Rewind to the days of dial-up internet and AOL. (Or Yahoo, or MSN, or whatever. We weren’t too picky about our email at the time.)
Then came Gmail, the great disruptor, with its intuitive interface and all that storage space we didn’t know we needed. Ever accidentally hit “send” on an email riddled with spelling errors? Or sent one without attaching the file you described in painstaking detail? The “undo send” function was a game changer (and one we continue to use all the time). Google continues to add features to its product roadmap that make our lives easier (and more fool-proof!). They differentiate themselves by always solving the unaddressed customer need, such as recalling a mistakenly sent email.
These features are not born out of thin air. Meticulous user research goes into understanding pain points.
Depending on the project stage, companies undertake strategic or tactical research. Strategic research is driven by high-level business objectives and usually broadly defined, while tactical research addresses a specific question/problem, usually within a short timeframe.
To see this in practice, let’s look at “Gro-cery,” a fictional retailer that wants to launch a mobile app where customers can order their goods for delivery. Gro-cery’s strategic research should focus on the targeted demographic — what are their buying preferences? What is their willingness to spend on certain foods/items? What do they want from an app experience? Tactical research focuses on a particular part of the journey — can we streamline purchases by adding a ‘quick-buy’ button? Where would they get stuck in the buying process if they were shopping from their couch instead of the store?
Research teams at companies like Gro-cery juggle strategic and tactical projects like this, every single day. But how do they stay laser-focused on the user experience?
The most successful teams develop a “research roadmap.”
What is a research roadmap?
A research roadmap is an organizational tool for creating, prioritizing and executing projects in line with company strategy. Most people are familiar with product roadmaps, and roadmaps for research serve the same purpose: They communicate a vision of customer problems that we aim to solve.
They visualize our higher-level strategic goals (like understanding more about potential Gro-cery app users) and tactical initiatives (conducting user interviews with in-store shoppers) required to help us get there. The research roadmap is closely intertwined with the product roadmap because the research informs design decisions. At Gro-cery, the product roadmap’s overarching goal is to build and run the application, continually refining and enhancing the user experience over time.
Sharing roadmaps company-wide encourages cross-functional collaboration. Gro-cery’s marketing team has an interest in the user interview data — they seek to understand the target buyer so they create impactful campaigns. Sales, responsible for an important slice of revenue, hears directly from consumers every day, so they can suggest crucial product ideas, such as replicating the experience of grabbing last-minute items at checkout. This request could lead to a strategic research initiative that identifies which items shoppers frequently add at the last minute.
Research roadmaps combine quantitative and qualitative data, giving you the big picture. Say a survey reports that only 4% of shoppers actively use grocery apps on their phones. That’s a pretty poor adoption rate, even for a small sample. Leadership at Gro-cery may wonder about the viability of the app in the first place. However, a deep dive reveals that over half of the sample installed grocery apps on their phones. These users cited “too complicated” and “confusing” as the reasons they did not use the apps regularly. This marriage of quantitative and qualitative insights reveals a genuine customer problem.
The idea behind the research roadmap is to elevate the user’s voice. It aligns everyone at a company to a single vision: How can we help our customers and simplify their lives?
Apart from unifying everyone’s efforts toward business goals, research roadmaps communicate the importance of research to the rest of the organization. At Gro-cery, anyone looking at the roadmap should be able to easily identify studies, the purpose behind them and questions they need answers to. Roadmaps communicate resource capacity, such as how many researchers need to engage in upcoming studies and whether you need to hire more talent. A roadmap can also reveal inefficiencies in the research process — for instance, Gro-cery’s sales team’s “last-minute purchases” suggestion might be missed by the product team completely. How can you improve the roadmap process to capture everyone’s ideas for better customer experience?
A research roadmap drives data-driven product design and sets your whole business up for long-term success.
What happens when you don’t have a research roadmap?
In the absence of a research roadmap, silos may develop between teams at Gro-cery. Researchers find themselves performing reactive rather than proactive research. Research is carried out as an afterthought, rather than before the design of Gro-cery’s app even begins. Gro-cery’s engineering team may simply focus on what to build, rather than why it is being built (more on this below). Marketing and sales teams have a vested interest in the research outcomes (they’re not the only ones). When you don’t share insights across teams, research efforts are often duplicated, wasting time and resources.
Roadmaps repeatedly circle back to the customer problem, focusing on what each decision means for the end user. Research roadmaps can focus on either features or outcomes.
A feature-based product roadmap may lead to customer confusion:
- “Should we add a quick buy button?” Yeah, that would help speed up the checkout process.
- “Would customers benefit if the Gro-cery app had user reviews?” Absolutely, this enables customers to identify high-quality items.
- “What about a social tool to connect them to other shoppers?” Probably not, but our competitors have one.
- “Should we add this?” Sure.
- “Should we add that?” Yep!
With this approach, Gro-cery ends up flooding the user with features simply because competing apps offer similar functionality. Companies get so caught up in updating and releasing new features that they lose sight of users and their biggest problems.
We can reframe “Adding a quick-buy button” to a desired outcome instead: “Simplify user purchases to reduce friction and improve conversion rate.” This is intentionally a much more broad definition defined to leave room for innovation as you collect and analyze user research.
Introduce research into the product roadmap process
Innovative products deliver new value, based on — you guessed it — user research. Therefore, fostering innovation requires a shift in culture toward strategic research, rather than research that validates a product that’s already been designed. Start with the tools you have to build your own company’s research roadmap.
Here are six key steps to get you started:
- Assess stakeholder needs. As you begin, ask leaders from all teams (product, engineering, sales, marketing and business) if they have any requests that require research for the upcoming year. Spend time understanding each item, and why it’s important to them. Leave no stone unturned.
- Evaluate existing research. No point starting from scratch when another researcher or product partner asked the same questions before. Audit existing research documents, dig into their insights, and look for potential themes. Learn from their learnings to improve the customer experience and solve your own research problems faster.
- Prioritize relentlessly. The stakeholder list of requests will always be long (and potentially never-ending!). At Foursquare, product and engineering teams use three simple buckets to prioritize research tasks — #now, #next and #later. #now lists items for the next 2-4 weeks, #next is 1-3 months, and #later is anything that needs revisiting after 3 months. Simplicity is key.
- Plan and execute. Twilio ensures every research project begins with a research brief — a single document detailing the questions that need answers, the research that needs conducting, and the guidelines in how the work gets done. A simple, yet effective, way to keep everyone on the same page. Pun intended.
- Share, share, share. Broadcast your findings and the best quotes to everyone. Share your users’ voice with all stakeholders, keeping them invested in the process. This also acts as a forum for exchanging ideas, such as adding “last-minute checkout” in the Gro-cery app.
- Review and recalibrate. Check in with everyone on a quarterly basis to see if priorities have shifted, and add any new items to the pipeline. Periodically assess your research roadmap, and look for ways to improve it without losing sight of the customer pain points. Refocus, and start again.
Complex, specific research roadmaps with strict deadlines seldom work. Teams struggle to (a) estimate the time required to finish a task, and (b) stick to their deadlines. It’s important to understand that a research roadmap is a living document and subject to change. Don’t waver on your strategic objectives, but tactical goals are bound to shift over time. Be accommodating and flexible to inevitable changes that come up in the day to day.
User-centric product roadmaps start with research
Research is instrumental in creating and improving the products we know and love. Companies that consistently deliver value to their customers use research as the bedrock for their success. Research roadmaps can be a valuable asset to the organization because they align all departments around solving specific customer problems.
By collaborating on projects and elevating the customer voice, it ensures that everyone maintains a user-centric focus. User research should drive the direction of a product’s road map, not the other way around.