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4 Product Research Methods & When To Use Each

As a product manager or leader, you want the company to find, sustain, and expand its product-market fit around every turn — and you understand that the key to unlock this is understanding your users even better.

How? Product research.

But that’s a big undertaking, and there are a million ways to do it.

How do you plan and execute impactful product research? What does the answer to that question depend on? How can you optimize the process for optimizing your product? We’ll walk through it all with some assistance and guidance from Reforge Executive In Residence Behzod Sirjani.

Meet The Contributor

Behzod Sirjani

Behzod Sirjani

Behzod is a Program Partner at Reforge, where he built the User Insights for Product Decisions program. Outside of Reforge, he runs Yet Another Studio and is a venture partner at El Cap. Previously, he led Research Operations at Slack and was a Senior UX Researcher at Meta.

What Is Product Research?

Product Research refers to the process of gathering and synthesizing evidence to reduce risk and increase confidence in the decisions that you’re making as you build products and services during the product development process.

This often includes activities like conducting interviews or usability tests and sending surveys to participants to better understand their perspectives and/or behaviors. Product research is also referred to as user research or user experience research.

Do You Actually Need Product Research?

The ideal first step in product research isn’t research at all. First, it’s best to take some time to get organized. Behzod Sirjani, Reforge EIR and former research leader at Slack and Meta, describes this as “decision-first” planning.

This approach directly contrasts to traditional product research approaches where data is collected, interpreted, and then used to make a decision. Rather than diving right into surveys, A/B testing, or focus groups,the best product research starts with defining the end-result decision you want to make based on research findings, then using that to inform how you conduct the research.

Let’s look at a quick hypothetical example. Let’s say you want to understand why customers are churning. If you approach product research in the traditional way, you might design a survey to ask users why they decide to stop paying for and using your product. While the findings of that survey might be interesting, they aren’t necessarily going to help you make any decisions about how to address churn.

4 Product Research Methods & When To Use Each

But, let’s say you work in the opposite direction instead. In this case, the first thing you do is outline the decision you hope to make about addressing churn, which is closer to something like “What can we do to improve retention with our target audience?” Then, you select a research method that can capture the type of information needed to build confidence in that decision.

Maybe, in fact, it is still a survey that asks users about their behavior. But, in this case, the users you send the survey to are different and the research questions will be specifically designed to generate evidence to help you make the decision you’ve scoped. So, with a more focused research method, you’re able to collect relevant evidence to inform your decision and positively impact your product and be more respectful of your customers’ time and energy.

4 Product Research Methods & When To Use Each

We refer to this as decision-first planning for product research. In this approach, you still care about churn, but instead of unfocused learning about churn, you can identify what evidence you need to make the decision about improving retention with your target audience, and then identify what research approaches will help you gather the missing evidence.

On a high level, this means that doing product research and collecting user insights involves three phases:

  1. Decision
  2. Evidence
  3. Research
4 Product Research Methods & When To Use Each - Decision, Evidence, Research

The decision you define depends greatly on your product and organization. Our User Insights for Product Decisions program outlines a decision matrix to guide your thinking. It’s based on your product’s stage of development and how many people, both stakeholders and customers, will be affected by that decision. For more info on kicking off the decision-first planning process for product research, check out that program.

Here, we’re going to focus on how to select a product research method that matches the type of evidence you need to make the decision you’ve scoped.

How To Choose the Most Impactful Product Research Method

Once you’ve defined the decision you intend to make with your product research, you can work backward from there and choose a research method. The one that you pick will rely on the type of evidence you need to confidently make that decision you scoped.

“Great researchers let the evidence they're looking for guide their research design, and not the other way around.”

– Behzod Sirjani

To start the research method selection process, let’s break down evidence into two categories, based on types of user responses:

  1. Qualitative. A response that’s qualitative is often more unstructured and open-ended than one that’s quantitative.
  2. Quantitative. While a qualitative response shares overall impressions that can be grouped into themes, a quantitative response might include percentages or exact numbers.

Both will be useful in product research, depending on the decision you need to make. We’re also going to break down what evidence can reveal and put that into two categories: attitudes and behaviors.

Attitudinal evidence uncovers what users think, feel, and believe about a product, whereas behavioral evidence shows the actions that users take in the product. When looking for attitudinal evidence, you’ll need to ask users what they think, but you can observe users’ actions if you’re looking for behavioral evidence. Both will be helpful, just in slightly different ways.

We’ve mapped these four categories into a two-by-two matrix to guide us as we select a research method. The types of responses – qualitative and quantitative – are on the X-axis, and what user responses can reveal – attitudes and behaviors – are on the Y-axis.

4 Product Research Methods & When To Use Each - Research Method Archetypes

Looking at types of evidence this way, we can organize product research methods into four quadrants.

1. Observational

In quadrant one, we have behavioral, qualitative research. You’d want to choose a method that falls in this quadrant if you’re looking to observe user interactions with surroundings, people, and products and extrapolate those behaviors to understand users in a deep way. Research methods in this quadrant fall under the Observational label.

2. Testing

Quadrant two is all about behavioral, quantitative research. Here, we’re looking for evidence about user behaviors — how do users interact with the product, what actions do they take, or not take? And we want this to be more structured evidence at a large scale. We’re typically learning things like "What percentage of users did action X?" and "How many users completed a task?" Research methods in this quadrant fall under the Testing label.

3. Conversational

Moving to quadrant three, we’re at the intersection of attitudinal and qualitative evidence. Research methods that will fall here can help you understand how users feel in a deep way. Research methods in this quadrant fall under the Conversational label.

4. Survey

Last but not least, in quadrant four, we have attitudinal, quantitative evidence. This is how users feel and what they believe. Here, we’re trying to answer questions like "What percentage of users prefer option one over option two?" or "What are the top five reasons for user churn?" Research methods in this quadrant fall under the Survey label.

There are many research methods within each of these product research archetypes. Again, the right research method for you depends on the decision you’ve defined. With the decision in mind, you know what type of evidence you need to gather, and you can see now which quadrant you’re going to be focused on.

12 Product Research Methods

We’ve plotted three product research methods into each quadrant.

We’ll start with the Observational quadrant, which covers behavioral, qualitative research methods.

4 Product Research Methods & When To Use Each - Observational Product Research

Observational research methods include:

  • Participant observation: observe users interacting with your product without interrupting them or affecting their behavior to understand specific user behaviors in specific contexts
  • Ethnographic research: researchers immerse themselves in the context of their users and often used to understand different cultures, or norms when different from your own
  • Heat mapping: user actions are tracked and aggregated into a visual summary like a heat map of where users move a cursor on a homepage

Next, is the Testing quadrant, which includes behavioral, quantitative research methods.

4 Product Research Methods & When To Use Each - Testing Product Research

Testing research methods include:

  • Usability testing: participants are provided a set of tasks to perform on the solution and their behavior is tracked and quantified
  • A/B testing: two variations of a product are shown to different users and their performance is compared to find statistically significant differences
  • Beta testing: a nearly finished product is given to users to test its performance in a real-world environment

Now, we’ll go to the Conversational quadrant, which covers attitudinal, qualitative research methods.

Conversational research methods include:

  • Interviews: broad category of live discussions researchers have with users and can be used in many different situations
  • Focus groups: variation of interviews where a group of participants has a discussion about a product or experience facilitated by a researcher or professional
  • Design methods: facilitated exercises that can be done with one or more users at a time, such as card sorting for prioritization, five-second tests to measure user impressions, and more

And lastly, we’ll go to the Survey quadrant, which covers attitudinal, quantitative research methods.

4 Product Research Methods & When To Use Each - Survey Product Research

Survey research methods include:

  • Map-making surveys: surveys that build a map of user attitudes, like shallow versions of field studies
  • Intercept surveys: targeted surveys looking to understand specific attitudes toward specific aspects of a product
  • Validation surveys: a specific set of mostly standardized surveys that validate value or satisfaction, including NPS surveys, CSAT surveys, CES surveys, and others
4 Product Research Methods & When To Use Each

Keep in mind that this approach is called decision-first for a reason. You can’t choose any of these research methods until you’ve figured out where you want to end up with it.

“When it comes to planning research, I always tell people to think about their end deliverables and draw what they will want to show their stakeholders. A lot of times, they want to show one thing but are not planning on collecting that data. That's when we have to go back to the drawing board.”

— Behzod Sirjani

For example, if you launch a survey with the broad intent to capture what users do and don't like about a product, you may be left with a wholly unhelpful output like a wordcloud. But if you draft a mockup of the output you want to create, you can not only validate that your chosen method will work to get the data you need for the output, but you can tailor your method to best collect the right data.

By mapping out four types of methods, we can see how different research methods are effective for generating different kinds of evidence. The most impactful product research method for you will depend on the decision you’ve outlined – you’ll want to pick the method that’ll produce the evidence you need to make that decision.

Improve Your Research Methods

While it might seem like a lot of upfront work to identify the decision you want to make with research findings before even selecting a research method, it’ll pay off in the end. Decision-first planning streamlines the product research process so that you aren’t wasting resources, including stakeholder and user time and energy.

“Everyone has limited resources and time—even if you're a huge company. You should be worried about your time. You should be worried about your resources and moving quickly.”

— Gina Gotthilf, former VP of Growth and Community at Quartz and former VP Growth at Duolingo

Conducting product research doesn’t have to be a slow, expensive process. Beginning your product research with the end in mind will enable you to design and execute any research method with more confidence, meaning you can make decisions quicker and drive impact faster.

To learn more about how to execute product research effectively, check out our User Insights for Product Decisions program.

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Behzod Sirjani