Product Research: The Building Blocks of a User-Centered Solution
Product research is a foundational step in building user-centric products. It allows you to understand customer needs, preferences, and market trends, informing the development of successful solutions to user problems. Read on for the ultimate guide to product research, including methods, processes, and best practices—plus our favorite tips from the industry’s leading experts.
Product research 101: Definition, methods, and best practices
You may only build new products once, but you iterate on them continuously. The ongoing evolution of a product’s user experience (UX), informed by user insights, is pivotal to staying ahead of competitors and giving your users exactly what they need. In chapter one of this guide, we’ll explore what product research is, give an overview of key methods (and when to use them), plus best practices to follow.
What is product research?
Product research is any research you conduct to better inform your product and understand your user and market. Unlike user research, product research goes beyond evaluating the user experience and includes market analysis, pricing, feature prioritization, and assessing business viability.
Product research is a broader term than UX research—you can conduct research on the user, the interaction, the market, or your business strategy.
Matthieu Dixte, Product Researcher at Maze
It helps you understand the world you are bringing your product into, and what your users expect to do with a product like yours—so you can use their insights to influence development and design decisions.
Other research terms you might come across
Ultimately, all research falls under the 'product research' banner if it influences the final product. For some product teams, ‘user research’ and ‘product research’ may be interchangeable. But there are some subtle differences between various research terms that it can be helpful to know. Here are the distinctions between key terms you might hear, explained by Maze's Product Researcher, Matthieu Dixte:
- Market research: Discover who is leading the market, who your direct and indirect competitors are, and what similar products are available to your users at what price
- User research: Understand the user, including their needs, pain points, likes and dislikes, and characteristics—both as a consumer and user of your product
- User experience (UX) research: Learn how your user perceives and interacts with your product—where they click, which paths they follow, and where they search for information on-page
- Product discovery: Uncover what your users’ needs and problems are, validate ideas for potential solutions before development, and apply user insights to your product strategy
- Continuous product discovery: Adapt the mindset of an ever-evolving product and user; conduct research continuously throughout the product lifecycle and ensure all decisions are informed by user insights
For example, let’s say you’re thinking of developing and launching a note-taking app for teenagers. You’d need to conduct market research to see if there are any similar products in high demand to gauge if your tool is something customers want. In parallel, you should run user research to discover who your user persona would be and what their pain points are.
You also have to do product discovery to identify the best way to build and design your potential product to make it appealing for teens. And, if you want to know how your users will feel about your product compared to other options, you need product research.
Lastly, run UX research tests on your mobile and web app to gather feedback, and improve the experience. You should continue to talk with users regularly after launch by adopting a continuous product discovery mindset (and ensure you’re always updating and offering the right product).
Why is product research important?
Are we making the right assumptions? Is this product what users really need? Can they use it effectively?
Research answers all those questions. But product research goes a step further by placing those answers in the context of your niche and the market. It empowers your team—not only to create unbiased, user-centric products—but also to create best-selling products that are based on a robust business strategy and deep understanding of the market.
Product research will also help you:
Head in the right direction
Conducting types of product research like competitive analysis gives you inside information on what your users value in a similar product—and what they’re missing. It ensures you’re heading in the right direction by only working on aspects of your product you know will succeed. This helps you speed time-to-market, reduce the cost of fixing future mistakes, and achieve higher goals.
Product research allows you to “define the total addressable market and north star metric, based on the customer segments that found your idea and product valuable. We would fail at achieving product-market fit without doing customer research,” explains Prerna Kaul, Product Lead for Alexa AI at Amazon.
Make the right decisions at the right time
User data can inform your decisions and help you prioritize them according to the goals of the business. “Make choices regarding the evolution of your product and find the right balance between what you want to deliver to improve the user experience, and the benefits it’ll bring to your company,” advises Matthieu. Without product research, you’re building products in the dark with no idea whether your target audience will like or buy them—which could mean wasted resources and sinking revenue.
Get stakeholder buy-in
You’ve probably found yourself explaining multiple times to stakeholders why you need to prioritize one feature over another. Conducting product research enables you to “clearly articulate the customer value proposition to leadership, tech, and science counterparts,” says Prerna. Having quantitative and qualitative user insights provides reassurance to stakeholders and speeds up sign-off—while ensuring the wider organization is aligned on your product ideas.
In short, product research provides you evidence you need to start evangelizing research among your organization, and get the whole team on board.
Understand the position your users hold in the market
User research is about getting to know your target audience and building ideal customer profiles, but product research is about discovering where your potential customers are located in the market and which trending products to take note of. If your audience is already using a similar product, this means finding out: Which one? Why? Are they willing to switch to a different product? What would it take for you to get them to switch?
“Analyzing the market lets you determine which areas could be ripe for disruption or creation. By analyzing existing products and doing conceptual thinking you can build a picture of how you can get your product to gain traction in the market and offer something new, nuanced, or better than the current options,” says Nick Simpson, Head of UX at Airteam.
Challenge your assumptions and anticipate problems
When Prerna worked at Walmart Labs, her team introduced a feature for users to scan products in the Scan and Go app. “We initially believed that all of our inventory was available in a common database and accessible through the app. However, during research and user testing, we identified that some rare products were not in the online database,” she explains.
This caused test users to drop off the app, so her team had to take a step back and prioritize fixing inventory issues before launching the product. Without conducting product research, you can be left guessing at the cause of user problems, or wondering why they prefer a particular product. Research offers your team a chance to challenge what you think you know, and pre-empt what you don’t.
Product research methods
There are many different product research and UX research methods, all of which offer different kinds of data and insight, depending on your objectives. If you’re looking to conduct product research to better understand your users, market, or competitors, here are eight product research methods you should consider to help you build winning products.
1. Customer interviews
Interviews can take place at any take of the product development process and consist of direct conversations with current or potential customers. You may choose to conduct interviews with a market panel during concept testing and idea screening to validate your ideas, or you may want to speak to current users after the product goes live to gather post-launch feedback. Interviews are a varied and flexible product research method.
During customer interviews, you should ask open and unbiased research questions to gather insights about customer needs, preferences, and experiences regarding their pain points, your product, and competitors.
2. Voice of customer (VoC) analysis
Gauge what current and potential customers are saying about your products or competitor products online. You can do this using VoC tools, by reviewing what people post on social media, looking at Google Trends, or reading reviews on websites like G2.
You should conduct customer voice analysis continuously throughout the lifecycle as it can help you gain a competitive advantage. “Review what’s publicly published, check feature requests, and ask sales, customer success, or support teams for feedback coming from the user,” adds Matthieu.
For example, if a competitor gets acquired by a bigger firm and users start to complain about them removing a feature, you can use the opportunity to develop a similar functionality or improve the one you have. You can also make it more visible on-page and get the sales and marketing teams to use the information to advertise your product.
3. Diary studies
Diary studies involve users self-reporting behaviors, habits, and experiences over a period of time. This is often used during the discovery phase with a competitor product, or later down the line with a prototype. By observing how users feel prior to, during, and after using your (or a competitor) product—and their experience throughout—you can gather valuable, in-the-moment insights within a real life context.
You can conduct diary studies on paper, video, or online on a mobile app or a dedicated platform.
Data from diary research can turn into new product ideas, new features, or inform your current project. For instance, if you have a social media scheduling tool and you identify that users open a time zone calculator when they’re scheduling posts, you instantly have a new feature idea, to add a widget with different time zones.
Pro tip ✨
Learn more about the types of diary study and how to conduct diary research here.
4. Competitive analysis
Analyze competitors' products and strategies to identify what works for them and identify any gaps in the market. The idea behind competitive product analysis is to explore your competitor’s products in-depth, sign up for an account, use them for a while, and take notes of top features, UX, and price points. You can run competitive analysis during the discovery, concept validation, or prototyping stages with direct and indirect competitors, or aspirational businesses.
Matthieu Dixte, Product Researcher at Maze, notes the value of competitive analysis is in understanding your users perspective: “We conduct a lot of competitive analysis at Maze because it's really important for us to understand if the market is mature regarding a particular topic—and to identify the current ground covered. This helps us understand the pros and cons our customers perceive when they choose between our product or another tool.”
Surveys can be a great way to get feedback or gather user sentiment relating to existing products or future concepts. You can also use them to dig deeper into the data gathered during other tests, and understand user issues and preferences in context.
For example, if you ran an A/B test and discovered that certain copy was causing potential users to churn, you could follow-up with a survey with targeted questions around their demographics, preferences, and personal views. This would help add qualitative insights to your quantitative data, and help understand what your users are looking for from your product.
Remember, you can create surveys at any stage of the product development to collect data from users in small or large volumes. You can use different types of surveys and survey principles to validate or debunk hypotheses, prioritize features, and identify your target market. For example, you could ask questions about your product, competitors, and prices or even your customer’s preferences and market trends.
Surveys can have a high drop-out rate, harming the validity of your data. Check out our survey design guide to discover the industry’s top secrets to an engaging survey which keeps users hooked.
6. Usability testing
Since conducting product research is also about understanding how well your customers navigate through your product and if they find it usable, you can run usability or prototype tests. Usability testing evaluates the usability of your product by asking test participants to complete tasks on your tool and seeing how they interact with it.
While typically conducted as a pre-launch check, usability testing is now widely understood as a building block of continuous research. Conducting regular usability tests is crucial to staying familiar with users, taking the pulse of your product, and ensuring every new product decision is informed with real data.
7. Fake door testing
The fake door testing method, also called the ‘painted door method’, is a way to validate whether your customers would be interested in a particular feature. “It works by faking a feature that is not actually available and implementing a tracker to know how many people click on it,” explains Matthieu.
When people click on the feature, they see a message explaining it’s not available at the moment. If the click-rate is high, you can assume there’s interest in the feature and conduct further research to identify how to design and develop it.
While it’s a quick way to gauge interest, fake door testing runs the risk of frustrating users, so if you’re using this method on a live product, you should be cautious and set a short testing period to avoid creating false expectations in your users.
8. Focus groups
Focus groups are when you gather a group of users to try your product and discuss their thoughts on the design, UX, usability, or price. You’ll offer them prompts or ask a series of user research questions to spark conversation, then observe and take notes.
This can be an expensive or admin-heavy method, as you need to rent a space, find participants who are willing to attend, and compensate them for their time. However, you can also conduct focus groups remotely through video conferencing tools. These groups are a good way of generating new product ideas or gaining deep insight in a short space of time, as you can hear directly from your users and adjust your questioning to follow up on important topics or opinions which participants mention.
When to perform product research
Source: 2023 Continuous Product Discovery Report
According to our 2023 Continuous Product Discovery Report, most teams conduct research at problem discovery (59%) and problem validation (57%), with only 36% researching post-launch.
The consensus is that product teams don’t think that’s enough—78% think they could research more often: which means there’s a big opportunity for you to implement regular research at all stages of the product research process.
Here’s when to conduct research on your product:
- At problem discovery stage to outline a hypothesis based on user insights
- During problem validation to prove your hypothesis
- During solution generation and concept development to see if you’re moving in the right direction
- As you’re screening different ideas for prioritization to identify the ones your users value most
- At solution definition and once you have your initial design to test early wireframes
- After developing a prototype to see assess usability and direction
- During validation and testing to review changes made to previous prototypes
- After development, and post-launch to get feedback and plan your future steps
- Before launching a new feature or doing product optimization to gauge users’ perceptions
Best practices for effective product research
If you only have time to consider one best practice for product research, we’ll keep it short. Just start.
Any research is better than none, and there’s a wealth of knowledge out there waiting to be discovered. If you don’t use it, your competitors will.
Now, here are six other best practices to help you improve your results and get the best insights possible:
1. Conduct research continuously
Your product is never done, at least not while the market, your customers, and technology are evolving. So, for your users to keep choosing you, you need to grow with them, adapt to trends, and keep iterating on your product. The right way to make product iterations is by conducting continuous product research, having frequent communication with your users, and actively listening to the market.
Did you know that user-centric organizations achieve 2.3x better business outcomes? 📊
By putting customers' needs front and center, research-mature organizations are driving better customer satisfaction (1.9x), customer retention (2.4), and increased revenue (4.2x). Learn more in our Research Maturity Report.
2. Focus on the business problem when presenting to stakeholders
It’s easy to get so involved in the product that you forget to mention how it helps the business when presenting research findings. To get stakeholders on board and to build great products that are profitable, always keep the business needs in mind. There’s no product without business success, so always align with your stakeholders and bring it back to team KPIs and business metrics. To convey your story, it’s a good rule of thumb to start each cross-team meeting by presenting the business problem, then sharing how adding a certain feature decision will help you solve it, before getting into the data that backs this up.
3. Embrace your curiosity
One of the biggest mistakes you can make in product research is letting cognitive biases take over the process. Work in teams and ask questions out of curiosity—consider research a way to disprove your hypothesis or challenge your assumptions, rather than a way to prove them right. As Prerna Kaul, Product Lead for Alexa AI at Amazon explains, you often gain more insight from an answer you don’t want to hear. “A huge trust-buster is when researchers sell an idea to customers and reinforce their pre-existing beliefs.” Doing so makes the user tell you what you want to hear but not what you need to know. It’s better to know that you have the wrong assumptions early on and build products that solve the right problem.
It’s non-negotiable to ensure that you are solving the right problem for the customer. Your solution is a painkiller, not a vitamin.
Prerna Kaul, Product Lead for Alexa AI at Amazon
4. Focus on the end goal rather than specific features
When you work closely with a product you’re passionate about, it’s only natural to think of all the possibilities, and minute details and features of the product. However, it’s crucial to understand that, while you might be the one making the internal decisions, the user will have the final call. Getting hung up on specific features will get you frustrated if users disagree, or lead you to make biased choices. To overcome this, you can write a research statement explaining the big problem you’re trying to achieve with the product. Come back to this before and after each decision, to keep your choices grounded in what’s best for the user.
“We always ask: Are we solving the right problem by creating this product? Is it going to have a measurable benefit to people?” says Nick Simpson, Head of UX at Airteam. “Then, we try to answer those questions through research methods to determine whether this investment will be worth it, to both business and users.” By thinking of the overall end goal at all stages, you get to build profitable products and features that really respond to that intention.
5. Take notes of everything
This one might go without saying, but it’s crucial to keep track of everything. Not just to inform future research and remind yourself where decisions came from, but to democratize research and bring the entire organization into your research process.
Set up a centralized research repository that anyone can access, and share it with your wider organization. Within the product team, keep a record of all user insights, even if they sound impossible to achieve at first. “These ‘futuristic’ thoughts or ideas are the ones that can either inform future iterations of the product or that you can creatively turn into something more feasible to design and build,” explains Nick. Keeping an organized information bank enables everyone on the team to get to know the user, the market, and why you’ve made certain decisions in the past.
6. Combine user feedback with data
While your users should be at the center of your business, don’t rely solely on their comments without checking other data. In reality, not everything people say is exactly what they do. Research participants can be influenced by any number of factors, mostly unconscious, so it’s important to use qualitative and quantitative data to reinforce each other.
For example, the users you interviewed might tell you they love a certain feature, but when you contrast those comments with heatmap data and time on page, you see that only a small percentage of your customers actually use it. Consider what research can be conducted to ascertain why this is, how you can improve those metrics, or whether it’s more helpful to refocus efforts on a different feature with a higher profit margin.
Keep learning about product research
In this chapter, we’ve covered a lot about product research:
- What product research is (and what it’s not)
- How researching your product is beneficial to your business
- The different methods you can use to conduct product research
- When to conduct product research
- Best practices for your research
Now, it’s time to kickstart your product research process in the next chapter. We’ll also talk about how to conduct product experiments and competitive analysis, so stay tuned.