How to Improve Your Product Research

Your research involves talking to customers to gain insight. Great — now let’s talk about how to make it matter.
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
June 8, 2021
Updated: June 14, 2021
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
June 8, 2021
Updated: June 14, 2021

In the world of technology, where the products we work on have to deal with the tensions of a rapidly changing marketplace, conducting customer research is critical to keep pace. Doing it often and well is a way to keep your company ahead of the competition. Despite this, most research doesn’t make it past the first mention. Researchers often talk about not getting a seat at the table and not getting enough respect to get traction in an organization.

Let me know if this sounds familiar to you: You’re working hard talking to customers, and you come up with a bunch of data. Oddly enough, none of it ends up in the final project. The project ships, and as you would expect, it falls flat. No one listened. Nothing changed. Everyone lost.

Why?

Good research involves more than just talking to customers. Good research is focused, packaged and sold no differently than any of your favorite products. Good research understands the subtext, or, what lies beneath the surface of the answer you’ve been given, and adjusts the dynamics. Good research understands that if someone says they like the color of a button, it might mean they like what the button does, but can’t quite explain why.

In short, good research helps teams understand the why behind the why  the thing that’s driving the customer’s need to find a solution for the problems they face.

A dichotomy exists between what we see in the laboratory, including conferences and classrooms, and the reality on the ground. In the lab, we view our research as a way to get closer to the mental models of our customers. Since we are so close to the work, we see, with every iteration, how much subtext exists in conversation and observation. We see our research strengthen or weaken our theories, and we are able to incorporate the data into our work as we move forward.

Outside the lab, though, people are busy. They have their own priorities. Every discipline has other things to worry about. Curiosity often takes a back seat to the bottom line. This process is what happens when you bring data into a complex world.

Before we move forward, we have to acknowledge this reality and deal with the problem: Our research isn’t respected because we don’t meet our stakeholders where they are.

Let’s talk about how to fix that, using the lenses of discipline, visibility and negotiation to ensure your research gets to the table.

 

Discipline

Research is full of subtext. In fact, I think that’s one of the reasons many of us become researchers in the first place — the customer is a mystery we are trying to solve.

It’s fun to talk to customers and try to understand them. But that fun is why discipline is important. Although customers have a million things to say, we have a limited amount of time to engage with them. If we aren’t careful, a lack of discipline can float into our analysis and our output and results in research that doesn’t solve the critical problems of the business. If your research doesn’t affect the problems that people care about, it will be ignored, and with good reason.

Therefore, it is critical that the rest of the organization sees your focus through the quality of your artifacts, i.e., a good study guide and thoughtful questions. It will give your research a level of seriousness and keep you honest about the work you are doing. You’ll need to be rigorous in the inputs you use in the research, how you conduct the study and how the outputs look to those involved.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How are you putting together your research study guides? Are they rigorous — did you vet your study guide against company and team goals, with open-ended, thoughtful customer-perspective-driven questions and a clear objective?
     
  • Is your hypothesis falsifiable? If it can’t be “wrong,” then bias takes over and ruins the research. You’ll see what you want to see. Can the customer refute it and lead you to a better path?
     
  • How clear are you being with your recommendations after your analysis (three max remember your stakeholders have their own plates full!)?

Keeping things sharp requires discipline. To build trust, give others in your organization the recommendations they need and, if people outside of the research team want, a place to read how you got to those recommendations. If you keep that discipline, you’ll notice more of your work being used in the organization.

 

Visibility

One of the things that makes Waffle House, a restaurant chain based in the southern United States, different from many 24/7 diners is that you can see the kitchen right in front of you. When you’ve had too many drinks, this even functions as entertainment. We love to see how the sausage is made. This peek behind the curtain is a reason Waffle House is one of the biggest and most beloved restaurant chains we have.

Your research is no different. As Cyd Harrell notes, communicating your research to the world is just as important as doing it. Start by inviting other people to the lab. Doing so is the highest-leverage move you can make for the visibility of your research. Asking your engineering team or salespeople to help with research gives them an appreciation of the work that goes into finding conclusions.

Want to get them there? My bet is those folks are curious about what people have to say about their products. Play on that curiosity. A few anecdotes that come from the research will raise some eyebrows. Give them a recording of a session. Bring them on board during the analysis stage to talk about problems that deal with their area of responsibility. Little nudges will get them in the room. Once they are there, I have rarely seen someone not want to come back.

Here are some questions to ponder when thinking about the visibility of the research:

  • When was the last time people got a chance to see your research while you were making it?
     
  • Who is involved in the creation of the research? How aware are people of the problem that you’re working to solve?
     
  • How often have you shared your unfinished research? Is there a cadence with the rest of the company/team?

The first step to making people care is making them aware. There is a ton of value just in having people know about the process. You can create even more excitement when people can engage with and be a part of your projects.

 

Sales

A basic principle of advertising is the Rule of Seven. This dictum states that someone has to see or hear something seven times before they will buy a product or service. Less than that, and the listener will more than likely forget the product’s name. Whenever you watch a commercial or listen to a podcast ad, notice how often the company’s name and offerings get brought up. My guess is you’ll hear it seven times.

Let’s think about our own research in the context of the Rule of Seven. In a commercial or podcast ad, you hear the product’s name repeated seven times. That’s what it takes to get an idea to stick in another person’s consciousness. So how often are you talking about research, in general? If I were to look at your product development process, how often does research come up? If you’re not talking about it, what makes you think people will care?

Just as importantly, how tailored is the pitch? You’ve spent time getting disciplined and raising your visibility, but at the end of the day, folks are busy. They need to have the data presented in a way they’ll care about.

Here, stakeholder management comes into play. Ask a simple question like this: “How would you like to get information from me in the future?” Doing so can help you build the right artifact at the right time. For example, if an engineering director loves to read transcripts, and the CEO needs a presentation, it’s your job to provide both. Returning to the first point, if you are disciplined, it’s a lot easier to do this since your research will be contained and accessible.

Ultimately, when you are selling your research to your stakeholders, make sure you tailor the story to the audience and then repeat it often.

How is this different from visibility? Visibility is about making people aware of your work on your terms; selling is about action on theirs.

Here are a few questions to ponder when evaluating how you sell:

  • Who is buying your research? Are they in-org or out-org? What are their priorities? Is this being reflected in your artifacts to them by putting what they care about up front?
     
  • How does research, as a whole, generate resources for the company? Is it helping people solve problems? How can you highlight that process?
     
  • If the research is good, how often are you getting it in front of people who make decisions?

Research needs to be sold again and again. People need to get the why behind the why. Without selling, the work you’re doing can seem like you’re just talking to customers all day without action. You’ll need to make good research happen.

At the beginning of this article, I talked about how research matters. It isn’t enough to just talk to customers and show people that you’ve talked to them. None of it matters if you can’t get the research in the product. The first step toward that goal is understanding that your research exists in a system, and it won’t sell itself.

A team that maintains discipline with its research practice while also making it visible and sellable is the team that gets its conclusions into the product. Those conclusions are the difference between a product that stays on the pulse of the customer and wins the marketplace and the others that become also-rans, doomed to play follow-the-leader and, eventually, die as the marketplace evolves.

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