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Written by

Kene Anoliefo

|

Published on

January 30, 2024

The Quick and Dirty Guide to User Research: How to Validate User Needs

Learn how to do interviews to validate user needs when you're on a tight product development timeline.

What do you do when you have a product to build but don't have a lot of time for user research?

To build a product people actually want, you have to make sure it’s something they really need. Customer research including user interviews, prototype testing and even A/B tests are effective tools to help ensure your product is driving the right outcomes for users.

In a perfect world you’d have plenty of time to bake customer research into every step of the product development process, and the right people on your team to help you do it. But none of us operate in a perfect world.

In reality, the product development lifecycle is rarely a straight line; there are stops and starts, left turns, and plenty of double backs. Most teams are working on features that the business needed yesterday without a dedicated product researcher to jump in at a moment’s notice. With such tight timelines and budgets, it can be tempting to skip talking to customers in order to move faster.

Instead of skipping research altogether, this guide will walk you through how to talk to customers when you don’t have a ton of time or resources to do so. We’ll review what research strategy to use at each stage of the product lifecycle: Validating Needs, Validating Concepts, Validating User Experience and Validating Outcomes.

At each stage we’ll review what the goal, tactics and signals that you should look for at each stage of development. The goal is to add no more than 72 hours to your timeline at each step — which should be a small price to pay in order to ensure that you’re building something useful and valuable for your customers.

Part 1: Validating User Needs

Before you get started designing a solution, you want to be sure you understand the problem your product is solving. The goal of research at this stage is to paint a detailed picture of what your customer’s life was like before they met your product by understanding their needs and challenges.

To do this, imagine that you're writing a chapter in the epic story that is your product narrative. In any epic, there’s always a hero or protagonist — that’s your customer. The hero is trying to rescue someone important to them (that's the outcome your customer is trying to achieve), but a scary beast stands in their way (the challenges and obstacles your customer faces). They’ve journeyed for miles and miles looking for the perfect tool to slay the wild beast but nothing has worked so far (all the other stuff they tried in the past). This is where you want to show up, right in time with just the perfect weapon to win the battle (your solution)!

Think of your customer as the hero in your "epic" product story

Let's say you're on a team of people looking to build financial planning tools for young people. When you validate needs, you might start by exploring a broad subject, like “How do I help young people who just graduated from college with financial planning?” Other times you might already have a specific idea in mind and want to validate that you're moving in the right direction, like “I want to help young people manage their money by building a calendar to tell them how much to save or invest each month.”

In either case, it’s important to spend time with customers and have them articulate their needs in their own words. These recent grads are the heroes of your epic, and you want to understand the journey they've been on so far with money, where they want to end up, and the challenges that stand in their way. This stage of research will help you validate that you’re solving a problem that is truly epic enough to be deserving of your customers’ time, attention and money.

How to Validate Needs with User Interviews

Goals

  1. Understand your customer’s life and how the problem you’re trying to solve shows up for them in granular detail.
  2. Validate this this problem is important one for your customer to solve.
  3. Learn how your customers solve this problem now, and how much time or money they spend on solving it.
  4. Understand the desired outcomes that a new potential solution will help them achieve.

Tactics

  • Ideal World: 15-20 45 minute user interviews with people in your target customer segment.
  • Quick & Dirty:  5-7 30 minute user interviews with your target customer segment.

Interview Discussion Guide

  • Demographic / Role: Start off by asking them about themselves and to touch on the most relevant aspects of their life or work as it relates to your product. For a B2B product, learn about what their company does and their day-to-day responsibilities. For a B2C product, learn about their general lifestyle and how they engage with your product category (e.g. a skincare company might want to learn about their existing skincare routine).
  • Workflows & Journeys: Get them to describe their workflow or day-to-day in detail with questions like “Tell me about the last time you [had the problem you’re trying to solve]. What triggered your need to solve this problem and what did you do?”
  • Current/Past Solutions: Have them describe what they have tried in the past with questions like, “What products or services have you used to solve this problem?” “What did you like most about them?” “How much money did you spend on them?”
  • Challenges & Obstacles: Have them outline the most difficult parts of solving the problem and how they currently overcome them with questions like, “What is the most challenging part of solving this problem and why? How have you overcome this challenge in the past, if at all?”
  • Desired Outcomes: Have them describe the outcomes that would be important in a new solution with questions like “If you were to find a new solution to help you solve this problem, how would it make your life / work different than it is now?”

What signals should I look for in my interviews?

  • At least 50% of the customers you talk to bring up the challenges you’re trying to solve AND say it's a problem without you directly asking them. It’s important to ask broad, open-ended questions in interviews to see what your target customer brings up organically. Don’t ask questions like, “Isn’t it hard to do invest your money?” That’s a leading question that most people will answer by agreeing with you even if it’s not something they feel strongly about. Asking neutral, open-ended questions creates space for people to say what’s top of mind for them like "What are your biggest challenges with managing your money, if any?" If people don’t bring up your problem naturally, it could be a signal that it’s not a priority. And if it’s not a priority, they’re unlikely to devote the time and energy to using a new product to solve it.
  • Of the target customers who describe this as a problem, at least 50% have tried to solve it in the past AND are dissatisfied with their current solution. People who have tried to solve a problem in the past have motivation and intent, which is a good sign that they’ll be interested in trying something new in the future. People who know it’s a problem but haven’t tried to solve it lack motivation, which means they’re unlikely to use their limited time and energy to solve something they’ve never cared about before. They could be an addressable target customer in the future but likely won’t be early adopters of your product. If most people haven’t tried to address the problem already, it could be a signal that it’s not a priority for your target customer.
  • People can actually describe in detail what’s difficult about solving the problem. A lot of times, people can tell what you’re interested in hearing so they might say something like “yeah, dealing with money is hard.” Most problems that you’re interested in are probably “hard” — that’s why you want to solve it in the first place! A more reliable signal is that they can describe in detail why it’s hard for them. That confirms that this problem has impacted their life in a meaningful way.
  • People can describe the type of outcomes that would help them solve this problem better than what they’re doing now. Don't ask people to come up with feature ideas. Ask them to articulate how they wish their life could be different if this problem was solved. You need to know the precise set of outcomes that your product should achieve so that you know what success looks like. Also, if your customers know what outcomes they’re looking for then they’ll be able to spot a better solution when you present it to them.

Examples of interviews with good signal and bad signal

Good Signal

Let's continue with our example of a team that's creating a savings and investing calendar for recent college graduates. Here’s an example of what an interview with all four positive signals might sound like:

Interviewer: Now that you graduated school, what are some of your biggest priorities?

Customer: Trying to find a place to live and getting my finances in order.

Interviewer: Tell me more about what you mean by “getting your finances in order” — what does that mean to you and why is it important?

Customer: Figuring out how to cover my basic living expenses because I really don’t want to go into debt. My parents were really bad at managing money and it made things difficult when I was growing up. I also want to start saving for a few goals I have, like buying a car within the next year or two.

Interviewer: How do you manage your finances right now?

Customer: I kinda just use a spreadsheet and enter in my paycheck after taxes and then all my expenses and try and create a budget for each category. When I get my paycheck every 2 weeks I go into my bank account to see how much I left over and make sure I’m more or less sticking to my budget for the month. But I’ve downloaded like 4 or 5 apps in the last 6 months because I want something more streamlined. None of them seem to work.

Interviewer: Why haven’t these worked?

Customer: I feel like all the financial apps are for people who are making a lot of money and have a lot to save or invest. But I only have like $100-$200 per month.

Interviewer: What would make those apps more useful to you?

Customer: I’m looking for something that’s going to help me make the most of the small amount I do have. Is it worth trying to save for a car AND retirement AND invest in bitcoin or should I do one? Or none? I just don’t know.

From one interview, we know:

  1. Managing finances is a top priority as they move to the next stage of life. Financial security has a lot of meaning, and potentially a bit of trauma given negative experiences they’ve had in the past.
  2. They have a mix of needs around short term (covering living expenses) and long term (building a foundation for the future).
  3. They’re using a “tape and glue” method right now (spreadsheet) but are actively looking for a new products to use. Products they’ve used in the past seem more geared around people with more disposable income.
  4. An outcome that they care about is goal prioritization — they believe they don’t have resources to do everything and want someone to help them figure out what’s most important to do first.

Seems like the idea of a savings and investment calendar could be useful to this customer! It also sounds like their needs could be wider than just saving and investing; this segment wants a view into their overall “budget” and spending by category.

Poor Signal

An interview with poor signal might sound like this:

Interviewer: Now that you graduated school, what are some of your biggest priorities?

Customer: I’m still looking for a job. That’s my number one priority.

Interviewer: As you look for a job, what are you doing for income?

Customer: I’m doing gigs here and there like delivering food. Right now I’m considering getting a part-time job as a waiter just to have extra funds to make ends meet.

Interviewer: It sounds like earning money is a big focus for you now. How do you manage your finances right now?

Customer: I don’t do anything right now because I’m not really earning too much money so it’s pretty simple. I can only afford to spend on the essentials like food and rent. Basically I just check my bank account every day to make sure I haven’t overdrafted.

Interviewer: Have you ever considered using a tool to help you with your finances?

Customer: Not really because what are those tools going to tell me? It’s not like I make enough money to be investing or saving. They’re just going to show what I already know — I only have enough to spend on the basics.

Interviewer: What would make those apps more useful to you?

Customer: I’m not sure because I don’t have a lot of “finances” to manage. I’d be interested in something that can help me stretch the money I have by telling me discounts and deals.

From this interview we know that:

  1. Money is a concern for this person, but they’re more focused on trying to find opportunities to earn more money than they are to manage the money they do have.
  2. Their “money management” workflow is as simple as checking their bank account, and it feels sufficient for them. As a result, they haven’t really looked for financial tools to use in the past.
  3. To them, money management tools are for people who are earning more income to invest or save.
  4. They’re more interested in something that helps them get the most out of their limited income by showing them opportunities to get discounts.

Because you really want to justify your great idea of a savings and investing calendar, it might be tempting to say “Hey this person is stressed out about money so they’re going to love my idea!” While money is an area for concern, their needs are very different from the potential customer in the first interview and suggests that they need a completely different product to solve it.

If your signal is all over the place, you might need to refine your target segment and talk to a tighter, more narrow group of people (e.g. people graduating from college and starting jobs that pay above a certain salary range, like management consultants and bankers). And if you continue to get poor signal, you might need to accept that your target segment doesn’t care about this problem. Maybe someone else does and you should go find them, or maybe you can focus on some other needs or problems that this target segment mentioned.

How to use HEARD to validate user needs

HEARD is a perfect way to validate and discover a needs space when you’re short on time or want to get data from more than a handful customers so you can feel more confident in the results. Many teams use HEARD as a complement to in-person interviews because it allows them to explore many facets of the problem with hundreds or even thousands of customers at once.

Using HEARD, you can conduct open-ended, qualitative 1:1 interviews with your customers that are moderated by AI. That AI will interview your customers for you and ask questions that adapt in real-time based on what the customer says in order to dig deep and collect more context — just like a human interviewer would. Unlike a survey that asks the same question over and over agaiin, HEARD adapts and asks smarter questions as it learns from your customers so that you can get more comprehensive answers, faster. After it interviews your customers, it synthesizes the data into insights without any manual analysis required.

HEARD has templates that you can use to get started, including one called “Validating User Needs.” Start off by entering your research goals and your hypotheses around user needs.

HEARD will suggest a set of questions you can ask based on your learning goals. Select these questions or add your own.

After your customize the interview, you’ll receive a link you can send to your customers. When people click the link, they’ll land on a web experience where they can start the interview on-demand — no back and forth over email to schedule a time required!

After they click start, they’ll be taken through the series of discussion topics based on the questions you selected.

For every topic, the AI will ask follow-up questions generated in real-time to dig deep and collect deep insight from participants.

After your customers complete the interview, HEARD will analyze the raw data and pull out the top themes from across the conversations so that your team can start learning immediately without any manual analysis required. HEARD uses AI to cluster the raw conversational data into unique themes, each of which is quantified so that you're able to understand the size and impact of the theme. Now, you have qualitative data with real quantitative measurement rather than relying solely on feedback from a handful on in-person interviews to make important decisions.

Dig deeper on every theme by reading through user quotes to see how they describe their experience using their own words. Quotes help you build connection with your users, and can help your team and stakeholders build empathy with customer needs.

The best part is that if you uncovered some nuggets that you want to dig deeper on, just add more questions to your HEARD to keep learning -- no need to wait until the next research study to continue learning! Using HEARD, you can speed up every aspect of research so that you can do the other 2376 things that you're responsible for as you build out your product.

Next Up: Validating Concepts

If you passed the threshold and got good signal from this customers at this stage, now it’s time to move to the next phase: Validating a Concept.

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