'Just Enough Research' by Erika Hall
If you happened to found a startup, you probably know that feeling of helplessness that engulfs you when the initial excitement wears off a few months into your journey and you realize that your business plan is not working. The product that you thought people would flock to use failed to gain traction. What little user base you had looked confused and lost as they tried to use it, and you didn't even know what was wrong because you had so little data.
This scenario is so common in the startup world that management gurus and entrepreneurs who made it coined catchy expressions to define it: The Trough of Sorrow, the Struggle, the Traction Gap, or the Chasm. However, the prevalence of this problem doesn't mean that there is an easy solution. Many startups learn this the hard way.
The real chasm exists between the fantasies of the product team and the surprise customers prepare for them. When you find out that you missed the mythical product-market fit by a mile and start looking into the chasm, you are actually looking into your lack of information on your customers. What do they think? What motivates them to buy the products of your rivals but not yours? Why all the angry comments under your Twitter posts?
How to make people talk
The only way out of this situation is by getting to know more about your customers, their pain points, and the obstacles they run into when they try to use your product. But this is easier said than done. "Talk to your customers! Listen to what they say!" is one of the cure-all advice you hear from self-proclaimed marketing experts all the time. Erika Hall, in her book Just Enough Research, shows that talking to your customers is not the panacea that some people make it out to be, and it sometimes may even be counterproductive. Getting people to give you the kind of information you need is an art unto itself, and Just Enough Research shows you the fine points of this art.
Just Enough Research focuses on design research, the kind of research that aids and informs the product design process. The book targets non-professional researchers who want to become better at extracting information from diverse sources such as customers, stakeholders within the organization, competitors, or the public at large. From preparation to the actual research to evaluation of the results, Just Enough Research lays out the stages of research for the uninitiated and dives deep into what the researcher should do for good results.
Not the silver bullet you hoped for
Design research is a lever you can pull to improve your product design, positioning, and marketing efforts. However, it can't create miracles. Erika Hall warns the readers against the limitations of different research methods and where they come up short. Among the "don'ts" Hall lists are techniques such as focus groups, surveys, and split-testing praised to no end by marketing specialists. Here is a synopsis of how Hall sees them:
Focus groups: Research theater conducted in an artificial setting that will compromise the validity of the results.
Surveys: A common cop-out used whenever a serious business decision has to be made. Surveys are a waste of time and resources when the sample is not representative of the population. Even when you manage to solve the representation issue, there is the problem of interpretation. "Quantitative data doesn't guarantee objective interpretation."
Split-testing: A corporate favorite that creates an illusion of mathematical certainty and gives testers peace of mind while implementing ideas. Split-testing kicks off an endless chain of gradual optimizations that can go on forever. However, making big leaps requires taking risks, something marginal adjustments hardly provide.
Then there is the Net Promoter Score (NPS), the darling of every SaaS startup nowadays. Despite its popularity, NPS is of little use to a company because it tells nothing about what people do not like about you and what you can do to get a better score. It doesn't give you actionable insights and thus offers you no help in crossing the chasm.
Underestimating the challenges of getting information from people is one of the grave mistakes you can make if you are running a startup. Talking to people is easy, but getting useful information from them is not. Without a methodology, you are certain to waste your already scarce resources to collect data that won't make your decisions any better. Just Enough Research gives you a blueprint to follow during your in-house research endeavor, increasing your chance to make better decisions.
While showing you how to improve your research performance, Erika Hall also emphasizes the empty promises of specific techniques and their proponents that you should be wary of. You will be disappointed if you are banking on a few surveys and focus group studies to help you nail the product-market fit. Just Enough Research is a good book for non-professional researchers looking to educate themselves on design research.