Like many products out there, Fern was born out of frustration. Frustration that started long before 2022, which is when we started Fern, and one that developed over the years as we built products for a wide range of people in a wide range of industries. This frustration was the fact that doing user research sucked. It was cumbersome, unnecessarily complicated, involved too many tools, and took too much effort.
We’ve come a long way since, announcing our private beta a couple of months back. As we’re getting ramped up for an exciting 2023, we wanted to reflect briefly on how we got to where we are today.
Doing research about… research
Our experience has shown us that user research is a pain point and can hold back many product teams. But as product people tend to do, we wanted to understand who else shares this frustration. So we reached out to our network and talked to as many user researchers, product designers, and product managers as possible.
Among the things we wanted to understand in more detail were:
- How do folks do research?
- What kind of research and with whom?
- What do their teams & setups look like?
- How do they manage their research?
- How do they collect and manage insights?
- How do they share their learnings with their team/company?
And we learned a great deal: we learned things we already knew, and we learned things we were completely oblivious of. That’s the beautiful thing about being curious: you’re constantly challenging your assumptions and uncovering things you didn’t even know you didn’t know.
Asking questions leads to more questions
At Fern, we are designers and builders at heart, so once we had gathered enough insights and developed an understanding of a wide range of workflows and problems, we got busy ideating solutions.
The things we were particularly interested in at this point were:
- How can we help teams recruit and manage a research panel consisting of their own users?
- How can we help teams manage their research projects (keeping track of who they have invited and who will participate in their research, helping automate outreach, etc.)?
We did countless iterations and prototypes to test various ideas and approaches. Throughout the process, we managed and tracked our research via Notion, SavvyCal, Zoom, etc., which is both ironic and reinvigorating at the same time — it reminded us of the frustration we mentioned above, the thing we were working on to solve.
Starting to build out the MVP
In the fall of 2022, we finally started building out the first version of Fern in earnest. We switched to hardcore crunch mode, us writing thousands of lines of code with Andy focusing on the backend and Ragnar working on the frontend, which means we hit a nice rhythm as we turned our ideas and designs into something tangible.
We also started thinking more deeply about the various edge cases in the product and how people work. So often, when building products, it’s only when you get to use the product that you realize you have not thought about a specific edge case. But that’s just part of the fun — improvise, adapt, overcome (or something along those lines).
Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s
Anyone who’s ever built any software will appreciate that we spend 80% of the effort on the last 20% of the product. Towards the end of 2022, as we were finishing up the first version of Fern, we spent a lot of effort on testing edge cases, fixing bugs, and tweaking various user flows.
We also jumped through several hoops to get Fern into a position where it was ready to be used. Some of the more interesting challenges we faced were:
- Filtering. One of the core features of Fern is the ability to filter a user’s research panel and create custom segments for their studies. Because we deal with unstructured data (each user will have their unique data structure) and support complex filtering, this was a fiddly task. Shoutout to woylie for building an excellent library for the Elixir/Phoenix ecosystem to help with this.
- Google verification so that we could use Google’s Calendar API. We use this to sync calendar events (interviews) the user’s research participants have scheduled with them to make it easier to keep track of their research projects. While not complicated, Google likes to make things as obscure as possible, so completing Google’s verification process required a bit of back-and-forth.
- GDPR documentation. While we have always taken privacy and security seriously, we had to make sure we had all the documentation in place for GDPR compliance.
As we are onboarding our first batch of partners as part of our early access program, our primary goal is to keep our ears to the ground, and our eyes peeled to ensure that Fern makes customer research as simple as possible. We have a seemingly endless backlog of exciting updates planned, and we can’t wait to share more.
If you are interested in getting early access to Fern, go ahead and sign up for it over here: https://fern.so/early-access/