User Research: How to Start Talking to Your Users

If you've been following us for a while, you know how much we love talking to our customers.

I strongly believe that our industry's infatuation with data and metrics is a terrible, terrible thing.

So many entrepreneurs spend countless hours rummaging through their analytics, without realizing that most of us don't have enough volume to make the data statistically relevant in the least. We end up reading what we want to read from the data, and we make terrible time-wasting decisions.

At Balsamiq, We're Not Metrics-Driven. We're People-Driven!

Learning about our users doesn't have to be a complicated, grueling task. There's a FAR better, EASY way to do it. It's called TALKING TO THEM! I know, radical, right?

I get it; I'm a nerd too. Talking to strangers can be awkward and scary. But it doesn't have to be. And it's worth it.

Every time I speak with a customer for 30 minutes I end up with a list of 8 bullet-points of things that we MUST-DO-IMMEDIATELY-OMG-WHY-DID-WE-NOT-DO-THESE-YET!

It's 1000 times more efficient than analytics, trust me. Even with all the most precise analytics in the world on hand, you would still need to talk to people and ask them "why?"

How to Talk to Your Users, Step 1: Get Ready

User Research is its own discipline. People build their whole careers around it, and it takes a long time to get really good at it. Consider yourself lucky if you can hire someone to teach you how to do it, or to do the research for you. But most of us at small companies can't afford to. Here's what I did to prepare.

I watched this talk: Interviewing Users: Uncovering Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal - I also ordered his book and read the first few chapters of it. That was enough to gain the confidence to try and come up with my own system to start interviewing users.

Note that interviews are not the same as usability testing. You could combine the two, but there's not usually enough time to do it in a single call.

Once I had read up enough on the topic, I created a simple "field guide" for myself, to help me during the call.

Step 2: Make a Field Guide

A field guide is simply a list of things to remember to say during the call. Writing them down makes sure you don't forget them, and that you always find the right words at the right time! All you have to do is read the script!

Here are the instructions for myself that I put in my guide:

Starting the call:

  1. DO NOT take notes. Focus 100% on them.
  2. Start the recording.
  3. Say: hello and welcome and thank you, etc.
  4. Say this: Before we start, I wanted to ask if it was ok for me to record this. It's only for internal use, I just need it so that I can focus on you instead of taking notes.
  5. Say thank you and explain the interview process: OK so the goal of today's chat is to get to know you a little and see if there's anything we can do to serve you better. I have a few questions prepared but we don't have to follow them too strictly. I also want to make sure we have time at the end to answer any questions you may have for me.
  6. Say: Great, let's get started!
  7. Follow the questions (see below). Focus on listening. Use all the interviewing techniques you learned in the Interviewing Users book.

Closing:

  1. Say: Thank you so much for taking time out to talk to me. Your feedback is really valuable and will really help us out.
  2. Say: Would you be interested in being contacted in the future to be on future beta lists, and for an occasional survey?
  3. Say: If you ever have any questions or issues in the future, please feel free to send them to me directly. It was great meeting you.

Step 3: Come up with the List of Questions

What you ask your users can depend on a lot of factors. You could have separate questions for each of your personas, or want to ask different things depending on what problem you're trying to solve with your business at the time.

It is essential to have a clear goal for the interview and make sure your questions will get you a step closer to achieve it.

Here's a list of generic questions to start with:

  • Tell me a little bit about yourself and your career.
    • this breaks the ice, and gives you context
  • Tell me about your process, From Idea to Shipping, and how our software/solution fits in that process.
    • this helps you understand the value of your solution
  • Has our software/solution made you more awesome? How?
    • similar to before, and what they say here can be used for marketing / testimonials
  • How would you define our software/solution in your own words, to a junior employee?
    • whatever they say here (aggregated and massaged) goes straight to your landing page
  • What websites or online communities do you use to stay current? How do you learn about your craft?
    • this tells you what to sponsor
  • Who are the experts in your field? Who do you look up to and why?
    • this tells you who the influencers are
  • Do you go to any conferences or trade shows?
    • this tells you what conferences to get a booth at
  • Is there something we're not doing for you that you wish we did? It doesn't have to be about the product.
    • this is a GREAT question. So many ideas come out of this. Maybe they want a podcast to go with your software!
  • Do you have any questions for me?
    • make sure you don't rush this one, and be honest with your answers! Don't be afraid to be vulnerable

You can tweak as you go. Think of these questions as guidelines. You don't have to follow them too strictly. More than an interview try to hold a conversation. If it takes an interesting turn away from the pre-established questions, follow it.

That's it!

Not too hard, right?

Step 4: Recruit!

Alright, now that you have your field guide, all that's missing is customers to talk to and learn about!

Depending on what you want to ask, you might want to speak with people who don't know about your product, or just found it, or are beginners, or experts, or even left your product for another.

To make the process easier and less intimidating, we suggest starting by talking to your super-fans. They love you already, and they probably use your software much more than you do yourself. You have a ton to learn from them, and the conversations will be smooth and friendly. Even recruiting them will be easy!

At Balsamiq, we are recruiting like this:

  • We created a simple "Talk to Us!" page on our website, linked from the company page. Check it out!
  • We put a pinned message about it in our forums, where our superfans hang out.
  • We've invited them to talk to us via our newsletter several times.
  • We sent out a survey asking: "Would you be interested in doing a user research interview with us? If so, enter your email address below." (This had a great response, we might repeat it in the future.)
  • When we've met interesting people at conferences, we asked them the same question!

That's it! Again, easy and cheap.

Speaking of cheap: we don't offer any reward to people for talking to us, we want them to do it because they genuinely want to help us. We do send them a special gift after the call, but that's a surprise. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Step 5: Do It Over and Over, and Learn from It!

All that's left is to schedule the interviews (this can be a bit tedious, but tools like YouCanBook.me can help), and do a bunch of them. You'll feel more and more comfortable as you do them.

After each interview, watch the video back and take notes. Have someone else from your team do the same: they'll probably have different ideas than yours.

We try to do 2 or 3 interviews a week.

It's SO worth it. It gives you and your team incredible CLARITY on what you're all about and what you should be doing next. Highly, highly recommended.

What's Next for User Research at Balsamiq

We've been applying this simple research interview method for over a year. Now, we're ready to step it up.

Here are all the exciting things that are happening:

  • Everyone on the design frontlines joined me in interviewing users. We're also doing live wireframing with customers. Talking to people at events to learn from them is also a fundamental part of the job.
  • A cross-functional team is working on updating our Personas and experience maps. This is a starting point to help everyone get their head around our research findings.
  • Last but not least, we have a person fully committed to learning and leading User Research.

We genuinely care about our customers, and we want to help them be more awesome. In order to do this, we're continuously thinking of how to cultivate empathy for them. User Research will help us do that in several ways:

  • We will offer User Research as an internal service. This means we'll support all projects and teams that need customer insights to make informed decisions.
  • We're going to create a system to share our User Research learnings company-wide. Something like a database of research-generated knowledge.
  • Every study is a chance to make new friends. We're aiming to develop long-term relationships by making these in-depth customer interactions meaningful for both interviewer and interviewee.

That's it for now!

We hope this little guide was useful. Do YOU talk to your users? If so, how? If not, why not?

Also, we're still very much interested in talking to you! Now you even know what we'll ask you! Here's the sign-up page.

Peldi for the Balsamiq Team


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