GV Library Design

Questions to ask before starting user research

Photo by Morten Siebuhr

Whenever I start working with a new team, I have to — quickly! — diagnose what they need and how I can be most useful. The impact and usefulness of my UX research hinges on my understanding of their product strategy, goals, constraints, and concerns. But I often know very little about their businesses, their users, or their products. So, I do the only thing I know how to do as a researcher: I ask a lot of questions.

At our first meeting, I informally interview them (live — not over email) to figure out their needs, goals, and plans. What do they want to know about their product, features, users, competitors, etc.? What constraints (schedule, market, engineering, etc.) should I know about? I also want to help shift teams from focusing on methods (“We need a survey”) to thinking about their research questions (“Why do people sign up and then not use our product?”).

I even draft simple interview guides for these conversations — just like I do for research interviews with users. I start with the following topics and questions, and adapt them accordingly. (Teams could potentially ask themselves these questions, too, to help clarify their own needs and priorities.)


Product roadmap

In addition to knowing where the team is headed, I find it helpful to understand a bit of the history.

  • What’s the story of how this <feature, product, idea> got to this point?
  • What are upcoming goals, milestones, or decisions for this product?
  • What are the biggest risks to the success of the project? What keeps you awake at night?
  • What information could help you make decisions or prioritize your efforts?

Users and markets

  • Who are your target users (or user groups)? What distinguishes them? (e.g. demographics, usage patterns, geographies, new vs. old, verticals, mobile vs. web, needs, expectations, pain points, etc.)
  • Which users are currently top priority for you? Why?

UX goals and metrics

Knowing how the team thinks about and measures success gives me additional info about their design goals. It also suggests how they’ll assess the impact of my work.

  • How do/will you measure performance and success of this product?
  • Do you have data that need explanation or that have highlighted possible issues in the existing user experience?

Competition

I want to quickly learn about the competitive landscape, as well as the team’s perceptions of competitive and related products. Competitors’ products are great “prototypes” to learn from.

  • What are the closest competitors to this <feature, product, idea>?
  • How does this compare to competitors?
  • What behaviors, conventions, or expectations might users bring to this product based on their experiences with other products?

Explicit research needs

I often try to apply my research spidey sense to uncover teams’ latent research needs, but it’s also important to ask teams directly what answers or data they want.

  • What are your three wishes for intelligence about your users, competitors, the marketplace, etc.?
  • Imagine the most useful, actionable research results possible. What would they tell you? How would you use them?

Existing research

A quick inventory of existing research efforts and data (e.g. from analytics, A/B tests, customer support, surveys, usability) helps me ramp up quickly and assess what the team already does or doesn’t know about their users. It gives me a feel for their current habits for gathering user feedback. I also fish for any baggage they may have from previous researchers or research efforts.

  • What data are you currently collecting (e.g. analytics, A/B, customer support, surveys, usability)?
  • What have you learned from the data/feedback you’re collecting?
  • What kinds of research efforts have been most/least valuable to you in the past? Why?

Potential impact of research

  • What will you do with the research results?

Teams’ answers to this question help me gauge how much of my effort (if any) a project deserves. Is the team prepared to dedicate resources or time to addressing the results? Are they open to the feedback? When it’s apparent that a team doesn’t intend to act on the data (e.g. “It would just be interesting to know”), I start looking for projects where I can have more impact.

Timing and Scope

  • When is the latest date I can deliver results that will still be useful?

I ask this question to provoke a good discussion of the tradeoffs of time versus the amount, rigor, and quality of the results I can deliver. Teams rarely have time to spare, but this helps set clear expectations for what I can feasibly do for them. Which research questions are highest priority? What quality/confidence of results is required? Will the data be mission critical? Will we have a chance to correct it later? How much time/effort does this research merit?

Whether teams need answers in hours, days or weeks, I’m happy to do whatever I can to help — as long as we all understand the tradeoffs and have shared expectations.


These initial conversations with stakeholders reveal the most pressing research needs and constraints. With those in hand, I can figure out the appropriate results and deliverables they’ll need, and then I can work backwards to plan the research project that will yield those results.

But I’ll save that topic for a future post.