Creative User Research Tactics for Startups

By Jill Christ and Nicole Chen

Thoughtful user research is an essential tool for guiding product direction, testing hunches, and uncovering needs and opportunities we couldn’t anticipate from our office desks. It can be particularly invaluable for startups, which often need to move quickly despite an uncertain product-market fit and other ambiguities. Research can help answer early-stage questions, such as “Who are we building for?” and “What problem are we solving for them?” — as well as later questions like “Will this work in other markets?”, and “What will users want next?”

Unfortunately, few startups have the resources necessary to maintain a thorough user research program using conventional methods. The good news: it’s possible to maintain a strong user signal throughout the product lifecycle if you’re willing to get creative.

Finding new ways to understand your users

At Facebook, we love to celebrate creativity in research — particularly in fast-paced, innovation-driven settings. So a few of us Facebook researchers jumped at the opportunity to work with startups at Startup Garage Paris in November 2017 to talk about how to get creative with user research within a startup environment. We discussed just how useful it can be to find new ways to quickly get nuanced insights into the motivations and behaviors of the people you’re designing for. Now we’d like to share those insights with the broader startup community.
 We aren’t suggesting that creative research methods completely replace traditional ones. But creative approaches can be very practical for smaller businesses that need a quick turnaround despite limited resources. These lessons should also be useful for any fast-paced organization that needs to learn quickly as they build. We’re no exception — Facebook and Instagram are always looking for new ways to get better research results.

Four startup goals — and four ways to reach them

What follows are four typical startup research goals, followed by a creative approach that can help you meet each one, including a real-life example from Facebook or Instagram. Take a look and think about whether, and how, you might apply these approaches to your startup or fast-paced business.

Goal #1: Capture and refine your product’s first impression

When developing a new product, organizations commonly have new users try it out and then simply ask them, “What do you think?” or “What’s your first impression?” But people usually aren’t very good at articulating how they feel when using a new product, leading to results that aren’t actionable. You may get a lengthy spiel, a not-so-useful generalized comparison to other products, or, if you’re talking to a user who’s already very familiar with your industry, some technical jargon. 
 So how do you get honed, nuanced answers and uncover real emotions and motivations that you can act on? One way is to use metaphors, which can help ground people’s impressions in a tangible, easily relatable way.
 Here’s what this approach might look like:

  1. Ask a group of people to try out your app or product over one week.
  2. Set up half-hour follow-up interviews with each person at the end of the week.
  3. Before the interview, ask them to send you a picture that captures how they felt during their experience of using your product for the first time. Challenge them to get creative and to think metaphorically. Ask for a picture that represents their experience, along with an explanation of why they chose the picture.
  4. Conduct the interview you’d arranged and walk through the picture with them. Talk to them about why they chose it and ask yourself what might be driving the feelings they share.

The power of using this metaphor approach is that it encourages people to think more deeply about their experience and to hone their responses around a certain theme. Also, actually “seeing” a user’s experience with your product forces you and your team to really engage with the feedback, which can help you rethink problems and take action, rather than rationalizing away survey results or interview data.
 A couple of years ago, some researchers at Facebook used this approach. They’d learned in interviews and surveys that a particular product experience was confusing and hard to use, but the product team seemed to be stuck and wasn’t taking action on the findings. When the team saw the images participants chose — such as a maze and a person hiking uphill — the problems finally hit home. The experience inspired an entire redesign of one of our ads products to make it simpler and easier to use.

Goal #2: Learn about the different ways people use your product

Users often interact with your product in ways you hadn’t planned. Understanding why they do this can help you encourage the types of usage you want, discourage the ones you don’t, and fine-tune your product for unexpected use cases. A common approach in this situation is to run a survey that asks them about their use. But people can’t always recapture their experience accurately, or even remember everything they use an app for.

So how do you get actionable information about how they’re really using your product? Diary studies are a good way to do this, because they look at behaviors more promptly and regularly. However, the cadence in which these studies ask people to record their usage — often once per day — doesn’t always yield useful results. If you want more details about a user moment, you have to rely on their memory of what happened and why.
 One creative way to get fresher, more accurate insights is to conduct your diary study via a messaging platform, like Messenger. Here’s how it might work:

  1. Ask a small group to join 1:1 sessions with you on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, or another messaging service.
  2. Chat with them three times a day, asking a few key questions (like “When was the last time you used our product?”, “What triggered you to use it?”, and “How long did you spend using it?”)
  3. Ask for screen grabs, photos, thoughts, and feelings.
  4. As they respond, dig into their opinions further in real time. This user is out in the world using your product at this very moment.

Doing diary studies this way lets you capture useful insights before the user forgets why they’d written something, or the finer details of their experience. It also helps you establish a more personal rapport with the person interacting with your product, inviting more candid and open feedback. It’s also a great way to do research on a budget, and to talk to users remotely, even in different markets.

Goal #3: Learn what your users might want and need in the future

It’s hard enough for you to predict what’s coming next in your industry — and you’re the expert! Getting useful information from your users about what they want next from your product can be even more challenging. Creative research can help to get people thinking outside of their current world view and to articulate their unmet needs.
 So how can you get signal into this ever-elusive question? Here are two creative approaches:

  • Ignite a group debate/discussion by making it a fun activity. Here’s an example: Raman Hansi Sudan, a Facebook researcher, needed to get insight from a bunch of developers in Germany. She decided to make paper rockets, each with a familiar but relatively new brand. She asked the group, “Which one is going to take off?” Then she sat back and watched them as they debated the question. They pushed the rockets around on the table as they spoke, which led to some really heated discussions about how they saw the brands matching their needs in the future.
  • Have research participants “write a letter” to your app. Several years ago, another Facebook researcher had users write a letter to any social media ad product as a homework activity before their in-home interviews. When the researcher came to their home, she asked them to read the letter aloud. She was surprised that everyone chose to write their letters to Facebook Ads. The letters revealed a strong relationship to Facebook Ads, what people expected from them, and what needs were not yet met.

Combined with conventional methods like surveys and interviews, unexpected approaches like these can shake loose some valuable insights. Consider doing something similar for your business when thinking about what product or feature to develop next.

Goal #4: Find out if your product will scale to new markets

In today’s global marketplace, you have the potential to convert customers everywhere. But it can be very difficult to determine which markets are best to focus on — let alone what adaptations local nuances may require. The complexity of this challenge makes thorough research critical. You need an approach that allows you to quickly gather both a depth and breadth of insights.
 One creative way to get a more complete understanding of what’s happening in a particular market is to combine different research methods. Here’s how one Facebook team used a “mixed method” approach to research how small businesses in Brazil paid for Facebook ads. In this case, the methodologies themselves were fairly traditional, but the combination was creative — and highly effective.

  1. Define core questions. First, the team defined their central research questions. They knew that in order to expand payment options to the Brazilian market, they needed to better understand Boleto, a payment method popular in Brazil that had no American equivalent. How did it fit into people’s daily lives? How might people expect it to work when buying ads on Facebook?
  2. Pick methods to mix. To generate a breadth and depth of insights, the team chose a mix of two methods: one-on-one street intercepts and in-lab testing.
  3. Conduct method #1. In the street intercepts, the team spoke to people about how, when, and why they used Boleto.
  4. Conduct method #2: The team then conducted in-lab testing, gathering practical insights by watching people use a prototype of Boleto in a Facebook context.
  5. Integrate learnings: Armed with this mix of cultural and product information, the team learned how best to introduce Boleto. The result was striking: a 9% increase in people paying for Facebook ads in the Brazilian market.

All these creative research methods can be used throughout your product’s lifecycle to quickly and continuously learn from your users and keep innovating. We hope you find them helpful for your business. Please note that they represent only a small sampling of the universe of ways to do research a little differently. So let your creative juices flow! We’d love to hear about unconventional research methods you’ve tried or considered.