By Jaryd Hermann, founder, product manager and writer. Recipient of The Mai&Guardian, 200 Young South Africans in Business and Technology.
In its traditional sense, research is synonymous with time. It takes time to thoroughly analyze markets and customers, document all your findings and then coherently present them with ample evidence.
The challenge that founders and product managers have is time isn’t on our side, yet research is at the core of every decision we make. According to Gregg Archibald and Leonard Murphy, a central part of the job is gaining, “a deep understanding of our customers and building products that meet their needs. Market research plays a critical role in this by providing insights on marketplace dynamics and identifying opportunities for growth.”
However, traditional market research methodologies are completely different from the methodologies that product managers and founders deploy to help them make decisions. The million-dollar question, then, is how you can balance speed and agility with sufficient research in order to make informed, data-driven, strategic and product decisions.
As a founder and product manager, I’ve noticed the changing paradigm of research. The question leading research methodology is shifting from, “Do we know everything about X?” to “Do we know enough to make a decision?”
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Here are five ways to be fast and accurate enough in market and product research to make a decision and execute a strategy.
Develop your hypothesis and a question deck.
A hypothesis is at the heart of effective research. It captures the essence of what you believe to be true under a certain condition, and why that’s the case. A standard example of a hypothesis is, “We believe that X will happen, if we do Y, because of Z.” The key function of a founder and product manager is to validate high-impact hypotheses enough to make a decision and execute as fast as possible.
Without a clear hypothesis, it’s easy to go into research blind and directionless. It’s like getting into a car without a destination in mind. Your hypothesis guides what you need to learn, which evidence will empower a decision and how this can be effectively communicated to your team and stakeholders.
Create a question deck. First, write down the topics to learn about. Then, write down the key questions you and your team need answers and evidence for. These topics and questions will determine your research timeline and the level of research needed.
To figure out how much research you need, consider whether the decision you’re looking to inform will take you through a one-way-door — in other words, is it reversible?
Learn from creative sources.
Once you know what you need to learn about and why, write down how and where you’re going to learn from. Which steps, tools and resources will be used? Documenting this serves two purposes: First, an agenda guides your focus, and second, you’re being transparent with your team and keeping a record of your research methodology to return back to for workshops and development.
Conduct qualitative research by discovering needs and opportunities with one-on-one customer interviews. Speaking to customers is probably the most important part of the research. Listening, building empathy, and developing a deep understanding of their problems and core needs is at the heart of research and discovery.
Speak with your internal team. Collaboration is a vital part of product management, and your internal teams (sales, marketing, support, etc.) are a great resource to learn (anecdotally) about the customer and their pain points.
Research social media platforms and online forums. Finding where your customers are reading, searching and working is a great way to get insight into how they are solving challenges.
Conduct quantitative research by measuring needs and opportunities. Look at internal KPIs and data. Your business’s KPIs are a useful indicator of opportunities as well as problems ahead. Tools like Looker and Amplitude are extremely useful for looking at trends, performance, and customer behavior. They can help unlock unique product and market insight.
Create and distribute surveys. Sending out a structured quantitative survey to users or even a wider audience provides evidence that validates your hypothesis and reveals problems and workflows at scale.
The most compelling evidence is actual data from customers using the product. The ability to rapidly conduct experimentation at scale is the gold standard. A large enough user base is essential because the faster your experiment reaches a significant size, the faster you can run the next level of experimentation. From running A/B tests to MVPs ranging from landing pages, false doors or wizards of Oz to functional products.
Understand that research is agile, not waterfall.
Like building a product, what you’re researching and learning about should be iterative and should change based on what you’re discovering. You want your questions and priorities to adapt as you move through the cycles of validated learning.
You should frequently run a self-check and ask yourself if what you’re researching now is productive to your goal.
Be aware of analysis paralysis.
We’re all prone to information overload. And as often is the case, less is more. Going after too many sources and trying to analyze myriad data will most likely be counterproductive, lead to analysis paralysis and kill your research pace.
Remember, your goal isn’t to be 100% right. The decision that follows from the research is still a bet. Your goal is to mitigate the risk and understand the opportunity enough to justify putting money and resources behind it.
Decide and then execute your strategy.
Once you have gathered enough information and evidence around your hypothesis, the next step is to apply those findings to the next actionable step. A simple framework I like to use here is SPADE. SPADE means defining the following.
Setting: What needs to be decided?
People: Who needs to be involved in the decision?
Alternatives: What are the possible alternatives?
Decision: What’s the decision?
Execution: What are the next steps and action items related to the decision?
Research is absolutely critical to making informed strategic and product decisions. And for a product manager or founder, this market research must be carefully balanced with speed, efficacy and an iterative process.