User , Startups — 04.26.2023

How To Get Started With User Research: Choosing a Type

Katie Lukes, VP, Product Strategy & Research

As a founder, you should strive to build a product that solves real problems for real people. To get to the heart of what your users experience daily, you need to talk to actual people, which means investing in user research. User research can help you identify patterns in user pains, needs and motivations. 

Embarking on research for your product may feel daunting: How will you find the interview candidates? How many do you need? How will you run the conversations? How will you process what you learn into insights? 

One of the first questions to consider is: What type of research do you need to conduct to move your product forward? In this article, I’ll talk about two types of research that you should consider at different stages of your product’s development: generative and validation. Each type can prove invaluable when you use them at the right time and for the right purposes. 

Generative Research

What is generative research? 

Generative research helps you identify and explore new opportunities for a new product or feature. The goal is to “generate” an understanding of your users through carefully constructed interviews that get to the heart of their experience. Conversations should result in insights about how your product could solve their problems or help them reach a goal, ultimately helping you achieve product-market fit.

Generative research helps you answer:

  • What steps or workflow do your users employ day-to-day?
  • What workarounds do they use to accomplish tasks?
  • What problems do they face with their current tools and processes?
  • What are their motivations or incentives?
  • What would their ideal state look like?

When do you need generative research? 

If you are launching a new product, looking for opportunities for new features, or targeting a new market, generative research will help you find and understand opportunities so you can identify the right direction for your product.

Use the results of your generative research to:

  • Create personas.
  • Map the customer journey.
  • Prioritize your planned features.
  • Plan the requirements and definitions of success for new features.
  • Help designers create the right user experience.
  • Give engineers the information they need to empathize and make the right technical decisions.
  • Inform your positioning and messaging.

How do you conduct generative research?

A guiding principle when conducting generative research is to forget everything you know. As a founder, you are likely to be deeply knowledgeable about your domain, and it’s inevitable that you will bring biases to your conversations. All the more important, then, to approach each interview like a curious newcomer. 

Ask blue-sky questions like:

  • What does success mean to you in your role?
  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What do you enjoy about this role (or these tasks)?

Participants: Prospective users if you have a new product or are entering a new market; existing users if you are exploring new features for an existing product

Method: One-on-one in-depth interviews and/or observations 

Ask: About workflow, needs, challenges and ideal situations

Tip: Construct a list of questions to ask as a guide but don’t be afraid to go off script and follow up when you hear something that you want to pursue.

Validation Research

What is validation research?

While generative research focuses on exploration for new products or features, validation research is about evaluating an existing solution or design to learn how users engage with it and whether it provides value.

Validation research helps you answer: 

  • If a specific product or feature is valuable for your users.
  • Whether they understand how to use it.
  • How they react emotionally to a look and feel.

When do you need validation research? 

At early stages of a product or feature, you might perform validation research by having users evaluate designs or a prototype for a product or feature before writing a single line of code. Learning from users at this stage can prevent wasted development and trial-and-error down the road.

If you have a product or feature in market, but it’s not gaining traction, validation research can provide the information you need to test assumptions and identify areas for improvement.

How do you conduct validation research?

A guiding principle when conducting validation research is to be aware of the difference between what people say and what they do. When possible, provide opportunities for users to interact with a product so that you can observe their natural inclinations and let them explain what they’re doing.

Constructing a validation research interview involves (a) having the product, design or prototype available for the interviewee to evaluate, and (b) creating questions around a set of tasks the user might perform with the product.

Ask questions that give you insight into their natural tendencies: 

  • “Tell me what is going through your mind when you see this page.”
  • “What steps would you take to perform X task?”
  • “What do you expect will happen when you do Y?”

Questions should revolve around seeing the product through their eyes: why, when, and how they would use it, what they do or don’t understand and how they feel about it. 

Participants: Prospective users for a new product or design; existing users for a product in market

Method: One-on-one interviews or observations; live or remote testing

Ask: About how a user might perform tasks, how they react to a given design and where they are confused or challenged

Tip: Make sure you both listen to what users say and also watch what they do. There’s often a gap between the two, and the gap can be valuable information for you. 

What happens next?

Conducting validation research is just the beginning. How you activate research insights is just as important as getting them in the first place. 

With the results of your validation research, you should be able to:

  • Update the design of your product or feature to better fit user workflows.
  • Improve the usability of your product or feature.
  • Change the copy within the design to  enhance user understanding.
  • Understand opportunities for new features and how they might fit into the product.
  • Back up product decisions with user data rather than internal opinion.
  • Prioritize a backlog of ideas based on what your users are telling you.


  • If you are launching a new product, looking for opportunities for new features, or targeting a new market, use generative research to generate insights and understanding into your users’ and buyers’ challenges, desires, and ideal.
  • If you have a product design or a product in market and you need to learn about its value, its usability, or its emotional resonance, use validation research to gather reactions and feedback. 

Ready to design and deliver a more valuable product? Find out how our product strategists and researchers can help.