These tools have changed my life

Published August 23, 2023

Free tools for user research and product discovery. And how to use them correctly.

We have curated a list of 5 tools that are invaluable to understand what your users need.

(None of them is a user analytics tool, and not all of them are a ‘tool’ in the sense of software tools.)

What are the advantages of understanding your users better?

  • You make your users happy so that they keep using your product
  • Your users will have more success with your product and will recommend your product more often
  • You will attract more new users for your product
  • People are more likely to buy your product
  • Your NPS will increase
  • You will feel more fulfilled as your work has more meaning to your users
  • Your revenue increases

What does it mean to understand what users need?

Let’s break this down. It means you want to:

  • Understand what users look for when signing up to your product or starting to use your product
  • Understand why users pay for your product
  • Understand why users don’t pay (yet) for your product (so much potential here, because you might have value that users don’t see yet)
  • Understand what users gain by using your product (and hope to gain)
  • Understand what background knowledge your users have and how much guidance they need to solve what they actually need to solve
  • Understand the potential objections of your users and understand what information you can display so that users will overcome those objections

All those points vary among different user personas. Different personas will have different needs and motivations when using your product. That's why your user satisfaction (e.g. measured by NPS score) can vary among different personas or customer segments, depending on how well your product solves their specific needs.

The three big challenges of understanding what users need

(...why you need tools!)

Gaining an understanding of the aforementioned points is not an easy endeavor. The first challenge is: even if you directly asked people what they wanted and needed, you would most often not receive accurate answers (answers that have enough actionable insight to point you in the right direction). Some of your users may be experts who can accurately articulate what they require. They might be working in the industry for years, or by coincidence, they could be experts in conducting user interviews, so they will know how to reply effectively. But most people you will talk to aren't trained well to express that.

And even then, the most insightful user replies can mislead you in the wrong direction because their situation could be very specific but not representative for all your users.

The second challenge is that users are inclined to describe solutions that they are looking for, but the solutions they are picturing are often not the best to tackle the problems they have. Especially when you have an existing product, users tend to think within the borders of the product and features you currently offer. They will mentally stitch solutions together that might save them some time and cost, but the stitched solution will usually not exhaust what is actually possible and will be less effective than a solution that addresses the root pain point from the ground up. Thinking to approach a problem with existing features is a smart way. But the problem for you - as the product creator and operator - will be that you will bend parts of your product to force-fit them into workflows that these features/parts were not meant to be, and thereby gradually making the existing features worse for every other use case.

Hence, it is not optimal to implement what a user asserts he needs. You might think now that avoiding to speak to your users is a good idea. That’s not the takeaway you should have.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Your takeaway should be, that you listen to your users and precisely observe what problems, pain points, time sinks, and money wasters are hidden under the surface of their spoken words. However, speaking to users is only one way to gain an understanding of their motivations and goals.

This takes us to the third challenge: having a channel to interact with your users.

If you sell a digital good or service, you won’t interact a lot with your users and also you won’t observe how your users interact with your product. This is true for web applications as well as ebooks, templates, or other distributed digital assets. Even with physical goods, you can rarely observe how users handle a product as soon as they use it on an everyday basis. (How do people use their smartphone on a train when they commute to work? Is the environment too loud for having phone calls? Do people use our software in person together with their own customers? Is it too complicated to be understood by their customers because they don't have the same background knowledge as the person who directly signed up for our product?)

To sum up, the three challenges of understanding what users really need are:

  • Users can’t tell you what they need
  • What users say, will mislead you about their actual needs, or they might tell you what they think you want to hear
  • You are not in direct contact with your users while they use your product, especially when you sell digital products and services

5 user research tools to the rescue

Our list of tools will help you to understand what your users need. Each of these user research tools addresses the challenges mentioned above from another viewpoint. The tools are complementary, and in combination all tools together give you an extremely powerful toolset.

Each tool is meant to cover exactly one use case for understanding user needs. For each use case, we will list a tool that can be used as a free or freemium version, so you can be sure that you can try out each if you want to start immediately with your own user research. If a tool we mention is freemium, the free pricing plan has enough usage volume so that you can get useful results without immediately hitting paywalls (as of the date this article is published - in August 2023). We will review this article periodically to make sure the tools are still up to date and a good starting point for people who want to improve their products.

For each mentioned area, multiple tools and solutions exist in the market. If you don’t feel comfortable with one specific tool mentioned here, you can most likely find a similar solution in the market. However, we have chosen these to be on the list because we found them especially well suited. We will state how we believe you should use them based on our experience, advantages of them, as well as
shortcomings they might have.

The categories for user needs research tools in 2023 are:

  • User session recordings (in your web application)
  • User feedback boards
  • Customer problem stack rankings
  • A framework for (potential) user conversations
  • 5-minute feedback video recordings

Let's jump into the tools:

hotjar - (More than) User session recordings inside your web application

Hotjar is a user session recording tool. User sessions can be recorded on a website or a web application. While hotjar has more functionalities, e.g. in-application user feedback surveys, we will focus specifically on user session recordings here.

User session recordings will show you exactly what an individual user did inside a website or application. Also hotjar will generate heatmaps that will reveal website elements and website areas of high user interaction by aggregating multiple user sessions into one set of data.

The session recordings are a very powerful tool for you. It is like watching your users over their shoulder while they use your product. (But you can't interact with them.)

Depending on the number of users you have, all your users might produce a lot of session recordings resulting in hour-long material to watch. A powerful feature is that you can reduce the time you need to spend on watching recordings by choosing a faster session playback speed. Also, hotjar marks points on the video timeline to indicate interesting user interactions with your tool.

As a starting point, we recommend you to focus on the recordings that are most valuable for our use case of understanding users. These will be all recordings in which a user did not fulfill a specific goal or task inside your tool. E.g., let's assume you have a tool for creating reports about stocks on the financial market. If your user signs up to your tool to create a PDF report about a stock and leaves your tool before creating and exporting a PDF, you need to dig through the session recording why that happened. You will have to distinguish between usability issues and product flaws (both are equally important, we are just focussing on product flaws here). Usability issues will be a major reason for users not to accomplish a goal, and the session recording will help you to unveil that. However, many times the root cause is also that a user misses some functionality or even worse - can’t find a functionality that is actually existing in your product. And those are the things you should look out for.

Carefully inspect what areas (pages, modals, guides) a user walks through when he is ‘looking around’ and analyze what the user is missing.

With hotjar you can also instantly launch a small survey inside of your web application as soon as a user stops continuing on the journey you expected him to take. E.g.: if a user makes all the settings for his company stock report, but does not finally click on the export button, you can launch a survey in-place and ask “What's holding you back from exporting this PDF?”. A user can then type an answer in a free form text field giving you valuable insight and leaving contact information for getting in touch with him.

When you employ hotjar, you should opt out to the transfer of all sensible customer data to hotjar. Technically you do so, by marking HTML elements with specific css class names that indicate hotjar to not record the contents of that specific HTML elements. hotjar will automatically blur out some data that shows characteristics of being sensible (such as long numbers). You should however actively opt out fields by the provided mechanisms to guarantee no data is transferred out of your software.

To get started, you need to install the hotjar script on your page. If you are required to get consent from your users, make sure to technically defer the loading of the script until a user has consented.

If GDPR applies to you, you will most likely be required to add hotjar to your privacy policy, list all the cookies that are used by hotjar, and gather consent for collecting analytical data from your users. As of today, hotjar has no cookieless session tracking. (You would still be required to mention the usage of such a tool in your privacy policy, but could omit listing all the cookies.)

All in all, hotjar is an effective way to detect things that stop your users from getting full potential from your product and detect things that stop users from becoming paying customers. By analyzing and addressing these things you will be able to convert more users to paying customers.

Upvoty - User feedback boards

With Upvoty you can create a user feedback board that enables your users to submit product feature requests, report bugs, see your upcoming features, and to get notified as soon as a new feature is available. You can link from your tool to Upvoty to give your users access to your feedback board.

Users can also upvote existing feature proposals or bugs, which allows you to measure the popularity of a proposal among all your customers.

User feedback boards impose one of the challenges we have raised concern about before: the “faster horses” problem - your users can’t always express what the best solution would be.

More experienced users might be experts in stating their situations and problems but expect that to be only a small fraction of all of your users. The wrong way to handle a customer feature request is to blindly fulfill what a customer wishes for. The right way is to use the feature to launch a discovery about the pain point that lies underneath the desire for a specific feature.

In past software applications we have worked on, we experienced situations in which users asked for small product improvements, such as a new filter field in a data view in a web application. Sounds like a straightforward feature, right? After going into discovery and speaking with the users, it turned out that using a specific filter and data view inside our software product was the user's way of “bending” the existing features in the software to support one of the users work processes, but the overall process still required multiple hours of work from the user (regularly). After discovering that, and researching how to map the user's process better, we created an improved workflow that helped the user to finish his process within seconds. This feature concerned multiple users who were sharing the same pain point. Introducing it improved the process for them all and turned into a great upsell potential for us with existing customers.

Place your bets well though. You won’t have time to dig into each feature request, so you must estimate and select the most important ones. The more you interact with your users, the more you will get a feeling for whether a request is a small UX improvement for them, or whether some bigger need is hidden behind that.

Make sure to maintain your customer feedback board by updating the state of issues and replying to customers. New users might check your feedback board - nothing looks worse than a stale feedback board, because it gives the impression that you don’t care about your user's needs at all. - Customer problem stack ranking is a ranking tool to rank ideas, feature requests, or pain points, and helps you to understand which of your customer problems matter most as perceived by your customer.

You can send customers a Prioneer link and let them rank pain points and feature requests by importance. You can prevent that two things can be ranked by your customers as equally important (forced ranking method). This helps you to know what customer issue you should focus on first because your customers are forced to make trade-offs between what they say they need and what they truly require right now. With this method, the most important customer pain points or features will surface “to the top”. Your result is a list of things, ordered from most important to least important. Of that list, you can start to address the top three pain points.

Rankings are great to select feature requests from feedback boards. Ideally, you should already know the interest areas and problem areas of your users. If you already have a user feedback board and want to figure out what you should work on next, you might think the best idea is to order requests by the most upvotes and start working from there. However, this is not the best approach for identifying the thing that your customer needs most. Why? Most of the time, your customers can upvote multiple feature requests (or even an unlimited number). But features with the highest vote count don’t represent the feature that might be the most needed in terms of the biggest time saver, the biggest cost saver, or the biggest urgency (like to help users to comply with upcoming regulations). You don’t know which is the feature that makes you user start to pay or keeps your customer a paying customer, and you might focus on the completely wrong thing.

Here is where the problem stack ranking comes into play. Usually, from your feedback board and from talking to your customers, you will already have a wider sense of the domains and work duties that matter most to them, and which they like to be helped with by your product. With that knowledge, you can select your most important feedback requests, e.g., the top 10 or top 20 (depending on how many you got, and how complex each one is), and ask your customers to stack rank them. Here, you should especially consider different customer segments, as different segments will attach different importance to pain points. Start by focusing on a single segment.

Prioneer helps you here a lot, by letting you create such a stack ranking survey in which you can quickly see the biggest pain points among your customers.

In the ranking survey, the recipients force rank all their requests by importance. You can have a direct link to the issue in your feedback board, so that your users can check what a feature request was about, and in case they are still uncertain, they can leave comments on a request while they reply to the ranking. Through letting your users leave reactions directly during ranking you can get a better understanding of why users preferred one feedback request over the other.

Since trade-offs between feedback requests have to be done by your users, they will focus more on the core of their actual problem. A comment of a user could be: ”Feedback Request A is more important than Feedback Request B, but only if A will definitely include functionality XYZ”. Notice, how this helps you to avoid building the wrong thing first. Such things will only be discovered through a ranking, because feedback items are not viewed in isolation from each other. This strong side of rankings is also the reason why huge companies such as McDonald's use relative rankings to discover what properties consumers like most about food. Rankings reflect the decision-making process of the real world better, because in the real world you are limited by how many things you can choose. (You can only eat one lunch at a moment and you can also only implement only one next feature.)

Use rankings to understand which problems of your customers/users matter the most as perceived by them. From all the things that a user wishes and wants you will easily distill the things that you should focus on first.

You will also notice that quite a number of things that at first glance appeared significant to users will end up being unimportant because they just have the smallest relative importance when viewed in relation to all user pain points. This will create focus and free up time for things that matter.

The Mom Test - Have customers conversations that truly validate your product ideas

“The Mom Test" comes into play when speaking personally to users. As we pointed out before, people often struggle to articulate their real requirements or might tell you what they think you want to hear. To get the most out of a user interview, you apply rules from The Mom Test during your conversation with a user.

The Mom Test is a concept introduced by Rob Fitzpatrick in the same called book. It's a method of asking questions that even your mom can't lie about when it comes to your product idea. Originally, this method is presented with a product idea for private, non-business, consumers. The core of the method is to ask open-ended questions about a person's life and problems rather than direct questions about the product or idea.

While the original example is about a product for private use, the concept works the same for business products. You just have to transfer the setting: in a business-to-business context, you wouldn’t ask about a persons private life, but about their worklife (tasks at office, at desk...). What do they spend time on during the day? What do they spend time on during doing social media management (if you want to do an app for social media management)? What do they spend time on while creating ad creatives (if you want to do an product for ad creators)? What is the lifecycle of specific work tasks? What events happen, that cause a change in plan? What tools do they use? How often do they use those tools? How often does a specific todo happen? What are the challenges? How many approvals do they need? How is the process for the approvals? You want to learn what tasks they do and what they care about in order to do their jobs successfully.

Two important rules:

First rule: always ask for examples and for concrete numbers. "I do this task often" will not be actionable enough for you. Ask questions like: ”When did it happen last time”, “How long did that take”, “How often does it happen per week/month/...” If you don’t dig further on abstract answers, you will miss out on important things, or worse: you will overestimate the importance of insignificant things. Because there might be tasks that take hours to complete but happen so rarely that a user will not care about improving the workflow. (There are other reasons why a pain point can exist but a user won't care to address it.)

Second rule: avoid mentioning your idea or solution. Also avoid mentioning suggestive phrases such as "topic X is a big problem for you, right?" because it nudges them to say yes and users will most likely agree even if the problem is not as big. You will get a yes, but the yes is worth nothing.

You can find the full concept, example phrases to say and phrases to avoid in the original book. But already by using the above stated rules, you will make your next user conversation much more insightful, and the results from it much more actionable.

The Mom Test is very useful during the early stages of new product development or development of a large set of coherent functions for your product, especially when you are validating possible ideas or new product directions. Although the Mom Test assumes your user has no knowledge about your product idea, you should also apply the Mom Test rules when speaking to users that know your product. You don't have to pretend you don't know what and how they work if they already use your product intensively. You just need to make sure you speak and listen carefully without biasing them about the specific thing you want to improve.

Use the Mom Test to learn pain points from new or existing users, to validate whether a point point exists, and to validate if the pain point is important enough for people. For product discovery, you will save yourself many hours of work because you need less interviews with customers to obtain significant insights.

Loom - 5-minute product usage feedback videos

Loom is a great tool for screen recordings that will help you to observe how your users use your website or web application. It can be used by your users without you being involved during the recording. Your users can easily record their browser window, and during screen recordings they can also record their voice and explain to you what they are doing, why they are doing it and “think loud” about the interactions they do with your product. It’s an extremely effective way to find out what you need to improve in your product to make it more useful.

You will get deep understanding about what users are missing in your product, as you watch them interacting with your product by themselves and hear them narrate it. It's the equivalent to watching a user over the shoulders and is even more valuable than pure in-application screen capturing if you really want to understand the “whys” behind user behaviours.

You gain the most insight if you focus on observing a specific workflow. E.g. a new functionality that you are testing with some early users.

Example question you can ask:

“As soon as you launch your upcoming campaign using our new UI workflow, can you record a video and explain the steps you take inside our tool? We’d be curious to have your feedback on the new workflow. Here is the Loom link to make the recording …”

The Loom recording will reveal how the user is performing actions and what frictions and blockers they face during a workflow. As they can speak out loud, they will comment on how well the workflow in your tool is suited to support the way the work, and will surface hidden time sinks or money wasters. Particularly useful about the user recording is that due to the setting (being hands on a specific topic/workflow) your users will mention things they would usually not bring up in a direct conversation or when answering questions during a research interview. In a direct conversation a user's focus is divided between the task he is trying to accomplish and the person performing the interview; this is a distraction that can easily make a user forget to mention important things.

Most users love to give you feedback, and compared to a traditional meeting, this way of giving you feedback is perceived as more comfortable by users: they don’t need to reserve time to meet you. Also, by not being in a live situation with an interviewer, users can take the time to articulate comments about their product usage in a more structured way, and have less pressure to say things that they think you as an interviewer wants to hear. You will notice that asking for feedback via Loom has much less overhead and will get you valuable feedback in a shorter amount of time. It’s important that you leave it open to the user how long a feedback recording is. Don’t ask users to record an 1-hour video for you, ask instead for a quick 10 minute video, as it will be much easier for them to make time for that during the day.

After getting a Loom video from users, you should take note of the things that they address directly and at the same time watch out for certain signals (similar like listening for signals during the Mom test).

Sometimes a user will use your product in a different way than you intended or take shortcuts on that you didn’t expect. Users will derive form the regular user path. Also users might say quick phrases such as “I wish I could interact with that here“ while jumping from one screen to the next screen. You need to watch out for specific signals and verify whether it is a UX question of if there is a “detach” between the real way your user works and the workflow you force on him through your tool.

For all signals, you should create a list of issues you want to dig deeper in. If list is long, then make sure not to be distracted by “side stages”. Users want to give you valuable feedback and will therefore mention things that they think could be useful to you. But some of those things won't be actually important to them. Filter out things that are most relevant. If you interview 5 users via Loom, you can’t focus on 10 details per user.

Depending on the complexity of an issues you have distilled from the recording, you should either reply to your user through Loom comments (because they get notified and can reply back again), or schedule a synchronous meeting to do dig deeper if the topic is a “big thing”.

Summary - the list of tools

  • hotjar - Watch users and identify what goals users could not accomplish (
  • Upvoty - Allow users to submit feature requests so you know what they need, want and care about (
  • - Let users stack rank their pain points and feature requests so you know what users truly need as a next feature from you (
  • The Mom Test - Follow strict rules in conversations with users to validate product and feature ideas to get the most outcome from the conversation (
  • Loom - Let users record themselves while they use your new product or set of features and hear/watch their recorded feedback in 5-10 minute videos (

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