How to Prioritize Customer Research

Updated: Jan 3

Written by: Evan Goodfellow


The Priority Among Priorities

In a recent article entitled, How to Prioritize Customer Research when Everything is a Priority, author Michael Margolis looks at the common challenges that he hears when meeting with startups. Each week he meets with startup CEO’s and the common question that he hears again and again is in regards to what role research should play? He states that the resounding question sounds like this: We have a small design team, and a long list of projects in different stages. On top of that, our bosses just asked us to work on personas, customer journeys, experience maps, ie.  [fill in the blank with other large research deliverables]. We want to incorporate more customer research, but we can’t do it all. What should we do? What should we test?  Margolis explains how testing ideas is important, but when you are dealing with a startup where time and resources are limited, the question comes down to prioritizing research, and then assess the potential impact of each effort and it’s urgency. He suggests a list of questions to ask before starting user research, to help identify key goals, important research questions and deadlines for each item.


The first key question Margolis looks at is whether the team is able and willing to act on the research results. Research does not always highlight common sense. Research results can help confirm assumptions and design decisions. Almost every study will reveal new information about your customer, and parts of your project that need fixing. It’s great when your team is wanting to study the results and implement the changes, but this is not always the case. When a team can’t commit to the study and implement the findings then the research project should be moved to a lower priority for research. He writes, “To gauge a team’s appetite for research, try asking the project leader how she’ll respond to some hypothetical research findings. What kinds of changes or fixes could we make? What would we do if study participants are confused by this new feature?” By ascertaining whether the research findings will be adopted by the team before spending the time and energy on the research. Having provided MROC software, we know that clients get excited about learning from the customer, but the hard part is getting them excited to make the changes the customers are indicating.


What’s the risk of not doing research now?

The next question should be, “What’s the risk of not doing research now? How easy will it be to correct the design later?”  These questions help give priority to projects that directly link to important, hard-to-change decisions about the business and or products. The key indicator for how much research should be given is summed up by looking at the impact and reach the product will have with your customers. If the change you are considering is going to gain attention, affect customers, and/or affect the business bottom line, then you should test it with real customers before launching. This is what Margolis considers a high-priority research project.


When considering undertaking a research project it is important to understand exactly how much time and effort will be required. Margolis suggests using approaches such as research sprints, quick surveys, lean market research, or simple tools like usertesting.com or scout.  These suggestions are in line with our findings of doing short qualitative and quantitative in online research communities provides significant, consistent input for change. He goes on to explain that when he hears startups saying that they want to create big research deliverables like experience maps, detailed customer journeys, and personas, he gets nervous because they require large research efforts which can raise expectations to an inflated level. His solution is to ask “Will it be worth it? Will the results justify the opportunity cost of not working on other things instead?” When the boss asks for such things it is good to clarify what scale of research project is wanted.


Great Expectations

When approaching a big deliverable, it is important to discuss expectations and how much time is allotted for the task and what results are being sought. Margolis writes “tell your boss how long the research project will take, and ask if it seems like a worthwhile effort. Timing is another risk at startups. If a research project takes too long, your company’s priorities may change before the results are in.” A key point is that if you take too long on a research project and you don’t get useful results then it will be hard to get support for your next research project. The best advice he gives is to break research down into bite-sized pieces. He states, “rather than spending weeks interviewing customers for personas, incorporate some discovery questions into usability studies for other features. This way, you can give your team actionable results right away, while you gather insights for personas.”


Customer research is crucial in helping startups create solid products that the customer will use. It helps to make better, more informed decisions. While we strongly advocate for solid research, companies need to work with what they have and make research work for them. Mobile optimized online community research can provide you with great ethnographic research results to see how your customers interact with your product.


We believe that Insight Communities are crucial for creating continuous feedback that can be used to improve sales, and improve products, in a rapid fashion and at a reasonable cost. Using Insight Communities helps break research down into bite sized amounts that can be learned from and implemented without spending vast amounts of efforts deciphering.


If you would like to find out how our Insight Communities can help your business, please feel free to contact us.


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