User Research & Persona Creation

April 6

Getting Into the Mind of Your User

User research and persona creation can be your gateway to solidifying your problem statement and testing hypotheses related to your users. They are key parts to the human-centered design process, which is, by definition, focused on the human, the user. For this article, we’ll assume you’ve done sufficient research and initial customer discovery to understand the market needs and have an initial idea of the problem faced by your target users.

A great way to start along the user research pathway is to write down all of the things you think you know about your users (hypotheses) in the form of statements. For example, “I think my users shop primarily online.” Then, take a step back and ask yourself “Why do I think this?” and “Do I have data to back it up?” You might realize you can answer “yes” in a few cases, but this will help you realize where there is insufficient evidence to back up your hypotheses or gaps in your understanding of your users, their pain points, how they currently solve the problem you think they have, etc. You should then add these gaps to your hypothesis list.

Note: Before we go too far down this rabbit hole, you might be wondering why testing your hypothesis and correcting any assumptions matters. Whether you are building a brand new business around a product or adding a new product to your existing line up, unvalidated assumptions can lead to massive wastes of time and money. For instance, you think your user is 40-55 years old, and you plan the entire product design, user experience, branding, marketing campaigns, and sales channels around this only to find out that 40-55 yr olds just aren’t buying. Maybe the actual user that has the problem skews younger? Maybe the solution you offer to the 40-55 yr olds isn’t actually meeting their needs, but if you tweaked it, it would. You’ll save yourself a ton of time, hassle, and money if you test and validate assumptions through user research BEFORE designing your solution, let alone the full product.

You might naturally find that these hypotheses fall into categories. Depending on how you approach things, it may be easier for you to run down a list of general categories to help you generate the hypotheses in the first place. Some categories to consider:

  • Pricing (i.e., how much do similar products cost? How much are your users willing to pay?)
  • Sales channels (i.e., does your user buy similar products online or in physical stores?)
  • Revenue models (i.e., will your user prefer to buy as a subscription or a one-time purchase?)
  • Value proposition (i.e., do your users have the problem you think they have?)
  • Features (i.e., what features do your users love about similar products? What do they wish they had?)

You can then ask yourself “What do I need to ask my users to test these hypotheses or fill in these gaps in understanding?” Generate a list of open-ended questions alongside each hypothesis. Single word response questions can get you quick data that you may need, but open-ended questions will get your users talking, sharing their experiences and frustrations. Don’t be afraid to play with the wording of your questions and change it as you go through this process.

You’ve identified your hypotheses and you’ve written draft questions to use during your user interviews, but who are the right users to talk to? Working with clients ranging from startups to large companies, we see people come at this from a variety of different directions. Clients looking to innovate or extend an existing product tend to know who is using their product currently, what roles they occupy, what their job functions are, what their goals and motivations are, and what their frustrations are. They can carve out user personas–prototypical character sheets–of their different types of users without issue (see image below). Clients looking to create a brand new product may struggle with this step. They don’t have the years of happy, loyal customers to call up and have questions warmly answered. They may still be making assumptions about who their user is. They will never know who their niche user is until they talk with those assumed users and test their hypotheses. When you’re in this situation, the “right user” is a guess that you refine over time and by talking to as many potentially “right” users as possible.

A quick word of caution: It can be hard to find your “right” users to talk to depending on your product’s target space (i.e., consumer gaming, thoracic surgery), so planning and networking are key. Asking for instructions from friends and colleagues, posting on social media, and going to events your users might also go to, are all ways to find users to talk to. Ideally, you want face-to-face interactions so you can read their non-verbal queues, see the passion or frustration in their eyes, and make that connection to them in case you need or want to follow up with a few additional questions once you get further along.

As you talk to more and more users, a picture of your right (no quotes) user will begin to form, you will amass the responses of every user you’ve talked to and find trends in that data that either support your hypotheses or not (make sure you take good notes, record conversations, and even have a partner there to make sure you don’t miss anything). Throw out or change the hypotheses that aren’t correct. Draw new ones and test those. Eventually, you will know your user so well that you will be able to craft that or those persona(s) of your users. You will know what your users do and what their struggles are. You will understand what drives them as related to your product. You will be able to empathize with their pains and frustrations, knowing the causes reported by the users.

It’s an amazing moment when the user comes into focus and doing that user research to test your hypotheses and creating those user personas to bring the user(s) to life are great ways to ensure an incredibly strong foundation for your product design and development efforts. They result in not only this deep understanding of the user, but all of those interviews give you nuggets of insight to use as you move forward to brainstorming potential solutions.

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