Michael Margolis: “user research, quick and dirty” (1)

Why do I keep coming across businesses that struggle to engage with their (prospective) customers, to learn about their needs and behaviours? Too often for my liking, I hear comments like:

“Marc, we’re a startup, we don’t have the time and budget to do customer research!” 

“I’m not allowed to talk to customers.” 

“In my old place, we used to have a dedicated user research team and they’d just give me their research report on a platter, after them having spoken to users.”

It therefore felt quite timely when a colleague pointed me in the direction of Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures.  Back in 2013, Margolis delivered a great Startup Lab workshop in which he covered the ins and outs of “User research, quick and dirty”. The recording of the 90 minute workshop is available on YouTube and you can find Margolis’ slides here (see also Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – Michael Margolis’ Startup Lab workshop: “User Research, Quick ‘n’ Dirty” – Published on 26 February 2013 on https://youtu.be/WpzmOH0hrEM

I watched Margolis’ workshop in full and these are my main takeaways:

Seeing through users’ eyes

Margolis started off his session by talking about the importance of continuously learning about users, seeing things through their eyes. In a subsequent Medium post, Margolis writes that in his experience, startups will typically use UX research to achieve one of these objectives:

  1. Improve a process or worklflow
  2. Better understand customer shopping habits
  3. Evaluate concepts
  4. Test usability
  5. Refine a value proposition

Two types of user interviews

It’s great to hear Margolis making a distinction between two types of interviews:

  • Usability: A usability interview is all about learning whether users can actually use your product and achieve their goals with it. Can users do it? Can they understand it? Can they discover features?
  • Discovery: Discovery type user interviews tend to be more contextual, and delve more into the actual user. Who? Where? When? Why? How? All key questions to explore as part of discovery, as well as the user’s existing behaviours, goals, needs and problems.

Margolis then talks about combining the two interview types and highlight two sample questions to illustrate this combination:

“How do you do things now?”

“How do you think about these things?”

The distinction between “usability” and “discovery” isn’t just an artificial one. I love Margolis’ focus on objectives, acknowledging that objectives are likely to vary depending on the type of product, its position within the product lifecycle and the learnings that you’re looking to achieve. I’ve found – at my own peril – that it’s easy to jump straight into defining user tasks or an interview script, without thinking about your research objective and what Margolis calls “North Star questions” (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 2 – Michael Margolis’ 5 studies startups needs most- Taken from:  https://library.gv.com/field-guide-to-ux-research-for-startups-8569114c27fb – Published on 5 May 2018 

Margolis provides some very useful pointers about discovery and usability questions, which you can use to create a research plan and an interview guide:

Sample discovery questions – as suggested by Michael Margolis:

  • What are users’ behaviours, attitudes and expectations towards the product?
  • Who are the key user groups? What are their needs and behaviours?
  • What are the pros/cons of different designs? Why?
  • What are the pros/cons of competitor products?
  • How are people using existing/competitor products? What features are mots important and why?
  • What barriers hinder users from adopting <product>?

Sample usability questions – as suggested by Michael Margolis:

  • Can users discover feature X?
  • Are users able to successfully complete primary tasks? Why (not)?
  • Do users understand feature X? Why (not)?

In a similar vein, I believe it’s important to distinguish between problem and solution interviews. There’s a risk of your customer insights becoming muddled when you mix problem and solution interviews, especially if you alternate problem questions with solution questions.

In a problem interview, you want to find out 3 things:

  • Problem – What problem are you solving? For example, what are the common frustrations felt by your customers and why? How do their problems rank? Ask your customers to create a top 3 of their problems (see the problem interview script in Fig. 1 below).
  • Existing alternatives – What existing alternatives are out there and how does your customer perceive your competition and their differentiators? How do your customers solve their problems today?
  • Customer segments – Who has these problems and why? Is this a viable customer segment?

Fig. 3 –  Outline of a problem interview script – Taken from: Ash Maurya – “Running Lean”

In a solution interview, you want to find out 3 things:

  • Early adopters – Who has this problem and why? How do we identify and engage with early adopters? (see Fig. 3 below)
  • Solution – How will you solve their problems? What features do you need to build as part of your solution, why?
  • Pricing/Revenue – What is the pricing model for your product or service? Will customers pay for it, why?

Fig. 4 – Outline of a solution interview script – Taken from: Ash Maurya – “Running Lean”

Main learning point: In his Startup Lab workshop, Michal Margolis, drops a lot of very valuable tips on how to best keep customer research quick and simple, whilst still learning the things about your customer and/or product that you’re keen to learn. So much so that Michael Margolis’ tips warrant another blog post, which I’ll share soon!

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://library.gv.com/field-guide-to-ux-research-for-startups-8569114c27fb
  2. https://library.gv.com/user-research-quick-and-dirty-1fcfa54c91c4
  3. https://www.slideshare.net/LauraKlein1/shut-the-hell-up-other-tips-for-learning-from-users
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpzmOH0hrEM
  5. https://library.gv.com/tagged/design
  6. https://medium.com/@maa1/book-review-just-enough-research-2d714d447eda
  7. https://medium.com/@maa1/my-product-management-toolkit-23-customer-empathy-a1e66ff15012

One thought on “Michael Margolis: “user research, quick and dirty” (1)

  1. […] I wrote earlier about Michael Margolis’ Startup Lab workshop, in which he teaches attendees about “User research, quick and dirty”.  Michael Margolis, UX Research Partner at Google Ventures covers user research topics such as user interview types and getting to the right learnings. He also offer a number of practical tips with respect to recruiting users and how to best conduct user interviews: […]

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