If you crack open any design textbook, you’ll see some depiction of the design cycle: discover, ideate, create, evaluate, and repeat. Whenever we bring on a new client or start working on a new feature, we start at the top of the wheel with discover (or discovery). It is the time in the project when we define what problem we are trying to solve and what our first approach at solving it should be.

A flowchart showing Discover, leading to Ideate, leading to Create, leading to Evaluate, which leads back to Discover
Ye olde design cycle

We commonly talk about discovery at the start of a sprint cycle at an established business, where there are things like budgets, teams, and existing customers. The discovery process may include interviewing stakeholders or pouring over existing user . And we always exit the discovery phase with some sort of idea to move forward with.

However, discovery is inherently different when you work at a nonprofit, startup, or fledgling small business. It may be a design team of one (you), with zero dollars to spend, and only a handful of people aware the business even exists. There are no clients to interview and no existing data to examine. This may also be the case at large businesses when they want to test the waters on a new direction without overcommitting (or overspending). Whenever you are constrained on budget, data, and stakeholders, you need to be flexible and crafty in how you conduct discovery research. But you can’t skimp on rigor and thoroughness. If the idea you exit the discovery phase with isn’t any good, your big launch could turn out to be a business-ending flop.

In this article I’ll take you through a discovery research cycle, but apply it towards a (fictitious) startup idea. I’ll introduce strategies for conducting discovery research with no budget, existing user data, or resources to speak of. And I’ll how the research shapes the business going forward.

Write up the problem hypothesis

An awful lot of ink (virtual or otherwise) has been spent on proclaiming we should all, “fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” And it has been ink spent well. When it comes to product building, a problem-focused philosophy is the cornerstone of any user-centric business.

But how, exactly, do you know when you have a problem worth solving? If you work at a large, established business you may have user feedback and data pointing you like flashing arrows on a well-marked road towards a problem worth solving. However, if you are launching a startup, or work at a larger business venturing into new territory, it can be more like hiking through the woods and searching for the next blaze mark on the trail. Your ideas are likely based on personal experiences and gut instincts.

When your ideas are based on personal experiences, assumptions, and instincts, it’s important to realize they need a higher-than-average level of tire-kicking. You need to evaluate the question “Do I have a problem worth solving?” with a higher level of rigor than you would at a company with budget to spare and a wealth of existing data. You need to take all of your ideas and assumptions and examine them thoroughly. And the best way to examine your ideas and categorize your assumptions is with a hypothesis.

As the dictionary describes, a hypothesis is “a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.” That also serves as a good description of why we do discovery research in the first place. We may have an idea that there is a problem worth solving, but we don’t yet know the scope or critical details. Articulating our instincts, ideas, and assumptions as a problem hypothesis lays a foundation for the research moving forward.

Here is a general formula you can use to write a problem hypothesis:

Because [assumptions and gut instincts about the problem], users are [in some undesirable state]. They need [solution idea].

For this article, I decided to “launch” a fictitious (and overly ambitious) startup as an example. Here is the problem hypothesis I wrote for my startup:

Because their business model relies on advertising, social media tools like Facebook are deliberately designed to “hook” users and make them addicted to the . Users are unhappy with this and would rather have a healthier relationship with social media tools. They would be willing to pay for a social media that was designed with mental health in mind.

You can see in this example that my assumptions are:

  • Users feel that social media sites like Facebook are addictive.
  • Users don’t like to be addicted to social media.
  • Users would be willing to pay for a non-addictive Facebook replacement.

These are the assumptions I’ll be researching and testing throughout the discovery process. If I find through my research that I cannot readily affirm these assumptions, it means I might not be ready to take on Mr. Zuckerberg just yet.

The benefit of articulating our assumptions in the form of a hypothesis is that it provides something concrete to talk about, refer to, and test. The whole product team can be involved in forming the initial problem hypothesis, and you can refer back to it throughout the discovery process. Once we’ve completed the research and analyzed the results, we can edit the hypothesis to reflect our new understanding of our users and the problems we want to solve.

Now that we’ve articulated a problem hypothesis, it is time to figure out our research plan. In the following two sections, I’ll cover the research method I recommend the most for new ventures, as well as strategies for recruiting participants on a budget.

A method that is useful in all phases of design: interviews

In my career as a user researcher, I have used all sorts of methods. I’ve done A/B testing, eye tracking, Wizard of Oz testing, think-alouds, contextual inquiries, and guerilla testing. But the one research method I utilize the most, and that I believe provides the most “bang for the buck,” is user interviews.

User interviews are relatively inexpensive to conduct. You don’t need to travel to a client site and you don’t need a fortune’s worth of equipment. If you have access to a phone, you can conduct an interview with participants all around the world. Yet interviews provide a wealth of information and can be used in every phase of research and design. Interviews are especially useful in discovery, because it is a method that is adaptable. As you learn more about the problem you are trying to solve, you can adapt your interview protocol to match.

To be clear, your interviewees will not tell you:

  • what to build;
  • or how to build it.

But they absolutely can tell you:

  • what problem they have;
  • how they feel about it;
  • and what the value of a solution would mean to them.

And if you know the problem, how users feels about it, and the value of a solution, you are well on your way to designing the right product.

The challenge of conducting a good user interview is making sure you ask the questions that elicit that information. Here are a couple tips:

Tip 1: always ask the following two questions:

  • “What do you like about [blank]?”
  • “What do you dislike about [blank]?”

… where you fill “[blank]” with whatever domain your future product will improve.

Your objective is to gain an understanding of all aspects of the problem your potential customers face—the bad and the good. One common mistake is to spend too much time investigating what’s wrong with the current state of affairs. Naturally, you want your product to fix all the problems your customers face. However, you also need to preserve what currently works well, what is satisfying, or what is otherwise good about how users accomplish their goals currently. So it is important to ask about both in user interviews.

For example, in my interviews I always asked, “What do you like about using Facebook?” And it wasn’t until my interview participant told me everything they enjoyed about Facebook that I would ask, “What do you dislike about using Facebook?”

Tip 2: after (nearly) every response, ask them to say more.

The goal of conducting interviews is to gain an exhaustive set of data to review and consider moving forward. That means you don’t want your participants to discuss one thing they like and dislike, you want them to tell you all the things they like and dislike.

Here is an example of how this played out in one of the interviews I conducted:

Interviewer (Me): What do you like about using Facebook?

Interviewee: I like seeing people on there that I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see and catch up with in real life. I have moved a couple times so I have a lot of friends that I don’t see regularly. I also like seeing the people I know do well, even though I haven’t seen them since, maybe, high school. But I like seeing how their life has gone. I like seeing their kids. I like seeing their accomplishments. It’s also a little creepy because it’s a window into their life and we haven’t actually talked in forever. But I like staying connected.

Interviewer (Me): What else do you like about it?

Interviewee: Um, well it’s also sort of a convenient way of keeping contacts. There have been a few times when I was able to message people and get in touch with people even when I don’t have their address or email in my phone. I could message them through Facebook.

Interviewer (Me): Great. Is there anything else you like about it?

Interviewee: Let me think … well I also find cool stuff to do on the weekends there sometimes. They have an events feature. And businesses, or local places, will post events and there have been a couple times where I’ve gone to something cool. Like I found a cool movie festival once that way.

Interviewer (Me): That seems cool. What else do you like about using Facebook?

Interviewee: Uh … that’s all I think I really use it for. I can’t really think of anything else. Mainly I use it just to keep in touch with people that I’ve met over the years.

From this example you can see the first feature that popped into the interviewee’s mind was their ability to keep up with friends that they otherwise wouldn’t have much opportunity to connect with anymore. That is a feature that any Facebook replacement would have to replicate. However, if I hadn’t pushed the interviewee to think of even more features they like, I might have never uncovered an important secondary feature: convenient in-app messaging. In fact, six out of the eleven people I interviewed for this project said they liked Facebook Messenger. But not a single one of them mentioned that feature first. It only came up in conversation after I probed for more.

As I continued to repeat my question, the interviewee thought of one more feature they liked: local event listings. (Five out of the eleven people I interviewed mentioned this feature.) But after that, the interviewee couldn’t think of any more features to discuss. You know you can move on to the next question in the interview when your participant starts to repeat themselves or bluntly tells you they have nothing else to say.

Recruit all around you, then document the bias

There are all sorts of ways to recruit participants for research. You can hire an agency or use a tool like UserTesting.com. But many of those paid-for options can be quite costly, and since we are working with a shoestring budget we have roughly zero dollars to spend on recruitment. We will have to be creative.

Hey Friends. I have a little project I am working on that may turn into a startup pitch one day. To help me figure out whether I have an idea worth working on, I’d like to interview some folks about their use of Facebook and other social media. Would any of you be willing to do an interview with me? It would take ~15min and we would talk via Skype or Google Hangouts – your choice.
My post on Facebook to recruit volunteers. One volunteer decided to respond with a Hunger “I volunteer as tribute!” gif.

For my project, I decided to rely on the kindness of friends and strangers I could reach through Facebook. I posted one request for participants on my personal Facebook page, and another on the local FreeCodeCamp page. A day after I posted my request, twenty-five friends and five strangers volunteered. This type of participant recruitment method is called convenience sampling, because I was recruiting participants that were conveniently accessible to me.

Since my project involved talking to people about social media sites like Facebook, it was appropriate for my first attempt at recruiting to start on Facebook. I could be sure that everyone who saw my request uses Facebook in some form or fashion. However, like all convenience sampling, my recruitment method was biased. (I’ll explain how in just a bit.)

Bias is something that we should try—whenever possible—to avoid. If we have access to more sophisticated recruitment methods, we should use them. However, when you have a tight budget, avoiding recruitment bias is virtually impossible. In this scenario, our goals should be to:

  • mitigate bias as best we can;
  • and document all the biases we see.

For my project, I could mitigate some of the biases by using a few more recruitment methods. I could go to various neighborhoods and try to recruit participants off the street (i.e., guerilla testing). If I had a little bit of money to spend, I could hang out in various coffee shops and offer folks free coffee in exchange for ten-minute interviews. These recruitment methods also fall under the umbrella of convenience sampling, but by using a variety of methods I can mitigate some of the bias I would have from using just one of them.

Also, it is always important to reflect on and document how your sampling method is biased. For my project, I wrote the following in my notes:

All of the people I interviewed were connected to me in some way on Facebook. Many of them I know well enough to be “friends” with. All of them were around my age, many (but not all) worked in tech in some form or fashion, and all of them but one lived in the US.

Documenting bias ensures that we won’t forget about the bias when it comes time to analyze and discuss the results.

Let’s keep this going

As the title suggests, this is just the first installment of a series of articles on the discovery process. In part two, I will analyze the results of my interviews, revise my problem hypothesis, and continue to work on my experimental startup. I will launch into another round of discovery research, but this time utilizing some different research methods, like A/B testing and fake-door testing. You can help me out by checking out this mock landing page for Candor Network (what I’ve named my fictitious startup) and taking the survey you see there.





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