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How to do market research in 4 steps: a lean approach to marketing research

David Darmanin, one of Hotjar’s founders, launched two startups before Hotjar took off—but both companies crashed and burned. Each time, he and his team spent months trying to design an amazing new product and user experience, but they failed because they didn’t have a clear understanding of what the market demanded.


Last updated

9 Sep 2021

With Hotjar, they did things differently. Long story short, they conducted market research in the early stages to figure out what their consumers really wanted, and they made (and continue to make) constant improvements based on their research.

In this blog post, you’ll learn how to conduct quick, effective market research without hiring an agency—something called lean market research. It’s easier than you might think, and it can be done at any stage in a product’s lifecycle.

To show you how it’s done in the real world, I’ve included a market research example from Smallpdf. Smallpdf is a Swiss company that used lean market research to reduce their tool’s error rate by 75% and boost their Net Promoter Score® (NPS) by 1%.

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Research your market the lean way...

With Hotjar! Check out our free-to-use survey templates

What is market research?

Market research (or marketing research) is any set of techniques used to gather information and better understand a company’s target market. Businesses use this information to design better products, improve user experience, and craft a marketing strategy that attracts quality leads and improves conversion rates.

Why is market research so valuable?

Without research, it’s impossible to understand your users. Sure, you might have a general idea of who they are and what they need, but you have to dig deep if you want to win their loyalty.

Here’s why research matters…

  • Obsessing over your users is the only way to win. If you don’t care deeply about , you’ll lose potential customers to someone who does.

“Whoever gets closer to the customer wins.”
Bernadette Jiwa
Founder, The Right Company

  • Analytics gives you the ’what,’ but research gives the ‘why.’

    Big data, user analytics, and dashboards can tell you what people do at scale, but only research can tell you what they’re thinking and why they do what they do. For example, analytics can tell you that customers leave when they reach your pricing page, but only research can explain why.

  • Research beats assumptions, trends, and so-called best practices.

    Have you ever watched your colleagues rally behind a terrible decision? Bad ideas are often the result of guesswork, emotional reasoning, death by best practices, and defaulting to the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO). By listening to your users and, focusing on their customer experience you’re less likely to get pulled in the wrong direction.

  • Research keeps you from planning in a vacuum.

    Your team might be amazing, but you and your colleagues simply can’t experience your product the way your customers do. Customers might use your product in a way that surprises you, and features that seem obvious to you might confuse them. Over-planning and refusing to test your assumptions is a waste of time, money, and effort because you will likely need to make changes once your untested plan gets put into practice.

Advantages of lean market research

Lean User Experience (UX) design is a model for continuous improvement that relies on quick, efficient research to understand customer needs and test new features.

Lean market research can help you become more...

  • Efficient : it gets you closer to your customers, faster.

  • Cost-effective : no need to hire an expensive marketing firm to get things started.

  • Competitive : quick, powerful insights can place your products on the cutting edge.

4 common market research methods

There are lots of different ways you could conduct market research and collect customer data, but you don’t have to limit yourself to just one research method. Four common types of market research techniques include surveys, interviews, focus groups, and customer observation.

Which method you use may vary based on your business type: ecommerce business owners have different goals from SaaS businesses, so it’s typically prudent to mix and match these methods based on your particular goals and what you need to know.

1. Surveys: the most commonly used

Surveys are a form of qualitative research that ask respondents a short series of open- or closed-ended questions, which can be delivered as an on-screen questionnaire or via email. When we asked 2,000 Customer Experience (CX) professionals about their company’s approach to research, surveys proved to be the most commonly used market research technique.

What makes online surveys so popular? They’re easy and inexpensive to conduct, and you can do a lot of data collection quickly. Plus, the data is pretty straightforward to analyze, even when you have to analyze open-ended questions whose answers might initially appear difficult to categorize.

We've built a number of survey templates ready and waiting for you. Grab a template and share with your customers in just a few clicks.

2. Interviews: the most insightful


Interviews are one-on-one conversations with members of your target market. Nothing beats a face-to-face interview for diving deep (and reading non-verbal cues), but if an in-person meeting isn’t possible, video conferencing is a solid second choice.

Regardless of how you conduct it, any type of in-depth interview will produce big benefits in understanding your target customers.

What makes interviews so insightful?

By speaking directly with an ideal customer, you’ll gain greater empathy for their experience, and you can follow insightful threads that can produce plenty of 'Aha!' moments.

3. Focus groups: the most dangerous


Focus groups bring together a carefully selected group of people who fit a company’s target market. A trained moderator leads a conversation surrounding the product, user experience, and/or marketing message to gain deeper insights.

What makes focus groups so dangerous?

If you’re new to market research, I wouldn’t recommend starting with focus groups. Doing it right is expensive, and if you cut corners, your research could fall victim to all kinds of errors. Dominance bias (when a forceful participant influences the group) and moderator style bias (when different moderator personalities bring about different results in the same study) are two of the many ways your focus group data could get skewed.

4. Observation: the most powerful


During a customer observation session, someone from the company takes notes while they watch an ideal user engage with their product (or a similar product from a competitor).

What makes observation so clever and powerful?

‘Fly-on-the-wall’ observation is a great alternative to focus groups. It’s not only less expensive, but you’ll see people interact with your product in a natural setting without influencing each other. The only downside is that you can’t get inside their heads, so observation is no replacement for customer surveys and interviews.

How to conduct market research (in a lean way)

The following four steps will give you a solid understanding of who your users are and what they want from a company like yours.

1. Create simple user personas

user persona is a semi-fictional character based on psychographic and demographic data from people who use websites and products similar to your own.

How to get the data: use on-page or emailed surveys and interviews to understand your users.

How to do it right: whatever survey/interview questions you ask, they should answer the following questions about the customer:

  • Who are they?

  • What is their main goal?

  • What is their main barrier to achieving this goal?

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don’t ask too many questions!

     Keep it to five or less (preferably three), otherwise, you’ll inundate them, and they’ll stop answering.

  • Don’t worry too much about typical demographic questions

     like age or background. Instead, focus on the role these people play (as it relates to your product) and their goals.

How Smallpdf did itSmallpdf ran an on-page survey for a week or two and received 1,000 replies, which revealed that many of their users were administrative assistants, students, and teachers. Then they created simple user personas like this one for admins:

  • Who are they?

    Administrative Assistants.

  • What is their main goal?

    Creating Word documents from a scanned, hard-copy document or a PDF where the source file was lost.

  • What is their main barrier to achieving it?

    Converting a scanned PDF doc to a Word file.

2. Conduct observational research

Observational research involves taking notes while watching someone use your product (or a similar product).

Overt vs. covert observation

  • Overt observation involves asking customers if they’ll let you watch them

    use your product. (Smallpdf did this with administrative assistants.)

  • Covert observation means studying users ‘in the wild’ without them knowing.

    This only works if you sell a type of product that people use regularly, but it offers the purest observational data because people often behave differently when they know they’re being watched. (Smallpdf did this with university students.)

Tips to do it right:

  • Record an entry in your field notes, along with a timestamp, each time an event occurs.

#Sample of field notes taken by Smallpdf
Sample of field notes taken by Smallpdf

  • Make note of their workflow, capturing the ‘what,’ ‘why,’ and ‘for whom’ of each action.

Pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don’t record video or audio, regardless of your method (overt or covert). If they know you’re recording, it’ll make them nervous. And if they don’t know? It’s just plain creepy.

  • Don’t forget to explain why you’d like to observe them (for overt observation).

     They’re more likely to cooperate if you tell them you want to improve the product. 

How Smallpdf did it: here’s how Smallpdf observed two different user personas.

  • Observing students:


    Kristina Wagner, an Interaction Designer from Smallpdf, went to cafes and libraries at two local universities and waited until she saw students doing PDF-related activities. Then she watched and took notes from a distance.

    One thing that struck her was the difference between how students self-reported their activities vs. how they behaved (i.e., self-reporting bias). Students, she found, spent hours talking, listening to music, or simply staring at a blank screen rather than working. When she did find students who were working, she recorded the task they were performing and the software they were using (if she recognized it).

  • Observing administrative assistants:

Kristina sent emails to admins explaining that she’d like to observe them at work, and she asked those who agreed to try to batch their PDF work for her observation day. Watching admins work, she learned that they frequently needed to scan documents into PDF-format and then convert those PDFs into Word docs. By observing the challenges admins faced, Smallpdf knew which products to target for improvement.

“Data is really good for discovery and validation, but there is a bit in the middle where you have to go and find the human.”
Kristina Wagner
Interaction Designer at Smallpdf

3. Conduct individual interviews

Interviews are one-on-one conversations with members of your target market. They allow you to dig deep and explore their concerns, which can lead to all sorts of revelations.

Tips to do it right:

  • Act like a journalist, not a salesperson

    . Rather than trying to talk your company up, ask people about their lives, their needs, their frustrations, and how a product like yours could help.

  • Listen more, talk less.

    Be curious.

  • Ask ‘why?’ so you can dig deeper.

     Get into the specifics and learn about their past behavior.

  • Record the conversation

    So you don’t have to take notes and can focus on the conversation. There are plenty of services that will transcribe recorded conversations for a good price.

Pitfalls to avoid:

Don’t ask leading or loaded questions.

  • A leading question reveals bias on your part and pushes them in a certain direction (e.g., “Have you taken advantage of the amazing new features we just released?).

  • A loaded question sneaks in an assumption which, if untrue, would make it impossible to answer honestly. For example, we can’t ask you, “What did you find most useful about this article?” without asking whether you found the article useful in the first place.

  • Be cautious when asking opinions about the future (or predictions of future behavior). Studies suggest that people aren’t very good at predicting their future behavior. This is due to several cognitive biases, from the misguided exceptionalism bias (we’re good at guessing what others will do, but we somehow think we’re different), to the optimism bias (which makes us see things with rose-colored glasses), to the ‘illusion of control’ (which makes us forget the role of randomness in future events).

How Smallpdf did it: Kristina explored her teacher user persona by speaking with university professors at a local graduate school. She learned that the school was mostly paperless and rarely used PDFs, so for the sake of time, she moved on to the admins.

A bit of a letdown? Sure. But this story highlights an important lesson! Sometimes you follow a lead and come up short, so you have to make adjustments on the fly. Lean market research is about getting solid, actionable insights quickly so you can tweak things and see what works.

4. Analyze the data (without drowning in it)

The following techniques will help you wrap your head around the data without losing yourself in it. Remember, the point of lean market research is to find quick, actionable insights.

Flow model

#Example of a flow model designed by Smallpdf
Example of a flow model designed by Smallpdf


A flow model is a diagram that tracks the flow of information within a system. By creating a simple visual representation of how users interact with your product and each other, you can better assess their needs.

You’ll notice that admins are at the center of Smallpdf’s flow model, which represents the flow of PDF-related documents throughout a school. This flow model shows the challenges that admins face as they work to satisfy their own internal and external customers.

Affinity diagram


An affinity diagram is a way of sorting large amounts of data into groups to better understand the big picture. For example, if you ask your users about their profession, you’ll notice some general themes start to form, even though the individual responses differ. Depending on your needs, you could group them by profession, or more generally by industry.

We wrote a guide about how to analyze open-ended questions, and it will help you sort through large volumes of data to categorize them. You can also do this by hand, clipping up interview notes and grouping them (which is what Kristina does).

“For an interview, you will have somewhere between 30 and 60 notes, and those notes are usually direct phrases. And when you literally cut them up into separate pieces of paper and group them, they should make sense by themselves.”
Kristina Wagner
Interaction Designer at Smallpdf

Customer journey map

A customer journey map is a diagram that shows the way a typical prospect becomes a paying customer. It outlines their first interaction with your brand and every step in the sales cycle, from awareness to repurchase (and hopefully advocacy).

The above customer journey map, created by our team at Hotjar, shows many ways a customer might engage with our tool. Your map will be based on your own data and business model.

📚 Read more → if you are new to customer journey maps, we wrote this step-by-step guide to creating your first customer journey map in 2 and 1/2 days with free templates you can download and start using immediately.

5 common market research questions

The following questions will help you get to know your users on a deeper level when you interview them. They’re general questions, of course, so don’t be afraid to make them your own.

1. Who are you and what do you do?

How you ask this question, and what you want to know, will vary depending on your business model (e.g., business-to-business marketing is usually more focused on someone’s profession than business-to-consumer marketing).

It’s a great question to start with, and it’ll help you understand whatever is relevant about your user demographics (age, race, gender, profession, education, etc.), but it’s not the be-all-end-all of market research. The meatier and more specific questions come later.

2. What does your day look like?

This question helps you understand their day-to-day life and the challenges they face. It will help you gain empathy for them, and you may stumble across something relevant to their buying habits.

3. Do you ever purchase [product/service type]?

This is a ‘yes or no’ question. A ‘yes’ will lead you to the next question.

4. What problem were you trying to solve or what goal were you trying to achieve?

This question strikes to the core of what they’re trying to accomplish and why they might be willing to pay for your solution.

5. Take me back to the day when you first decided you needed to solve this kind of problem or achieve this goal.

This is the golden question, and it comes from Adele Revella, CEO of Buyer Persona Institute. It helps you get in the heads of your users and figure out what they were thinking the day they decided to spend money to solve a problem.

If you take your time with this question, digging deeper where it makes sense, you should be able to answer all the relevant information you need to understand their perspective.

“The only scripted question I want you to ask them is this one: take me back to the day when you first decided that you needed to solve this kind of problem or achieve this kind of a goal. Not to buy my product, that’s not the day. We want to go back to the day that when you thought it was urgent and compelling to go spend money to solve a particular problem or achieve a goal. Just tell me what happened.”
Adele Revella
CEO at Buyer Persona Institute

What do you want to cover with this question? Here’s a checklist...

✔ Where did they go to find a solution?

✔ How long did it take to make the decision and buy?

✔ Whom did they consult to make the decision?

✔ What alternative(s) did they consider?

✔ What persuaded them to buy?

✔ What, if anything, nearly stopped them from buying?

Important: remember to ask ‘why!’ ‘Why’ is the magic word that will get them to dive deeper into their experience and offer meaningful insights rather than short replies.

Bonus question: is there anything else you’d like to tell me?

This question isn’t just a nice way to wrap it up—it might just give them the opportunity they need to tell you something you really need to know.

That’s why Sarah Doody, author of UX Notebook, adds it to the end of her written surveys.

“I always have a last question, which is just open-ended: “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?” And sometimes, that’s where you get four paragraphs of amazing content that you would never have gotten if it was just a Net Promoter Score [survey] or something like that.”
Sarah Doody
Author of UX Notebook

Market research example: how Smallpdf turned their market research study into business results (in 6 steps)

Smallpdf used lean market research to dig below the surface, understand their clients, and build a better product and user experience. Here’s a summary of the steps they took.

Step 1: Smallpdf used on-page surveys to gather data

They ran a survey asking key questions to determine who their users were and what problems they were trying to solve with Smallpdf. The team stopped when they received 1,000 replies.

Step 2: they created simple user personas based on their survey data

Smallpdf found that many of their users were administrative assistants, students, and teachers, so they designed a plan to study these users.

Step 3: they performed observational research on students and admins

Kristina Wager, from Smallpdf, did...

  • Covert observation of students : watching them work in university libraries and cafeterias.

  • Overt observation of administrative assistants: contacting them first to ask if she could watch them work, then spending time watching them perform PDF tasks.

In both cases, she made note of the ‘what,’ ‘why,’ and ‘for whom’ of each action, which would later go into her flow model.

Note: Kristina also spent some time interviewing professors at a local graduate school, which would have become its step had it proved successful. Unfortunately, the university had gone paperless.

Step 4: Smallpdf analyzed their data

Kristina used the following research tools to wrap her head around the data and explore the next steps.

  • Flow model: Smallpdf mapped out a flow model to understand the challenges admins face as they work to satisfy their own internal and external customers.

  • Affinity diagram: they grouped data points into broad categories in a visual diagram to see how common certain trends were in their data.

  • Customer journey map: they mapped out a typical customer journey to better understand how users interacted with their product.

Step 5: they implemented changes

Based on what Smallpdf learned about the challenges that one key segment (admins) face when trying to convert PDFs into Word files, they improved their ‘PDF to Word’ conversion tool.

I won’t go into the details here because it involves a lot of technical jargon, but they made the entire process simpler and more straightforward for users. Plus, they made it so that the system recognized it when you drop a PDF file into their ‘Word to PDF’ converter instead of the ‘PDF to Word’ converter, so users wouldn’t have to redo the task when they made that mistake. In other words: simple market segmentation for admins showed a business need that had to be accounted for, and now customers are happier overall.

Step 6: Smallpdf tested the results

According to the Lean UX model, product and UX changes aren’t retained unless they achieve results.

Smallpdf’s changes produced:

  • A 75% reduction in error rate for the ‘PDF to Word’ converter

  • A 1% increase in NPS

  • Greater confidence in the team’s marketing efforts

"With all the changes said and done, we've cut our original error rate in four, which is huge. We increased our NPS by +1%, which isn't huge, but it means that of the users who received a file, they were still slightly happier than before, even if they didn't notice that anything special happened at all.”
Kristina Wagner
Interaction Designer at Smallpdf

Research your market the lean way...

With Hotjar! Check out our free-to-use survey templates

Market Research FAQs

Have you done your own lean market research? Comment below and tell us how it went—what you learned, what changes you made, and how your users responded.

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