Lean startup fans know all about MVPs, and product owners throw around the phrase user-friendly as if were common sense. Easily achieved, yes? Not so much. How much do entrepreneurs really know about refining their ideas and basing their decisions on data? 

From what I’ve seen, too many entrepreneurs still see research as purely an implementation task: usability testing for the fields and screens. When it comes to validating the ideas on which they’re building their businesses, they’re still relying too much on intuition. They’re worried about ceding time and creative ground to data and focus groups. While they could be taking a lean approach to early-stage research, a lack of awareness and know-how are getting in the way.

Startups are still failing to research their competitors.

And venture capitalists are still admonishing them for it. Investors expect startups to know their competitors and to have a plan for differentiating themselves from those competitors.
Start by learning the basics about important players in your potential market. There are plenty of free and low-cost, online sources of information on companies: financials, clients, and key initiatives. Once you know the basics, you can move on to functionality and service comparisons. Beyond just being due diligence, this research can be a source of new ideas for your own business.

And finding out that someone else is already offering something similar to your solution–even very similar–doesn’t have to be the end of your business idea. Once you know the competition, you can study your potential users and figure out how to better serve them.

Entrepreneurs think research and creative problem-solving are incompatible.

Prototypes, usability testing, and A/B testing have become more widely accepted for refining the solutions we’ve already built. The proliferation of inexpensive testing tools and plugins make those increasingly-doable activities for startups.

But what about using research to come up with the solution in the first place, for ideation? What about using research to refine your knowledge of the problem you’re solving?

There seems to be a widely-held misconception that using research to design your solution is akin to design-by-committee. Even designers rail against the tyranny of focus groups. But there’s a difference between asking users to be designers (pure folly) and observing real people in their environments so that you can design features for them that solve real problems.

Observing users can inspire you: their pain points, their adaptations that compensate for deficiencies in the current solutions, and their attitudes and values around the problem space. It can be part of using the design process for innovation, rather than waiting for lightning to strike.

I’m not saying it’s the only way to innovate. We’ve all heard successful Chicago startup founders speak about how they used their own creativity and insight to come up with a better solution for a problem they personally experienced. That’s one way to do it: get the brilliant idea, then use research to refine it until you have a successful business.

So, what if you’re designing a solution for people who are nothing like you? I’m looking at you, social entrepreneurs. How do you know you truly understand their problems? One of the principles of user experience design is that you are not your users.

And you could be underestimating the importance of the small ways that your users differ from you, and from each other. Even if you are a developer designing a tool for other developers, you may have knowledge or pain points some folks in your market don’t have. Are you only targeting devs with similar work history, resources, level of experience, socioeconomic background? If not, you probably need to find out how those differences influence their needs. That information builds empathy for users who are not like like you. That empathy can help you prioritize the problems that matter most, and it can give you creative juice.

Knowing vs. doing: user-centered design can be complex.

Maybe you’re already on board with early-stage research, but the “how” is overwhelming. How do you get the right users? How do you get enough relevant, unbiased information? How do you translate that information into business decisions? It may be that pages upon pages of transcribed session notes and pie charts of web analytics don’t particularly inspire you.

You need someone who can make that data sing. User-centered design is a skillset just like programming is a skillset. You need people trained in user experience research and design. Develop relationships with those people. Barter. Seek design advisors as you would seek technical and business-development advisors. Recruit designers and value them as you would developers.

Design-driven development and strategy can be powerful competitive advantages. Don’t sell your business idea short by defining user experience too narrowly.  How often are you actually confirming your products are usable, intuitive, and desirable