Team CollaborationAnalysis & Methods

How to find product market fit with user research

The all-elusive product-market fit is a team effort. Learn how user research can contribute with this handy guide.

6 minute read
Product market fit

Recently, there has been some trend happening because I have received non-stop questions about the illustrious product-market fit. It feels like companies have sunken their teeth into this concept, and user researchers are at the forefront of exploring product-market fit. I remember tackling this subject, and it was always a complex and lengthy study, with many moving parts.

As much as everyone would prefer it otherwise, product-market fit is not just one key metric, survey, or qualitative study. Instead, it combines many parts and requires teamwork between different roles and departments.

When I first dived into product-market fit studies, I was terrified. It felt like the entire product and business were resting on our shoulders. We were meant to be the driving force behind the product’s success. This type of project is not something a user researcher can tackle alone.

Yet, many find themselves in this position. I’ve had multiple students reach out to me asking for help defining product-market fit. Since they are the go-to for customers, colleagues expect this project to align with user research. The expectations for such a project are lofty and difficult to comprehend. So what happens when you get a request for a product-market fit project? Don’t worry—there is a solution!

First, what is product-market fit?

Product-market fit is a slippery fish of a term. It seems obvious on the surface, but that can be deceiving. At first glance, it means that your product “fits” into your market. You carved a hole for your product and slotted it in, hoping the audience would come.

Beyond the shallow definition, product-market fit is about assessing and mitigating risk. When companies don’t reach product-market fit, they fail. They fail because no one ends up buying or using their particular product. Why does this happen? For a few reasons:

  • The market is already saturated with products that meet the audience’s needs/solve their problems

  • The product did not address an underserved need

  • The product did not solve a problem

  • The company did not understand who its target audience was

  • The company did not understand its audiences’ needs

So, product-market fit is not just about finding a place for your product. It is about ensuring your product serves your audience. If your product helps your audience solve a problem or addresses an unmet need, people are much more likely to purchase your product or service. Therefore, you will be much more successful in obtaining product-market fit.

Measuring product-market fit

As I mentioned, there are a lot of pieces in product-market fit and, before I get much further into the who’s who, let’s look at all the different components that usually go into determining product-market fit:

  • Satisfaction score

  • Market share

  • Understanding of value prop

  • Churn rate

  • Switch potential

  • Growth rate

  • Usability metrics (e.g., task success)

  • Retention rate

  • Knowing the target audience

  • Buyer, market, and user personas

There is a lot to do there. Although several (short) surveys claim to measure product-market fit, I can’t stress enough that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. So if you ever get a product-market fit request from a colleague simply asking to send a four- or five-question survey, get ready to push back!

Market research vs user research—whose job is it?

Even with all of those pieces, there is still an ongoing battle about whose job it is to help determine product-market fit. And, since market research and user research get pitted against each other frequently, it isn’t surprising that this question arises. So let’s look at the two role definitions:

  • User Research focuses on understanding user thoughts/emotions, behavior, alignment with product expectations, and product viability. The findings give a deep understanding of customers and can help inform if/how to design a new product or improve an existing one.

  • Market Research focuses on attitudes and willingness of target users to buy a product. The findings inform market strategy, especially in branding, pricing, and product rollout.

Now, looking back at the above list of product-market fit components, does this seem like a versus question? Absolutely not. A company needs both user researchers and market researchers to help understand the holistic concept of product-market fit. And beyond that, it should be a shared responsibility across the company—product management, sales, product analytics, business development, customer support, and other departments.

Incorporate user research into product-market fit

Now that we understand it is a team effort, where does user research fit, and how can you help your team?

First off, whenever I’ve received a request to solo a product-market fit project, I’ve pushed back and asked for more colleagues to join. So if you face this issue, refer to the list above and explain that you cannot achieve this alone.

There are a few ways you can use UX research to help your team, particularly when it comes to qualitative data. Let’s look at where we can impact that long list of product-market fit components:

  • Satisfaction score.You can help determine the current satisfaction score of your product. A common tactic to understand satisfaction is the NPS, but I would push you to go further. Use other metrics in addition, such as the System Usability Score (SUS), and also ask past-behavior questions such as, “have you recommended us in the past?”

  • Understanding of value prop. Does your audience understand the value your product brings? Is your product helping them achieve an unmet need? Using one-on-one interviews is a great way to dig deeper into this area and learn, beyond a survey, if/how your product resonates with your audience.

  • Switch potential. Does your audience already use a tool? Would they switch to your product from whatever they currently use? Jobs to be done is a fantastic way of assessing switch potential. A deliverable like the four forces diagram can give your team a great understanding of this concept.

  • Usability metrics (e.g., task success). By continuously conducting quantitative user research that measures metrics like task success and time on task, you can determine how effective and efficient your product is. Your audience will be more willing to purchase a product that is easy to use.

  • User personas. Building and sharing user personas is a wonderful way of communicating deep knowledge about the people behind the user. With this understanding, features, products, and innovations will be more aligned with users’ unmet needs, helping to ensure you are solving real problems for people.

Combining these qualitative methods with product-market fit surveys, analytics data, and metrics can give you a more holistic picture of if your market aligns with and needs your product. It can help answer that elusive question: “Are we serving our audience in a compelling way?”

User research can be integral in the product-market fit process and should be involved. Using your qualitative superpowers, you can bring critical data to your team, giving them a valuable inside look into users’ unmet needs and problems.

About the contributors
Nikki Anderson
User Research Lead & Instructor
Human problem detective and dog-petter.
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