Customer research: How to start when you don’t know where to start

You’ve been working on a startup, design, or project and know that you need some customer validation to move on to the next step. If you’ve never planned and executed a research project before, it might feel like a big task. But it doesn’t have to be!

Doing research without a plan is like grocery shopping without a list — you’ll end up with a bunch of junk food that looked good at the time, but isn’t useful as a ingredients for a recipe.

I’ve been working in UX for 10 years, the first 8 as a designer. I always felt like I was designing with the user needs in mind because I spent hours gathering information from stakeholders, developing personas, and developing journey maps. But it wasn’t until I started at the UX research agency where I worked for 2 years, did I realise how much value actually talking to users can bring.

Source: giphy

You don’t know what you don’t know, and research is the only way to find out.

Developing research questions

First, we’ll start by identifying our research questions. We start with research questions, to guide the rest of the research. Based on what we want to know about our customers, we can choose which research method and what questions to ask them.

A good number to start with is 3–5 questions that you want to learn or validate with users.

For example, I’m building a website to sell craft beer from various brewers around the country. Our target customer is someone who likes trying new types of craft beer. Some of the research questions I have are below (I refer to customers and potential customers as users of our site):

  1. How do users feel about buying new types of beer online?
  2. What do users look for when trying new types of beer?
  3. How important are recommendations from friends when choosing a beer? From strangers?
  4. How likely are users to recommend beer they like to others? How would they give that recommendation?

In these research questions, I have a mix of contextual and behavioural questions.

Contextual questions

Contextual questions help you put yourself in your users’ shoes — understanding how they feel, what goes into making a decision, or what situations they might be while using your product. Understanding the context helps you to put your product in the right place for the user to find it, and speak to them in the right way.

For example, to understand how a user would feel about buy new types of beer online (#1 above), I might say in a research session (after some background questions), “Imagine you saw a friend post online about a beer they enjoyed recently with link to buy that beer online. Would you consider clicking on it?”

The person might answer one of these:

  • “I would click on it only if I trusted that friend’s opinion on beer”
  • “I would never click on it because I like to try new beer in a bar first”
  • “I might click on it but I wouldn’t buy online because I’d assume it would be a hassle to have delivered”
  • “I would click on it if the name of the beer or the brewery sounded interesting”

All of these responses (if they came up in multiple sessions) would be helpful in how we might advertise or make decisions on copy and branding.

Behavioural questions

Behavioural questions help you understand what users would do while they are interacting with your product. For example, if I ask someone what they look for when trying new types of beer (#2 above), they might response with something like, “I like to talk to my friend that is a bartender to see what new and cool, and I tend to go for lighter beers.” This response (if it came up in multiple sessions) would be helpful in designing ways for users to browse products — sort by newest, filter by bartender favourites, filter by flavour profile.

Questions can have elements of both contextual and behavioural goals. For example, if I asked someone, “Tell me about the last time you tried a new type of beer, ” they might explain how a friend brought a case over to a bbq at their house, then they bought the same brand in a shop the next weekend. This tells me the context of when they might try a new beer (from a friend) and their behaviour (remembering that brand and looking for it later in a local shop).

Factors that influence a user’s experience — do your research questions help you understand the person’s whole ecosystem?

Research question examples to get you started

Here are some common templates for research questions:

  • How do users feel about [doing something you want them to do]?
  • When/where/how do users [do something you want them to do]? (time of day/week/month/year, triggering event, triggering location, device, etc.)
  • How important are [features you’ve built or are considering]?
  • How likely are users to [do something you want them to do]?
  • What do users expect to happen when they [interact with a certain feature]?
  • What questions do users have when they [see something you’ve built for the first time]?

Get started now! Draft a few questions for your site based on the questions above.

Comment below, or email them to me ( to get some feedback. I’ll try to reply to each one!

Next steps

Your research questions will guide the research method and the questions you ask your customers. Stay tuned for the following posts in this series to learn:

  • Choosing the right research method
  • Customer research with online surveys
  • Customer research with interviews and observation
  • Analysing and reporting on customer research

Update: I’ve published an online course covering this topic! Check out and share my class on Skillshare, and if you sign up using my link you get 2 months free to watch it (and unlimited premium classes)

This post originally appeared on UX Collective