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Approach Research Like a Financial Portfolio and Watch Your Investments Grow

When managing personal finances, you need more than just a checking and savings account. The same concept applies to investing in your company’s research practice.

Words by Saeideh Bakhshi, Visuals by Nicky Mazur

Balancing the short-term demands of research and the long-term goals of your product development team can be extremely challenging.

This balance involves two aspects. On one hand, we often focus on high-priority, tactical research to solve immediate problems. This can leave little room for broader, strategic exploration.

On the other hand, some might be eager to dive into strategic research for long-term gains—but this can be a struggle due to the need for buy-in and instant applicability.

So, how can we effectively prioritize, allocate resources, and plan research projects?

In response to this perpetual challenge, I suggest viewing your research efforts—both individually and as part of a cohesive team—through the lens of a seasoned financial portfolio manager.

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Breaking down the comparisons

As an individual researcher, your research portfolio encompasses the projects you’ve undertaken or have on the horizon. Your toolbox and skillset highlights your proficiency in certain tools and research methods, as well as your plans for further skill development. It also showcases your influence on products, cultures, communities, and initiatives.

For a UX research team, your research portfolio centers on your collective identity, team objectives, skillsets, and areas of both expertise and growth. It's a compilation of your project history, spanning short-term endeavors and long-term initiatives.

The portfolio also underscores your team's impact on product development, cultural aspects, community engagement, and collaborative efforts. Additionally, it sheds light on the underlying processes that drive your team's scalability and efficiency.

Much like crafting a meticulously balanced financial portfolio to safeguard the well-being of yourself and your family, managing a research portfolio involves steering through distinct domains:

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1. Day-to-day financial needs = Immediate user needs, usability

As we embark on our careers as UX researchers—or work to establish a UX research team that hasn’t previously integrated this function—it's important to first prioritize foundational steps that will contribute to seamless business operations.

Examples of these steps include:

  • Conducting usability testing before product launches

  • Engaging with customers to assess if their basic needs are met by the product

  • Identifying pain points in the user journey to enhance the overall user experience

This type of work is intricately woven into the day-to-day activities of the product roadmap, aimed at ensuring success within the existing product lifecycle.

In financial terms…

This is akin to ensuring your ability to cover essential expenses like mortgages, rent, food, clothing, transportation, and managing loans and credit cards.

In research terms…

This involves the day-to-day research efforts that are essential for:

  • Supporting your product

  • Upholding user experience standards

  • Gaining profound insights into user needs throughout the context of your product's lifecycle

For those in the early stages of their user research careers, dedicating substantial time to these foundational tasks is vital for accumulating experience and fostering trust and momentum.

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2. Budgeting and emergency funds = Research ops, planning, roadmaps

Effective research hinges on meticulous planning and establishing a robust operational foundation. Neglecting these aspects or failing to invest in processes for operations, recruitment, prioritization, and budgeting can severely curb the impact of research and undermine its value when it's most crucial.

Irrespective of your industry, creating a solid plan for operations and prioritization is an invaluable element of your portfolio.

In financial terms…

This is akin to maintaining a prudent financial strategy by setting aside funds for unforeseen emergencies, serving as a safety net for unexpected expenses.

In research terms…

This corresponds to the budgeting component of your research portfolio. It involves investments in tools and procedures that facilitate planning, prioritization, and goal tracking. Over time, these investments help identify areas of high impact and those requiring excessive efforts, similar to recognizing high-expense and potentially high-reward aspects in financial planning.

Every research portfolio requires some level of operational planning, with the specifics varying based on your research maturity, both in your personal career and within your organization.

If you're just starting out, it's wise to dedicate time to exploring tools and planning processes. As you progress, consider investing in processes that enhance the scalability of your work and optimize resources for maximum impact.

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While not every company or research team allocates resources to long-term innovation planning, it's a practice that should be embraced.

3. Retirement planning = Innovation planning, ethnographic research

While preparing for emergencies is crucial, so too is planning for the future—a vital component of both financial and research portfolios.

In finance, once we have the capacity to save and invest, it's prudent to consider retirement accounts, college funds. We establish financial goals for the future, then formulate a strategic path to reach them.

The same goes as we gain flexibility in the realm of research. It's essential to allocate time and resources to efforts that may not offer immediate returns, but can lead to substantial industry, organizational, or product enhancements in the coming years.

In financial terms…

This concept aligns with preparing for a time when your regular income ends, and you transition to a non-working phase of life.

In research terms…

This parallels the meticulous planning associated with retirement. Research, in this context, actively anticipates scenarios where existing solutions or revenue sources—such as user adoption or income streams—may no longer suffice.

This planning sets the stage for innovation and out-of-the-box solutions, even if immediate deployment isn't possible. While not every company or research team allocates resources to long-term innovation planning, it's a practice that should be embraced.

This aspect of the research portfolio often unfolds through in-depth ethnographic research and close collaboration in design ideation and forward-thinking principles. In cases where organizations lack internal resources to invest in this, outsourcing or seeking external professional guidance becomes a valuable option.

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4. Long-term growth investment = Long-term strategic research, market and trend analysis

How do you ensure your investments continue to grow and scale as the world evolves? Investing for long-term growth is like conducting long-term strategic research, which involves thorough market analysis and trend forecasting.

Just as you seek to ensure that your financial investments continue to flourish and adapt to the evolving world, the same principle applies to the realm of research. This means staying prepared for shifts in markets, economies, applications, and technologies (as they are bound to evolve).

In financial terms…

When you have the means to set aside extra resources, it's wise to consider investments that have the potential to grow your wealth.

In research terms…

Imagine that you've secured more than enough to cover your day-to-day research needs, and you're eyeing opportunities for the long term.

This is the juncture where you transition from a predominantly tactical research focus to integrating strategic research elements, such as:

  • Comprehensive market understanding

  • Trend analysis

  • The identification of openings for new products and investments

In terms of research maturity and stage, this phase is characterized by having gained buy-in and earned a seat at the decision-making table. It's paramount to ensure that your investments in long-term strategic research translate into tangible impact.

While not every venture in this domain will yield high rewards, it constitutes the higher-risk, higher-reward segment of your portfolio. Investments here have the potential to:

I strongly advocate that every researcher and research team allocate a portion of their portfolio to invest in long-term growth, provided they have the necessary time, resources, and freedom to do so.

For teams embedded within product-focused roles with the responsibility of supporting product life cycles, earmarking 10% of their portfolio is advisable. Conversely, teams with a broader, high-level purview into a product portfolio may allocate anywhere from 30% to 70% of their portfolio to this segment.

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5. Seeking financial advisors = Seeking mentors and finding collaborators

Remember, your portfolio doesn't need to rely solely on your own ideas and experiences. It can be highly advantageous to engage in discussions with other experts in your field to gain insights from their experiences and observations.

This becomes particularly valuable as your financial (and research) portfolio grows in complexity, making it more efficient and beneficial to seek expert advice and invest in tools that facilitate the process.

In financial terms…

Managing finances can become intricate, especially as your portfolio grows in complexity. At times, seeking professional advice and outsourcing certain financial decisions becomes essential.

In research terms…

Managing a multifaceted research portfolio—with both short-term and long-term investments—can also present challenges. In both cases, it's prudent to seek professional guidance, outsource specific aspects of the work, or leverage existing tools that streamline planning and execution.

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6. Adapting to changing lifestyle = Adapting to changing user needs

While maintaining a portfolio is instrumental in fostering organization and purposefulness in our endeavors, it’s equally essential to allow for flexibility and adaptability in response to shifting dynamics within the portfolio.

In financial terms…

As life progresses, your lifestyle and financial needs naturally evolve. For instance, you may start a family and begin saving for your children's college funds.

In research terms…

Much like how our financial requirements sync with life's changing circumstances, the landscape of research undergoes its own metamorphosis. This transformation occurs as products mature, organizational priorities pivot, and research functions, processes, and skillsets grow and diversify.

It’s imperative to engage in periodic reflection on your research undertakings. Conduct post mortems to learn from what didn’t yield desired outcomes, and invest more in what proved successful. Sometimes the reallocation of resources becomes necessary, demanding an intensified focus on immediate needs—particularly during crucial product launches or pivotal milestones.

On the other hand, there are moments when you have the capacity to extend your initiatives into more strategic and innovative solutions with a long-term perspective. Another facet of portfolio adaptation is the capacity to remain attuned to the evolving needs of your user base, much like responding to market fluctuations and economic conditions.

Just as you would adjust your investments during economic downturns or reconsider your financial balances during inflation, your UX research portfolio should…

  • Vigilantly monitor your customers and users

  • Keep a finger on the pulse of market trends

  • Track their changing requirements

This proactive stance empowers you to tailor your approach and research portfolio to seamlessly accommodate these evolving user needs.

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Wrapping it up

It’s a journey to transition from a portfolio primarily focused on short-term needs to one that strikes a harmonious balance between short-term and long-term objectives—all while utilizing scalable resources and tools.

When you’re trying to accomplish these goals, dscout is an invaluable resource.

Their comprehensive suite of tools, including Diary study tools, 1:1 interview sessions, Express missions (which serve as large-scale qualitative unmoderated studies)—and in-house international recruiting—are one of the most valuable investments for research teams aiming to scale up their research efforts. These tools help reach users more efficiently, and yield high-quality insights.

As you continue on this path of refining your research portfolio, these strategies and resources will empower you to navigate the dynamic research landscape with confidence and precision. You’ll be able to say with confidence that your research efforts remain agile and responsive to ever-evolving needs and opportunities.

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Saeideh is a data and research leader with over a decade of experience in product and strategy research. Her expertise lies in identifying opportunities for consumer products by delving deep into human behaviors and understanding their needs. She has developed several programs of research across different companies that she worked at including Yahoo, Meta, and Google.

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