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Make Every Step of Your Research Process More Efficient: Advice for Solo (or Bandwidth-Low) UXRs

Here are our best tips for small teams looking to make a big impact with tight turnaround times. 

Word by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Allison Corr

Solo researchers are the pioneers of the practice at our organization. We’re doing our best to pave the way for user research and working to socialize its value and importance.

Despite our goals, lone researchers are a limited resource. As a user research team of one, I was trying to…

  • Create a research process and framework
  • Intake and juggle new research requests
  • Prioritize the most critical requests when I ran out of capacity
  • Recruit and schedule sessions
  • Conduct sessions
  • Analyze and synthesize data
  • Create and share insights regularly with the team
  • Teach others the basics of user research (usability testing, note taking, observation best practices)
  • Figure out the next steps for hiring new researchers
  • Collaborating with stakeholders through sprint and roadmap planning, as well as design reviews

After a while, I was exhausted and realized I had to make changes to my processes. I had to be better at prioritization, time management, and learn to “cut corners” without sacrificing quality.

After being a “user research team of one” for such a long time, I picked up many tricks for working more effectively and efficiently. For each stage of your research cycle, here are some ways you can become an even better solo UXR—or increase your efficiency on a small team.

Organizing and time management

Let's start with one of the essential pieces of the puzzle, organization and time management. As a solo user researcher, you have to be highly organized and plan your weeks so that when you have downtime, you know what you are doing at that moment.

Here are some ways that I have organized user research and managed my time in previous roles:

Pick a project management tool (or go with your company's tools).

Find a tool to organize all relevant user research information, including processes, a roadmap, backlog, links to previous research. The best thing you can do is use a tool the rest of your company is already using (ex: confluence is very popular). If your organization doesn't have a shared tool, you can look into companies like Trello, Google Sites, Notion, Monday, or Asana.

This tool doesn't have to hold every piece of information. For instance, I stored many documents and sessions on Google Drive, but my Monday board had clear links to all this information.

Before diving into something like a repository, I would start with a single source of truth where all user research information lies. The best way to start this is to talk to your stakeholders and ask them some questions:

  • What tools are they currently using?
  • What information would they like to see?
  • What are some pain points for finding previous research?

If you're feeling up to it, you could also do a card sorting exercise to understand stakeholders' mental models behind finding this information.

Create a roadmap and a backlog.

As a user research team of one, you need to know where you are, and where you will be, spending your time. By looking ahead, you can understand what is coming, where you can slot in research projects, and what has to go in the backlog.

Research roadmaps are clear, easily shareable, documents that provide your colleagues with transparency on what you are doing now and next.

I wrote about building an effective roadmap in this article, and you can use this template to get started.

Set up your calendar for success.

The week prior, I set up my calendar for the following week. I put in whatever blocks I need and review any meetings. At this point, I put in my “heads down” time wherever I can and include what I will be doing during that time.

For example, I will put a block of two hours and in the title say "heads down time—creating report content." If I put the work I am doing in the title, people are less likely to book over it. I also give my days themes, depending on my to-do list. For example, Mondays are admin work (emails, scheduling, meetings) and Thursdays to create reports. Read more about my time management tips here.

Intake

The beginning of your projects sets you up for success. If you have a solid start to a project, you will likely have fewer meetings and clear objectives. Here are some ways you can work to streamline and improve the intake process of a study:

Intake documents

Create and send an intake document to any stakeholders requesting a study. Once you require stakeholders to think through research, you will see positive changes. As soon as I implemented an intake process (more info on establishing that here), I had more time and passively educated stakeholders on user research. If you're interested, check out and download the template!

Clear prioritization

After setting up your intake, you may be overwhelmed with requests. Likely you don't have enough time to conduct every research project, which is where prioritization becomes key. By picking which projects you will tackle now, you free up your time and create a robust backlog. Take a look at this simple spreadsheet template to start prioritizing, or read my nine-step process for prioritizing requests .

Planning

Once a project gets through, it is best to align with colleagues through a shared research plan or brief. A user research plan is a concise reference point for your project's timeline, goals, main players, and objectives.

Research plans keep the entire team focused on an outcome and provide an easy reference to keep "need-to-know" stakeholders in the know. They prevent everyone from getting bogged down in the details and switching the research goal in the middle by mistake. Most importantly, they allow researchers (or whoever is doing the research) to ensure we will answer the research plan's objectives most effectively and efficiently.

Another great way to plan your capacity is by offering various support levels. It took me a while to learn that I don't need to be 100% on every project, especially with teams empowered to conduct research. For each project, I offer three levels of support:

Low support

  • Support areas: Methodology consultation, recruitment, interview guide review, tech set-up
  • When I offer this: I have low to no capacity for other research projects, and the team feels comfortable running the research project

Medium support

  • Support areas: Methodology consultation, recruitment, interview guide writing, running 30-50% of the sessions (in case of moderated studies), tech set-up
  • When I offer this: I have a small amount of capacity for research projects, and some of the team feel comfortable running parts of the research project; others can also learn how to research by shadowing.

High support

  • Support areas: Methodology consultation, recruitment, interview guide writing, running 50+% of the sessions (in case of moderated studies), analysis & synthesis, tech set-up
  • When we offer this: I have the capacity for more research projects. The requesting team does not have user research experience and needs overarching support throughout the research process, from recruitment to learnings delivery.

Recruitment + scheduling

Recruitment is a huge time suck, no matter which way you go for it. Whether you are using an agency or cold-emailing, recruitment can take some time. It isn't easy to fast-forward this step, but here are some quick tips:

  • Make sure you are getting the right participants. If you have a tool, like dscout, that has its own panel—this can be a huge time saver.
  • Look in communities such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Reddit to recruit
  • Find tools like Calendly that can help you automate booking. dscout Live also has an automatic scheduler in platform.
  • For email, have a templated email that you (or others) can send out
  • If possible, always incentivize. If you can’t pay folks directly, consider vouchers, entries into a raffle, or a donation to charity.
  • After each engaged participant, ask them if they know someone else who wants to participate.

Conducting

Whether you are giving full or low support to the teams, there are a few things you can do to ease this part of the process:

  • Create a sign-up sheet that gives the team visibility into who will be moderating, note-taking, and observing. This sheet will also serve as a place to go for all the session information.
  • Start a rolling research practice every month for stakeholders to test simple concepts/prototypes. This practice will allow you to take a step back from reactive research and give you more time to plan discovery research.

Synthesizing

Synthesis is one of those areas you can't cut corners. Most times, you will have to go through listening to the sessions, taking notes, clustering the themes, and then creating insights. The best thing you can do is list out your synthesis steps and break up your calendar in a way that gives you the space to do so. Check out my synthesis steps here.

One big tip I have to avoid the vast and overwhelming end-of-project synthesis is to debrief after each session. By debriefing, you are doing a mini-synthesis after each session, making the overall synthesis much more palatable. If you're looking for a template for both debrief and synthesis, check out my Miro debrief and synthesis template.

Sharing

Finally, sharing! First things first, create a report template! I always have two templates on hand, one for a high-level share-out with the top three to five insights and a deep-dive template into the study for my team.

I always do a few things to ease the amount of work I have to put into the final report writing:

  • After each session, I write a research summary, which highlights the major points or themes I found in the session. I send this to the relevant team. By doing this, I create a lot of content to copy and paste into the final report.
  • I write monthly newsletters to each team, recapping the most important findings we encountered in the month. I then use this content to send a quarterly newsletter with the most important topics of the quarter. These newsletters keep research top of mind for the organization.
  • I use slack (or any messaging channel) to post small insights every week. I used to call it "Fun Insight Friday." I would round up all the exciting video clips and post them to the research channel on Fridays.

Scaling

Create templates.

If you can make something into a template, do it! It may be a small effort, but it helps you keep consistency, and it is easy to send a colleague a template to fill out rather than creating something from scratch.

Develop a framework.

A framework will help old and new team members understand user research and how we do it. Instead of constantly explaining processes in meetings, you can send a link for people to look through.

Educate and democratize.

If you feel comfortable, you can begin to democratize simple parts of the research process. For example, I started teaching people note-taking with a quick one-hour course and sample videos used for practice. I then taught those who were interested in basic usability testing.

Build a panel.

If you find great participants willing to come back, it doesn't hurt to keep track of them. Your panel doesn't have to be hundreds or thousands of people. Start small and let it grow. One panel I built started as a spreadsheet with essential information and grew to a massive list in Salesforce.

Create a budget.

I made a budget to identify how much we would spend on user research each quarter. I recommend presenting two options: a lean and an ideal. A budget will help plan out incentives and, ultimately, help you build your roadmap.

Start today

Want to get started with this process? My recommendation is to look at your day-to-day and create a journey map of your tasks and responsibilities. Once you have that, identify the places you can streamline or optimize by adding a tool, intake document, or a new template. Keep at it until you feel like you have leaned out your process as much as possible. Try it out and keep iterating!

Nikki Anderson is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 8 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Explore her research courses here or read more of her work on Medium.

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