Making Research Count by Cyd Harrell

The brilliant Cyd Harrell is opening up day two of An Event Apart in Chicago. I’m going to attempt to liveblog her talk on making research count…

Research gets done …and then sits in a report, gathering dust.

Research matters. But how do we make it count? We need allies. Maybe we need more money. Perhaps we need more participation from people not on the product team.

If you’re doing real research on a schedule, sharing it on a regular basis, making people’s eyes light up …then you’ve won!

Research counts when it answers questions that people care about. But you probably don’t want to directly ask “Hey, what questions do you want answered?”

Research can explain oddities in analytics weird feedback from customers, unexpected uses of products, and strange hunches (not just your own).

Curious people with power are the most useful ones to influence. Not just hierarchical power. Engineers often have a lot of power. So ask, “Who is the most curious engineer, and how can I drag them out on a research session with me?”

At 18F, Cyd found that a lot of the nodes of power were in the mid level of the organisation who had been there a while—they know a lot of people up and down the chain. If you can get one of those people excited about research, they can spread it.

Open up your practice. Demystify it. Put as much effort into communicating as into practicing. Create opportunities for people to ask questions and learn.

You can think about communities of practice in the obvious way: people who do similar things to us, and other people who make design decisions. But really, everyone in the organisation is affected by design decisions.

Cyd likes to do office hours. People can come by and ask questions. You could open a Slack channel. You can run brown bag lunches to train people in basic user research techniques. In more conventional organisations, a newsletter is a surprisingly effective tool for sharing the latest findings from research. And use your walls to show work in progress.

Research counts when people can see it for themselves—not just when it’s reported from afar. Ask yourself: who in your organisation is disconnected from their user? It’s difficult for people to maintain their motivation in that position.

When someone has been in the field with you, the data doesn’t have to be explained.

Whoever’s curious. Whoever’s disconnected. Invite them along. Show them what you’re doing.

Think about the qualities of a good invitation (for a party, say). Make the rules clear. Make sure they want to come back. Design the experience of observing research. Make sure everyone has tools. Give everyone a responsibility. Be like Willy Wonka—he gave clear rules to the invitied guests. And sure, things didn’t go great when people broke the rules, but at the end, everyone still went home with the truckload of chocolate they were promised.

People who get to ask a question buy in to the results. Those people feel a sense of ownership for the research.

Research counts when methods fit the question. Think about what the right question is and how you might go about answering it.

You can mix your methods. Interviews. Diary studies. Card sorting. Shadowing. You can ground the user research in competitor analysis.

Back in 2008, Cyd was contacted by a company who wanted to know: how do people really use phones in their cars? Cyd’s team would ride along with people, interviewing them, observing them, taking pictures and video.

Later at the federal government, Cyd was asked: what are the best practices for government digital transformation? How to answer that? It’s so broad! Interviews? Who knows what?

They refined the question: what makes modern digital practices stick within a government entity? They looked at what worked when companies were going online, so see if there was anything that government could learn from. Then they created a set of really focused interview questions. What does digital transformation mean? How do you know when you’re done? What are the biggest obstacles to this work? How do you make changes last?

They used atechnique called cluster recruiting to figure out who else to talk to (by asking participants who else they should be talking to).

There is no one research method that will always work for you. Cutting the right corners at the right time lets you be fast and cheap. Cyd’s bare-bones research kit costs about $20: a notebook, a pen, a consent form, and the price of a cup of coffee. She also created a quick score sheet for when she’s not in a position to have research transcribed.

Always label your assumptions before beginning your research. Maybe you’re assuming that something is a frustrating experience that needs fixing, but it might emerge that it doesn’t need fixing—great! You’ve just saved a whole lotta money.

Research counts when researchers tell the story well. Synthesis works best as a conversational practice. It’s hard to do by yourself. You start telling stories when you come back from the field (sometimes it starts when you’re still out in the field, talking about the most interesting observations).

Miller’s Law is a great conceptual framework:

To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.

You’re probably familiar with the “five whys”. What about the “five ways”? If people talk about something five different ways, it’s virtually certain that one of them will be an apt metaphor. So ask “Can you say that in a different way?” five time.

Spend as much time on communicating outcomes as you did on executing the work.

After research, play back how many people you spoke to, the most valuable insight you gained, the themes that are emerging. Describe the question you wanted to answer, what answers you got, and what you’re going to do next. If you’re in an organisation that values memos, write a memo. Or you could make a video. Or you could write directly into backlog tickets. And don’t forget the wall work! GDS have wonderfully full walls in their research department.

In the end, the best tool for research is an illuminating story.

Cyd was doing research at the Bakersfield courthouse. The hypothesis was that a lot of people weren’t engaging with technology in the court system. She approached a man named Manuel who was positively quaking. He was going through a custody battle. He said, “I don’t know technology but it doesn’t scare me. I’m shaking because this paperwork just gets to me—it’s terrifying.” He said who would gladly pay for someone to help him with the paperwork. Cyd wrote a report on this story. Months later, they heard people in the organisation asking questions like “How would this help Manuel?”

Sometimes you do have to fight (nicely).

People will push back on the time spent on research—they’ll say it doesn’t fit the sprint plan. You can have a three day research plan. Day 1: write scripts. Day 2: go to the users and talk to them. Day 3: play it back. People on a project spend more time than that in Slack.

People will say you can’t talk to the customers. In that situation, you could talk to people who are in the same sector as your company’s customers.

People will question the return on investment for research. Do it cheaply and show the very low costs. Then people stop talking about the money and start talking about the results.

People will claim that qualitative user research is not statistically significant. That’s true. But research is something else. It answers different question.

People will question whether a senior person needs to be involved. It is not fair to ask the intern to do all the work involved in research.

People will say you can’t always do research. But Cyd firmly believes that there’s always room for some research.

  • Make allies in customer research.
  • Find the most curious engineer on the team, go to lunch with them, and feed them the most interesting research insights.
  • Record a pain point and a send a video to executives.
  • If there’s really no budget, maybe you can get away with not paying incentives, but perhaps you can provide some other swag instead.

One of the best things you can do is be there, non-judgementally, making friends. It takes time, but it works. Research is like a dandelion in flight. Once it’s out and about, taking root, the more that research counts.

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