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A 9-Step Process for Prioritizing User Research Projects

Plus: a template you can use to better "grade" your project requests. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Danbee Kim

It’s rare, as a researcher, to have a “lull” at work. More typically, we get inundated with so many requests that we could be working 24/7 without getting insights back fast enough.

In many roles, I was the only researcher covering multiple teams. I would get requests weekly (and sometimes daily). For a while, I tried to do all the research. I ran several sessions at once, occasionally confusing which test I was conducting. After a time, my manager pulled me aside, and we discussed how unsustainable my workload was.

He asked me a fundamental question that I continue to ask myself to this day: "If you could only do the most impactful research, what would it be?"

That question was eye-opening. I had no idea if I was picking and conducting the most impactful research for the organization. Since I was trying to fit in everything, I cut corners and focused less on the essential research. I realized I couldn't do every research project, and I had to start prioritizing research that was most impactful across teams and the company.

Prioritizing on your own

Trying to find a way to prioritize research took me years. There was still a (big) part of me that wanted to run the “cool” research projects (ie. large studies on churn rates)—but I knew the most exciting research wasn't always the most important.

I tried several ways to prioritize user research at various organizations. After quite a few iterations (and failures), I came up with several indicators that point toward a high-priority project. When I receive a research request, the first thing I do is send an intake document, which helps me assess the following steps.

Here is my process for determining the priority of a new incoming research project request:

  1. Is this a team or company priority? Take a look at the team's strategy, backlog, or roadmap and understand if the topic of research is a high priority within their list. Then also see where this topic falls within the overarching company strategy. If you are unable to find this information, reach out to the product manager or product lead, and they should be able to point you in the right direction. If the team doesn't have any prioritization, check below with how to prioritize together.
  2. What impact will the research have? Think about the different teams or departments this research could impact. The more teams that could use the insights, the more value you can get from this study. I tend to prioritize projects that are cross-functional and help multiple teams at once.
  3. Does the research question make sense to you? I use the intake document to get an idea of what the team is trying to understand. If the scope is broad or the question is too business-oriented, I work through this with the team. Ultimately, if the question doesn't make sense to research, it should be placed to the side until there is more clarity on what the team wants to learn and why.
  4. Has previous research been done? Make sure always to check if research has been on the topic before. If there is, make sure the team reviews it and determines if there is anything new they want to learn. I also look for any UX/design trends we can use before doing extensive research. Before you send the research over, double-check the date. If it is a usability test from 3-5 years ago, it might be worth redoing it. Generative research can usually withstand the years.
  5. Does this project make sense for (qualitative) user research? Similarly to the above, once you receive the intake document, look at the research question and what the team wants to learn. If the team wants to understand brand perceptions, have the reach out to market research. If they are looking to learn about large-scale behavioral data, they may need a quantitative researcher or data analyst to help them out. Always ensure that qualitative data can adequately answer the question (with meaningful insights) before moving forward.
  6. Is the project set up for success? Just because you do the research doesn't necessarily mean the team will act on them. Make sure the designer is available to make any changes that result from the study and that the team has time and capacity to develop it in the subsequent few sprint cycles. If the team cannot start acting on the research about one month after completing it, I ask them to come back later. I also will check if the team can participate in the research sessions, which means they will better understand the insights. If they can't sit in most of the sessions, I wonder about prioritizing the project.
  7. What is the level of support needed for the team? Consider home much support the team needs for the particular project. I ask the team if they can run some of the sessions themselves (only if they are empowered to do so) or write the report without me. If the project has a slightly lower priority, but the team can help, I will push the project through.
  8. Are you validating design decisions? One of my biggest pet peeves is receiving a request that asks me to validate a decision or design. For example, "tell us how much people love this feature." Okay, that is a (slight) exaggeration, but, as researchers, our job is not to validate ideas that will happen regardless. If a project like this comes across my desk, I tend to ask the team to go back and think about the problem-space they want to learn about before doing the research.
  9. Do you have capacity? Finally, but super important, figure out how much time you have. I recommend putting together a research roadmap and backlog to know where your time is going and how much capacity you have. If you don't have the capacity for a super important project, consider postponing other studies.

By going through this series of questions, I can "grade" the different projects' priorities. I typically assign a number to each criterion and use checkboxes. The higher the number and more checkboxes checked, the higher the importance of a project.

Take a look at this simple spreadsheet template to start prioritizing your projects.

Prioritizing with others

There may be times when prioritizing your own isn't an option, and you need more information. I love bringing in others to help with the prioritization process, especially when I need to sort through multiple critical upcoming projects. When I can't gauge a project's priority based on the intake document, I have a team meeting as soon as possible.

There are a few ways you can get your team to help you prioritize. Here are some of my favorites:

  • RICE model. The reason I like the RICE model is that most product managers are already familiar with it. This model uses four factors to assess priority: reach (how many customers will this impact), impact (what will the result be on the customers), confidence (how confident are you that this project will impact the customers/metrics), and effort (how much effort will the project take from the entire team). The RICE model is beneficial when I can't determine how much effort a particular project will take.
  • Impact and effort matrix. The impact and effort matrix is a lightweight version of the RICE model, which focuses on customers' impact and the amount of effort the project will take. I
  • Dot voting & money spending. If you have a few different projects you are deciding between, ask the teams to come together and vote. I commonly use dot voting, where everyone gets 2-3 votes that they can spend on the projects they believe should be prioritized. If this doesn't work, you can give each team $100 (or whichever currency) and ask them to say how much money they would spend on getting the projects done. This exercise can be great to run across multiple teams because you might combine different ideas into one test!

When you can prioritize research, you ensure that the teams are getting the best research done and that you are providing the most impact for your organization. Learning this skill will help you up-level and take a seat at the strategic table, ensuring your organization values user research.

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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