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When It's Worth Conducting Research with Non-Users

Not the time to study people who aren't your users is a big missed opportunity. Learn how and when to test the right participants.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Nicky Mazur

We talk a lot about the importance of user research, but there is not enough focus on non-user research. What I mean by this is talking to people who don't currently use your product and have never used it. We only get half of the story when we speak to users.

In a way, our users are biased. Whether negatively or positively biased, they’re still going to respond in a significantly different way. By focusing solely on only our users, we are potentially missing other important information that can make the experience better.

We may assume that our non-users don't want to use our product, but that’s not necessarily the case. We might not be designing an experience accessible to these users or have a crucial product gap. When we’re only talking to users, we encourage confirmation bias, even if we have the best intentions.

When we talk about user research, we refer to the holistic picture of an experience. But what is a holistic view without the other half of the story?

When and why talking to non-users is valuable

I am a massive fan of talking to non-users and find it incredibly valuable. However, it can be hard to argue talking to non-users when everyone on your team is focused on optimizing a product for current customers.

However, there is so much more than just that product. Speaking with non-users enables you to see a unique perspective!

I'm a big advocate of talking with non-users in mainly three different situations:

  • For conducting foundational or competitive research
  • Understanding how to approach/onboard new users
  • To build empathy for other markets or user-bases

You can discover so much information about competitor products and services to pivot in the best way that aligns with people's expectations and needs.

Foundational research

When talking to non-users for foundational research, I typically use Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) or generative research sessions. This is because I can use these methods to deeply understand the person in front of me, completely separate from the product.

In particular, I find the JTBD approach vital because you might discover new tasks people are looking to accomplish, or unknown barriers they’re coming up against. These non-users already use other products or services to achieve the job instead of your solution, so you can understand what your product needs to include.

You can discover so much information about competitor products and services to pivot in the best way that aligns with people's expectations and needs.

These methods can also help you understand how users are currently accomplishing their goals with other products, and give you insight into how to innovate.

I often fall into the same habit of talking to users through generative research of JTBD research to find innovative avenues to explore. However, speaking to non-users can give you an entirely different perspective. It allows you to explore the market in a broader sense, challenge assumptions, and enter new areas.

Approaching new users/onboarding

Although less common, I enjoy testing screens, prototypes, or concepts with non-users.

Putting your current product (or a future state of a product) in front of non-users allows you to explore how users relate to your product.

I will often ask them what adjectives immediately come to mind when they see the product. This gives an idea of your product's immediate impact, which can also help the marketing and branding teams.

Additionally, it’s interesting to see what non-users think of your designs, as it’s easy for current customers (and colleagues!) to get used to a design. For example, I recently got the words "mundane" and "corporate" for a website I was testing. It was beneficial to get this outside perspective as our current users were too familiar with the designs to comment.

Showing non-users the initial screens of the product also helps us gain their perspective when they are approaching the product and seeing the first screens. Not only can this indicate how the user got to a website, app, or product (what they searched in Google, what they expected versus reality), but it can also help us understand onboarding.

People bounce from websites, apps, and products so fast now that they will be gone if they don't see immediate value. Showing this part of the product can allow you to understand what users need in those critical few seconds and how to solve a relevant problem. You can also learn if anything presented in front of them would compel them to switch from their current solution.

Empathy building

Ideally, teams are focused on their users and trying to build technology to improve users' lives. However, we can quickly get stuck in a rut of thinking everyone is the same. It’s essential to remind ourselves to empathize outside the box.

Non-users can often provide insights into critical issues such as accessibility, understanding, or demographic factors (think more social influences) impacting engagement and usage of certain products. By speaking with non-users and users, you’re not only breaking down barriers, but also understanding the struggles and reality of people you aren't always thinking of.

When is talking to non-users less valuable?

Although it is clear that interviewing non-users is super valuable in identifying new opportunities and perspectives, there are certain times when it’s less ideal to speak with non-users:

  • If the current priorities are around improving the experience for customers with a certain level of product experience
  • If you need to choose between users or non-users to speak to, always start with improving your current product
  • Finding bugs or other issues with the recent user experience of a product
  • Niche products that only certain groups use (ex: recruiting a teacher for software made for surgeons)
  • If you are prototype testing something that requires a certain level of understanding from users

When deciding whether or not to speak with non-users, make sure to think about the goals of the study!

How to recruit non-users

Recruiting and talking to non-users can be much more challenging than finding people who currently use your product. However, it is possible.

The most critical first step is to define who these non-users are, which I have given a rough list of below:

  1. People with loyalty to another brand
  2. People who aren’t interested in your product
  3. Bad previous experiences with similar products
  4. Misinformation about your product
  5. Life circumstances

Sometimes it’s impossible for a particular person to use your product, which is why we still need to choose and prioritize our non-users. I would much rather speak to people loyal to another brand than people who are simply uninterested in the topic my product covers.

Also, people with bad previous experiences and misinformation are great candidates to understand better the gaps and negativity they perceive in your product.

As mentioned, it can be tough to recruit non-users, but here is how I approach this problem. First, I set my criteria for recruitment:

  1. Unfamiliar with the brand/product
  2. Not using the product OR using a competitor product
  3. Recently stopped using a competitor product OR have never have used a product in the space
  4. Bad experiences with a competitor or similar products

Then comes the more difficult part: getting in touch with these people. I use a few hacky ways to get in touch with these users:

  1. Posting the screener link (or just a description) on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook
  2. Posting on a forum, such as Reddit
  3. Reaching out to Slack communities
  4. Asking friends of friends (friends and family can be too close)
  5. Using a recruitment agency

As a caution, you might get less-than-ideal participants through some of these methods, but that is part of speaking to non-users.

What to do after you talk to non-users

After running a study with non-users, there is typically a lot of information to sort through, and many ways you can highlight what you found. With this information, I will generally:

  • Review the sessions and see if there are any trends in what non-users need that we could build into our product
  • Compile why non-users are using (or switching) to certain competitor products
  • Map the journey of a non-user, especially the journey of a non-user using a competitive product
  • Encourage teams to get creative in coming up with ideas for non-users
  • Create a non-user persona or visual breakdown
  • Prototype a similar but new type of product or service that would appeal to non-users

While talking to non-users might not be at the top of your priority list (we can't always do everything at once!), it’s still an important topic. This approach can lead to new and innovative ways of looking at your product and the problems you’re trying to solve.

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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