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Stuck? Here are 9 Ways to Analyze User Research for Meaningful Takeaways

A research pro shares a few tricks for energizing your research synthesis—even if you’re not excited about your qualitative data.

The other day, I was sitting and staring at the results of a synthesis session.

Not notating. Not analyzing.

Just staring.

Normally, synthesizing research is one of my favorite parts of the process. This was the first synthesis session I’d run at a new company—and I’d been really looking forward to digging into the results.

But this time, I had an unshakeable feeling of writer’s block. And I glanced at my spreadsheet and my session summaries with a sense of dread and anticipation. I had a deadline. But I was stuck.

Every researcher I’ve spoken to experiences ‘analysis paralysis’ every once in a while. You aren’t alone.

— Nikki Anderson

As user researchers, we often feel pressure to share perfect information in the most optimal way for everyone. A lot rides on how we turn research into “actionable insights” and on the bite-sized reports we generate to prove our research’s value. No wonder every researcher I’ve spoken to experiences “analysis paralysis” every once in a while. You aren’t alone.

Luckily (if you could call it that) this isn’t the first time I’ve felt a lack of creativity or excitement while looking at my research results. 

It’s something that’s happened before and will happen again. So I’ve designed some ways to combat it.

Here are a few tips:

Before your research sessions are wrapped

1. Write research summaries.

After each research session, I always write a summary. This practice helps solidify what was discussed, and better enables me to connect the dots between participants. Research summaries also highlight the most important trends or themes from a session, which gives my different teams an accessible way to digest research. Then later, they can help me come up with great recommendations and ideas.

2. Look for patterns with affinity diagrams.

This is one of the first things I do after I complete 6-7 research sessions. It’s the most classic way to synthesize research.

A brief outline of the process:

  • I gather the notes I’ve taken for each participant and write down the different pain points, motivations, goals, needs and tasks on Post-its.
  • Once I’ve done this for each participant, I take all my sticky notes and put them in relevant groups (all the pain points from all the participants go in one group, all the motivations from participants go in another, etc.).
  • Once I’ve laid all that out, I cluster the similar notes within each group. Often, after 6 research sessions, I can easily find patterns of pain points—which means multiple people are having the same problems.

This process really helps me understand the most common patterns across groups, and can lead to great insights on how to better understand our audience, or more effectively improve a project.

As you dive into analysis

3. Get off your computer and give yourself some space.

Sitting at a computer to try and start something can be detrimental to the creative brain. My best ideas often come when I take a step away from my computer and blank digital pages. I sit down with a pen, paper and some Post-it notes to get the creativity flowing again. If that doesn’t work, I’ll take a walk—or even take the day off from looking at the research, and then try again later.

4. Accept that nothing, at first, will be perfect.

No matter how hard we try, a first draft of anything will have flaws. This includes our approaches to synthesis. We might think we know exactly how we want to tackle our data—that we have the perfect approach or method for the challenge at hand. But, for some reason, it could fall flat, and not give us what we had hoped for. Rather than focusing on what’s lacking, it’s in your best interest to take a “done is better than perfect” approach. Start with something flawed, and see if that line of thought will take you somewhere useful. If you find yourself getting nowhere, pivot to a radically different approach.

Look at your research from a different perspective

5. Write stories.

Storytelling can be an analysis method. In fact, it’s one of my favorites. Stories are an extremely powerful way of explaining opinions and emotions. I’ll read through the notes and summaries of all my research participants, and try to find commonalities amongst them—breaking down how they think, their processes, and how they act with a product.

With this information, I construct short stories called “user scenarios,” which give really great context—even if they fall shy of recommending exactly how to improve a product. Instead, stories allow you to humanize your research participants and user base. They may help you derive outside-the-box insights and recommendations.

6. Add some quantitative spice.

This is the first thing I do when I’m doubting my research results, or am unsure of how to turn results into action. I do some desk research by looking through Google Analytics (or any analytics system) to see if we have any quantitative data that aligns with my qualitative results. Comparing quantitative analytics to my qualitative data helps me put a user’s words in a different perspective. They may have said something was only slightly difficult—but looking at the metrics, and noting the drop-off rate, could give me a better indication about how people are performing on certain areas of a website or app.

Comparing quantitative analytics to my qualitative data helps me put a user’s words in a different perspective.

7. Try a different synthesis method.

I’ve noticed researchers can get stuck using the same synthesis methods repeatedly (I do it all the time). Oftentimes, we’ll digitize Post-its and try to create personas, customer journey maps, or reports. Instead, try thinking about research synthesis in a way that might be new to you, like:

  • Mental models diagram user thought processes, and explain how they believe something should work in the world. Indi Young has a great book on mental models.
  • UX comics/storyboards help to visualize the process users are going through when they try to complete a goal. Even though I’m terrible at drawing, this is my new favorite way to get into the user’s shoes and really consider the that may be impacting them while they use the product. It is also a great way to get my other team members to empathize with users.
  • Empathy maps are, essentially, a more lean version of personas, and allow you to map out what users are feeling, thinking, seeing, doing and saying while they use your product. It is a great way to look at research slightly differently, especially when it comes to understanding what users might be thinking or saying.

8. Run ideation/brainstorming sessions.

A common misconception researchers face is that we’re supposed to go off and do all of this synthesizing alone. That is the exact opposite of how it should be; synthesis is a group effort. If you are feeling stuck, you can reach out to others for their ideas and perspectives, or even run some brainstorming sessions. Try…

  • ‘How Might We’ statement sessions

I often gather a group of colleagues who are more familiar with the research we have done. Together, we review the research sessions and recordings, then compile a list of ‘How Might We’ statements. What I love about these is they turn larger information into actionable nuggets of insights which inspire creativity. With these statements, I get reenergized from the different perspectives on how people are thinking about the research. I then run brainstorming sessions or create prototypes.

  • Brainstorming/ideation sessions

Ideation sessions can be run with ‘How Might We’ sessions, or completely separately. I take my team and surface a larger problem users are having with our product. Then, we each spend ten minutes coming up with ideas on how we might solve a problem like that. The trick is, you can’t think about technical feasibility, and you are not meant to think about your product as is. Instead, you are encouraged to start from scratch, as if there isn’t a current design or flow. This can lead to some really great ideas, and also some different perspectives on the research from your team.

9. Test the same project on a competitor and compare the results

This is one of my favorite methods to use when I am feeling stuck with research. Since this could be considered a completely separate research project of its own, I try to limit it to my own testing, or internal testing with my team. I choose a few competitors and do the same research on them as I did for our product. This can highlight some interesting comparisons and contrasts, and get you thinking beyond the scope of your own product. Just one important disclaimer: this is a way to see how your product stands out versus your competitors. It’s not an excuse to copy the competition.

Competitor research can highlight some interesting comparisons and contrasts, and get you thinking beyond the scope of your own product.

— Nikki Anderson

Summing it up:

We all get stuck from time to time. Research synthesis and analysis is an extremely time-consuming and laborious task that can feel very isolating. As researchers, we want to improve the world, and make it a better place, so we can have a lot of pressure to present and say the perfect thing.

My biggest recommendation is to get out of your own head and to try something really different from what you are used to. This can reenergize that creativity and curiosity that naturally comes to user researchers, and enable you to approach your research results in more imaginative ways, resulting in refreshing insights.

Nikki Anderson

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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