How Do You Research Something That Doesn’t Yet Exist?

Jim Ross / Wednesday, March 1, 2017

I once was in a project-scoping meeting for a client who wanted to create next generation banking products and services. Since these were new ideas, they assumed that the customers didn’t exist yet. We were considering conducting contextual inquiries, and a colleague said, “You can’t research someone who doesn’t exist yet.” His point was that you can’t go out and observe a future set of tasks that no one performs yet. He was right that you can’t observe tasks that don’t yet exist, but he was wrong in assuming that observing what people do now wouldn’t be helpful in understanding what to design for the future.

Future customers, who will eventually buy and use your future product and services, won’t suddenly materialize from thin air. They already exist now and are presently doing something else. You need to find those people, and learn about them, to help you shape your new product or service.

Some people mistakenly think user research involves conducting focus groups and user interviews to ask people what they want and to get their opinions about future product and service ideas. In fact, those are the worst ways to gather information about a future design. Instead, user research involves going out to observe and interview people as they perform their typical tasks in their natural environment.

Image credit: Boegh

How to Research Something That Doesn’t Exist

But what do you do when you want to conduct user research for a future product or service that doesn’t yet exist? With a redesign, you can observe how people use the current product, and when you’re designing something new in a field with competitors, you can observe people using those competing products. But how do you research something that is completely new, without existing competitors, where the tasks and users don’t yet exist? User research is still very valuable in a situation like this, and the process is the same as with an existing product.

Identify the Users

First, identify the type of people who you think will use your new product or service. What characteristics and behaviors define them? You should have at least some idea of the types of people who might use it. If not, perhaps you should consider whether there’s an audience for the product.

Identify the Tasks

Second, identify the tasks that they will be performing with the future product or service. What current tasks will this product replace or enhance? What do they do now that is somewhat similar? At the least, you should know what domain of their lives that this new product or service will fit in. That’s what you want to observe.

Identify the Tools and Technology

Third, identify the tools and technology that they currently use, which the new product or service will replace or complement. You should understand how they currently use those tools.

Identify the Environment

Fourth, identify the environment that the new product or service will be used in. Your research will help you understand the environmental factors that you’ll need to consider in your design.

Conduct Research

After identifying these elements, visit these people to observe and interview them to understand their characteristics and behaviors, their current tasks, the tools and technology they use, and the environment in which they perform those tasks. For example, when designing a future banking product, you would want to understand how the target user group currently uses banks and manages their finances. Seeing their problems and successes will show you how your new product or service will fit into their lives. In fact, it may give you inspiration for additional innovations.

Don’t Ask For Opinions of Your New Idea

Finally, one thing not to do – don’t ask people for their opinions of your new product idea. It’s very difficult for people to imagine something that doesn’t yet exist. People are very inaccurate at predicting what they might or might not use in the future. Wait until you have a tangible prototype that people can use, to get their feedback.

Image credit: Christian Hellmann

Innovation Comes From Understanding

Successful innovation comes from understanding problems and opportunities and designing solutions to solve them. The old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention,” is true. People create inventions to solve problems. Sure, you can invent things that solve your own problems, and maybe those inventions will be useful to other people, but if you want to ensure that you create inventions that will solve other people’s problems, you need to first understand their problems, needs, and goals. The best way to get that information is by conducting user research.