Chapter 1

Product planning starts with user research

Too often, product managers start product planning in the solution space. Maybe your CEO dictates what goes into your product based on a gut feeling, or maybe you build whatever your highest paying customers ask you to. But are you already knee-deep in new solutions without having validated any of this with actual user research?

“A solution can only be as good as your understanding of the problem you’re addressing.”

- Paul Adams, VP of Product @ Intercom

We’ll lay the framework for how successful PMs lead user research convos to help you reach your product goals—whether it’s to generate revenue, get more users, engage existing users...or all of the above. All of this will be built on top of your customer’s deepest pains and problems.

“Great products are made of conversations. With customers. With leadership and PM direct reports. And with stakeholders. The conversations form the strategy. The conversations align the strategy. The conversations drive and iterate execution.”

- Ross Mayfield, CEO & Co-Founder of Pingpad

Approach product planning by starting in the “problem space.” How well you solve your customer pains will determine how “sticky,” and how profitable, your product is.

“I’d say that your product is always changing and perception of your product is changing, so it’s important to [have customer conversations] on an ongoing basis, not just set your ‘customer profiles’ and be done with it.”

- Barron Caster, Director of Growth at Rev

Talking to multiple customers means juggling busy schedules and travel costs; it can be emotionally draining to deeply question your users. But once you’ve seen how much stickier your solutions will become after you’ve done all the user research first, you won’t ever look back.

Don’t restrict yourself—user research isn’t only referring to your current users and customers. Add diversity to your product feedback by calling up your churned or prospective customers.

[GOOD TO KNOW] You need to talk to a lot of users. Depending on the scale of what you’re trying to build and the potential customer impact, validate your thinking by talking to multiple users before getting any serious development work started. How many users would you speak to if your new feature/product had the potential to have an impact on 10,000 users?


Questions to ask your customers during user research

“The best thing is to even give mocks to users to actually see how they'd use something and really see what's confusing them and what's bringing them delight.”

- Amy He, Product Manager @ Google

The goal of these customer conversations is to find out what your user’s top pain points are. If you have them already, break out some high fidelity mockups or a beta version of the product. Invite your user to accomplish a goal or a task, while they talk out loud as they go through your workflow. Don’t demo the product, just show it to them and record their reactions. If they’re confused by the process, take those learnings back to your team and consider redesigning or reapproaching the problem.

Are you a pro at customer convos already? Skip a few steps and jump straight to building your roadmap. Your guide to agile roadmapping starts here.

If you don’t have any mockups yet and need more guidance, we’ve put together some helpful user research questions PMs should ask their target users to uncover their biggest frustrations with existing solutions.

Keep in mind that not every one of these questions will necessarily lead you to a pain point, but they’re designed to give you a framework to ask for product feedback—the problems will uncover themselves.

Note that most user interviews shouldn’t go past 60 minutes since interviewees tend to run out of energy and focus by then.

- Clement Kao, PMHQ


User research for beginniers: Starter questions to dig at customer pain points

Start with why. If your users are eager to present you with a long list of feature requests, or already have ideas about how your product might be better, don’t stop after their first answer, and then keep on asking why. Each time you ask why you get one step closer to the heart of the issue.

Two examples from the auto industry (Toyota and Ford):
If you’re familiar with Toyota’s 5 Whys, you know that asking why once isn’t enough.

Let’s apply persistent why-asking to Henry Ford’s most famous quote, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

  1. “Why do you need a new horse?” It's old.
  2. “Why do you need to replace it when it gets old?” Because it's too slow.
  3. “Why do you need it to run fast?” Because I need to get from A to B efficiently.

Five isn’t a magic number, but even from asking why three times, you can distill the user’s problem to its source: getting from A to B faster. Moral of the story? Don’t directly ask your customers what they want. They don’t know.

A better question to ask would be: On a scale of 1 to 10, how badly does this hurt? Say your customer brings a list of their gripes and pains to you. Which ones are the most important to them? Asking them to rate their issue on a numerical scale will not only help you see where their priorities are, which can be telling of how often they are running into this problem.


User research questions about your user’s current product experience

What led you to buy our product in the first place? Not only will this validate your unique value proposition and if the target market is still correct, but it will tell you what their discovery process and how they needed your product in the first place!

Why would you recommend us to others? (Why or why not?) Another way to arrive at customer pain points is to look at information that a lot of PMs already collect: a win/loss analysis. Look to extract information that will reveal your key differentiators, what’s working well, and what could use improvement. The key is to keep asking why when your user doesn’t like the way something is working (or not working).

What do you like most about our product? Understand what works and why. There may be insights in here that you can replicate over and over again in different features to delight your customers.

What do you like least about our product? (and then ask why) Listen for their roadblocks—they’ll point you to your user’s goals and the exact places in your product that create more headaches.

  • “It takes too long to...” shows you that an automated process might be important for them.

  • “I wish I could...” can be a direct feature request. Ask them why and drill down what their actual pain point is before taking orders for features.

  • “It’s so complicated that no one on my team will…” signals that they’re struggling with adoption. Is there a simpler way they can use your product? Perhaps additional user training is necessary.

How are you using our product right now? Identify the most common/important tasks for your user. Weed out any potential solution ideas that don’t actually help. Not every customer uses your product the way you want them to. Listen for use cases that might be out of scope and if warranted, turn them into opportunities you can use to expand your offerings to a new market.

How would you like it if X did not exist? Or what are your thoughts if we did Y to this? Gauge their reactions to your initial solution ideas. If there is pushback, why?

Can you show me how you are doing that now? Helps identify any unnecessary steps that might be cause for confusion or potential for further automation. This might not even be something all your users recognize as a problem, the status quo is the enemy of your product. For example, a task can take them 10 steps, but with a new feature may only take one. Look for signs that your user experience isn’t as intuitive as you’d think, and eliminate any confusing steps in your workflow.

What do you like about how you do it now? Pay attention to ways your user’s preferences can be translated into other features.

What don’t you like about it? Understand what’s not working for your user and why, and how long, it hasn't been working. This will help you prioritize

What do you wish you could do with it that you can't right now? Your user might have some additional priorities/goals that aren't yet baked into your feature set or might reveal a broken or difficult part of their workflow that your product can and solve.


User research questions to uncover your customer’s goals

How do you measure success? Are your customers financially motivated, or are their success metrics based off of saving time? Are there other intangible factors that are important to your users? A natural follow-up question would be to talk about how your product is helping (or hindering) them from meeting their goals.

How much would you pay for something that...? This question inches towards the validation space, but it will give you an idea of how valuable (important) their perception of this product or feature might be.

If you solve this problem, how much money will you save or make? Same as above.

How would your job be different if you had this? This is meant to draw out their goals again (whether it’s to save time, money, make a process much easier to adopt for other team members, etc.) If a few ideas for solutions have come up naturally in the conversation, which of them is most important to your user?

Ready to start building your own product development roadmap? Try our ready-to-use template.

Your sweet spot will be finding shared pain points among the largest group of your target users.

The most strategic product decision you can make is to build solutions that are directly connected to your user’s pain points and goals.

Inevitably as you’re talking with your customers, they may be confirming your idea for a solution, or even giving you new product ideas. Log them into a centralized location, like an Idea Management System, where you can keep track of your user problems and ideas for solutions.

As you plan out your product development strategy, the next step is to come up with as many good product ideas, as quickly as possible.

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