Who needs qualitative research when you have numbers

Post Its — Another thing I thought was dumb

I remember the first research presentation I saw, I thought it was really dumb…

The presenter was LaiYee Ho, the user researcher at our company. Turns out over the next 5 years LaiYee would completely change my mind about research. So much so that we would interview hundreds of people together, start a research consultancy, and eventually co-create the qualitative analysis tool, Delve.

But at that moment, I viewed the whole thing as a waste of time. LaiYee and I both worked at an Internet of Things startup. She was presenting how our new hardware device should flash it’s LED light. She had bribed people at the local Starbucks with coffee to ask them what flashing lights meant to them.

I just didn’t know what the company was supposed to do with the research.

This product wasn’t going to succeed or fail based on these findings. It was useless polish on a product where all the major decisions had already been made.

And at that point I had written research off. As the head of data (quant data that is), I had Terabytes of information at my finger tips, and the research team was asking a handful of people at Starbucks what flashing yellow meant to them (it clearly means yield). Why even bother with qualitative data?

Unbeknownst to me, LaiYee was deeply frustrated by that study too

Management had been told that they should incorporate research into the development process. So in order to check that box, they had asked LaiYee to figure out what to do with the blinking light. Without her input they had scheduled a presentation in 2 days. LaiYee was determined to still try to make it a success. But she had been set up to fail.

I was wrong that our research team didn’t know what they were doing.

They existed in a culture that paid lip service to research, but was never willing to make the structural changes to allow research to deliver the insights that could impact the direction of the company.

It would have been easy for LaiYee to conclude that the culture simply didn’t support research. And that there was nothing she could do. But after that blinking light study, LaiYee went on an internal PR campaign to educate people about the values of research. Through a series of 1x1s, group presentations, posters in bathroom stalls, and well crafted quick win research studies, LaiYee began to win over her coworkers and stakeholders.

I remember the moment my mind changed about research

LaiYee was presenting her latest finding that the company should focus a lot more on other people in the household. While our users often enjoyed their smart home toys, other household members found them frustrating and sometimes even a little creepy.

No amount of quantitative data would have pointed this out.

Users have accounts and thus have data associated with them. Household members usually didn’t have accounts, and so I was completely blind to them.

But the value of the research was more than just the insight itself. In this meeting, LaiYee played a video of a couple bickering about our smart home product. I could almost see the minds of the people in the conference room change. Not only had LaiYee found a solid insight, but she had found a way to incept it into our subconscious.

And so I joined LaiYee to champion research. I was a full on convert.

Doing everything I could to support and grow the research team. This didn’t mean that I gave up on quantitative data, far from it. In fact sometimes the best way to support the research team was to make sure they had the quant analysis they needed.

Turned out nothing is more convincing than insights derived from interviews that were also backed up by the numbers.

Advocating for Research Everywhere

So when our company got acquired, and we asked ourselves what we were passionate about, the answer was advocating for research. And we left the company to do just that.

We consulted to help grow other research teams, volunteered for non profits, taught classes, ran workshops, wrote blog posts, and even built a whole new tool to analyze qualitative data.

We did this all in service of one message: that you can improve the world around you, if you listen to people.