Whenever we talk about the user research process, we stress the importance of planning the perfect study and making the ideal deliverable. Of course, all these steps are critical, but we’re missing one of the most important ones.
For years, I used to deliver reports via presentations, share research summaries, print out huge personas or journey maps and hang them on every wall space (including the bathrooms!). I learned how to write actionable and compelling insights and created exciting ways to share insights.
However, there was still something missing. Yes, the deliverables were well-written, and people found them interesting, but there was often no movement. No one rushed to a whiteboard to sketch potential solutions. Sometimes, stakeholders felt confused about the next step.
This, right here, is the piece I felt was missing from my process and the part I see other researchers often skip: insight activation.
What is insight activation?
Insight activation is taking your insights one step further than presenting them. Instead of your end goal being to share the insights with your colleagues, activation means you are helping them do something with your insights.
Activation is a crucial step many people don't have as part of their process. For example, I didn't activate insights for years. At first, I didn't understand that it was part of my job to follow up this way. I assumed that once I delivered my findings, that chapter would be closed (unless there was follow-up research).
When I finally learned about insight activation, I still shied away from it. As a user research team of one, I constantly juggled projects and didn't have time to dedicate to insight activation. So instead, I convinced myself that if I could get that much better at writing insights or creating personas, I wouldn't have to activate.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Insight activation, especially at less user research mature organizations, is vital. Without this step, you lose a lot of momentum with your insights.
So, when juggling many projects and feeling overwhelmed, how do you incorporate insight activation into your process?
Make insight activation a part of your process
As a user researcher who often felt overwhelmed by the amount of work on my desk, I had no idea how I would fit insight activation into my process.
Where would I find the time between recruitment, conducting research, helping others, planning, and synthesizing?
When I heard about insight activation, I only learned one way to activate insights: workshops. And while workshops are one of the most effective ways to activate insights, they aren't the only way. We can take steps during our process that can help immensely with insight activation after the project.
I break insight activation into two phases and have techniques for both:
- Intra-project insight activation
- Post-project insight activation
✻ Intra-project insight activation
Not going to lie—I love writing this because it sounds like some super cool space exploration mission. But, really, intra-project insight activation just means activating insights during the project.
I was worried when I thought insight activation only came from workshops. Luckily, I learned about techniques you could use during the project. So, whenever I am trying to activate insights, I start with these approaches, as it also makes post-project activation easier:
✔ Involve stakeholders in the research
Although this might be a given for some, this step helps immensely with insight activation. If you include stakeholders in the process, from intake and planning, you give them a massive amount of additional context. Often it’s easier to understand what we experience firsthand than learn it from others. Having them as a part of the process, especially observing the actual interviews, they can pick up more than you could ever summarize in your insights.
✔ Use video clips in reports
Again, this might be common practice to most people. But it takes a lot of time and effort, so it's always part of reports. Using video clips to explain or give supporting evidence to insights, we share context for those who couldn’t be more involved in the research. I do this through video clips in reports or by usability bingo. When people see something happening, it tends to create more motivation to fix it.
✔ Run debriefs
After each interview or session, I run a 30-45 minute debrief with stakeholders. We download the research session during this debrief and put it into an affinity diagram. The best part of debriefs is reserving time for action items and next steps. This also gives time for stakeholders to clarify and ask you any questions. If you do this after each research session, you can have straightforward to-dos for people during the project.
✔ Hold mini brainstorming sessions
I always leave room in my calendar for ad-hoc mini-brainstorming sessions. With these sessions, I invite stakeholders who have been present. We take some of the quick fixes and low-hanging fruit and have a quick brainstorm on how we could solve these issues. This session could look like sketching ideas on paper, wireframing, or just talking through potential solutions.
✔ Make space for project Q&As
During more complex projects, I always put Q&A time in my calendar for stakeholders to come to me with any questions. Either stakeholders are confused about a recent insight, haven't been able to make sessions and have some quick questions, or want to clarify what they're hearing. Including these boxes in my calendar means stakeholders don't wait until after the project to raise important questions.
Most of these techniques can fit very nicely into your current process and might already be things you are (or thinking about) doing. If we spend a little extra time in each of these areas, we can begin to activate before the project is over.
✻ Post-project insight activation
Post-project insight activation comes after the project is complete. Now, to be clear, you don't have to wait until you've finished the deliverable to activate insights! Just because it is called post-project activation doesn't mean the project needs to be complete.
You can use these activation techniques part-way through a project or once the final interview is done, depending on when you have the necessary time.
✔ Share How Might We (HMW) statements
HMW statements move us from the problem space to the solution space and help us generate ideas to solve problems we hear in research. Sometimes, if my insights didn't feel actionable enough, I would create HMWs to help my team move forward with ideas.
✔ Facilitate ideation workshops
Ideation workshops are the end-all-be-all of insight activation. They are what I strive to do as much as possible, because they are extremely effective. Ideation workshops go a step further than HMW statements. In these workshops, you bring one or two of the most critical insights from your research and, together, ideate solutions. In this setting, you’re taking your research and making it into something, all while being there to help guide the team and provide context.
✔ Offer internal insight hackathons
These hackathons take user research insights that have been ignored and allow your colleagues to focus their time and energy on finding a solution (while competing) over two or three days. It's exactly like any other hackathon, but this one is based on your previous research insights. For me, this is one of the most fun ways to activate insights.
Pulling it all together
I started incorporating these more time-intensive practices into my process by simply baking the time into my projects. I no longer ended with the deliverable as the final result. Instead, I always included time for an insight activation activity. Yes, it made my projects seem a bit longer, but everyone knew what to expect and how important this stage was.
Not every project needs activation. I reserve these steps for complex or in-depth projects rather than straightforward studies. For example, an unmoderated usability test should be easy enough for everyone to understand the next steps. However, a more profound and complicated generative research project warrants the extra activation steps. So first, give it a try on a semi-complex study to see what works and what doesn't.
I know there seems like a lot to do in addition to what we already juggle. However, if you can only choose one, I highly recommend the ideation workshop as the place to start. Grab the template below to make it even easier activating insights. Not only does it help you develop your facilitation skills, but it will help your teams move from your insights into wireframes into actual, developed features or products.
If you choose to do quite a few of these steps, make sure to always ask your colleagues for feedback on what is most and least helpful so you can continue to focus on the most impactful techniques for your organization.
Get the Ideation Workshop Template and turn your research insights into action.
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.
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