Buying Time: A 6-Approach Framework For User Researchers with Tight Project Turnarounds
Over 200 participants describe a go-to approach to securing more project time.
This report is part of a series on how project timelines impact the modern user research practice. Download a full report, and accompanying assessment of your team's time-buying strategies, here.
Or read the other articles: Left Behind: 300+ UXRs on What Makes for an Adequate Research Project Timelines and What’s the Most Efficient Org-Structure for User Research?
Many user experience professionals report a desire for more time to execute their work. This is the case both for specific aspects of a project (e.g., analysis, share out) and the work more broadly (e.g., aligning with stakeholders, assessing priority). How do experience professionals make time, buy time, or create time, if at all?
In this report, People Nerds analyzed open-ended responses to just that question, producing a six-theme matrix of strategies and tactics. Together, these create a window into how today's UXR is assessing, managing, negotiating—and in some cases, fudging—their project time.
The six approaches
Quiz: Assess your time-buying style
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As a set, the themes organize around two axes: control (i.e., how much agency and/or control can a UXR exercise to flex a research timeline) and engagement (i.e., how much communication, transparency, and updating occurs between the UXR and their insight audiences). The combination of these two criteria are useful in situating each of the six themes outlined below.
- Low control, low engagement: White-Knuckling
- Low control, high engagement: Status Updates
- High control, low engagement: Efficiencies and Tricks-of-the-Trade
- High control, high engagement: Snackable Sharing and Educate/Advocate
Below we consider the themes individually, defining the animating features and providing examples of each. Taken together, these themes represent a holistic look at how today's user research professional navigates and adapts to time pressure as an external constraint on the research process.
Responses within this theme implicitly said “I can’t not do this” and showcased participants going above-and-beyond expectations to meet deadlines. Responses here did not indicate any efficacy to ask for more time—doing so was not an option for folks in this theme. Instead, they leaned on networks, worked outside regular hours, or just simply “did more” to finish on-time.
Although the smallest in amount, the White-Knuckling theme is important to surface and discuss, as it relates to emergent—and important—conversations about burnout, mental health, and ideal worker norms within the user research industry.
Despite the smaller frequency, these are responses likely familiar to anyone working in the time-crunching, innovation-as-speed work of technology (which was the largest participant work industry reported). For some, it seems, more time is not an option.
Examples of this theme:
- “Work outside normal hours.”
- “Holding my breath. There are NO tactics that I can use to hurry compliance or legal.”
- "Ask a friend to help."
- “Read faster.”
- "Work on weekends."
Resource for when you’re worried you’re “white-knuckling”:
Status Updates (13.7%)
Responses within this theme focus mostly on status-updating and general outreach with collaborators and stakeholders. Some participants reported simply asking for more time, while others discussed regular progress updates.
Compared to the Educate/Advocate theme, this bucket of strategies was much more about straightforward need-to-know communication. Few responses in this theme mentioned modifying workflows—instead, foregrounding the importance of honest, forthright, and transparent communication about the current state of things. Again, responses in this theme lacked the educational element of Advocacy. For these folks, updating was enough to buy time and keep going.
Examples of this theme:
- "Communicated status regularly."
- "Project ownership and communication with stakeholders."
- "Asking for more time."
- "Honest conversation with client/stakeholders."
- "Simply just asked my stakeholders if pushing a readout date is fine."
- "Identify hold ups and clearly communicate with stakeholders that more time is needed."
- "Ensuring key stakeholders are involved in early objective + alignment phases of planning."
Resources for more effective stakeholder communication:
For responses coded within this theme, time was all about organization, "proper" planning, and flexible adaptation. Two sub-themes emerged: the first about working smarter and the second about doing less or reducing scope. Both showcased a high degree of control and autonomy on the part of the user experience professional, but less consistent reliance on overt communication.
Some folks reported telling their stakeholders about the modifications, while others seemed to describe a playbook they typically reach for on any project whose deadline is steadily (or quickly) approaching. Strategies and tactics within this theme often referenced scheduling, "ruthless" prioritization," and workflow structures such as parallel pathing or sprints.
This theme also foregrounded a reliance on repeatable frameworks, templates, outlines, and other reusable research assets to help speed-up and streamline regular research components; many participants mentioned using templates for recruitment, certain study or test designs, and even deliverable forms.
In addition to time-boxing and templates, responses in this theme described shortcuts, workarounds, and generally "scrappier" ways of doing things (e.g., asking fewer questions in a survey, scheduling fewer interviews, recruiting the same folks for a second study). Overall, the focus was that time can be found—even small chunks of it—with planning, shortcuts, and package-able phasing.
Examples of this theme:
- "It's less about creating more time overall and more about creating the right shortcuts and templates in the timeframe to have more time to spend on different phases."
- "Methodologies that build over time with the same respondents. That way, we can start early and get some findings but then also deepen findings later on."
- "Start project design in the proposal phase, before the project is fully commissioned, so we can hit the ground running."
- "Try to create repeatable frameworks for recruitment, approvals, methods to get things up and running quickly to leave more of the available time for analysis."
- "Setting up reporting style before fieldwork is complete (which can change during the actual reporting, but at least gets me thinking about style/content)."
- "Break down a piece of research into two, so that the most urgent dat could be gathered, while the rest of the scope could still benefit from a proper, rigorous methodology."
- "I have skipped fancy design work on the deliverables and gone bare bones. Clients seem to approach minimalism anyway."
- "Factor in desk research at the start to buy time for recruitment. Learnings from desk research inform the screener and discussion guide."
Resources for creating efficiencies:
- 3 Strategies for "Templatizing" Your User Research (Includes Example Templates)
- Stop Lights and Rainbow Charts: Two Engaging Templates for Qual Research Reports
- Using Private Research Panels for Ongoing, Rapid Customer Feedback
- Sample Study Designs: Personas, User Journeys, Concept Tests, Product Feedback, and More
- How to Write a User Research Plan That Sets Your Project Up for Success
- Make Every Step of Your Research Process More Efficient: Advice for Solo (or Bandwidth-Low) UXRs
This theme showed shrewdness, a knowledge of “the game" of doing research, and a strong grasp of control and autonomy over who truly needs to know what, and when. For many of these respondents, the complexities of managing a project's phases, stakeholder needs for updating, and the time offered spaces to create “cloak and dagger” moments.
Tactics in this theme ranged from simply "padding time" in a proposal for recruitment or site securing, to dissembling or obfuscating statuses to secure more time. Others talked about embedding themselves into product team meetings to catch wind of projects before requests were officially made—saving time by getting a head start.
UXRs understand that products will likely be shipped with or without their insights, and these responses highlight professionals' adaptations to the machine of industry research—they're still delivering readouts that advocate for the user; the means by which they do so match the scrappiness of business.
Tactics within this theme were often done without alerting stakeholders or collaborators, and described communicating in covert ways. Reasons for delays were often not given, rationales not provided. Instead, this theme demonstrated that for some—we assume these folks to be more experienced researchers, although years working was not specifically asked—time is all a matter of perspective, and if cards are played "right," more time can be found.
Examples of this theme:
- "Postpone the scheduled interview to gain more time — and let the designer know it was the respondent who had to reschedule."
- "Try to plan things taking longer than expected."
- "Not told anyone I was doing the research until it was done and synthesized."
- "...focus blame on things that can't be argued with like participant schedules / response rates."
- "Unofficially kickstarting recruitment for a project a few days prior to actually getting on a brief-setting call with the stakeholders to discuss the said project's scope."
- "Padding time. I know everything takes more time than I think it will, so I always increase the timeframes, especially for the parts I do not control."
- "Incorporate needs from additional/secondary stakeholders so the work covers more bases, and blame delays on the new stakeholders."
Resources for buying more time, ahead of time:
This theme is largely about providing justifications and rationalizations for research—design, analysis, approach—decisions. Above and beyond simply "telling" stakeholders how long an interview might take, or informing them of a delay, responses coded in this theme showed the translational efforts undertaken by practitioners to educate their colleagues and stakeholders.
Educate/Advocate coheres around active and transparent time negotiations with stakeholders, with the twin goals of making the need for more time apparent, and securing buy-in on an extended timeline.
Very often, the means or processes by which user experience professionals produce and create insights are invisible; this theme demonstrates the impact rendering these means visible can (or might) have on timelines.
For participants leveraging these strategies and tactics, modifications to scope or a new question from a stakeholder was a teachable moment. Instead of simply adding time to the project, UXRs might surface the impact on the timeline or the rigor, scope, and kinds of recommendations they might make if such changes were adopted.
Importantly, this theme showcases the communicative adaptability, flexibility, and audience analysis many UXRs take to make their case most persuasive. Responses in this theme were often written in the language of industry, describing "cost-benefit analyses," the "ROI" of a design choice, or how a change might impact the rigor of recommendations and therefore, the eventual business or product experience impact. This theme exemplified the efforts many front-line practitioners take to contextualize their practices for their stakeholders, reiterating just how little insights-hungry business units and stakeholders "know" about the practice of user experience research. For the bulk of our sample, education, advocacy, and expectation-setting is the manner by which they secure—or at least attempt to secure—more time.
Examples of this theme:
- "Laying out the hard bottlenecks and making it clear where I can't compromise given the current place. I give stakeholders the options to make the research less rigorous, pick a different methods, provide extra resources, or give more time. Typically, this leads to extra time..."
- "Documenting time across all research projects to show how many house we ACTUALLY used vs what was given to us. Then creating a 'calculator' based on historical data to better estimate when a new project will be."
- "Describe the tradeoffs and risks of cutting corners, e.g. if we don't take the time to talk to a representative sample, we risk making decisions based on potentially biased data."
- "Highlighting the risks of NOT learning about a specific thing. Especially if it's a big unknown and the risk is high of developing the wrong thing."
- "Explaining to stakeholders that the extent of insights are entirely dependent on the right research methods and time to analyse and translate the results. If rushed, key findings can be overlooked."
- "Referred to OKRs as a way to support doing things more intentionally vs just quickly."
- "Sharing the cost of NOT doing it the right way (launching something incorrect = errors, tickets, bug fixes, support resources = more costly than doing research)."
- "...I'm the only person at my organization with a background in qualitative research, and stakeholders don't know what they don't know. Once they understand how much time is required to analyze and synthesize an interview, they are usually very understanding and accommodating."
Resources for educating stakeholders:
Snackable shareables (11%)
This theme showcases a strategic usage of time, with many participants describing early, ongoing, and iterative analysis to keep stakeholders at bay or interested in the data, buying them (the researchers) more time to dig deeper and more fully. Responses often used food-adjacent terms like "tease, "appetizer," or "snack" to situate a small, early look (or taste) of insights that buys more time for deeper, more fuller analysis.
Many user experience professionals are mixed methodologists, analyzing open and closed ended data together. The former often takes more time than the latter (transcribing, coding, thematizing, synthesizing) and every extra hour (or day) can make a big difference.
Within this theme, participants showcased a very strategic approach to analysis; instead of a single, long session keeping stakeholders waiting for a full report, they opted for a piecemeal, breadcrumb approach. This was often described to give "cover" for more time, and to keep stakeholders interested in the project and curious about other elements (therefore opening the space for a conversation about shifting or expanding the timeline).
In all, this theme showcases how tactical and flexible a user insights professional can be to "meet" a deadline, and the undefined nature of a "deliverable," which might be a series of rolling, bite-sized shareouts as opposed to a single, monolithic report. Interestingly, the share out/delivery phase was also one these participants reported wishing more time for in our top-line study. With this theme, we can see one way they're creating space for that, too.
Examples of this theme:
- "Offer a teaser of the insights that piques stakeholder interest...so that I can pull more time for synthesis."
- "Sharing snippets or simple findings in order to satiate hungry stakeholders, which buys time for more thorough analysis and delivery."
- "Staggered delivery of reports/insights (topline followed by full report)."
- "Present first insights and associated questions collected in the beginning of the research to convince about the need to do more research to find answers."
- "Share out some small bites of potential insights along the research. Smaller deliveries."
- "Transparency: showing what is available unfinished as a teaser for what full analysis can yield."
- "I will lay out the findings document (aka report) in tandem with the interview script. This helps me focus on analysis when the fielding is complete and not trying to figure out how slides will look or how the information will flow."
Resources for “snackable” share outs:
No one theme dominated the reported strategies and tactics for "obtaining" for project time. This demonstrates the diversity in execution of practices; an emergent field (even one with a "seat" at many an organizational table) such as user experience research is still firming its foundational approaches to methods and project management.
Granted, these responses were offered absent context around the goals, timelines, and success rates. In addition to the convenient, non-representative sample, the prompt used to generate these responses asked for a strategy or tactic, not all strategies and tactics. Future work should strive to collect more responses from broader swaths of the user experience community to establish reliability.
These methodological limitations withstanding, these data suggest robust set of potential strategies and tactics other UXRs and insights professionals might use if deadlines loom large. As user experience research and design thinking practices mature across and within industries, it is hoped that advocacy is smoother with more organizational buy-in and awareness generally of the impact such practices can have on experiences and the humans they hope to delight.
Quiz: What time-buying strategy does your team rely on?
Feel like you're "white-knuckling" it? Are you status-updating or advocating? We created a quick assessment you can use to determine your "time-buying style." Download it—along with our full report on modern research timelines—below.
Download the Full Report + Time-Buying Strategy Assessment
Ben Wiedmaier is a content researcher/producer 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.
Kendra Knight is an associate professor of communication studies. She completed her MA and PhD in human communication at Arizona State University. She specializes in work/life communication, “casual” sexual relationships and experiences (e.g., friends with benefits), and interpersonal conflict and transgressions.
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