Usability Research for Retention. How to Move Beyond Your Product’s First Impressions.

By Helen King
October 14, 2021

Understanding the experience people first have with your digital product is essential for creating that “buy-in” moment for users. These fresh takes of first-time users illuminate a perspective outside of your business’s intentions. This user research uncovers where the value proposition is not clearly coming across, as well as immediate usability issues and information gaps that act as barriers to building trust and converting these target consumers into your customers.

Common usability methods are well suited for understanding first impressions — giving great insight into users’ initial perceptions of your product through their quick, one-time interactions.

The trouble is, many of today’s digital products and services are created for use beyond the initial conversion moment. These products need to be designed with a much bigger time frame of the user’s experience in mind. Your product is likely one of them. You want your customers to engage with your product beyond a “one-and-done” transaction. To do so, your product needs to align with your users’ longer-term behaviors and needs, which are often more nuanced and complex than that first interaction.

Sticking strictly to one-time, first-impression usability testing to understand long-term product use may be why you haven’t discovered certain issues that cause users to abandon your product over time.

It’s time for a new approach to understanding ongoing product use. One that gives you a holistic picture of how your users use your product long-term. The result will be a more comprehensive representation of the user experience, allowing you to make insight-driven design decisions that keep your product fresh and competitive.

What Typical Usability Testing Doesn’t Tell You About Your Product

Routine usability testing is undoubtedly important, but for products designed to support, nurture and grow with users over time, this style of testing doesn’t tell you everything.

There are complex time frame variables inherent in long-term use products. These nuanced details can tell you a lot about why a user might abandon your product after initial adoption. Something that one-time usability testing doesn’t.

Specifically, traditional usability testing methods are missing the time frame complexities within the following types of products:

  • Products intended for repeat use. A user interacting with this product is meant to return over time. For example, subscription products or services that support the user beyond a singular conversion.
  • Products designed to be used at different times of day and in different contexts. These products need to meet the user’s specific needs at a particular moment and in a particular context, which can vary widely. For example, a product that helps users manage a chronic health issue.
  • Products whose users’ needs and behaviors shift over time. These types of products need to span users’ different life stages or milestones. For example, a fintech product that tracks a user’s financial ebbs and flows, helping them understand both immediate needs and long-term patterns.
  • Products designed for multiple users. These products are made for an ecosystem of users who need to collaborate or coordinate, such as members of a household all using shared smart speakers, thermostats, or other shared devices.

These product time frames and unique contexts influence how your customers use and value your product over time. As a result, they have critical implications on how they come to love — or not love — your product. Not factoring longer-term time frames into your research approach can leave significant insights out of the picture.

3 Key Factors To Shape Your Research Plan for Long-Term Product Use

Just like your product is one-of-a-kind, your approach for understanding long-term usability will be, too. With that in mind, consider these specific details about your product before crafting your approach.

  1. Your product’s different modes of use. If your customers have different ways they might use your product based on their context, you’ll want to account for these various modes of use in your usability approach. For example, do you have one core scenario to focus on (like a user logging in once a month when prompted)? Or do you need to understand multiple scenarios (like a user ordering groceries for pick up, as well as shopping in-store)?
  2. Your users’ different goals and contexts. The why and how of users interacting with your product informs who you need to recruit for your research activities. You’ll need to factor this in if you have users of various age groups with different needs or distinct segments of users with different goals. You can scale the number of participants in your sample based on both the percentage of users who fall in different groups, and who is most important for you to learn from.
  3. Your users’ availability and time constraints. You won’t gain any insights if you don’t have willing participants. Therefore, the available access you have to your users as well as a realistic understanding of their time constraints (and interest) should direct the usability approach you take. Stepping back from the ideal data you’d like to gather, consider how difficult it could be for your users to participate in the research activity. The key is then finding a balance and right-sizing the “lift” you are asking of your research participants with the data you’re looking to capture from them.Aside from your product, another key consideration is mapping out how you will check in with your product team to share insights and brainstorm implications along the way. Based on what you learn from users, you’ll adjust your research plan to meet the different questions and needs your product team is exploring. You’ll discover the areas where you want to dig deeper and when to zero in on a certain feature.

    Determining the Right Methods to Capture Long-Term Product Use

    With your specific factors in mind, you can determine how you’ll gather data on long-term use of your product. Be sure to cast the net wide in what methods you consider and get creative about how they can be used in different ways.

    For example, let’s say you know that people use your product differently based on where they are in their health diagnosis. You could explore research methods that focus on gathering data from a single set of existing users across a dedicated time frame. Methods could include a longitudinal usability diary study or lighter-lift usability “snapshot” surveys sent at different intervals in their health journey. Following one set of users you’ll be able to observe how their needs and product usage change over time.

    Alternatively, you could segment your users by the different stages of diagnoses and run shorter research activities with users from each group. Examples of methods include a large scale product usage and feedback survey of users at all stages, or more focused, moderated “show and tell” usability interviews with a representative sample at each stage. Conducting research with time-based cross sections of users will help paint a picture of the broader user experience across stages.

    There will always be trade-offs to one approach versus another but brainstorming the possible options will help you determine the best approach for gathering data with your product considerations and project constraints in mind

    How to Know Your Product’s Long-Term Usability Approach Works

    There’s no one-size-fits-all long-term usability approach. What might work for one product — even if it’s similar — won’t be the same as yours. Of course, your table stakes for gaining actionable insights include involving real users in real contexts, but figuring out just the right approach will take work to hone in on what is best for your product.

    First and foremost, the best long-term usability approach is one that’s rolling and iterative. One that you can seamlessly integrate into your design process as a continuous source of insight into user behavior and motivations, and can evolve along the way.

    You’ll also know you’re on the right path when you find an approach that’s efficient to implement. If your team’s bandwidth and time constraints are hindering your ability to conduct the research and/or build off of the findings, you’ll know it’s time to recalibrate.

    On the other hand, if your ideal approach is not getting much uptake from users, you can go back and modify your course of action and/or look at other potential ways to incentivize them to participate. And don’t get discouraged: it’s all great learning for getting you closer to a feasible and effective research approach that will produce the insights your product needs.

    As you adopt your new approach to long-term usability, you may encounter setbacks. What matters is you keep going, keep learning, and keep discovering. We’ll be here to cheer you on.