UX Science: User Research for Startups

Posted by on December 9th, 2016

User research is often thought of as expensive, bookish and unapproachable. Sure, there’s always the option to pivot. But not building the RIGHT product from as early as possible is undoubtedly more costly and risky.

Here are three fundamental research techniques to save your startup from one or more unnecessary and dangerous pivots.


Step 1. Contextual Inquiry

The first phase of user research is observation – contextual inquiry helps us uncover the user’s behaviours.

Don’t imagine the problem and rationalize how people might behave. You want to find out what the problem is and why people act in the way they do.

Tag along with a family on their journey to grocery shop; or, sit at the checkout counter and watch many families shop. Or find a way to live with a family for a week (that’s real determination, right there!) and understand their grocery consumption. The choices you make all depend on the contexts you’re planning to find.

Take photos, videos, take notes, draw maps, talk to people, empathise. Remember to keep an open mind as to what you might find, and try not to upset/contaminate the context.

Your goal is to experience what the users experience. Think in terms of stories, not insights or validation.


Step 2. Interview

Interviews help us understand the user’s mental model and how they rationalize their behaviours.

You must avoid the deadly the mistake of asking if they’ll use your solution. Not only is it bad form, but you’ll also get unreliable responses.

People often act out of pre-existing beliefs and in a manner appropriate to social frames they inhabit. For example, my mother supports all my ideas even if they aren’t all very bright.

So, what should you do?

Ask open-ended questions like: “Tell us about the last time you went grocery- shopping.”

Try to understand how people function, how they make choices, how they rationalize their decisions. And if necessary, ask follow-up questions. Be genuinely interested!

Remember to encourage your interviewees to emote as they narrate their story. Be clear that they are in a judgement free zone. If you support the reasoning you’re provided with – you’ll only end up with deeper insights.

We operate by making choices; choices are informed by memories; and, memories are made relevant by emotions. Understand emotions, and you can build products that people can’t help but use. So, make sure to pay close attention to the highlights of the story – specifically what the user has remembered and chosen to recount.


Pro Tip: You’re in luck if the interviewee is complaining about a current design. Perhaps they’re suggesting what they think would make things a lot better.

Be careful as these ideas may not always be in the best interests of other Users (or maybe even their own). Moreover, Users may not think outside the context of the existing designs. Don’t take these ideas literally! Instead, try to understand the problems they’re trying to solve.

Give people a design that better solves their needs and wants, and they’ll fast develop behaviors around it.


Step 3. Testing

As soon as the prototype has graduated from the metaphysical to the physical, it’s time to test!

Test early and test regularly. Usually, a paper prototype is enough to test most features. And at the same time, some features can only be tested with the fully functional prototype.

Initial usability tests can be conducted with people loosely representing the end-users. Just as with the product, the trick is to hone in on the details gradually.

The purpose of usability testing (UTs) is to test if the logic of your design matches the user’s expectations (her mental model). Therefore the first method of UTs is the expectancy test (how does the user think the interface will behave?). Present your design and ask the user, what do you see and what do you think it does.

The second method of UTs is the task performance test. You set up a scenario: ‘Imagine you’re looking for an apartment you can afford and is close to your work.’ And ask, “How would you find it using this app?”

Remember to encourage your interviewees to verbalize their thoughts and actions.


Follow these three simple steps to build the right product from day 1, avoid pivoting wildly. Why fail fast, when you can succeed quickly?

To find out more about our approach why not join in the conversation on Twitter (@melewi), or have a read of our previous blog posts.



Melewi is a travelling product, UX, and UI design studio working with passionate people from around the world. We work remotely and travel to be inspired, gain perspective, and build products and businesses that speak to everyone, everywhere.

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