Sharpening Axes & Chopping Trees – User Research & Building Products

Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe. 

– Abraham Lincoln

Why do certain companies like Apple, Netflix, Google, etc. offer compelling product experiences (i.e. software features & functionality, user experience, etc.) while other companies just put out mediocrity? Most technology companies employ similar set of product teams comprised of engineers, QA, product managers, visual designers, etc. So what gives?

Everything else being equal, it’s the investments these companies are willing to make in User Research (not UX, graphic artists or Visual Design, but pure user research)!

Here is a figure that illustrates my observations and experience.

UR Investments

Engineers, product managers, product marketing and visual designers can only do so much with brainstorming, competitive research, market research, reading tea leaves in analytics data, etc. to drive good product experiences. To really elevate good product experiences to great product experiences, what’s needed is a healthy amount of user research.

Examples?

  • Activity & Fitness tracking in Apple Watch: It’s a common notion to attribute Apple’s success to their stellar marketing. While it’s true that Apple’s marketing is second to none, it’s the product experiences that are central to Apple’s success – marketing just provides lubrication & acceleration for that success. To come up with compelling product experiences, Apple spends massive amounts of time and effort researching users, lifestyles, use case scenarios, etc. and that insight is used to drive the product’s functionalities. To drive the fitness and activity tracking functionality in Apple Watch, Apple invested in a 23,000 sq ft fitness lab and spent 2 years collecting 18,000 hours worth of workout data based on 10,000 sessions. The functionality that you see in Apple Watch today is based on those insights. Regardless of whether Apple Watch succeeds or bombs, its impressive to see Apple put in that kind of effort for just the activity & fitness tracking aspect of their product. More details and a video on this…
  • Moto X Active Display: If you are a Android handset maker, how do you differentiate yourself from other Android handsets that are all powered by Google’s Android? Motorola’s Moto X has a clever feature called Active Display that allows you to see the clock and notifications without turning ON the phone. This power saving Active Display capability came out of user research & observation that people turn ON their phones 40-50 times a day (and drain battery) just to see the clock and notifications. See Punit Soni (ex-VP at Motorola) talk about the user research that led to this innovation…
  • Netflix new redesign: We are all guilty of occasional indulgence in binge watching Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, etc. In June 2015 we can do more of that when Netflix launches its major redesign in 4 years. This redesign was based on insights obtained by a dozen researchers conducting 1500 interviews in people’s homes to understand how they use Netflix. Netflix also sent out 15 million surveys to get an understanding on what it takes to get people to watch shows. All this user research takes a large amount of effort to eke out further improvements in an area where Netflix already has a monopoly. More details on this…

What happens to products developed without User Research? Products developed without the insights & context of User Research tend to become engineering and feature driven rather than user need driven!

That brings us to the point about axes and trees…

Before chopping a tree, spending hours to sharpen an axe is all about preparation. Similarly, to prepare for & to create compelling product experiences, companies (especially software companies) need to invest more in user research and use that insight to drive the functionalities & user experiences that make (or break) products!

So, how well does your company invest in User Research?

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