High impact of user research on start-ups (even during COVID crisis)

These are undeniably difficult, uncertain and unpredictable times, and for some of you, launching a product during these times may seem counter-intuitive. But when you are a start-up that’s worked day and night investing joules of energy, experiencing possibly all kinds of change, engaging in high-risk decision-making every day and then dishing out your pièce de résistance, you would not want the pandemic to come in the way to launching your product. Like a true Design Thinker, you start looking at problems as opportunities.

We bring to you a story of resilience of a business app that helps small businesses keep track of their business. Taka, a free app, is the fastest and the simplest app to keep track of your business — record and track sales, purchases, expenses, and credit for small businesses. Taka (beta version) created by Ripul Kumar and Sanjay Basavaraju of Utterwise AI was launched late-April to help small non-invoicing businesses such as homepreneurs, solopreneurs, maker-sellers, and service providers.

The challenge

By the time the app was launched, India was in midst of an intense lockdown with most businesses barring essential services being shut. Taka team still wanted to connect with the users to gather early feedback on their usage experience, opinions and interests in context of the app.

Numerous articles out there mention that 90% start-ups fail and one of the top reasons they fail is because of the product, which when delved deeper into leads to reasons like no market need for the product or creating user unfriendly product*.

We don’t entirely blame the startups for ignoring user research because most of the times they are immersed in doing all the grunt work: finding collaborators, building teams, creating and executing strategies, struggling against fast-paced timelines, and much more.

But companies that champion user-centricity constantly and successfully invest time in understanding the underlying needs of their potential users create great products with great experiences.

Interacting with users and gathering qualitative insights stepped in the foundation of authenticity can be valuable nuggets for any business, its product teams and designers. Sometimes these learning lead to fine tuning a product and sometimes they shake the ground of the product team compelling them to go back to the drawing board with the resolution to create products that can delight their users.

The research process

UCC partnered with the Taka team to do the user research to help gain insights on the app. Initially, we thought that after the soft launch of the app, we would urge local stores to use the app for a certain period and conduct research with them to get their early impressions and feedback. However, due to the pandemic, it was not possible for us to venture out of our homes to these stores, approach the owners and explore the possibility of using the app. We absolutely did not want to miss out on the opportunity to get the usage experience and did not want to wait as no one knew how the future would unfold itself.

We shifted gears and broadened our user base and identified homepreneurs and solopreneurs who may be getting some business during these times – participants such as home tutors, physical instructors, instructors of fine arts such as singing, painting, home bakers, handmade products were identified.

We planned to conduct a diary study, but during the screening calls to recruit participants we realized that some candidates who matched our target user base wanted to try the app and participate in the study but were out of business due to the lockdown. So, UCC experimented a new research approach to include these participants into the study. We decided to place these participants in a roleplay mode and asked them to go through the sensorial experience of a typical business day for them and then use the app to perform tasks like logging entries as they would in their current system. Thus, we finally identified two different approaches and divided the study participants into two groups.

Despite committing time for the diary studies, we realized that participants were unable to make time sometimes. We were aware that people were going through immense stress during these times, and whatever time they would choose to give us for this research was a privilege for us. The lockdown made people busier than ever. With responsibilities to accomplish multiple tasks balancing home and work, it was difficult for some people to enter their logs in the diaries every day. As a responsible, empathy-driven team, we decided not to nudge them beyond a certain point - something that we do in a typical scenario where multiple, gentle nudges are designed in a study plan to maintain participant interaction and commitment.

We understood that people had good intentions but were operating in and trying to adapt to a fearful, volatile and complex crisis environment, and it was more important than ever for us to exercise empathy and be forgiving.

Being flexible was extremely important, so we extended timelines. Just as for them, the winds of change affected us too. We were constantly adapting ourselves to the developmental change in terms of our approach, mindsets and environment.

We added a few more participants in the middle of the study due to excessive dropouts in the diary study. Taka team gave us complete autonomy to make executive decisions on the research and approach and that trust breathed more life into this study. We treated Taka as our ‘baby’.

The outcome (we’d love to call it climax)

Taka team acquired a deeper understanding of their customer base and some of the assumptions were validated and the rest were proven wrong making inroads to new learnings. The study also intensified the need to make some rapid changes which the team had initially thought of doing at a later stage. Finally, the team got a thorough insight into the mental models of the participants – how they read the app vs. how the app interaction was designed; how the iconography was perceived; and the kind of handholding they expected to get from the app before they start using it.

While the study did not produce any major shocks and surprises for the Taka team, it validated and reaffirmed a lot of their thinking that was buried under the multiple hats they had donned and resurfaced their importance in front of them.

Our experience

As an ardent advocate of exercising user research in start-ups, we were over the moon when Ripul and Sanjay reached out to us. Although this project was fast-paced and tightly timed, we experienced a boatload of learning from it.

  • The constant adaptation tested our resilience, flexibility and determination, but with Taka team’s backing we stood our ground and came up with insights that added value and meaning.
  • Our empathy meter was always on the higher side and it once again reaffirmed the fact that empathy can never be limited to one stage of user research and that it needs to be in the DNA of a user researcher.
  • Willingness to experiment and not box ourselves to what we had initially planned led to constant adaptation.

And finally…

We cannot emphasize enough on the need to connect with the users and gain feedback during the embryonic days of the product, its development and launch. The cherry on the cake is knowing who your real users are, who will be your early adopters and laggards, and who will never probably ever use your product.

We look forward to the day when every startup out there sees user research as an obvious, continual exercise during their existence.

*Reference: CB Insights report: Why Startups Fail

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