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A Novel Piece of Expert Advice for Every Stage of Your Next Research Project

We asked industry leaders and top UXR teams about their best tactics for getting "unstuck" throughout the research process.

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

If you’ve conducted user research, you’ve spent some time staring at a black page. Or blank excel sheet. Or empty slide deck.

Or you’ve looked at your folder full of interview recordings, your pages full of notes, your hours worth of video—and been too overwhelmed to start synthesizing.

When that happens, everything seems to grind to a halt. Sticking points delay and ultimately bottleneck the research process—which can feel dire, as stakeholders expect to hear findings on faster timelines than ever.

Luckily, we’ve had a chance to talk with experts from the field (like Steve Portigal), pros from top UXR teams (like The North Face’s Vanessa Dillof), and leaders from other empathy-driven, story-leaning disciplines (like Serial and This American Life’s Sarah Koenig). We picked their brains for advice on going from “question” to “insight” smoothly.

Together, they’ve given us a masterclass on how to build momentum at each stage of your research cycle.

How to get stakeholders engaged (like Groupon's Joanna Vodopivec)

Joanna Vodopivec urges you to start with donuts.

And by that she means—relationships are everything.

When we talk about getting stakeholder buy-in for a project, we often discuss tactics. Explain your project in a way that echoes their priorities. Discuss the potential ROI. Work within their design or product sprint.

But really, your best research will come from questions that teams will bring to you. So teams have to want to bring you their questions:

“It's not about process, it's ultimately all about people. If they have a relationship with me, and they trust me, and they can come to me with questions and seek my advice, I want to be their partner and be their source of truth.

That’s really been my mission since I’ve been at Groupon, to build these relationships. don’t think there’s anything else that really is nearly as important. Of course, the quality of your research has to speak for itself. You have to be thoughtful and proficient in your methods. But unless you can build those relationships, people just won’t come to you with questions or see you as an advisor. [At first] donuts go a long way, I've learned. Then, get them engaged in creating the test plan, observing the research sessions, debriefing afterwards, analysis, and even some of the synthesis.”

Lesson: Be open and welcome the questions that your team brings to you. Only after you establish a good relationship will they be truly engaged.

Go deeper: Joanna Vodopivek on remote, human-centered research

It’s not about process, it’s ultimately all about people. If they have a relationship with me, and they trust me, and they can come to me with questions and seek my advice, I want to be their partner and be their source of truth.

Joanna Vodopivec

How to get the most out of your methodology (like the Studio’s Stefani Bachetti)

Obviously, the right methodology will vary depending on your goals. But executing on a methodology well, might be more important than the methodology you choose in the first place. 

Sometimes that means seeing an old method in a creative new way. 

Stefani Bachetti—director of dscout’s research team, The Studio—offered up a few "creative new ways" in her recent webinar (which you can stream on-demand). One of our favorites has to do with that tried and true UX method: surveys.

For Stefani, surveys are fine, since they’re easy ways of gathering quick insights at scale. However, they aren’t the best for qualitative inputs. For that, researchers need to get a little more creative: 

“Say you write a survey. Potential value propositions are presented, in rapid succession, as static text. Participants are asked to respond as to whether each value proposition resonates.

It’s a specific input for them to weigh in on—but it’s a flat input. And it may or may not hold up in the real world.

Here’s a better way to design the same question outside of a survey for a more meaningful yield:

Create an online store selling multiple types of water bottles. Give each water bottle a different value proposition—and let people ‘go shopping.’ See what turns up in their cart. Ask them after checkout what made them interested in the bottle they selected over the others.

This matches the context of the product and offers a creative way for people to evaluate it. Just shifting the framework from ‘answer a question’ to ‘take action’ or ‘solve a problem’ can get you more varied, and more accurate, results.”

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to have fun with you methodology! Even when you give your user a simple question, you can frame it in an exciting way. This results in better insights from your research.

Go deeper: Stefani Bachetti on bringing creativity to research

The more you think about how you have to extract something that’s going to be utilized in the work world, the further you are being pulled out of just a chance to be present with someone.

Steve Portigal

How to acknowledge and isolate biases (like Steve Portigal)

Before you even think about jumping into an interview with your user, you need to prime yourself for success. That means acknowledging the biases you bring to the process.

After all, biases alter your research, resulting in distorted conclusions. To clear them, you need the right frame of mind.

Or at least that’s what author, podcaster, and UX researcher Steve Portigal believes:

“Research requires a certain kind of mindset—we have to keep objectives in mind, and the mechanics of the job and the project, and wants and needs of our colleagues and so on. That’s a lot to bring into the field with you. But if you really want to hear a person for who they are, you can’t carry all that with you. You can’t go into an interview saying, ‘I’m going to come back with seven key takeaways that I’m going to type up and put into the Slack channel.’

The more you think about how you have to extract something that’s going to be utilized in the work world, the further you are being pulled out of just a chance to be present with someone. So my advice to people is to set that aside. To be very literal about it and say aloud or under your breath or to your team, “Right now we’re just going to focus on how Joanne organizes her desk, or whatever the scenario might be. We’re just going to focus on that for the next few minutes.” Take a pause from the larger world and go into a space where all you care about is the person in front of you and your curiosity and desire to learn. That transition in mindset is important. At first, you should make it explicit, and then over time, you develop the ability to kind of flip from one world to the next more fluidly.”

Lesson: Take a moment to remember the core goal of your user interviews—not the outside noise of stakeholder expectations.

Go deeper: Steve Portigal on fighting bias

How to interview (like Serial’s Sarah Koenig)

Journalistic interviews and user interviews are different, but they require the same sense of rapport. When talking to your users, you work to build a relationship so they can give you as much insight as possible.

However, sometimes it’s easier said than done, especially if you find friction in their worldviews.

Sarah Koenig, producer for Serial and This American Life, has had a ton of experience talking to people from all walks of life. Here’s her advice for how she interviews the subjects for her stories:

“Sometimes you just get lucky—there are some people who will say whatever the hell is on their mind regardless of who’s listening. They’ve been waiting their whole lives for someone to come along with a microphone and start recording.

I’m happy to let a person say their piece. It doesn’t mean it’s going to make it into the story, but they’re giving me their time. If they want to lecture me for 45 minutes about how a certain police procedure is foolproof, I sort of say, ‘Sure. Go for it. Here’s your moment. Talk.’

I want them to feel heard. And I really, genuinely do try to listen to them, even if I come in with a preconceived idea that what they’re saying is all horseshit, or part horseshit. I really try to be open-minded about it. Because often, I really do learn something. They’ll make a point I hadn’t thought about or say something that I hadn’t previously understood was so important to them. I try to listen for that.”

While you give them a chance to talk, you also need to remember to avoid blindsiding your user with “gotcha” questions:

I also try to do what I think every responsible journalist does, which is not to blindside people. I always go to people, as uncomfortable as it can be, before a piece airs to give them an idea of what we’re going to say, so they have another chance to respond if they want to. I feel like that’s just being fair. There are always going to be people who will be pissed off no matter what, but at least you can let them know what’s coming so they aren’t surprised by what they hear, and give them a chance to respond.”

Lesson: Give your participants as much opportunity to prepare and give their responses as possible. Only then will you get the best information from your users.

Go deeper: Sarah Koenig on shaping a story

I really try to be open-minded about it. Because often, I really do learn something. They’ll make a point I hadn’t thought about or say something that I hadn’t previously understood was so important to them. I try to listen for that.

Sarah Koenig

How to analyze (like User Research Academy’s Nikki Anderson)

Analyzing and synthesizing data gathered from users can sometimes be like getting a root canal—painful, tedious, and a way longer experience than you expect.

But there are ways that make it fun and that allow you to get the most out of the process.

Qualitative user researcher Nikki Anderson offera a great tactic to use during your next analysis session: storytelling.

“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.”

Lesson: Storytelling can be a powerful device to help you make the analysis and synthesis process fun and creative.

Go deeper: 9 New Ways to Analyze User Research for Meaningful Takeaways

How to go from “collecting data” to “getting stakeholders to act” (like The North Face’s Vanessa Dillof)

When the people who need to be invested in your research the most aren’t, it can hamstring your process.

That’s the situation The North Face’s Vanessa Dillof encountered. The company’s design team received a mountain of feedback from users to make changes to their product. But frustrated and confused, designers didn’t see the value of the feedback they were getting.

“Many of our designers were getting frustrated that there was a lot of wear testing feedback coming through, and a lot of changes being asked for in the product that we were creating. They didn't necessarily know the why behind that. [Video research] really allowed us to change that. They understood the broader context behind some of the feedback that they were getting once they saw that this feedback was coming from real people, with real stories.”

So Vanessa began to invite them into the process via remote platforms—not just to observe, but to conduct:

“Ultimately, I want everybody within the organization that is a key stakeholder to feel comfortable enough to at least start and establish a [dscout] mission, or to reach out to the dscout team for help in guiding that.”

Lesson: Sometimes the best way to get your stakeholders involved and invested with your project is by showing them the context of your research project.

Go deeper: Vanessa Dillof on completing the feedback loop

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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