How to build a killer product proposition with user research

Speaking with potential users to help shape your product doesn’t need to be difficult or expensive. Here’s how we did it at Yonder.

The dark metal Yonder card sitting amongst a delicious dinner

When I first joined Yonder (or Simpl, as we were not-so-well known at the time) as the founding designer back in April 2021, all we had were three passionate lunatics with ideas about how they might create better credit products for immigrants moving to the UK. Given we didn’t have an FCA license yet (which meant we couldn’t launch for a while), my first task was to speak with as many people as possible to figure out if we were onto something. Turns out we were, but the ideas we had needed refining if we wanted to create something people wanted.

I met with over 200 people throughout the next 6 months, and picked up a thing or two about how to get the most out of those research sessions. I thought it might be useful for founders, founding designers, and even intrapreneurs looking to test and launch new initiatives, to hear about how we used qualitative research to take a few ideas and mould them into a proposition that our customers now love.

A few things before we get started:

  • I’m going to assume that you already have some ideas about what your startup/initiative might be and the type of product you might want to launch. At the point that I’d joined, we knew we wanted to build a modern credit product aimed at UK immigrants. Everything else we still needed to figure out. If you’re in a similar boat, keep reading.
  • If you’re a seasoned UX pro, or you’ve got lots of experience launching startups, you probably won’t find this post that helpful. No worries, next article.
  • Lastly, I’m going to be quite open here, giving specific examples of how we applied design best practices to our specific situation. Just keep this in mind. Your context will probably have nuances that ours didn’t, and vice versa. For example, our regulatory constraints meant we had much longer before we could launch, which gave us more time to do a lot of this stuff.

I’ll split this out into 6 sections, focusing on:

  1. Getting specific with our target customer
  2. Figuring out where to find them
  3. Deciding what to ask them
  4. Understanding our target customer
  5. Testing our proposition effectively
  6. Involving the entire team

The first thing we needed to do was really define who we even wanted to talk to. A bit like how Amazon targeted bookworms back in the 90s before they became the place everyone buys everything, you’ll need to carve out your niche and get super specific with who you’re building for. Young people is not a target audience. There are too many of them, and they’re all pretty different. Young cycling enthusiasts who love drinking coffee is much better, and will likely have quite a lot in common. The goal here is to be as specific as you can whilst still feeling like there’s a big enough group of people you can build a product for.

To do this, I ran a proto-persona exercise with the team, which allowed us to all align on who this person was, and gave me a crystal clear idea of who I should go out and try to speak with. It’s really important to do this as a team if you have one. You probably all have slightly different ideas about who this person is in your heads, and you’ll want to come to some sort of consensus. It’s far too early for office politics.

There are lots of ways you can do this, but for us, we took a page and split it into the following four quadrants:

  1. Demographic facts — Things like rough age, salary, type of work they do
  2. Problems — Specific things they struggle with, relevant to your product space
  3. Behaviours — Things they’re currently doing, relevant to your product space
  4. Needs and goals — Things they’re trying to achieve based on those behaviours and problems
Final sticky notes for each of the four quadrants of our persona

We landed on A 30 year old Australian professional with no children, who’d been living in London for a year, and enjoyed using credit cards.

What’s most important here is making sure the things you define are relevant to your product. Going back to the early Amazon example, living far away from a bookstore might have been relevant for them. Not so much for a credit product.

Where are they?

Finding the right people to speak with can be difficult, and pretty intimidating. Where on earth do you start? Didn’t mum tell me not to talk to strangers? Well, this is where those proto-personas come in handy. What do these people like to do? Where do they go to hang out, both on and offline? Where do they go to ask for help or moan about their annoyances?

For us, given we were targeting UK expats in London, Facebook groups were a great place to start — Aussies in London and South Africans in London in particular. These are active communities where thousands of new-to-Londoners go to get help setting up their new life in the UK. Perfect. The key thing here is identifying the places your target customers are going, and meeting them there.

How do I get them to talk to me?

There were two broad tactics we used to get their attention: Kindly asking them for help, and offering an incentive. Honestly, I was blown away by how generous the large majority of people were when I told them I was trying to build something new and I really needed a hand. Many people I ended up speaking with didn’t even care about the incentive, they just liked the idea of helping an early-stage startup, which was a real challenge to my typically British cynicism.

All I did here was post a message on some of the Facebook groups we’d identified earlier, in an attempt to start building up a list of people I could talk to over the coming weeks. It worked, really well. In just a few days, I had over 100 leads, which was more than enough to get started.

An original Facebook post made to try and recruit research participants
Admittedly, I could have worded this better

Making sure they’re the right fit

Before you get yourself out there, you’ll need to ensure that anyone you do eventually talk to aligns with the persona you created earlier. You’re probably going to hear from a few people that don’t, and you’ll want to avoid making any decisions based on their feedback.

The best way to do this is to create a list of questions that screens out those that don’t quite fit the bill. We used Typeform to get the job done, but there’s loads of alternatives. Just pick one, create some questions, and make sure your leads fill it in. For us, it was really important that we spoke to professionals that earned between 35–80k, had moved to London in the last few years from overseas, and had some interest in a credit product. Aim for between 5–10 questions, no more.

Don’t worry, it gets much easier

Once you’ve got your first batch of test participants, it’s much much easier to find your next. We had a lot of success asking each participant if they knew anyone else who’d be willing to speak with us at the end of each interview. Most of the time they did, and most of the time they were just as lovely.

On top of trying to find people to speak with, I was also busy figuring out exactly what we wanted to speak with them about. When you’re building something new, your decisions will mostly be based on assumptions, meaning there’s lots of unknowns you’ll want to clarify. To help de-risk some of these assumptions, you’ll firstly want to define them before going out and validating them (which is basically the entire point of the research). The key here is to isolate what’s going to make or break the success of your product. The other stuff can wait.

I ran a quick assumption mapping exercise with the team to try and figure this out. The idea here is to each spend 10 or so minutes writing down as many assumptions as you can related to your product idea, and then map them based on risk/confidence. Again, if you have a team, do this together.

This doesn’t need to be perfect, but we found Laura Klein’s assumption types framework really useful here:

  • Problem assumptions: The problems we believe our target customers have. E.g expats struggle to get access to credit in the UK
  • Solution assumptions: The solutions we believe will solve our target customers problems. E.g expats want a credit card in the UK
  • Implementation assumptions: Based on our ability to successfully implement the identified solutions before going broke! E.g. underwriting based on open banking will actually work

Once we had a big pile of assumptions, we grouped them into broad categories, and created a matrix that helped us decide which were the ones worth focusing on. We used the y-axis to determine the level of risk if we got it wrong (from High — we will die, to Low — it’ll just be annoying), and the x-axis to determine our level of confidence on that assumption (again, high to low).

Basically, the things that land in the top-right corner are your highest-risk assumptions — the things that will kill your business if you’re wrong, that you also have really low confidence on. This should form the focus of your research. For us, this was understanding how much of a problem access to credit was for UK expats, and if they even wanted a rewards credit card.

Sticky notes for our final assumption mapping exercise

Time to book in your sessions

Now that we’d nailed down exactly what we wanted to test, we were ready to start cherry-picking the ideal participants from that long list of people we made earlier. We aimed to speak with 5–8 people each week, and sent out Calendly invites to those that seemed a great fit. I can’t tell you how much time Calendly saved me going back and forth arranging times with participants. Just use it.

Listen up

The first six weeks or so were all about listening. More specifically, listening to stories. Let’s face it, we’re all pretty terrible at predicting our future intentions. What we’re much better at is talking about ourselves and our past experiences. Fortunately for you, this is where your best insights will come from. Previous experiences are much better indicators of future behaviour than predicted intention. Lean into this by asking open-ended questions.

For us, that meant asking about our target customers’ experiences moving to the UK. What were their biggest hurdles when moving over? What frustrated them the most? What excited them the most? What’s their experience been like with credit cards in the UK? Why did they leave sunny Australia for freezing cold London?

Before you head into your sessions, write down the top 3–5 most important things you want to ask about as a guide, no more. You’ll want to go really deep into these areas, which means you’ll be asking why? an annoying amount of times. Like, Kardashian levels of annoying. Keep at it. Understanding the underlying reasons your target customers behave the way they do is ultimately what you’re aiming for. The Five Why’s is a useful framework here.

Analyse, and go again

After each session, we’d pull the most interesting insights into a Miro board. It’s really important to do this as you go along. Trust me, the last thing you want to do is have to read through and analyse 7 or 8 research sessions all at once. At the end of the week, I’d spend an hour or so clustering the key themes into groups to help summarise what we learned across the sessions.

What’s really important here is finding patterns of behaviour. Is there a specific problem that comes up over and over again? Have they all found a peculiar workaround? It’s important to focus on quantity here. You’ll probably come across some really vocal participants at times that make their problems feel like the worst thing that’s ever happened. Try not to be swayed too much by the emotion, and instead index on how often you saw that same problem or behaviour across the group.

Affinity mapping sticky notes for a user research project

After doing this for a while, you’ll undoubtedly have a very different view of your customers and the problem space. This part of the research was actually crucial for us. For our specific target customer, access to credit wasn’t actually as much of an issue as we’d first thought. Ouch. Instead, we uncovered insights into a different issue, with their needs not being met by the rewards credit cards currently on offer in the UK. Points were confusing to redeem, and the long lists of barely-worth-it discounts at brands they never shopped at just weren’t appealing.

This is where you have to be brave. It was at this point we began switching the focus of our proposition away from get access to a credit card and more towards here’s an amazing rewards card that’s built for you. This isn’t to say that the initial problem doesn’t exist at all. We just found that it didn’t exist badly enough for the specific target customer we had previously defined to confidently build a product around.

This took us just a couple of months and just a few hundred Great British pounds to figure out. Now imagine if we’d spent the next 6 months building an entire product around our initial proposition. Expensive.

At the same time we were learning about our customers’ lives, we began putting some meat around our proposition. As I said earlier, we were already pretty set on building a credit card, the question was, what exactly does our version of that look like?

Don’t let design get in the way

You’ll notice that I still haven’t mentioned actually designing anything yet. One of the biggest things we learned early on was how design can actually get in the way of testing if a proposition is any good. We did in fact throw together some quick landing page mockups to help test the proposition to begin with, and found that the clarity of those pages completely got in the way of the proposition itself. Making those designs clearer was a complete waste of time. We didn’t care about the design of the landing page at this point. We just wanted to know if the proposition itself was attractive and had legs.

What we found much more effective was just writing everything down in plain English in a Notion doc, giving the interview participants 5 minutes to read through it, and asking them some open-ended follow up questions. It sounds almost comically simple, but it worked. We wasted much less time clarifying what our supposedly clever headlines meant or how the colours made them feel (RIP Midnight Petrol), and spent much more time on how they felt about the actual proposition itself and if it’s something they were excited about.

Example of written proposition document in Notion

Keep yourself honest

As you begin asking open-ended follow-up questions, like How did you feel about what you just read?, you’ll start getting a good idea about how well the proposition is landing. You’ll need to be really honest with yourself at this point, and be wary of confirmation bias. Do they seem excited? Are they being inquisitive? Do they just stare blankly into the camera? There’s a bit of an art to reading this right, but the most important thing is to be as objective as possible, and ignore the fact you’re absolutely desperate for them to love everything about your idea. Your biggest learnings will come from those that don’t, and your job is to dig as deep as you can into understanding why.

Early on, we were really desperate to stay away from the idea of credit card points. It felt old fashioned, and we wanted to do something completely different. We iterated on different ideas for months, but nothing was landing. Against our will, we tested a proposition with points, and everything changed. Faces were lighting up, people were getting excited, cameras were no longer being stared blankly into. We realised that we were just being stubborn, and were trying to invent a new mechanism for the sake of it. What really seemed to matter was what you could do with those points, which is where we doubled down our efforts (and where all of that earlier work understanding our target customer was invaluable).

Don’t ask if they like it. Do this instead.

As I discussed earlier, us humble humans are absolutely awful at predicting future intention, so asking how much participants like the proposition or if they’d be willing to buy it is a complete waste of time. Instead, we found a much more useful question to ask at the end of each session: Do you have any more questions for us? Typically, participants would either say Nope, that’s everything, see ya! or YES, WHEN ARE YOU LAUNCHING?!?!?! OK, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but you get the idea.

Asking this open-ended question gave us a much truer reflection of their feelings toward the proposition than anything else we asked. We ended up using this as a measuring stick for how well everything was landing in each set of sessions, with our goal to get as many people answering like the excited maniac who couldn’t wait for us to launch as possible.

I’ve already mentioned this a bunch of times, but I cannot overstate its importance: Always have a member of your team with you in each session. This serves two purposes:

  1. They can take the notes, so you can focus on the conversation
  2. It builds a huge amount of empathy and shared understanding across your team

If you’re at an early stage startup, chances are you’re surrounded by pretty smart people with fairly strong opinions. Having them literally hear directly from their target customers where they might be right or wrong is incredibly powerful.

Also, building in a customer obsessed culture from day one will pay dividends further down the line. When I first joined, our Chief Risk Officer literally had no idea what a designer did. We still joke about it. Fast forward 12 months, and he’s running his own research projects when I’m too stretched to help him answer a burning question he has about our customers.

It’s really easy to do this as well. As you begin booking in research sessions, quickly check your team mates calendars, and invite whoever is free at that time. Get them to write down everything the participants says, and ask them what they found interesting afterwards. I constantly get feedback from the rest of the team about how much they enjoy these sessions, and how insightful they are. Seriously, there’s really no reason for you not to do it.

As I’m sure you know, a product proposition is never finished. You’ll need to constantly be innovating and iterating, and basically going through this entire cycle over and over again. Even your personas and assumptions should be reevaluated and retested every few months.

I hope you’ve found some of this helpful. Some of it might apply to you, some of it might not. If you’ve got any questions or want me to fire over some of the templates we used, ping me a message on LinkedIn. If working with me and the rest of the amazing Yonder team sounds like fun, then you can check us out here. Even if there aren’t any open roles for the things you’re good at, we’d still love to hear from you.

Lastly, if Yonder sounds like something you’d enjoy using, you can get 3 months free and a £50 rewards credit by applying today.

Dark metal Yonder card sitting amongst cocktails
Categorized as UX

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