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A primer on user research


I’m going to start by explaining what User Research is not. Why? Because if you can’t “imagine” the basic meaning of “user” and “research”… you should not read this. Yet. But if you can visualize an ethereal concept just from putting both worlds together “user” and “research” then you might enjoy the rest of this post.

User research and market research are not the same thing.

User research and market research are not the same thing. One is about the “mainstream” buyer information like price, names of features, what the competition has to offer and how it offers it. User research on the other hand is the feedback of a user centric perspective. So a great example would be a toy for toddlers. User research would focus on the child and think of the child as the “user” were as the market researcher would focus on the adult that would buy the toy. A child would want a “cool” thing, a parent would like an “educational safe thing”. Market research wants to know how much money parents are paying for “these kinds of toys”, user researcher is observing how these toys are played with, when and why.

The user researcher is not the product designer

Another great differentiation is that the user researcher is not the product manager or the designer. There are a few good reasons for this, the main one is removing bias from the research process, the less emotionally invested you are with the product design, the easier it is to evaluate it fairly. It is a terribly difficult process. Design takes guts and courage, and it’s hard to detach yourself from your brain babies, whereas cold user research might provide great inspiration, it requires a compliant unconscious.

The path of product development as seen by the ego of a user research professional

When researching a product, the general path requires keen observation, but it’s hard to know what to observe if you don’t have a path of what to observe for depending on the stage on which a product is. These are the stages shared by Megan Kierstead on the super cool course on user research shares a manslonian (Derived from Maslow) path to know “what to look for” in every stage of product development. And I’ll compare it to the stages in the evolution of a well known product: The Car.

  1. Is it functional? e.g. Can the car can take you from point a to point b?.
  2. Is it reliable? e.g.Will the car always take you from point a to point b and back without breaking down?.
  3. Is it Usable? e.g. Will the driver be able to drive this car or is it breaking his back, or is the steering wheel too hard and making it unusable?.
  4. Is it convenient? e.g. Is it easy to use the car or would people prefer to use a horse? Why?
  5. Is it pleasurable? e.g. Do you feel good driving the car or do you feel like a “meh”?
  6. Is it meaningful? e.g. Do you feel powerful and environmentally conscientious, smart and successful while driving that electric sports car?

User research is about accurate feedback

It is a scientific process. This means it parts from a model or structure that includes abstracting key measurable variables from what you can “see” and “measure” in a user. In more than one occasion you might find yourself researching multiple user personas.

Users need to be defined in order to be measured

The data-based approach to this is creating and mapping out high density “variable” clusters from user analysis to then define specific user personas. These variables can be:

  • Key words they used to find your product or to describe it.
  • Demographics: Agen, profession, family status, geographic location.
  • Self descriptions
  • Biographical insights.
  • Communication channels.
  • Perceived goals of the user
  • Pain points of the user
  • Motivations of the user.

It’s a method that uses numbers to increase profits.

User research is about empathy backed up by data to tell the product designers where their next most valuable “move” is. This means that there is a ton of observation but also a production of actionable information that will methodically decrease the risk of investment in a product, methodically increase the chances of customer delight and user delight as these might be two different people,

Concrete ways you can “move the needle” in your organization: 

  • Increase user productivity: When a user finds a way to get more out of a tool, they fall more in love with it. I love my phone because of the camera, communication, entertainment. The smartphone is one of the most “productive” products out there. I can almost picture Steve Jobs trying to find the equivalent of a swiss army knife in a personal computer, and would also explain why the tablet came out first, but the smartphone grew faster and became a bigger product faster.
  • Increase user satisfaction: User satisfaction and user productivity are paradoxically not the same. For example a credit card is very productive, but if you ask users, a bunch of them are not satisfied with their financial products. This is a great example of opportunity for innovation but it stems from user research, not product development.
  • Increase retention: Customer retention is often a great sight of a good product, back in the day when I smoked cigarettes, I love buying “Bic” lighters, because they were at a fair price (not the cheapest thing on the counter, and sometimes the more expensive option in terms of disposable lighters). I can explain why I Liked it, because of the quality, durability, etc. But the point is, I would use it time and time again, and understanding what makes the user use your product again and again is probably the single most important insight a business can have.
  • Increase product recommendations: A lot of startup theory tries to get to this as fast as possible, trying to find a product that works requires the product to be perceived good enough to be recommended by its users. So another great insight in user research is understanding what makes a user recommend a product.
  • Increase sales: Duh…
  • Decrease development costs: This is focused on knowing where to invest in product development, and where not to invest.
  • Decrease user errors: Again, the opposite of user productivity.
  • Decrease user learning curve: The opposite of tetting as fast as possible to the “aha” moment. *The Aha moment is the moment where a positive outcome in a UX is so impactful that the user decides, this is “the” product. For me, the best example was doing a query on Google for the first time, after comparing it to “lycos” and “alta vista”.

*Taken from by’s course on user research by Megan Kierstead