To better understand the importance of research in product development, think about some of your favorite products of all time. Maybe it’s a smart home device like a digital door system with an electronic lock and HD camera. Or maybe it’s a particularly amazing electric vehicle (EV) like the Tesla Model 3.

Now, think about why those products are your favorites. While your reasons — like your favorite products — will come in countless forms and flavors, they are likely to have one primary characteristic in common: Your reasons will be connected to the problems those products help you solve.

In other words, you love the digital door system because it helps make your home more secure and better managed. You love your Tesla because it relieves the pain of gas pumping, reduces air pollution, and has innovative navigation and an autopilot system.

Crucially, however, you can’t be content with simply solving the problem. Your product has to solve the problem better than any other product out there. This leads us to the all-important question: How do you design “better”? You need to understand and embrace this product development truth: Defining what’s better lies solely in the hands of the users your product is designed for. After all, we only fall in love with solutions that work specifically for us.

Importance of Research in Product Development: Your Product’s Foundation

How do you design a “better” product? Simple. You do the right research to help you identify your product’s competition, as well as to identify and understand your product’s users. Then, you build a better product than your competitors by understanding the problem better than they do.

Research is integral to any successful product development process. The importance of research in product development can’t be overrated. In overview, two primary kinds of research are used to support software product development efforts: comparative and competitive research and user research.

Comparative and Competitive Research

You can’t understand what constitutes “better” until you first understand what else is out there. Accordingly, to support your product development process, it’s important to first undertake comparative and competitive research in which you:

  • Identify competitor products. What products are already out there? Is your proposed product a true innovation on the products that are already available?
  • Analyze competitor characteristics. How do the competitor products describe or perceive themselves and their products? How does the market describe or perceive their products and their brands? What kinds of features do their products offer? What is the perceived value of those features?
  • Perform an element analysis. With these activities, you’re specifically analyzing the competitor products’ user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design. For example:
    • For a UX competitive analysis, you look at the various things that go into how each competitor product “feels” to users, including how navigation works, how things are displayed on a page, existing workflows, and mental models.
    • For a UI competitive analysis, you look at how competitor products use typography, color schemes, types of images, and other components that make up the products’ UI.

In particular, your research can be pivotal in helping you identify new features or better ways to solve users’ problems, differentiating your product from the competition.

After all, there’s no point building a product that already exists. In addition, if your product is to succeed amidst the modern world’s already overcrowded marketplaces, it’s crucial to identify opportunities to set yourself apart — and innovate past — what’s already out there. In particular, your research can be pivotal in helping you identify new features or better ways to solve users’ problems.

It’s worth noting, however, that striving to achieve feature parity with competitor products can be a dangerous road. Competitor products may have features that aren’t worth emulating (e.g., features that users find unimportant or features that aren’t successful). Working through a long checklist in the hopes of achieving feature parity may delay the release of your product for features nobody actually uses.

User Research

As you dive into your comparative and competitive research, you’ll begin to gain a better understanding of your product’s users. At this point, you’ll already have a hypothesis about what your users want from your product. But it’s important to undertake user research that goes much further in helping you understand the goals, needs, wants, and preferences of your users. In this way, you start to test your hypotheses, validating that you’ve made the right assumptions and helping you correct course where needed.

In addition, user research allows you to discover user needs that remain unmet by competitor products. With user research, you can explore what those needs may be (e.g., needs related to tools they may use in conjunction with your product, triggers for product use, or product inputs and outputs).

This can be a key opportunity for differentiating your product. User research takes a variety of forms. The user research approach that’s right for you will depend on the nature of your product, as well as the nature of the problem it’s trying to solve. For example:

  • If you are designing an internal app for use by a known pool of people in your company, you can proceed straight to qualitative analysis. In cases where you know specifically who your users are, qualitative analysis is nearly always more valuable and appropriate. Qualitative analysis helps you answer the all-important question of “WHY?”
  • Interviews (individual or group) are the most common form of qualitative analysis undertaken during a product development process. Interviews are sometimes done contextually, such that users are observed working in their natural environments.
  • To understand the bigger picture of your users’ needs, quantitative analysis can be helpful. Quantitative analysis lets you cast a wide net across a group of individuals who fit your target demographic (e.g., moms between the ages of 25 and 45). Quantitative analysis helps you fill out the picture of “WHAT” your users want and need.
    • Surveys and questionnaires are one of the most common forms of quantitative analysis employed during the early product development process. By surveying a large group of people, you are able to identify trends and statistics that help you better understand your user group’s overall preferences.
  • Some forms of user research can be either qualitative or quantitative. For example, while surveys and questionnaires are often used to gather quantitative data, they can also be used to gather qualitative data about the “WHY” behind individual users’ wants and needs.

Ultimately, it’s best to employ a mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis in your user research efforts. Quantitative analysis can help you quickly assess the needs and preferences (the “WHAT”) of a large user group, but it doesn’t really help you understand the specific issues users face in using your product in different scenarios (i.e., the “WHY” behind their task completion times, successes, errors, and satisfaction).

Building on Your Research: Creating User Personas

In learning more about your users, what matters is identifying the problem(s) specific to those users. That’s precisely what all of this foundational research is designed to do for you. By clarifying the problems you’re solving and striving to better understand the needs and wants of your users, you create the foundation for a strong product.

The primary deliverable that results from all of this research and analysis is the persona. A persona is a research-based representation of your archetypal user. Essentially, it is an amalgamation of all the research you’ve done.

Some products will have multiple personas; some may have only one. Regardless of their quantity, think of your personas as the highly important fictional characters at the center of your product development story. Identifying personas — and keeping those personas central to your product development process — is a vital way to ensure the product you’re creating genuinely solves the problems experienced by the users you’ve identified. The personas serve as guides to help you make the right decisions during the product development process.

For example, if you’ve identified a persona and named her Sheila, you can continue thinking of Sheila’s goals, needs, wants, and preferences as you continue to make choices about the features and functionalities of the product you’re developing. Your oft-repeated question becomes, “What would Sheila think of this?” If Sheila doesn’t benefit from whatever is being suggested, then it’s probably not the right choice for your product.

Powerhouses as diverse as Apple, Google, and PayPal have long known that if you put the user at the center of the experience/product you’re designing, you give yourself the best chance possible at finding success.

Product Development is a Journey of Discovery

So what does this all mean? As you decide on a product development partner to assist you in developing your web or mobile app, website, or other software product, you must make sure their proposed approach incorporates a strong foundation of research.

If a development partner isn’t going to help you assess your product’s competition, test your assumptions, or do the research required to gather input and feedback from real users, they’re not genuinely focused on helping you — or your product — succeed.

This happens far too often. Based on our experience, it’s best to embark on the product development process as a collaborative partnership and journey of discovery. The ideal approach is thoughtful, transparent, consultative, and genuinely tailored to meet the needs of your product and your business. The ideal approach also incorporates a focus on using research to increase your learning and make progressively better decisions as you move forward.

That’s because software product development isn’t a linear process. It’s iterative and cyclical, drawing heavily on research and data to find the right path forward or correct a course headed in the wrong direction. Without research, you can’t determine what “better” really looks like for your users. And in product development, maximizing ROI is all about ensuring adoption. Truly, if you can’t make “Sheila” happy, you won’t get anywhere.

Don’t let your product development efforts fall apart. Instead, build your product on a strong foundation of research. Research not only ensures that your product genuinely solves your users’ problems, but also that it’s something they’ll want to use. Research helps us create products that become people’s favorites. What’s not to love about that?

Now you better understand the importance of research in product development. Want to learn more about how Distillery helps enterprises and startups do the research needed to create a strong product? Let us know!