Research, or Ready-Fire-Aim?23 Oct 2015
First rule of user research: Never ask anyone what they want.
~Erika Hall, author of “Just Enough Research”
It is popular to view entrepreneurs as risk takers. After 20+ years running WisdomGroup, I’m not sure that’s an accurate view. From what I’ve observed, successful entrepreneurs will reduce risk before launching a venture. Consider a road full of potholes. Most people would avoid such a road. But if the benefits at the end of the road are big enough, an entrepreneur will devise ways to navigate over and around the obstacles.
Some people avoid risk outright. Entrepreneurs reduce risk through creativity.
Risks in Software Development
One risk in software development: What if the software solves a problem that nobody cares about? You could spend millions of dollars building software that never generates a return on investment.
Just Enough Research by Erika Hall offers ways to study users so that software makers can build products that meet user needs. When needs are met, people will buy.
Observation Beats Asking
Humans are funny creatures. If someone asks us outright what we need, we don’t always know how to answer.
It’s difficult for us to observe ourselves; we’re too close to the object of study.
We don’t always know the list of available options.
The best user research is conducted by a curious yet non-judgmental third party. Interviews are helpful if the questions are open-ended and if the interviewer listens well.
Reduce Risk. Maximize Return.
Hall shares war stories about clients who wanted to move forward on a project without research. When a client has spent decades in their profession, they should automatically know their customers intimately, right?
Not necessarily. If we want to woo paying customers, we need to see our products and services through their eyes, not our own. The sign-up form we built that seems second nature to us might be counterintuitive to users. This is not a question of intelligence, but personal experience.
Early in the book, Hall cites the Segway as an example of a well-engineered product that few people actually bought. Most Segways in use today are in warehouses, a niche purpose that the was not originally intended by the inventors. Segway is brilliantly engineered, but it’s less useful than a car and 8x the cost of a good bike. Not the best place to be if you want to build a company.
Sometimes in our entrepreneurial hubris we are tempted to exclaim “My product is so new, so cutting edge, that nobody else is making it. I have no competition!” Not true, says Hall.
Our competition is anything that the customer might do instead of buying our product or service. Sometimes our competition is… the option to do nothing! Humans are creatures of intertia and habit. We find it easier to do things today exactly as we did yesterday. If we choose to offer a brand new product, we have to fight customer inertia. And that can be tough.
Just Enough Research is a worthwhile read for anyone who builds products. It’s written for people in the web development industry, but the lessons apply to any product that a customer might buy.