What’s the process for how you plan out a research project?
My process for planning out research can be incredibly elegant or extremely scrappy—it always comes down to the different needs and constraints of an organization. Some companies have extra time and resources, but others just don’t and, as researchers, we are here to make it work.
One part of the process that I never say no to is an intake document (check out a template here!). As soon as someone pings me about a research project, I send them over this document to help them organize their thoughts around the project and give me more context. It helps us to plan asynchronously to avoid loads of meetings and gets us all aligned on the expectations for the project. It also helps educate stakeholders on how to plan research more effectively and efficiently, which is a huge win.
Once the intake is in great shape, I create a research plan (check out a template here) including the goals, recruitment, interview script, timeline, and any other necessary information about the project. This document becomes the North Star for the project and ensures we are on track and aligned with the outcomes of the research.
How do you deal with time and budget constraints?
Constraints are everywhere and, to be honest, sometimes I think they can be a good thing. If I was left in the wild, and given all the resources I would ever need, jeez, I’d be researching forever. I used to get upset about budget and time constraints, but I quickly learned that’s the name of the game, especially when working at a start-up on a user research team of one.
Instead of fighting constraints, we need to lean into them and use our creativity to understand how to plan a study that works. One of the biggest learnings I’ve had is to reduce the scope of projects if you don’t have what you need.
For instance, I’ve had extremely limited resources to run a fairly complex usability test. By extremely limited resources, I mean about five days and a very small budget. In that scenario, I descoped the research by asking the team what parts of the prototype were the most important to test, making it much less complex. I then turned this into an unmoderated test that I ran over the weekend, getting enough users by Monday to create a quick report. Descoping is key!
I would say my reports, when time is limited, are also something I descope. There are several times when I have presented my insights (alongside video clips and quotes) straight from my Synthesis Miro board because I didn’t have enough time to create a report. Whenever I am faced with limited resources, I always ask what I can streamline or cut. And, if it is too limited, as in “let’s create personas in two weeks,” I simply say that we can’t do that, and we need to figure out an alternative study and plan to do personas when we have more time or budget.
Do you have any tips for making user interviews more effective?
Be genuinely and authentically curious.
When I learned this, I automatically became better as a user researcher. I stopped being so nervous about reading from a script or knowing what to ask next because I was just inherently curious about what the person was saying. I wanted to deeply understand how their mind worked, so it was easy for me to follow up and have a conversation, rather than an interview.
Cultivate this sense of curiosity and you will have no problem talking to anyone about anything in an open and honest way that leads to incredibly deep insights.
And, I have to make a plug for TEDW as a great way to ask open-ended questions and up-level your qualitative user interviews.
What do you do when you feel like you’re falling behind with research synthesis?
I used to do a huge synthesis workshop at the end of my studies. This would be almost a day-long event if it was a big study (think 30 long interviews). Not only would it be overwhelming for me, but my team would often feel discouraged or even left out of the process if they couldn’t commit to the long hours I spent synthesizing.
That’s when I started debriefing after each session! My debriefs are a 20-30 minute download session after each interview or usability test with whoever attended the interview. During this time, we go through key topics that came up in the last interview. We also make note of anything we have started to hear three or more times as a potential pattern/trend of the research. This way, we are synthesizing as we go and I am able to include stakeholders on that journey with me. With the help from stakeholders, and the small steps we take, synthesis doesn’t feel quite so overwhelming and difficult.
When I first started doing international research, the company I worked for didn’t have the budget (unfortunately) to fly me all through Europe to speak with our users. However, I was very lucky that they understood the importance of speaking to a diverse set of users, especially when it came to persona generation.
With that, we decided to conduct a lot of interviews remotely (before it became a real thing). At first, we used a software called Blue Jeans which was…tough to use. And then, we went through a GoToMeeting phase, which I still don’t know how to use. Finally, we landed on Zoom. I have a huge appreciation for that tool because it allows for a lot of different functions, such as screen sharing, remote keyboard/mouse access, and breakout rooms for workshops. They have also improved their functionality as well as how they integrate with other tools (such as Grain.co) to make user research easier.
Oh, and I still love post-its—the real ones.
How can we make UX research more lean and efficient?
There is a part of me that is all for lean and efficient research as I have had to do it a lot. However, sometimes I get concerned that all we are trying to do is lean out, templatize, and cut important parts of the research process.
I think the most important part of making research more efficient is understanding when it needs to be leaner and why, and also knowing when it doesn’t have to be. Something I have learned in my fiction writing is that before I can break the rules, I have to learn and adhere by them. I believe it is the same in user research. Before we go through and break all the best practices, lean out our processes, and templatize, we need to know the ideal process and where it does and doesn’t make sense to cut corners.
I see a lot of people using templates for things that they don’t first understand the goal and purpose of and that can lead to sloppy and unclear research. So, first, create an ideal process and know what can and cannot be sacrificed. For instance, I always give a range of sample sizes, so we can make the least amount work, but I refuse to go under the minimum. Or, I debrief after each interview to make synthesis more manageable, but I never skip it. You need to know your boundaries and stick to them!
What signs do you look for to tell you when you’ve done “enough” research?
There’s never enough! Ha! If only we had all the time in the world…
For me, knowing I have done “enough” is a combination of sample size and hitting theoretical saturation. This is why I like synthesizing as I go (part of the Ground Theory approach) because constant comparison of new data helps indicate when you’ve hit theoretical saturation. Theoretical saturation means that we are no longer learning anything new during the sessions, and no more relationships are being made during the analysis.
I feel like I am “done” with a research project once I have passed the minimum threshold of participants necessary for the methodology, and am no longer learning new concepts, ideas, or insights.
How do you get stakeholders to care about your research results?
You don’t 😃
Just like you can’t necessarily get users to care about your product, you can’t get stakeholders to care about your research.
But what you can do, just like with users, is understand them, empathize with them, find out their needs and pain points, and use that as a basis to help them with better decision-making. I used to beg people to listen to my research and not let it gather dust in some repository. However, this didn’t really work, at least not consistently and without me burning out.
I changed my perspective and decided to figure out what my stakeholders’ goals, needs, and pain points were, and what big decisions were stressing them out. Once I got this information, I presented research in a way to help them achieve their goals and also alleviate their pain points. For example, I was working on a retention team and constantly talking about little things that annoyed our users. Not a lot of people listened to me. However, once I started to map the pain points to KPIs and important retention metrics that my team needed to improve, it started to make more sense to the team.
As researchers, we are the experts, we understand why research is important. It might not be as intuitive for others on our team, so it is important that we help them understand how research can help them achieve their goals.
How can designers be better partners with researchers?
I believe we have to partner better with each other and become more integrated into each others’ processes. For instance, I love bringing designers into my research sessions because seeing is truly believing—and it has a much more lasting impact than me reporting on findings.
I also love being a part of the creative design process. I am horrendous at designing, but I have sat down with designers for a sketching session to help work through the next steps after a research project. Together, we think through flows and potential ideas to help with the biggest pain points we discovered. It helps them to have me there to bounce ideas off, and it’s also really cool for me to see the research I’ve done come to life.
One super cool thing a group of designers did was invite me to their weekly design critique where I became the voice of the user and helped to remind them of our users’ needs and pain points when they were looking for feedback on their designs. I really think it has just become more comfortable intertwining some of our work so that we can be a bigger part of each other’s day-to-day.