Design Leader Insights - Basel Fakhoury on Co-Founding User Interviews

November 27, 2023


Alex Smith: Design Leader Insights is brought to you by Fuego UX. Fuego UX is a leading UX research, strategy, and design consultancy. Hey Basel, thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Basel Fakhoury: Yeah, thanks for having me. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, absolutely. And to get started, can you tell the audience a little bit about the founding journey of User Interviews? 

Basel Fakhoury: Yeah, for sure. We took a bit of the scenic route, my co-founders and I, so we actually started a different business. It was a bad idea. It was a mobile app for hotel services. So you could order like room service, et cetera, through a mobile app, right. Rided away on that for a year and a half. And we weren't getting the traction we wanted. When we started it, we didn't do any user research. We just thought on demand mobile was big, hotels are big, you know, smash them together. So after we weren't getting the traction, we were like, okay, let's go talk to customers. Maybe there's a UX thing. Maybe there's a feature we could add. So we started talking to all the travelers we knew. So after doing that for a bit, we basically found out, look, this isn't going to get fixed by a UX update or a feature add. There's a core value problem here. When you ask a traveler their biggest pain point, no one mentioned room service. So we were like, okay, what are we going to do? So we spent basically a summer trying to figure out what to pivot to. So initially we started with kind of things in the travel space and we went further and further and then through all of these, we were doing experiments and we're also doing user research to validate the idea. And then we kind of had the aha moment, this user research is valuable, we're passionate about it, but getting the people seems to be a pretty big pain point. How do other people do it? So we did all this kind of meta user research and yeah, basically everyone said recruitment was the biggest pain point. And so then we're like, okay, maybe there's something here. So that's how we founded it.

Alex Smith: I'm very familiar with user interviews, but I don't know if everyone watching is. What is user interviews for those who don't know? 

Basel Fakhoury: Yeah, we're software to help people do research and we focus on what I call the participant layer of the stack. So we have two products. One is called Recruit, one Research Hub. Recruit is probably what we're more known for. It's a way to recruit participants for research studies, as you would guess, and it's really an audience of a few million people and then a set of automations that gets the right person in the right study. And the differentiator for us is we can get really niche users at a very low fraud rate, very high quality participants. We can do it really, really fast. Our median time to find people is just a couple of hours. Our second product, Research Hub, is when you want to do research with your own customers. It's a participant management system, or you can think of it as a participant CRM. It has a few value props. One is that all of the automations or logistics around doing research, scheduling, inviting people to the study, screening, incentives, etc. We handle all of that. And then there's a place for you to upload your customers through a CSV or through an API. Or you can build opt-in forms for customers to opt-in. And then it's tied to those automations. So you can track who's been in what studies, how much have you paid them. Segment your users into other ways. And then put in guardrails to protect the users to say, hey, we don't email people more than once every 90 days.

Alex Smith: How are you kind of removing the barriers to research? Cause I do feel like a lot of teams I talk to are trying to conduct more research today. 

Basel Fakhoury: You know, our kind of belief is that when you go talk to anyone in a product or research PM design or engineer, almost everybody is like, we are not doing as much research as we should be. We are not talking to users as much. Like I don't think I've ever heard anyone say, yeah, we just like talk to people way too often. So I think there's a lot of latent demand for research. And I think that that's really nice if you're building in the space because everything you do to decrease friction just unlocks that demand that's already there. So if you do it easier, you can make it more automatic or continuous, then people will just do more research because they already want to do more research. There's a lot of this latent demand. You're not creating it. 

Alex Smith Just removing the barriers to actually doing research. Tell me a little bit about the growth trajectory then after kind of finding the aha moment for, after the pivot. 

Basel Fakhoury: Yeah, for sure. So we were able to get pretty, you know, big logos pretty fast. A lot of companies were actually posting on Craigslist to find people. So the bar we were finding, and there's kind of a startup trope that if people are using Craigslist, there's probably like, you know, that's kind of proof of market, right? So that's how we got a lot of our initial clients. And then eventually we started doing cold outbound campaigns and we were all bootstrapped for a while. Eventually we got enough traction that we went the venture route. You know, we've been scaling in a pretty good clip for six or seven years. We have a lot of really, you know, the biggest, most innovative companies in the world using us every day. So yeah, that's, it's been a good run. 

Alex Smith: That's awesome. Yeah we've, we've used it for our agency and love the platform, but I'm also wondering who should be using it, right? Like now there's, there's other tools in the space. Like who, who is it designed for and who do you find using the tool most often? 

Basel Fakhoury: Yeah. So, you know, maybe, maybe taking a step back. The way I see the space is you kind of have all these different methodologies, right? An interview, a focus group, a usability test, a diary study, a survey, etc, etc. Most of those methodologies have different tools that can help you conduct the research, right? So you could use SurveyMonkey to send a survey, for instance. Or UserTest to do usability tests. We see ourselves as the level below that in the stack and just focused on the users. So recruiting users or using our participant management system research hub, those are our two products. So with that in mind, we think we can be used for all methodologies. And for any type of research and with any of these tools. But that being said, to answer the question more directly, you know, the power users are going to be user researchers or research operations professionals. And then kind of the next ring of users tends to be people on the product org. So designers, product managers, and then we were starting to see, you know, you'll see other use cases. Like sometimes someone from marketing will use it, or Founders will often use it to kind of help validate their ideas so they don't waste a year and a half like I did. 

Alex Smith: I think that's really interesting because it leads directly into my next question, which is this idea of the democratization of research, which it sounds like you're seeing a bit of on the platform. Tell me about that. Is that the right thing to do? 

Basel Fakhoury: So kind of the trend we've seen. If you go back, I don't know, seven, eight years ago, people outsource a lot of their research and then they started bringing more of it in house that obviously still really robust ecosystem of different agencies that are doing research, but they started bringing it more in house with individual user researchers, and those individual researchers, there was a ton of content around them.The first researcher setting up a research practice, showing the value of research, we then thought kind of some research teams come, so it went from one to many, and then there was kind of this explosion of like democratization of research. So PMs, designers, other people doing research. I think we're seeing a bit of a response to that where, you know, the full time research professionals were saying, look, the quality of this research isn't always where we want it to be. And the PM's designers are saying, you know, how can we like have the, how can we do this easier? How can we do this faster? And there is kind of this whole compliance issue and protecting the participant experience yourself, right? As more people are doing it, you need to make sure you're not reaching out to the same person.So I think democratization, it's moved to this a new thing where I think kind of, you know, the rise of research operations, which is really set up to help centralize, but still allow this democratization. So still build in tools and processes to allow people to research easier and faster. To do it in a compliant way and to do it in a compliant way and to protect the participant experience. So I think that's kind of where we're at now, which, you know, we're calling democratization 2. 0.

Alex Smith: I see a lot of, switching topics looking forward now, you know, there's some weird ideas of like automated AI users and all this stuff. Like, well, where's research headed? Are we going to talk to fake robots instead of actual users? Like, well, what's coming down the pipeline? Where are we? 

Basel Fakhoury: Yeah. I mean, I think I will have an effect on research on the whole. I don't see it replacing the users and user research at all. I'm not and you know, maybe I'm biased. That's kind of the layer of the stack we sit in, but I just, and especially for, for a couple of reasons. One is I think, you know, the way these LLMs work is they're aggregating a bunch of information, but what you're asking for is. Specific feedback on ideas that might not be out there, right? Like you're not going to have, Hey, how did the product UX and anywhere in the, the kind of, well, what's it called? The data set of the AI is being trained on. So that's what I think the other thing is like, you know, user research is a very interpersonal field, right? And it's built on this idea that, look, there are questions that you can't answer through pure data or just through pure computation. I think that you actually need to talk to a human, and I think that underlying belief across the industry is also going to just make people not want to replace them. And they'll understand the differences, I think, between a fake user. But I do think it'll have an effect on the industry in different ways. 

Alex Smith: Cool. I want to switch gears to advice. I mean, I'm sure you learned a lot about research and entrepreneurship. I'm more interested now. I think asking you about what you've learned for that might be applicable to people who are also starting a side hustle or a business or an agency or their new product. I think a lot of designers and researchers are entrepreneurial folk who want to take that journey at some point. So what did you learn throughout the journey that might be applicable to other people who are thinking about starting a business or have already started a business? 

Basel Fakhoury: Yeah. You know, I think it definitely depends what type of business, right? We were very much on the venture path, which is, you know, in some ways like a non natural way to grow. But yeah, a few, a few things I would say is one is you know, this is going to sound corny, but like actually go out and do the user research and really try to validate your ideas, right? Like, you're going to have a very strong bias towards your idea. But you, you want to validate it as much as possible. And I think they can be, and I think of the validations is like very small iterative steps, right? Like, hey, this week I'm going to talk to five people and they're going to tell me that it's a pain point if they don't, you know, we have an issue or hey, this week I'm going to try to get one client to use us and then. You know, you try to build these iterative steps that stack and it's okay if each step feels like tiny, right? But they will compound over time. 

Alex Smith: Basel, thanks so much for coming on the show today. 

Basel Fakhoury: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me. This was a lot of fun.