User research as part of the PMF journey

Amrutha Jalihal

12 January 2023
#design #user research

User research has a long and bright future, the way Dharmesh BA sees it. “We are moving to times that are less about designing beautiful things and more about designing the right way.” Dharmesh is the founder of The India Notes, which studies user behavior in rural India to help create products that can solve unique problems, as well as a former UX designer. 

User research has been an integral part of product development. Founders spend time on either interviewing their customers or asking them to take surveys. But there’s more to understanding your customer than just asking questions. There is a deeper reason why user research is important and necessary. Not only does it prevent founders from wasting time and energy in rebuilding the product it also saves capital. Early stage founders always have a paucity of time and user research helps save it. 

“Until 2014, launching a startup required a lot of designing – every button or icon had to be designed. Since then, many of those functions have become standardized after UI/UX tools like Sketch and Figma came into the picture.” It is actually much less challenging to start a business now, and the focus is on delivering the right service. That is where user research comes in.

For more than a decade, Dharmesh has dived deep into the techniques and ethics of performing user research. We decided to speak to him and unpack the core of user research for founders. 

The case for user research 

Think of user research as a guide to the pains and gains of your users. Designers can use this information in more ways than one, Dharmesh says:

  • It is a way to get closer to the truth about the user.
  • It is a process which can resolve conflicts that the team may have over the product or a feature or a service. 
  • It helps eliminate mistakes you might have made if you had gone ahead without speaking to people.

Getting to the ‘how’ of the matter

Quantitative data focuses on the ‘what’, whereas qualitative user research tells us the ‘how’. It is the difference between knowing the event that occurred, and knowing the reason or response to that event. Dharmesh offers an example to illustrate this: There are 800 million smartphones in India. This quantitative input only explains what is happening. Imagine a founder pitching an astrology app. You will need to know what aspects of people’s lives will be changed by introducing the app? Do they already believe in astrology and at what points in their life do they believe in astrology? “These points will not come from quantitative data or you might not be able to find these data points there,” he says.

How do you perform it?

You can pick any of the many available methodologies. Dharmesh has a framework under which he maps metrics.

 Think of a quadrant where on one axis you are figuring out what happened and why it happened. And on the other how are you going to do it – by asking people or observing them. If you use a survey or an interview, you are asking people why something happened. In a usability test, you are trying to understand why it happened by observing users. Make a choice depending on what you are trying to achieve.

For a ready or more developed product, for example, it is possible to do a usability test, which is to get people to use the product and observe their behavior. For an early stage where you are still figuring out the domain or MVP, you can ask open-ended questions through user interviews.

Remember, the methodology depends not just on the stage at which the company is, but also the size of the problem being dealt with. Again, Dharmesh has some vivid examples.

Say, a mature company such as PhonePe wants to decide what label should be given for the icon that appears just before the UPI payment is done. This is still a large problem because any change will potentially affect 300 million users. In cases of such scale, they can use A/B testing where they run one copy for one set of the population, another copy for the other half of the population, and check the response. 

Now imagine a scenario where Meesho, which already has an onboarding flow, wants to boost only a certain metric – maybe, raise retention by 30%, or reduce dropout by 20%. You would classify this as an incremental change, not a radical one. The app wants to know whether it should add steps or remove steps, should it choose a video versus an image versus a gif, etc. Here, usability testing, i.e. giving an artifact to the user for testing and asking questions will work best. 

Consider a third scenario. An entirely new product or feature is being introduced. A user interview will be appropriate here, according to Dharmesh, because you can test the usefulness of the product and how seamlessly it fits into people’s lives. Say PhonePe wants to launch life insurance, they could do user interviews.

How to approach user research by region

Does the approach change for customers in India compared with users overseas? Yes.

In a developed region like the US or European countries, language is typically not a barrier, Dharmesh observes. Secondly, the adoption of tech literacy there is higher. 

“You don’t have to explain what Zoom is and how to join a call.” 

Thirdly, a lot of the automation is already aimed at those regions – the transcribing tools are built to best understand the accents in those countries.  

In India, particularly in tier 2 and tier 3 towns, there are multiple challenges. “For me, even getting people on a Zoom call or Google Hangout itself is a challenge. They do not have an environment where they can mount the phone, take some time, and talk. At some point, they get bored, and may even drop out of the call with some excuse, Dharmesh notes. Plus automation is difficult given AI transcription cannot grasp words contextual to Indian languages or Indian English.

What to pay attention to and what to dismiss 

Golden rule: Do not always listen to any solutions offered by users. “Always take that with a pinch of salt,” reckons Dharmesh. “Unless they’re an expert in the field, or they know the workings of the software, or they’ve built a product themselves.” 

What matters is the ‘why’ behind the feature or the product they are requesting. “People misunderstand when they quote Henry Ford saying: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’. It is not about not doing user research, it is about understanding the ‘why’ behind them asking for faster horses.”

Picture this. You are conducting user research for a CRM software, and a customer care executive who uses it has the feedback: I want to close the tickets faster. 

“It always boils down to some core emotions. Ask why, then will say people can close more tickets in a day. Ask why you want to close more tickets in a day, you will realize that it is attached to his monthly metrics, and that monthly metric is reported to his manager, which is tied back to his incentive, which is tied back to his promotion, all of it,” explains the researcher. “So it starts as a very simple need that this person is asking to close the tickets faster but it boils down to him wanting a better life.” 

Dharmesh reminds that B2B software and SaaS especially has a huge impact on the lives of users. With B2C apps like Swiggy, customers will find an alternative when it is down. But B2B software actually defines the lives of the engineers or the customer care executives who use them. Feedback from them is worthy of attention.

The deeper reason behind why it is attention-worthy is that it can even lead to features that have a paid or subscription model. “I’m always surprised when it is said that people in India don’t pay for online products and subscriptions, but I think it’s a wrong notion because we have probably not designed useful products for them that convince them to shell out money for it.” Dharmesh himself recently purchased a subscription of Kuku FM so that an elder relative whose eyesight had declined could still enjoy Indian-language books as audiobooks. 

User research traps to avoid as founders 

Don’t assume that similar demographics indicate similar behavior. In Dharmesh’s research, while reviewing the food habits of people from the same demographic, married individuals living with their parents or as a couple, he found that preferences varied dramatically.

This is because of various factors – one’s upbringing, the values one’s parents taught them, the kind of people they have met. 

Another thing founders should remember to do is to understand what a day in the user’s life looks like. “You could build a brilliant product and work hard sending emails and WhatsApp messages to get people onboarded, but once they get onboarded, they may never even come back.”

To know why, find out which part of their life you are trying to improve, is Dharmesh’s advice. “To you, the product is important because that is all you hear and think about. To them, it is a menial part of their life.”

The right attitude in user research

A relevant reminder from Dharmesh comes in here. He says researchers need to be humble while talking to users. “We should not be going in with the idea that, ‘Hey, I’m here to save you’. Instead, you need to have the humility to say that ‘I’m here at your level to co-create the solution’.” In his own experience, while surveying those in small apartments – sometimes with just one chair in the home – Dharmesh and his team make the conscious decision to sit on the floor with their interviewee.

There is a reason why, as the researcher goes on to explain. “The attitude needs to take a step back because irrespective of whether people have your app or not, their life keeps going on. For the past 75 years, it’s been going on, and the next 75 years also, it will,” he says. “They do not need your app. It’s actually the reverse.” As founders, you need users. Their behavior is the key to your business.