fulfils a user’s needs. The sooner you figure out whether a feature or product is worth building, the better. This will save your company lots of time and money in case you learn that your customers don’t want pay for a product or that it doesn’t solve their problem.

When to learn about user needs? – In “Validating Product Ideas”, Tomer Sharon explains that learning about user needs can happen when ‘strategising’ – working out what to build and why – or post product launch. As part of my toolkit I spend a lot of time and effort on understanding needs, ideally before a single line of code has been written. It’s important to do generative research to understand the scale and nature of a user problem before evaluating potential solutions to solve this problem.

How can you learn about user needs? – There are number of techniques you can use to learn about user needs:

  • Interviews – When interviewing your (target) users, listening is absolutely key. I’ve seen product people making the mistake of using conversations with customers to confirm their assumptions, only hearing what they want to hear. When conducted well, interviews can be a very rich source of products ideas and learning about user needs.
  • Observation  One of the reasons why I always like to observe people in their own habitat is that it provides an opportunity to truly understand people’s current behaviour without your product or service. Does the user really have the problem that your product is looking to address? Is is as a big a problem for the user as you think it is? If so, why?  Reframer is a good example of a tool that you can use to note down your observations.
  • Diary study – With a diary study, participants document their activities, thoughts, decisions and opinions over a period of time. The main benefit of this technique is that it gives you a good insight into what your users actually do and think. As Tomer Sharon mentions, “it reveals behaviour that would be hard to remember in interviews or surveys.”
  • Survey – Online survey tools like SurveyMonkey and Typeform provide a quick and easy way to learn from a large number of users within a short space of time. The main downside of surveys, however, is that you’re limited in exploring the ‘why’ behind certain survey answers. Interviews and observation can be more effective in this respect.
  • Experience sampling Experience sampling is a technique that helps you to answer a high level business or strategic question. In an experience sampling study, research participants are interrupted several times a day or week to note their experience in real time; users are being asked the same question repeatedly to strengthen the validity of your findings. This method will enable you to learn more about users’ objective needs and reduces the risk of users speculating about expected behaviour.

Main learning point: One of the key things to learn as part of user research is whether a product or feature really meets your users’ needs and whether the user will pay for your solution. Finding this out as early as possible will help you in validating your assumptions and in understanding whether your idea solves a real user need.

Related links for further learning:


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