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Overcome Any Research Rut: 6 Tactics for When You're "Stuck" During a Study

Research ruts, or “creative blocks” happen to the best of us. See how a handful of seasoned researchers have learned to not only tackle, but create systems for avoiding creative lulls.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Kate Degman

Effective human-centered research is a creative problem-solving process, requiring balance of stakeholder needs, timelines, resources, and feasibility.

The overlap of these various constraints produces the "A ha!" moment so many of us crave. Of course, creativity is not guaranteed and at times. When those ruts happen, the work can feel impossible.

People Nerds turned to its ever-creative community for some tactics and strategies to try the next time the research juices just aren't flowing and you need to get unstuck in your practice.

Build and revisit your "research hall of fame"

By Karen Eisenhauer, Research Lead @ dscout

Creating a Hall of Fame

For me, research ruts often occur at design phases—whether I’m designing research plans, or, on the other end, designing reports and deliverables. Creativity blocks at these moments feel frustrating because I always have a feeling in my gut that there has to be a better, more creative way to accomplish my goals and I just can’t see it.

I built a set of resources to combat this problem, which I call my research “Halls of Fame.” I keep one for research design—a repository of interesting questions, innovative designs, and creative approaches that worked really well in the past for me or my teammates. I also keep one for reports and deliverables: slide designs, frameworks, or data visualizations that were unique and powerful in the context of their projects.

Putting my Halls of Fame together was definitely an up-front cost. It took a while to sift through past reports and ask my teammates what they felt proud of. But now that I have them, I can’t overstate how much time and pain it has saved me. It’s like I have my own personalized research vision boards. When I’m in a research rut, I can rely on these boards to push my conceptualization of the solution space available to me, and/or to tweak these past innovations to fit my context in cool new ways.

Now, with each new project, I aim to add one new thing to my Halls of Fame with every project I do. This holds me accountable to push myself to design a new kind of question, data visualization, or report design that feels unique and outside my comfort zone. Shooting for innovation in this way keeps me from getting in a rut and complacent. As an added bonus, I continually build more inspirational content that I can re-mix in the future in case I get stuck.

Switching modes of analysis

I think as a researcher in the digital age (especially while working from home) I forget that using a computer is only one of many tools at my disposal. No matter how advanced my digital toolkit is, screens fundamentally limit my thought processing to a couple of modes; this can produce serious ruts in my thinking.

It may seem like a ridiculously simple solution, but I honestly think that just physically moving modes of analysis can be enough to break out of a rut. Switching from digital to analog is the biggest way I accomplish this: I print out my crosstabs and highlight them, I transfer quotes and themes to post-its, I print out any and all artifacts and move them around a space. I also try to switch modes of thought processing—from writing to visualization to verbal and back again. I even try to get moving and take a walk to let things simmer.

I think the key for me is to remember that I am not just a brain with eyeballs meant for screens—the whole body is a thinking and processing machine. Expanding the way I’m engaging my mind and body to think can be just what I need to find creative solutions.

Host a research technique brainstorm or co-analysis session

By Enna Post-Gutierrez, Senior UX Researcher @ NetSuite

The research technique brainstorm

For those times you feel like you’re in the rut of using the same techniques over and over and the results feel less impactful, set recurring brainstorms with your fellow researchers. Use them to bring new tactics or strategies to the table, discuss the technique and brainstorm how to adapt it to your own reality and identify opportunities for where to use them.

How you can conduct a research technique brainstorm with the team in three parts

1. Planning

In our case, sessions were bi-weekly on Friday mornings and we would rotate our facilitator roles. The facilitator may assign some “pre-work” for the session, such as reading about the technique, watching a video, or sometimes reading some articles as teasers for the session. Usually pre-work is about a 30-45 minute time commitment prior to the session.

Some of our favorite resources in the past included: Universal Methods of Design, looking at LinkedIn Groups (such as UX Research-Strategy), and rewatching past meetups or reading through blogs (like dscout) and existing slack UXR communities.

2. The Session

Usually about an hour of dedicated time, the session isn’t necessarily about brainstorming a new technique, rather how to apply a new technique to upcoming studies or opportunities where it can be used. It is usually led by an introductory portion where we recap and discuss the interest in using the technique and perceived pros and cons to the technique.

This was followed by some ideation of how it might look in real life, projects in the past where it may have been applicable, and looking to the future and defining some goals to integrate it in upcoming studies based on the roadmap

3. Follow up

With some defined outcomes, the team is ready to try out the new technique! The first researcher on the team to test drive it will have consistent touchpoints through the daily, the retro, or even a dedicated session review of the outcomes of the technique and how to iterate for future use.

The research technique brainstorm has really helped our team, especially throughout the pandemic, where it felt comfortable to fall into the same online moderated and unmoderated techniques. Using these types of recurring sessions helped us to break through and experiment with new techniques that brought invigorating energy to the team and even a fresh perspective of research to the broader product teams.

Co-analysis sessions

Sometimes, ruts occur when it’s time to deliver the results. Have you ever felt like you just missed a step in the final delivery of the results to the team? Cue the co-analysis session where you can analyze and synthesize with your product team and bring them along the end-to-end research journey.

Bringing your stakeholders as part of your analysis journey not only helps you understand better what they are looking for, it helps stakeholders minimize their own biases by seeing the real nuggets of data and allows them to see how the different emerging themes will become findings to help the results.

How to facilitate a co-analysis session:

1. Planning

Setting clear expectations is crucial for these sessions and depending on the complexity or amount of research conducted, it may require more than one or two sessions. Create a session guide with strict timelines to follow—it’s okay if not everything is resolved, keep going! A large part of the session is for the team to get involved and be part of the research process vs. being in the audience.

2. Pre-work

Assigning or recommending participants or target groups for each stakeholder to review is essential in the pre-work to ensure everyone has a voice and will participate equally. As a researcher, make sure you also are reviewing as much of the research as possible prior to the session to ensure nothing is missed.

3. Outcomes of the session

Define what we are looking to gather from the stakeholders by the end of the sessions: Will it be their initial conclusions or first feelers? Are we looking to synthesize the results with them? Will these sessions blend with ideation sessions? All these outcomes should be clearly stated to ensure the facilitation of the session goes smoothly.

4. Session day(s)

Use a collaborative tool where everyone can participate at once. Balance sessions between whole group activities and smaller split group activities. As a researcher and facilitator, your objective is to ensure the team isn’t jumping to conclusions, that biases aren’t being pushed, or that team members are sticking to the facts rather than pushing their own agendas.

5. Post session & post mortem

The post session may depend on where you finished the co-analysis. It could result in synthesizing and creating a report based, or perhaps it’s directly jumping into applying the research to ideation, or the product roadmap and prioritizing new user needs. Whatever it is, it’s always important to be able to track how the sessions finished and how the results were used. When possible, gather feedback from your team to see how the sessions went so that you’re always able to improve.

To "dig" through challenging times—connect with stakeholders and collaborators

By Carmela Lopriore, UX Researcher @ Nationwide

One thing I’ve learned about being in a research rut is that it forced me to learn how to dig—dig for resources, dig for buy-in, dig for new strategies to improve a user experience. Not only was I working as a junior researcher, I was the first and only researcher in an organization that wasn’t heavily invested in learning from its end users. I spent countless hours developing research proposals only to hear “no” on repeat from stakeholders.

I grew thicker skin, but I struggled to do the work I was hired to do: research. I often felt unheard, frustrated and dispensable, because after all, what was the point of being a UX researcher in an organization that didn’t want to do any research? This went on for months.

As a UXer, I leaned into these challenges. They ultimately became opportunities to connect with stakeholders—to better understand why they were hesitant to invest in research. My comfort zone evaporated when I set up meetings with these stakeholders. I showed up and learned valuable insights that have helped me mature as a researcher. Even though there were still barriers to connecting directly with users, I discovered new methodologies that could still help the product understand user needs. For every “no” I encountered, I innovated.

Although undoubtedly difficult at the time, my research rut propelled my career forward. I added new work to my portfolio, demonstrating innovative problem solving. When I decided to resign my position earlier this year for a new role, to my surprise, the team presented a counteroffer to keep me within the organization. All the efforts I made to evangelize UX research really did make an impact. Ruts, I learned, are opportunities to dig for something new.

Create a question repository and search for healthy distractions

By Emily Kuhn, Research Advisor at dscout

Writer’s block is inevitable, for me anyways. It happens with any creative pursuit (if you have any doubt that research is a creative pursuit, stop yourself now! It is). I have three strategies to combat it:

1. Be prepared

Get out ahead of writer’s block with plug-and-play resources for yourself. Keep a question bank, a phrase or sentence bank, or a construct bank (or all of the above). We all talk about our research repositories, but do you have a question repository? These types of design resources help you maintain consistency in research, make your work more easily replicable, and can really help with writer’s block. Forgetting how to phrase a question? Bet you have it, something like it, or something that might spark you in your question bank.

2. Push through it

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, but it bears repeating—just keep writing! Even if it’s nonsense, follow your stream of consciousness where it wants to go. I don’t know the science behind this, but speaking as a layman, writing through the block helps me prevent my creative juices from drying up. I’ll even leave myself a comment for later: “come back to this” or “almost there” to highlight that what I’ve written isn’t what I intend to keep. Sometimes it even turns out that what I wrote by “writing through it” works perfectly!

3. Do something else

Honestly, sometimes it really does make the most sense to give your brain a break. You know this one too, but I’ll tell you again! All of the famous “eureka” moments in history are famous because the moment of insight, the spark of inspiration, happened while the person was doing something else. Archimedes wasn’t thinking about the volume of irregular objects, he was just trying to take a bath. If you’re not able to write through it, find another task to focus your attention on, even for just a few minutes.

Remember your methods

by Kyli Herzberg, Director, Customer Experience & Research at dscout

When I think about common research ruts, I think about the common instinct stakeholders have of wanting to learn everything in one swift research-blow. It can be fairly debilitating to receive a long, disparate laundry list of questions that folks want thoroughly answered coming out of just one study, in all too short of a timeline.

When this perennial problem arises, I tend to think critically about all of the questions we’re trying to answer and compare them to the methodologies we have to play with.

Which methodology will help me capture the most questions with relative validity and speed? How can I make the case to reprioritize a few study goals so I can wholeheartedly address the others? After defining my own POV, I often try to invite some subset of stakeholders into my problem along with my proposed solution, and from there, we problem solve together.

Adapt old resources to new priorities

By Elaina Boytor, Lead Research Advisor at dscout

Coming from the world of research within nonprofits, the most common research rut I faced was designing and fielding research around the ever-changing priorities of an organization. We were often asked to change directions on our research priorities based on external factors such as grant proposals, new initiatives, or new partnerships. This meant I had the responsibility of figuring out how to see my existing research studies through while also fulfilling the needs of new priorities.

Whenever a new request came in, it was tempting to shut it all down until we could get clarity on priorities, which realistically isn’t always possible, but at times deciding the path forward felt more like research paralysis than a rut. However, there are a few steps I’d take to strike this elusive balance between staying the course and branching out without having to hit the pause button.

First, I’d assess how well what we currently are doing (or planning to do) aligns with the new research objectives. Then, once I identified where holes might be for the new priorities, I’d inventory our prior research work to see if we could fulfil the new research needs with those findings. If any of that work aligned but was too outdated, I’d see if I could rerun those studies quickly without having to redesign the study research instrument.

If I was still left with unmet needs, I’d circle back to the work I had planned and figure out what was important to keep moving forward with and what could be replaced with by new studies or measures (e.g. replacing a section of a survey or interview script with a new set of questions).

Through this entire process, I also made sure that whatever I decided aligned with the overarching goals and priorities of our organization; despite the immediate need of new research priorities, it was important to ensure that changing directions wouldn’t impact our longitudinal research goals.

Overall, I dug myself out of the rut and avoided research paralysis by adapting what I had instead of scrapping what I had so I could support all research priorities, new and old.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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