Lesson 4:

Know what users want

Bat costume designed by Charles Briton for the "Missing Links" theme, Mistick Krewe of Comus, 1873: Carnival Collection, Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane Source (some potential restrictions on reuse).

In Design (with a capital D), we’re often told to design for our users. And we’re also told to use user feedback to shape our copy, visuals, and user experiences.

But how do we actually do that? What’s the practical, “Do this for insights” method we can follow to uncover hidden insights?

Today, I’m going to share the user research method that’s worked for me. It’s helped me shape successful copywriting, graphic design, user experience, web development, and other projects.

(It’s also a way to immediately signal to potential clients/employers, “I’m a professional who knows what they’re doing. Hire me.”)

Let’s go.

“Why won’t you just tell me what you want??!!

If you have a kid or a pet, you know how frustrating it feels when something’s wrong, but your little buddy is… not being communicative.

“Oh, you don’t want that for dinner? What will you eat?”

“Oh, is this bed not good enough for you? Then you tell me where you want to sleep.”

It feels aggravating sometimes, right? And then you feel silly for getting to frustrated with such a tiny creature, which makes it even more aggravating.

Sometimes our customers make us feel the same intense rage.

We’ll spend months creating something we know has value. Something we know our users would enjoy… if they’d only give it a try.

The two approaches to building for users

In my experience, teams take one of two approaches to creating stuff.

Approach 1: Faster Horses

Maybe you’ve seen this quote attributed to Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Lots of startup founders use this quote to justify following their own intuition when creating products. And lots of creative directors and agency leads use this to self-validate their inspiration.

Steve Jobs said something similar: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

This approach works well if you’re Steve Jobs. (And to be fair, the failure of NeXT and other projects showed a lot of Jobs’ intuitive hunches didn’t pan out.)

Copywriters, graphic designers, developers, and other creative professionals sometimes cite these ideas to show why it’s okay for them to ignore user feedback. “Well, they just didn’t get it,” I’ve heard people say.

The truth is, genius feeds off of group inspiration. Here’s what author Austin Kleon says about it:

If you believe in the lone genius myth, creativity is an antisocial act, performed by only a few great figures — mostly dead men with names like Mozart, Einstein, or Picasso. The rest of us are left to stand around and gawk in awe at their achievements. Under the “scenius” model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals — artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers — who make up an “ecology of talent.” Being a valuable part of a scenius is not necessarily about how smart or talented you are, but about what you have to contribute—the ideas you share, the quality of the connections you make, and the conversations you start. If we forget about genius and think more about how we can nurture and contribute to a scenius, we can adjust our own expectations and the expectations of the worlds we want to accept us. We can stop asking what others can do for us, and start asking what we can do for others.

Yes, there are talented, brilliant people among us who get inspired and create special things. But counting on this – and assuming we’re uniquely brilliant – overlooks the contributions of our communities.

Approach 2: Research, Build, Test, Iterate

The second approach to building cool stuff is to:

  1. Research your audience and find what they need,
  2. Build it for them
  3. Test how well it works
  4. Iterate and improve your thing until it performs better

Remember, conversion design is all about creating measurable results with our creative work. So the research, testing, and iterating needs to have a quantifiable element to is (we’ll cover this in a moment).

With this approach, user research leads other design decisions. You might start with hunch (or “hypothesis” for you fancy scientists). But you quickly test that hunch with real people who would be your target end users/customers.

Obviously, this is the approach I prefer to take. To me, it builds off the qualitative “inspiration” of approach one. But then it adds critical context and value quantitative research can provide.

How to conduct user research

The term “user research” sounds a bit scary and intimidating. But the truth is, research is much simpler than we’re led to believe.I do user research every day. You probably do, too.

You don’t need a focus group (those aren’t very useful, anyway).

Nor do you need a scientific facility with white walls and lab coats.

All you need is a list of questions, a user/customer from your ideal audience, and something to take notes.

Here are some of the things I do when research for copy, design, and dev projects:

  • Get the names of a few people from my client/employer and call these people on the phone
  • Look at reviews, forum posts, and Facebook groups about the product/service
  • Listen to podcasts, especially ones where customers call-in to talk about their problems
  • View trending videos, posts, and other content in your target audience’s industry (the “taste makers”)

While gathering this research data, I like to answer the following questions:

  • What design styles do customers prefer?
  • What are the words and phrases customers use to describe their problems/solutions?
  • What expectations do they have?
  • How do other companies/brands meet their expectations? How do other brands fail customers?
  • How has this product changed your life? How long did it take to achieve that transformation?
  • What would you say to someone thinking about buying this product?

There are many more you can ask, but those are what I try to gather at a minimum.

Usually, I try to keep my user research interviews around 15 minutes because people get tired. But if they’re willing to talk more, I’m happy to spend more time. Usually, letting people talk longer unearths more valuable insights.

Some Tips

Here are some tips I’ve learned over years of performing user research.

Make things quantifiable

The more standardized your questions, the more you’ll be able to come up with data you can easily compare. Sometimes this means, “On a scale of 1-5, how would you rate…”, but you need to define the scale clearly if you do this.

Other times, I’ll press for hard data, like “how much time/money would you say this saved you?”

A lot of the best insights will be “soft” and qualitative. But making the effort for quantitative data could give your creative an edge.

Test early as possible, and use prepared lists of questions

In my experience, people like to tell you lots about their feelings. (Especially with websites and marketing, when everyone’s a critic.)

So I often don’t complete the entire list of prepared questions.

But even though I don’t have all the questions complete, I consistently gain excellent insights from the interview.

But make room for spontaneous, feely-questions

Even if you’re working from a prepared list, ask follow-up questions to go deeper.

The more people you talk to, the better your info

You only really need to talk to 2-5 people to get most of your insights. But the more people you can interview or conduct research with, the more reliable your insights will be.

For example, if you flip a coin once, it has a 50/50 chance of being heads or tails.

But there’s a possibility that you could flip a coin twice and it would end up being heads twice in a row.

And guess what? There’s a 1/8 (12.5%) chance a coin can have heads three times in a row.

If you only flip a coin three times, and you’re in that 12.5%, you might conclude that all coin flips result in a heads.

Obviously, we know that’s not true. But it shows the importance of collecting enough data to make valid conclusions. (We refer to this as “statistically significant” in the sciences.)

The more users you speak with, the more likely you’ll come to conclusions you can rely on being accurate. (And that means you can make smart marketing choices.)

Test with audiences

Say it with me: you are not your audience.

By sheer virtue of trying to sell something to your audience, you’re creating distance from them. So even if you started as a member of your audience, you’re not currently a member of your own audience.

That’s why you need to make the effort to connect with your real audiences.

Do video chats

Phone calls are good, but video chats are preferred.

It’s easier to read people on video. The majority of communication is nonverbal – it’s body language and the tone of your voice. Recording your interviews using simple video chat software like Zoom makes it simple to notice nonverbal cues. You can then follow up on these cues with additional questions.

The Most Important Takeaway from This Lesson

Ya gotta do it.

Ya gotta take the time to speak to your users. And you have to be humble and open to learning, because you probably don’t have all the answers right now.

(It’s okay, neither do I.)

But by keeping the beginner’s mind, you’ll discover the key to increasing higher conversions and building long-term customer relationships.