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Navigating Uncharted Waters: Researching Products that Don’t Exist Yet

We walk (or swim) through how to research potential products WITHOUT asking the taboo question, "Would you use this in the future?"

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Allison Corr

As humans, we've created a lot, especially when it comes to technology and products. However, as a researcher, you can be tasked with researching a product that doesn't yet exist.

A few years ago, I worked closely with an innovation team. Their entire purpose was to "build new ideas/concepts/products." For a while, they built, threw ideas against a wall, and found that, unlike spaghetti, not many of them stuck. Some of them were a massive waste of time, effort, and money. As a result, the innovation team faltered, and the organization lost trust in the team's ideas.

One day my manager came to me and said, "The innovation team needs help. Let's get you on the team for the next six months." I nodded, skeptical but also excited. Visions of the title innovation researcher and innovation research lead spun through my head. The possibilities were endless. Until I got to our first meeting and everyone looked at me asking, "How do we know what to build if it doesn't exist yet?"

I grappled with this question for a long time. I knew better to ask people what they might want in the future. Humans can't predict the future. We don't know if we would one day use a product that doesn't exist yet. But then I realized...

Everything already exists

As a fiction writer, this sentiment was challenging to grasp (and felt depressing at some points). Everything already exists in one form or another. We are no longer at a point where we are inventing completely new ideas or products. But— thank goodness for this—we do have new plot twists or spins on a product.

Think of the iPhone. Companies were already selling cell phones, but the iPhone was a plot twist to an existing device. As we know, the iPhone ended up being quite a psychological thriller for all those other companies, RIP Blackberry.

For researchers, this is a great thing. Since everything already exists, we don't need to worry about asking future-based questions or understanding how users use a product. But this approach wouldn't help us understand anything.

User research aims to uncover what goals people are trying to achieve and the barriers or pain points they are experiencing while trying to achieve their goals. We also need to understand how people are currently reaching their goals and addressing their pain points.

We can discover how people solve their problems and help shape a new product or service with innovation research.

Conduct innovation research

Now that we know it’s possible to research a product that doesn't exist, what are the steps to properly ensure you get reliable and valid data? Luckily, the process is relatively similar to a product test with a few tweaks.

Because this type of research tends to be very fun and exciting, we will use an example to illustrate how we could conduct innovation research.

Pretend you’re working at the company, GiftBox, who wants to create a subscription box for people who are notoriously bad at remembering birthdays, anniversaries, or significant dates that require a card or present. The subscription box would have people fill out all the important dates for that year, with the ability to add new ones.

For each date, the person will fill out a short survey to generate a list of potential presents. Then, a month before the date, the subscriber would get pinged to pick out the gift from this generated list of which the company would automatically send to the subscriber or the recipient's address.

Of course, this product doesn't exist yet, and your team wants you to figure out what potential users think about this idea. Instead of going out and surveying the masses asking, "Would you use this subscription box?" you decide to conduct proper innovation research.

Prior to conducting the research

1. Identify competitors or similar products

This step is the foundation for a great innovation research project. As mentioned, everything already exists in one way or another. That means there is a competitor out there already. By identifying these competitors, we can start to understand how users might currently navigate challenges. Get creative with this exercise!

When it comes to remembering dates, your competitors could be:

  • A physical calendar
  • A notebook and a pen
  • Digital calendars
  • A digital list
  • Apps that remind people of upcoming dates
  • Gift guides
  • Physical or online shops

2. Find users

After brainstorming the list of similar products, you can focus on potential users. You want to ensure you are talking to the right people who would use GiftBox. Since we don't know our exact users, we need to approximate them:

  • Look at competitors and see who is using these products as they might be your future users
  • Brainstorm the behaviors users might display, such as:
    • People who track important dates, such as birthdays or anniversaries
    • People who have forgotten significant dates in the past six months
    • People who have scrambled to find last-minute gifts in the past six months
  • Think through the goals these users might have, such as:
    • Getting a gift far enough in advance so that it isn't late
    • Not rushing or scrambling last-minute to find the right gift
    • Making people in their lives feel important by remembering meaningful dates

Read more about finding the right people and screening for them.

Conduct the research

Once you have a list of the competitors and better understand your users, it is time to conduct the research. Now you need to brainstorm goals and create a research plan.

For this research, you focus on:

  • Uncovering user's goals and mental models behind remembering important dates and gifts/cards for those moments
  • Discovering the journey people go on to try to remember these dates, including the different tasks they complete
  • Identifying pain points with the current process
  • Learning about the various tools they currently use to achieve these goals and their experiences with them

By concentrating on how people are achieving their goals and what obstacles they are encountering, you can generate insights to help GiftBox's product be better than the current offerings.

The best way to ask these types of questions is by using open-ended phrases. You can use the TEDW approach to help guide your question-writing:

  • "Tell me…"
  • "Explain…."
  • "Describe…."
  • "Walk me through…."

Using these phrases, you can then look to your research goals to help create your questions:

1. Uncovering user's goals and mental models behind remembering important dates and gifts/cards for those moments

  • Explain why you want to remember these dates and gifts.
  • Talk me through what it means to you when you don't remember a date/gift. What about when you do?

2. Discovering the journey people go on to try to remember these dates, including the different tasks they complete

  • Walk me through the last time you tried to remember a date, step-by-step.
  • Describe the different things you did to remember the date/gift
    • When do you do these actions?
    • Who else is with you?
    • Where are you?

3. Identifying pain points with the current process

  • Describe any obstacles you encountered when trying to remember these important dates.
  • Talk me through a frustrating experience you had trying to remember a date.

4. Learning about the various tools they currently use to achieve these goals and their experiences with them

  • Explain what you are currently doing to remembering these dates
  • Walk me through a product you are now using to accomplish this goal?
    • What is your experience with this product?
    • Describe a problem you encounter with it

With this information, you can start to put together a journey map based on the potential user's stages, tasks, and pain points (another resource for creating journey maps is Mapping Experiences by Jim Kalbach). A journey will tell you:

  • The goals people are trying to accomplish
  • What tasks the user is doing to accomplish said goals
  • The different pain points, barriers, and obstacles they are encountering when trying to achieve the goal

From your research, let's say that you find:

People are trying to remember dates so that they are not scrambling to find a gift last-minute or end up missing the date entirely. To do this, they set up calendar reminders and put the task of buying a gift on a to-do list. Unfortunately, calendar reminders get dismissed with busy schedules, and it's easy to put off buying a gift if they don't have the perfect idea when your to-do list pings you. So then, what happens is they forget the date or are scrambling to find a last-minute gift that isn't genuine or arrives late.

Armed with this knowledge, you and your innovation team can develop ways to help potential users achieve their goals less painfully and more effectively than current products on the market. Since you appreciate the challenges people face and understand their goals, your team is better equipped to create something that people will use.

Remember, participants can't predict the future

Don't ask for opinions of your new idea or "if" people would use it one day. Answers to these questions can cause a false sense of security or give stakeholders the wrong idea. It is challenging for people to imagine something that doesn't yet exist and what they may or may not use in the future. The last thing you want is to report excellent insights from innovative research but have teams latch on to the answers to these "if" questions. Once you create a prototype or concept based on the above study, you can ask people for feedback.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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