The lean research memo

In graduate school, I learned usability testing in a very formal, considered way. Tests were planned over the course of weeks, recruiting was handled by a third-party, and test reports were lengthy Powerpoint decks with dozens of issues rated by severity.

Then I graduated, and joined an Agile product team as a UX team of one. There was no way they would deal with a lengthy Powerpoint presentation, or dozens of issues. So, I developed a format for lean test reporting, which enabled me to plan, execute and report on studies within the same document. Having a templated format gave my colleagues something to expect as a deliverable, and helped me plan the study in a structured way. It also had the benefit of being short; instead of creating a long, involved presentation deck that people wouldn’t read, I could report the entire study in a 4–10 page Google doc, which could then be discussed with the team.

For the purposes of illustration; we’ll stick with a basic usability test as our example. At the end of the article, I’ll share a couple versions of the template for different types of studies.

Phase 1: Goals and planning

As with any research study, it’s important to define your goals. In the top section of the template, work with your team to align on:

  • a brief description of the study;
  • a set of clear research objectives;
  • a list of the key screens, workflows, etc. that you want to test;
  • any recruiting or compensation logistics.

An example is below. The highlighted text is placeholder text in the template.

Use the first part of the template alongside stakeholders in the kickoff meeting.

Phase 2: Writing the protocol

Based on what you established in the goals, walk through the key scenarios, and use that information to establish your tasks for the test. Add these to the template, and review with your stakeholders for feedback. I often like to add some foundational, persona-ish questions in the background section, to start things off.

The script is created after the kickoff, and reviewed with stakeholders prior to running sessions.

Phase 3: Synthesize findings

As you finish up your sessions, start to synthesize your findings into the “Key Findings” section of the template. I’ve found it helpful to use bulleted lists for the findings, and to include at least 3–5 positive notes at the beginning of the report.

Keeping the findings in a bulleted list helps teams absorb the content more easily.

Phase 4: Recommendations & Reshuffling

After the findings are complete, finish up the report with a set of recommendations, including some mockups if appropriate. As a final step, move the “Planning” section of the template into the Appendix. This allows you to keep the highest-value information up front, but give readers the ability to see the thought process behind the study.

The last step is to move the Planning section down to the Appendix.

Adapting the format to other types of research

While the basic format was created initially for usability tests, I’ve also found it easy to adapt to foundational research. The main sections are the same; the difference is largely in how you plan the study and how you display the findings.

Over the years, I’ve continued to use the structured memo format for planning and reporting research, alongside Tomer Sharon’s Rainbow Spreadsheet for note-taking. We’ve also adapted the format to help designers plan and report on concept validation and design quality scoring, two quantitative methods we use at athenahealth to evaluate design decisions.

If you’re interested in using the method, here are a couple of templates to get you started:

  1. A template for usability tests
  2. A template for interview or other foundational research
  3. A template for site visits/ethnography