User Research 101


There isn’t a greater teacher than failure and we often hear Lean practitioners preaching the mantra to fail fast. The idea, however, isn’t to fail beyond a point of recovery, but, rather, to fail quickly, learn and reduce your risk of a complete failure. Veena Sonwalkar, Group Lead of Institute of Customer Experience at Human Factors International, had a number of insights to share at Headstart’s August edition of Startup Saturday, Bangalore, themed “All About Product Design”.

Understanding users is key to having great UX. One must bring in users, brainstorm, build, involve users and validate assumptions. User research and testing designs on users are imperative in understanding users.


What is user research?

User research refers to the study of past and present behaviour to use it to predict future behaviour. Good user research provides actionable and testable insights into user’s needs. User research increases your chances of getting users to use your product.


Empathy is one of the buzzwords that inevitably comes up when talking about products and design. Thinking from the point of view of the user increases usability and brings down barriers that may prevent the user from using the product.


A good example of this would be Airbnb. In 2007, one had to sign up before browsing through available options at Airbnb. Users inevitably felt this was a barrier and it prevented them from using the site.

The sign-up option served as a barrier. The page was soon changed. Needless to say, 2008 was great for Airbnb(Despite the global financial crisis) and it saw massive growth.

Be data driven

In 2009, Airbnb noticed a pattern. 40 listings saw very low booking rates and, on closer inspection, these listings had one thing in common; they all had really bad photos. Hosts were using camera phones to upload photos of the rooms and booking rates were low owing to the bad quality of the photos.

bad imgs

Analytics tools provide one with data but it doesn’t really tell you why people are not using a product. Data is merely an indicator, interpretation is key to figuring out why a user may not be using a product.

When should you involve users?

One can involve users either:
a. Before one begins
b. During development and post development

Before You Begin

The first question to ask yourself before you begin is “Who am I building this for?” There have been a number of products that have failed merely because they did not solve a problem or were a mishmash of features. It is important to look at users, not features. Products can work for a small subset of people yet be an overall failure, so it is imperative that one knows whom they’re building for.

Understand the context of use. List down the goals, needs and problems while keeping in mind existing behaviour.

During Development and Post Development

A  few key things to consider during this phase revolve around:

  • Usability: Are the users able to use it and discover features on their own?
  • Understanding: Do they understand it?
  • Usefulness: Is it solving a pain point?

Understand that what worked for might not work for you.

User Research and Product Requirements


User research eliminates uncertainty, gives direction and reduces layers of risk one by one.

Build user personas based on user research while laying greater emphasis on user experience rather than features. Your Minimum Viable Product should be based on Minimum Viable Experience.


As one can observe, the different listening profiles offered by Songza is custom-tuned to offer an enhanced user experience

Design Importance

design imp


Forrester and other groups have shown that every dollar spent on UX brings in between $2 and $100 dollars in return. Based on Design Index (created by UK Design Council and UX Fund) which tracked the performance of design-led companies on the London Stock Exchange between 1995 and 2004, design-aware companies outperformed FTSE 10 and FTSE All Shares indexes by more than 200%.

User Research Methods

Understanding mental models of thinking can help as it assists us in understanding complex motivations that govern user behaviour.



Guerilla research might not be effective as the users you test might not be your target users. Know that you must recruit the right users for research. Have exposure hours with your users every two weeks. Validate. Validate. Validate.

Written by Suhas Mallya

About the speaker

Veena Sonwalkar currently works with Human Factors International (HFI) as the Group Lead for Institute of Customer Experience (ICE). The Institute of Customer Experience (ICE) is a not-for-profit section of HFI which conducts extensive research on future trends in UX design. She is also a UX consultant for HFI’s customers. She has worked with organisations such as Thoughtworks, Mindtree, AMD and others. She helped set up the UX Design practice for the Mindtree US region.

A native Bangalorean, with a degree in Fine Arts from Chitrakala Parishath and Game Design from Austin Community College, USA. She also organizes networking events for women in UX arena called Ladies that UX, Bangalore.