Book Notes: Just Enough Research by Erika Hall

Conducting thorough and useful qualitative research for a product can seem daunting. Especially in a fast-moving startup.

First, you have the logistics of finding the customers, contacting them, and scheduling interviews. Then you have to think about how you want to conduct the interviews, shift into the right mindset to talk to the customer, and ask thoughtful questions to get to the root of the problem. Then you have to take the mountain of raw notes you’re sitting on, synthesize and share the data, and then use all of that information to draw the right insights for your product.

It’s no wonder so many product managers and designers fall back on relying on their product or design “instincts”.

But we all know that’s terrible product/design/customer-centric thinking. And luckily, doing good research doesn’t have to be as intimidating a task as it seems.

What I like about Erika Hall’s “Just Enough Research” is that it focuses on the real world scenario of a team that has limited time, a limited budget, and limited resources. It’s useful to be able to skim through from time to time to help organize your thoughts prior to a new research project.

Just like doing research is more valuable than reviewing the research results, I’d highly recommend purchasing the book here. In the mean time, here are some notes I found useful:

  • The four stages of design research:
  • Generative research (“what’s up with..?”) — this is the research you do before you even know what you’re doing e.g. interviews, field observations, existing literature.
  • Descriptive research (“what and how?”) — this is when you already have a design problem and need to do what you need to understand the problem from the perspective of the user (and not your own).
  • Evaluative research (“are we getting close?”) — this is where you start thinking of solutions, and testing those solutions against the problems you identified.
  • Causal research (“why is this happening?”) — after you’ve implemented a solution, this is where you evaluate how your users responded to the change, good or bad.
  • Research roles are: author, interviewer/moderator, coordinator/scheduler, notetaker/recorder, recruiter, analyst, documenter, observer. One person can wear many hats.
  • Biases that will creep in that may skew your research: design, sampling, interviewer, sponsor, social desirability, and the Hawthorne effect.
  • The ‘system’ in systematic inquiry: 1. Define the problem 2. Select the approach 3. Plan and prepare for the research 4. Collect the data 5. Analyze the data 6. Report the results
  • “In practice, recruiting is a time-consuming pain in the ass. Embrace it. Get good at it and all of your research will be faster and easier, plus this part of the process will get progressively less unpleasant.”
  • Good baseline structure for summarizing interview sessions 1. Summarize the goals and process of the research (What did you want to find out? Who from your side participated and in which roles?) 2. Describe who you spoke with and under which circumstances (number of people, on the phone or in person, etc) 3. Describe how you gathered the data. 4. Describe the types of analysis you’ll be doing 5. Pull out quotes and observations 6. Group quotes and observations that typify a repeated pattern or idea into themes; for example “participants rely on pen and paper to aid memory,” or “the opinions of other parents are trusted.
  • Ground rules on the outcome of the session:
  • Acknowledge that the sole focus and goal of the research is to better understand the context and needs of the user.
  • Respect the structure of the session. Don’t identify large patterns until later.
  • Clearly differentiate observations from interpretations.
  • No solutions. Just insights.
  • In order to truly understand your users, you need to reduce your risk of making bad assumptions. This can be done by having better context around their physical environment, mental model, habits, and relationships.
  • “When you make assumptions about your users, you run the risk of being wrong. When you embed wrong assumptions in the design of your product or service, you alienate people — possibly before they even have a chance to hear what you have to offer.”
  • The first rule of user research: never ask anyone what they want.
  • Handy checklist for effective user research.
  • Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design.
  • Interview guides should contain: a brief description and goal of the study; basic factual or demographic questions e.g. name, gender, age, etc; icebreaker warm up questions; questions that are the primary focus of the interview.
  • The process in analyzing data: closely review the notes; look for interesting behaviors, emotions, actions, and verbatim quotes; write what you observed on a sticky note (coded to the source, the actual user, so you can trace it back); group the notes on the whiteboard; watch the patterns emerge; rearrange the notes to find more patterns.

Finally, there are a few great chapters on stakeholder research, competitive research, and reviewing quantitative research that you should check out as well.

Originally published at on May 3, 2016.

writing about product, UX, and tech