It follows then, that outlining some “non-negotiable” project steps might help us advocate for an (appropriately) involved research lifecycle. And that a healthy research lifecycle will improve the way our study is conducted, our stakeholders’ needs are understood, and our findings are adopted (all while saving us some time and some sanity).
Here are the stages I’ve used to organize my research projects and estimate my research timeline. Refer back to it when you have an ambitious question to tackle, a project that feels like it’s going “off the rails,” or a series of project management hiccups that are begging for readjustment.
A roadmap for the typical research journey
Before going any further, I want to stress that this is a general journey and research won't always happen in such a linear (or clean) fashion. Often, you have to skip forward to recruitment because of timelines or conduct research while recruiting. Or, you may have to go backward, to follow up on questions posed after a research share out. Ideally, you will go through all of the steps and in a similar order.
Core steps of a research project include:
Research lands on your desk
Define the research subject
Have a meeting with stakeholders
Define the research statement
Define KPIs & metrics
Define the research goals
Decide on a methodology
Negotiate a timeline
Decide on recruitment
Write the discussion guide
Conduct the research
Recap with stakeholders
Synthesize the research
Analyze the research
Create and share deliverables
Decide on the next steps
Plan more research (if necessary)
As you can see, before you jump right into research, it’s essential to really understand and define your study's problem and goals. Arguably, steps 1–6 are the most important as they drive the project in a particular direction.
For example, the research statement and goals help define the methodology, recruitment, and the discussion guide. This building block effect is why it is vital to take these steps before diving into research.
Breaking down each step
Before jumping into how I move through a research project sequence, I will explain what each step means in more detail.
Research lands on your desk. This step is about receiving a research project. Projects can come from anywhere or anyone, such as C-level or VP-level stakeholders, product managers, marketing, sales, design, engineering, or various other stakeholders. You could also have a project stem from a research team or even your idea. The idea might be thorough or one that has barely scratched the surface. Again, this is the ideal scenario. You may hear about the research during a meeting or through the grapevine. Either way, when you receive information about a potential research project, the sequence begins.
Define the research subject. The research subject is the overarching subject you are studying for a project. It is a very high-level topic you want to understand more about and helps you determine your research statement, research goals, and the discussion guide. This subject will generally be self-explanatory with the request and will be the main topic you are exploring.
Have a meeting with stakeholders. This is the critical meeting I missed when I was new to user research. The stakeholder meeting is the time when you get to ask all the questions to stakeholders. Usually, you meet with the one who requested the study and the product manager and designer involved (if they weren't the requesters). If research comes from "above" (CEO, VP, Director), make sure you still meet with them to clarify any questions. During this meeting, ask all the questions you have about the research study. I often have stakeholders fill out an intake document that outlines the items I want stakeholders to think about and answer.
Define the research statement. Research statements are what we are trying to learn or understand better about our users. It is best to build these statements after meeting with stakeholders. A standard model I use for research statements is: We want to better understand how users [think about/make decisions on/interact with] [subject of research/product] in order to [create/improve] [product/website/app/service]. The research statement will be a guide on what you will cover during the sessions.
Define KPIs & metrics. The direction and strategy of the company or team determine the business KPIs or metrics to track. For instance, retention teams focus on loyalty, while acquisition focuses on growth. When you conduct a research project, think about the different metrics the project could impact. Some standard metrics are conversion rate, click-thru rate, retention rate, session length, and download rate. You can use these metrics to track the success of the project.
Define the research goals. Research goals are the different areas we seek to learn more about during our study and directly relate to the research statement. They are the more in-depth areas we want to explore regarding our research statement. They help us better understand the different aspects of our research statement. You typically have 3-4 research goals in a project. There are five common research goals present in most studies:
Discover people's current processes/decision-making about [research subject], and how they feel about the overall experience
Learn about people's current pain points, frustrations, and barriers about [current process/current tools] and how they would improve it
Uncover the current tools people are using to [achieve goal], and their experience with those tools and how they would improve those tools
Understand what [research subject] means to people (how they define it) and why it is important to them
Evaluate how people are using a [product/website/app/service ] OR how people are currently interacting with a [product/website/app/service]
Decide on a methodology. Once you have an idea of all the above, it is time to choose a research methodology. The research study will usually be either generative or evaluative (although you can have a hybrid), so start there. Choosing the right method is essential because it allows us to extract the correct information from participants.
Think about your research goals and the type of information your team needs from you, and then set off deciding on a method. These choices should always stem from the goals and expected outcomes of the research project. I wrote more in-depth about selecting a research methodology in this article. You should also include other relevant methods, such as surveys, heuristic evaluation, or competitive analysis.
Negotiate a timeline. I use the word negotiate because timelines for research projects aren't always fully understood. Always be clear about the timeline you would expect from the research study. If stakeholders press you for too tight or unrealistic timelines, suggest conducting the research at another time. Generally, I say:
Generative research: 4-6 weeks
Usability testing 2-4 weeks
All of this depends on the scope of the project and the resources you have available.
Decide on recruitment. After you understand how the research project will manifest, it is time to decide who and how you will recruit. Speaking to the right people is arguably one of the most important parts of user research. If you don't get the right participants, your study can suffer considerably. Take the time to understand the types of behaviors or goals you want to learn more about and pick participants based on this (rather than only demographics). Also, consider how you will recruit them, such as through email marketing or an online survey. Finally, consider compensation and incentives. Read more about how to pick the best participants.
Write the discussion guide. I love writing discussion guides because it means I am one step closer to conducting the research. The discussion guide is essentially a cheat-sheet to use during the research session. It can include detailed questions or just a few bullet points on topics you want to cover. I always recommend writing a discussion guide that has fewer details and uses the TEDW framework for questions. I always challenge people to begin discussion guides with "walk me through the last time you [insert subject]..."
Begin recruitment. During this time, you send out your screener survey and calendar links to have people sign up for research sessions. I recommend using a tool like Calendly to schedule sessions. If you have a tight timeline, you can overlap recruitment with beginning the study.
Conduct the research. Finally! You have reached the most fun part (at least for me)! After all the planning, you can now conduct user research! During this phase, you are deep in the moderator role and focused on getting through the sessions. I recommend always having relevant stakeholders come to each session to observe and take notes for you. Always remember three things:
Record the session (with permission)!
Have a conversation with the participant (not an interview or interrogation)
Recap with stakeholders. A debrief or recap with stakeholders is when you sit down together after a research session to reflect and encourage deep learning and complex connections. The debrief is a perfect time to reflect on what just happened during the session and bring many minds together. It is a nugget-sized synthesis session. The way I structure the recap is a 30-minute debrief after each interview session. I then have a two-hour synthesis session to wrap everything up and find trends across interviews at the end of the project. Learn more about my debrief sessions (with a template)!
Synthesize the research. Once you have finished the central portion of the study, you begin the analysis. During this phase, you are finding patterns across the research with team members. I typically conduct a synthesis session after every seven sessions and then do a more extensive synthesis at the end. Multiple sessions break up the data and the cognitive load that team members experience. During synthesis workshops, you typically choose activities, such as affinity diagramming and 'How Might We' statements. I talk more about my synthesis process in this article.
Analyze the research. After you synthesize the information, it is time for you to sit with it. During this phase, you can work solo or with other researchers. I review the patterns found during synthesis and build insights and recommendations. Creating insights and recommendations enables the team to make data-driven and more empowered decisions moving forward. This step is where you make the research actionable. Writing insights can be tricky, so check out this article on writing compelling insights.
Create and share deliverables. During this step, you focus on the outputs of the research project. Outputs usually come in the form of deliverables such as reports, personas, infographics, journey maps, or papers. You can choose from many different deliverables. The most important part of a deliverable is that it allows the audience to quickly and enjoyably digest the information effectively and efficiently. I always suggest including video clips, quotes, and infographics whenever possible, since that is a fantastic way to engage your audience. Hold a meeting to discuss the findings in addition to sending out deliverables, as this gives stakeholders a chance to ask questions and become involved with the material.
Decide on the next steps. Arguably, there are always next steps following a project. The next steps can include action items for stakeholders or following up with data or more studies. These action items are essential to the project because they make the research actionable. With concrete next steps (with owners and deadlines), everyone in the team knows what to do next.
Monitor metrics. Remember those metrics you decided on at the beginning of the project? This is where they shine! Keep track of how the metrics change (mainly if you conducted usability testing and made significant changes to the UX or UI). The metrics will also help you prove the return on investment (ROI) of user research across the organization. Plan more research (if necessary). If more research is needed, it's time to dive in and start the cycle all over again!