Want to deliver a better user experience? Do better user research

A lack of time, skills and focus are common hurdles when it comes to doing user research. As a smaller tech company or financial institution, what can you do to overcome these?

When kicking off a lending project with a digital platform partner or microfinance institution, the first thing I ask for is previous user research. I’m the user experience (UX) expert at Rubyx, which means it’s my job to help our clients develop the best UX for their customers. But my request usually evokes answers such as:

Oh, customer research… yes I think we did some last year, let me see if I can find it

Hmmm, we should have something on that, but it might not be worth much

Sound familiar?

These reactions aren’t surprising. Globally, only 17% of small companies report having a dedicated research team, according to User Interviews. In Africa, a recent report from design agency Yux suggests that the field of user experience (UX) research and design is getting more traction – though that may primarily be at large organisations (more than 250 employees).

At Rubyx, we’re nowhere near that size, but we’ve still made doing user research a habit. Talking to our partners’ customers in different countries gives us a good sense of where entrepreneurs and small business owners are at. We validate that new products such as instant nano loans actually provide value to borrowers, and that they work in a way that’s easy to understand. And we see qualitative research as an integral part of risk management, complementary to a solid analysis of behavioural data.

In fact, I believe that any company that has people using their (digital) service benefits from classic research methods such as individual interviews or usability testing. To deliver a great user experience, you need to understand what makes it great for your customers.

But I also understand that there are a number of hurdles that can prevent tech companies and financial institutions from getting started or doing it right. Here are three of those, along with a number of tips for how you can get more value out of your user research.

#1: “We don’t have time for user research”

A product owner at a company struggling with an overflowing product backlog recently told me this. What I understood was: My manager’s unfamiliar with user research and we don’t have anyone on the team who knows how to quickly test features with users before they go into production.

The challenge in this context is needing to prove the value of research whilst accepting that your first rounds of research might not be so efficient yet. But don’t let that stop you.


  • Ask a freelance UX consultant to run one short study with you and request the following templates as a deliverable: User research plan, interview guide, and a consent form. In the next round, these will set you off on the right track and save you time.
  • Start small and allow yourself to learn and improve by doing. I recently tested out a new method to run a remote, moderated a-synchronous study via WhatsApp groups. The method didn’t work as we’d hoped, but the cost was negligible and this test gave us loads of ideas on how to improve the method next time.

#2: “We frequently talk to our customers but we don’t document anything”

It’s definitely a positive thing to spend time with your customers. Those interactions are essential to understanding their needs and helping you provide better service.

But what happens to that knowledge after a conversation? Does it only stay with customer-facing employees, or does it get shared with the colleagues in marketing, or the front end developer? A couple of minutes right after a customer call or visit could be all you need to not let valuable knowledge go to waste.


  • Ask customer-facing employees to keep a notebook of customer stories, and plan a monthly cross-functional meeting where you ask them to share three things that surprised them. This may not lead to direct action items, but it does help in building a customer-centric culture. (Or check out these other ideas for sharing research.)
  • To make your understanding of customer pain points and gains actionable, make user insights a core part of your product roadmap. This helps your team understand why a certain feature is prioritised, and increases the chance of successful adoption.

#3: “We’ve done customer research but didn’t really get value out of it”

That’s too bad, because if you actually dedicate resources to research you should get something in return. When hearing this, my follow-up questions are: “What kind of research method(s) did you use?” and “What were you hoping to learn?”

The hurdle here has to do with the different strategic or more tactical objectives you might have for wanting to learn from your users. And identifying the right method for the task.


  • Always make a research plan. It doesn’t have to be long, but take the time to note down what you want to learn, and most importantly, how you will use the research output. Keep your research scope tight and focused on a few questions.
  • After a round of research, take a moment to evaluate its usefulness with the team. It’s sometimes easy to spend too much on generative research, also referred to as discovery or exploratory research, whereas evaluating concrete product concepts delivers more immediate value. At Rubyx, we try to find the right balance between both techniques.
  • Don’t always take learnings at face value. For example, when we present a hypothetical loan offer amount, people often tell us it’s too low. When we make that same amount available to them, however, they’re usually eager to take the credit – meaning it wasn’t too low after all. Compare qualitative findings with quantitative data, and don’t let one single source of information weigh in too heavily when making important decisions.

As a last general piece of advice: Focus on what people do, not what they say, and understand how they’re solving the problem currently, particularly focusing on any workarounds. Focusing on past and present behaviour, instead of imagined future behaviour, will keep you grounded in reality.

No matter the size of your company, nothing should keep you from observing your customers to understand what “great” means to them. Because a great customer experience is one of your main competitive advantages.

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