In part two of A Comprehensive Guide To Product Design, I’ll cover design research (user research and market research), user analysis (modeling of the users), and ideation (how users interact with the product, the product structure, and UI).

Product research

Once the product vision is defined, product research (which naturally includes user and market research) provides the other half of the foundation for great design. To maximize your chances of success, conduct insightful research before making any product decisions. Remember that the time spent researching is never time wasted. Good research informs your product design decisions, and the fact that it comes early in the design process will save you a lot of resources (time and money) down the road (because fewer adjustments will need to be made). Plus, with solid design research, selling your ideas to stakeholders will be a lot easier.

Product research is a broad discipline and covering all aspects of it in this article would be impossible. For more information on the topic, make sure to read A Comprehensive Guide to UX Research Methods.

Conduct User Research

As product creators, our responsibilities lie first and foremost with the people who will use the products we design. If we don’t know our users, how can we create great products for them?

Good user research is key to designing a great user experience. Conducting user research enables you to understand what your users actually need. When it comes to product research, researchers have a few different techniques to choose from.

User interviews

Gathering information through direct dialog is a well-known user research technique that can give the researcher rich information about users. This technique can help the researcher assess user needs and feelings both before a product is designed and long after it’s released. Interviews are typically conducted by one interviewer speaking to one user at a time for 30 minutes to an hour. After the interviews are done, it’s important to synthesize the data to identify insights in the form of patterns.

Tips

  • Try to conduct interviews in person. If you have a choice, in-person interviews are better than remote ones (via phone or web-based video). In-person interviews are preferable because they provide much more behavioral data than remote ones. You’ll gain additional insights by observing body language and listening for verbal cues (tone, inflection, etc.).
  • Plan your questions. All questions you ask during the interview should be selected according to the learning goal of your design research. A wrong set of questions cannot only nullify the benefits of the interview session, but also lead product development down the wrong path.
  • Find an experienced interviewer. A skilled interviewer makes users feel comfortable by asking questions in a neutral manner and knowing when and how to ask for more details.

Online surveys

Surveys and questionnaires enable the researcher to get a larger volume of responses, which can open up the opportunity for more detailed user analysis. While surveys are commonly used for quantitative research, they also can be used for qualitative research. It’s possible to gather qualitative data by asking open-ended questions (i.e., “What motivates you to make a purchase?” or “How do you feel when you need to return the item you purchased from us?”). The answers will be individualized and in general cannot be used for quantitative user analysis.

Online surveys are a relatively inexpensive design research technique. The downside of this method is that there’s no direct interaction with respondents, and, thus, it’s impossible to dive more deeply into answers provided by them.

Smartphone survey asking if you own a smartphone
Image by Google Forms

Tips

  • Keep it short. Don’t forget that every extra question reduces your response rate. If the survey is too long, you may find that you don’t get as many responses as you’d like. Better to send a few short surveys than to put everything you want to know into one long survey.
  • Open-ended versus close-ended questions. Asking open-ended questions is the best approach, but it’s easy to get stuck in analysis because every user answer requires researcher time for analysis. Plus, users quickly tire of answering open-ended questions, which usually require a lot of reading and typing.

Contextual inquiry

Contextual inquiry is a variety of field study in which the researcher observes people in their natural environment and studies them as they go about their everyday tasks. This method helps researchers obtain information about the context of use. Users are first asked a set of standard questions, such as “What is the most frequent task you typically do?” and then they are observed and questioned while they work in their own environment. The goal of contextual inquiry is to gather enough observations that you can truly begin to empathize with your users and their perspective.

Designer talking to a client
Visit real users to gain insights during design research. Image by Assembly

Tips

  • Don’t just listen to users — observe their behavior. What people say can be different from what people do. As much as possible, observe what users do to accomplish their tasks.
  • Minimize interference. When studying the natural use of a product, the goal is to minimize interference from the study in order to understand behavior as close to reality as possible.

Conduct market research

You cannot ignore competitors if you want to build a great product. To be competitive, you need to know what products are available on the market and how they perform. That’s why conducting market research is a crucial component of the product design process. Your ultimate goal should be to design a solution that has a competitive advantage.

Competitive research

Competitive research is a comprehensive analysis of competitor products and presentation of the results of the analysis in a comparable way. Research helps product teams understand industry standards and identify opportunities for the product in a given market segment.

A competitor is a company that shares your goals and that fights for the same thing that your product team wants. There are two types of competitors:

  • Direct competitors. Direct competitors are ones whose products compete head to head with your value proposition (offering the same, or very similar, value proposition to your current or future users).
  • Indirect competitors. Indirect competitors are those whose products target your customer base without offering the exact same value proposition. For instance, an indirect competitor’s primary product or service might not capture your value proposition, but their secondary product definitely does.
graph showing data collection

The most efficient way to do comprehensive competitive research is to collect all relevant data about your competitors in a matrix. This will help you keep track of everything that needs to be compared.

Tips

  • Start listing competitors before doing competitive research. Most likely you will begin to learn about competitors way before you conduct competitive research. For example, during user interviews, users might share names of products that they think are similar to the one you’re proposing. During stakeholder interviews, the product owners will certainly give you a few names of products they see as competitors. It’s worth creating a spreadsheet that will be used to collect the names of competitors right at the beginning of the project and try to fill it as you do product research. Add new names to the list so that you don’t forget them.
  • Use a cloud-based tool for competitive research. Tools such as Google Spreadsheet make it easier to share the latest up-to-date research information with a larger group of people (both teammates and stakeholders) and ensure that everyone is on the same page.

User analysis

After research, the product team must make sense of the data it’s collected. The aim of the user analysis phase is to draw insights from the data collected during the product research phase. Capturing, organizing, and making inferences about what users want, think, or need can help UX designers begin to understand why they want, think, or need that.

Modeling the users and their environments

Personas

Based on the product research results, UX designers can identify key user groups and create representative personas. Personas are fictional characters created to represent the different user types that might use a product in a similar way. Personas are created during the design research process to represent reliable and realistic representations of the key audience segments for reference. Once created, personas help product teams to understand the users’ goals in specific contexts, which is particularly useful during the research ideation stage.

User persona overview showing demographics, motivations, goals and frustrations.
Personas highlight behaviors, needs and motivations of your ideal customer. Image by xtensio.

Tips

  • Base the persona on real data. It can be tempting to invent some details about personas to make them attractive. Avoid that temptation. Every bit of the information in the persona should be based on the user research. If you don’t have some information, do research to fill in the gap.
  • Avoid using real names or details of research participants or people you know. This can bias the objectivity of your personas. (You’ll end up focusing on designing for this person, rather than a group of people with similar characteristics).

For more information on personas, read Putting Personas to Work in UX Design.

Empathy map

An empathy map is a visualization tool used to articulate what a product team knows about the user. This tool helps a product team build a broader understanding of the “why” behind user needs and wants. It forces product teams to shift their focus from the product they want to build, to the people who will use the product. As a team identifies what they know about the user and then places this information on a chart, they gain a more holistic view of the user’s world and the problem or opportunity space.

Illustration of a four quadrant empathy map
Empathy maps describe what users say, think, do and feel.

Tip

  • Turn your empathy map into a poster. It’s possible to create a nice reminder of what is user thinking or feeling by turning the empathy map into a poster. Create a few copies of the map and hang them around the office. This helps to ensure the user remains on people’s minds as they work.
Framed empathy map poster
Image by Paul Boag

Ideation

The ideation phase is a time when team members brainstorm on a range of creative ideas that address the project goals. During this phase, it’s critical not only to generate ideas but also to confirm that the most important design assumptions are valid.

Product teams have a lot of techniques for ideation — from sketching, which is very helpful for visualizing what some aspects of the design will look like, to storyboarding, which is used to visualize the overall interactions with a product.

User journey mapping

A user journey map is a visualization of the process that a person goes through in order to accomplish a goal. Typically, it’s presented as a series of steps in which a person interacts with a product.

A user journey can take a wide variety of forms depending on the context and business goals. In its most basic form, a user journey is presented as a series of user steps and actions in a timeline skeleton. Such a layout makes it easier for all team members to understand and follow the user’s narrative.

A simple user journey reflects only one possible path during one scenario.

Simple user journey map
Image by uxstudioteam

A complex user journey can encompass experiences occurring at different time sessions and scenarios.

Complex user journey path map
Image by Nform

Tip

  • Don’t make user journeys too complex. While designing a user journey, it is easy to get caught up in the multiple routes a user might take. Unfortunately, this often leads to busy user journeys. Focus on creating a simple, linear journey (the ideal way to get users to the given goal).

Scenarios and storyboards

After you’ve identified personas, you can write scenarios of interactions. A scenario is a narrative describing a day in the life of a persona, including how a product fits into their life. A storyboard presents the user’s story in a visual way — similar to a movie or comic. It can help product designers understand how people interact with a product in real life, giving designers a clear sense of what’s really important to users.

Storyboard of a user using an app
Storyboards are a sequence of illustrations. Image by Chelsea Hostetter, Austin Center for Design.

Tips

  • Build a strong narrative. The narrative in the story should focus on a goal the character is trying to achieve. All too often, designers jump right into explaining the details of their design before explaining the backstory. Avoid this. Your story should be structured and should have an obvious beginning, middle, and end.
Gustav Freytag’s pyramid of creating strong narratives
Gustav Freytag’s five part pyramid of creating strong narratives,
repurposed to depict a story about a guy whose phone doesn’t work. Illustration by Ben Crothers.
  • Design a clear outcome. Make sure your storyboard leaves the audience with no doubt about the outcome of the story. If you’re describing an unfavorable situation, end with the full weight of the problem. If you’re presenting a solution, end with the benefits of that solution for your character.

For tips on creating storyboards, read The Role of Storyboarding in UX Design.

User stories

A user story is a simple description of something that the user wants to accomplish by using a product. Here is a template for user stories:

Template for user stories

Tip

  • Use user stories to prevent feature creep. Feature creep is the tendency to add more features than a product requires. When designing a product, try to refuse adding any feature without a user story that explains why that particular feature matters.

Job stories

A job story is a way to describe features. It’s a description of a feature from a jobs-to-be-done perspective. A job story is an effective technique for defining a problem without being prescriptive of a solution.

Job story format
Image by Alan Klement

Tip

  • Define problems worth solving. At some point, you’ll have several jobs (problems) that you’ll want to create solutions for. Identify which of those problems have the most substantial impact on the user experience or your business goals.

Plan the structure of a product

Information architecture

Information architecture (IA) is the structure of a website, app, or other product. It enables users to understand where they are and where the information they want is in relation to their current position. Information architecture results in the creation of navigation, hierarchies, and categorizations of content. For example, when a UX designer sketches a top-level menu to help users understand where they are on a website, they’re practicing information architecture.

Information architecture diagram
Image by Behance

Information architecture would benefit from the involvement of users in the IA development process. Product teams typically use a technique called card sorting for this purpose. Designers ask users to organize items (major features or topics of the product) into groups and assign categories to each group. This method helps you find out how users expect to see information grouped on a website or in an app.

Designer card sorting
Card sorting helps define information architecture. Image by Optimal Workshop.

Tip

  • It’s possible to conduct a card-sorting session online. Online card-sorting tools allow for easier scaling to a higher number of study participants. One of the most popular online tools is OptimalSort (which is free for card-sorting studies with up to 10 participants).

Generate ideas – what will the user interface look like?

Sketching

Sketching is the easiest way to visualize ideas. Drawing by hand is a fast way to visualize a concept — enabling the designer to visualize a broad range of design solutions before deciding which one to stick with.

Designers sketch of a mobile app
Image by Steven Scarborough

Tip

  • Use a stencil when sketching user interfaces. When you sketch on paper, it can sometimes be hard to imagine how certain UI elements will look like at a realistic size. Using a stencil, it’s possible to draw elements for the actual size of the device you’re designing for. This is great for understanding whether a UI element you’ve just drawn is large enough for interaction.

Wireframing

A wireframe is a visual guide that represents a page’s structure, as well as its hierarchy and key elements. Wireframes are useful for discussing ideas with team members and stakeholders, and to assist the work of visual designers and developers. Wireframing acts as the backbone of the product — designers often use them as skeletons for mockups.

Wireframes can be presented in the form of sketches.

Designers sketch of a new interface design
Image by Nicholas Swanson

Wireframes can also be presented as digital illustrations.

Wireframe for a mobile app
Example of mobile app wireframe in Adobe XD.

Tips

  • Keep wireframes simple and annotate them. The aim of a wireframe is to show the structure of a page’s design — all other details come later. When presenting a wireframe to teams, try to include annotations. Annotations help to create context and quickly deliver key ideas.
  • Don’t use wireframes for product testing. Wireframes are hardly used for product testing. Even though they help designers gather feedback on design during initial research, they don’t replace actual interaction with a product (through an interactive prototype).

Continue reading part three of A Comprehensive Guide to Product Design: Design, Testing, and Post-Launch Activities.