10 Tips for Getting to Know Your Buyers and Users

Related Framework BoxBuyer PersonasPlanning

In this world where smart + connected is becoming the new ordinary, our job is to understand how people (customers, buyers and users) will experience new technologies and how these technologies will shift the experiences of their daily life. Officially titled principal engineers, we are experts respectively in human factors and cultural anthropology. While our coworkers at Intel and our collaborators at customer and ecosystem businesses focus on: can we?, we ask: should we? What will be the future experience? How do we create a future ordinary that empowers all of us digitally and in the physical world? We spend our days gathering and analyzing rich contextual data about how people live and work—the very data that is used to create personas and other artifacts used to design experiences. We often apply our research skills in untraditional areas (e.g., industrial spaces), and are responsible for driving changes outside of the scope of traditional user research. 

We meet a lot of interesting people as we lug our video cameras out in the field, taping people’s daily lives. Faith has gone out on truck rolls with fiber-optics installers, hung out in doctors’ offices to see how staff share information about patients, collected data from oil workers over lunch, interviewed rocket scientists to understand decision-making on deep space missions, and collaborated with fifth-graders using cardboard, glue sticks and whatever else they could find to come up with the next-generation educational technology. Alex has roadtripped in an RV and interviewed retirees who’ve given up their “stick homes” to understand the challenges of mobile domesticity, and interviewed everyone from a feng shui master in Chengdu to an urban planner in Stockholm to a facilities manager for public school system in Oregon. She has even lugged a shower curtain and folding stepstool to eight countries to unpack the contents of car interiors. 

Our research may seem eclectic or “fun,” but it is deadly serious. What we do prevents the product teams we work with from wasting time when bringing a product to market: wasting time pursuing a strategy not valued outside the companies; wasting time building the wrong solution; wasting time designing a product experience in a way that doesn’t fit with how people live and work. Instead, we help them understand the behaviors, needs and motivations of the people who will buy and use the product. We start by focusing on people. We spend our time discovering how people currently do things, so we can predict how they would like to do things in the future. We employ techniques that allow people to collaboratively define the future experience with us. Then we take what we learn about people and make their stories sticky in the business. We package these stories in innovative ways to bring themes to life for our stakeholders, making them part of the lore, the ground truth and the fabric of the organizational culture moving forward. 

Good experience research improves the quality and velocity of decision-making throughout product planning. Here are 10 tips to help you scope and evaluate research, whether you are a professional researcher, a product-team collaborator or even curious to try your hand at a bit of research yourself. Following these tips won’t replace engaging an experience professional, or make you an experience researcher yourself, but they can help you gather useful information from the right people and help you know what to expect when you do engage with an experience professional.

1. Start with the decision that you need to make. The main goal of experience research is to inform a design decision. This is the big question that your research needs to answer, your objective. Your question can be very concrete (Where should we place a button on a web page to maximize user success at completing a task?) or more strategic (What are the most important problems for our “widget” to solve for a certain type of users?). It should guide everything that you do from this point on. And the question must be one that you can act on if you answer it. If you can’t, why do the research? 


2. Be lazy. Don’t rediscover the known world. Look for reports or information about your target audience, including existing personas and industry reports or surveys that relate to your big question. Don’t ignore sources like support logs or social-media postings that allow you to see what people complain about, care about or say they need. Then focus your research on filling the gaps.

3. Always have a plan. Now that you know where the gaps in your understanding are, come up with a plan for how to gather the information. At a minimum, you need to:

  • Decide what kinds of people you need to answer your big question (e.g., potential buyers or people doing a certain kind of work). Make a list of specific characteristics you are looking for, anything from the decisions they’re responsible for to the years they’ve been performinga task. 
  • Figure out a way to find these people. Will you put an ad on an online forum? Ask for help from your friends or family? Engage a professional recruiter? Make sure the research participants you choose are a good fit for your list of characteristics. If they aren’t, you may not care about their answer or their answer may steer you in the wrong direction. 
  • Decide how you will gather the information. At its most basic, it comes down to whether you need concrete answers about your product, or exploratory stories that provide a broad understanding of your users. If you want concrete answers, usability testing is usually the easiest way to go. If you are looking for exploratory information, interviews or observations will often get you there. 
  • Be specific about the questions that you will ask. The finer points of creating questions depend on your research method, but we live by a few basic rules. First, avoid leading questions. Ask the question in a manner that doesn’t assume you already know the answer. For example, don’t say “Is the reason that you didn’t use this product feature because you didn’t see it?” Second, focus on asking people about what they already do, not on what they might want help with in the future. Instead of asking, “Do you want feature X to help you do task Y?” ask, “Tell me about the last time you did Y.” This helps determine where the pain points are today and if the product solves them.

4. Get buy-in before you start collecting data. The most frustrating experience a researcher faces is collecting great data that no one uses. There are lots of reasons why this happens, but it often comes down to one of two things: either people don’t believe your data or there isn’t time to take action on what you discovered. And if that’s the case, why collect data? 

The best way to ensure that stakeholders believe in your research is to engage them in the process early on. Get their input at each step and help them connect what they need to accomplish back to the questions you ask. Also encourage them to observe the research process; just don’t invite so many people to a session that the research participant feels ganged-up on.

5. Use the buddy system. Don’t try to do research on your own. Coming up with questions, collecting data from participants, and figuring out what the data you collected means or what to do about it are not solo exercises. Different people bring different perspectives, which makes for a better result. So bring a buddy along. Plus, when you interview or observe people, it helps to have one person ask questions while the other takes notes.

6. Stay legal. The human beings who participate in your research have rights. Legally, you must allow a participant to withdraw from the research, not answer a question, take a break or not do a task. Keep the information that they provide confidential and do not use it in a manner that allows others to determine the identity of the participant. If you take pictures, videotape participants or record audio, you will need a formal consent form. If you show them concepts or products that are not currently available, you will need a non-disclosure form signed. Your organization may already have standard versions of these forms; just be sure to get signatures. 

7. Do a trial run. The first time you try gathering research using your plan should not be in front of an actual participant. Try it on your research buddy, other team members or family. This trial run allows you to fix problems in the plan and understand what you can reasonably accomplish in the time you’ve allotted for each participant. You likely will find that you are trying to capture too much information, so expect to ruthlessly prioritize or trim your questions. You also may find that some questions aren’t capturing the information that you expected to and will need to be fine-tuned. 

8. Make your data sticky. Your job doesn’t stop with data collection. You have to turn your data into a story others will act on. Finding the right story isn’t about picking the perfect story; it’s about making visible the challenges people face and triggering action to solve their problems. As quickly as possible, get the preliminary results out to those who can act on them. Also use the data to create personas and use cases, a great way to put a friendly face on your data. 

9. Don’t blindly do what people tell you. The people who participated in your research aren’t designers, but they will often tell you how they would solve a problem. Take their suggested improvement as a symptom of a problem, but don’t treat it as the right solution. This approach will also reduce the thrash that results from making changes based on whomever you spoke with last.

10. Know when to get help. Sometimes do-it-yourself is not good enough. If you notice any of the following signs, it may be time to enlist the aid of a professional experience researcher. 

  • You can’t get the information you need through a simple interview session or usability test. 
  • Your decision will have a significant impact on the business. 
  • Your questions are designed for children or other specialized populations.

When you get to know your buyers and users and share their stories with your product team, you’ll minimize wasted time and increase the odds of building a product experience that complements the way people actually live and work. And you’ll know what to expect when you do engage with an experience professional.

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