The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Researchers

What’s the difference between a good researcher and a great researcher?

“Move Fast” is one of Facebook’s best known mottos, which can be seen on posters that decorate the walls of our offices around the world. Although the philosophy of Moving Fast allows Facebook to design and improve products for people all over the world, every once in a while it’s important to slow down, take a step back, and reflect.

To that end, I aim to begin sharing some thoughts from my own personal reflections, starting with this note, which centers on a question I’m often asked by interview candidates and new researchers getting started in their careers: What’s the difference between a good researcher and a great researcher?

Here are 7 Habits that I see in Highly Effective Researchers.

#1: Focusing on the question, not the methodology.

We have dozens of product teams at Facebook — News Feed, Sharing, Messenger, Ads, Instagram, Search, just to name a few — each with their own unique set of business opportunities and challenges…and research questions. In order to deliver the most value to a product team, a highly successful researcher knows when to use the right method — letting the business and research questions drive the methodology and not the other way around.

Although it’s unrealistic for every researcher to be an expert in every methodology, the most effective researchers tend to be experts in a handful of methods and have enough exposure and experience with a variety of other methods so they know which are most appropriate for the questions at hand. Over time, a great researcher continues to sharpen his or her tools and add new ones to better address a wider variety of business and research questions.

#2: Customizing approaches to working with teams.

Just as no single methodology can answer all questions, there is not one right way to work with all teammates. A highly effective researcher customizes their approach to each one and their unique situations, needs, and personalities to ensure a research engagement is most successful.

What was your past experience working with research like? What worked well? How could it have been better? How do you envision my role as a researcher on our team? What are you most interested in learning about? Conversations with stakeholders that touch on questions like these will pay dividends. A great researcher will use this information to customize his or her approach to working with a stakeholder, ultimately helping them to conduct the best research possible and to maximize the value it has to the team.

#3: Making it work.

Tim Gunn, of Project Runway fame, has a famous expression he says in every episode of the reality show, usually when the fashion designer contestants are running out of time and struggling to finish on time: “Make it work.” Tim encourages the contestants to embrace the challenge and to do their best work despite obstacles put in their way. Like the most successful designers on this TV show, great researchers also adopt this “make it work” attitude.

A researcher employing this mindset and attitude will forge better relationships with stakeholders and will be sought out by the teams to help tackle the most important business questions, with teams, knowing that he can always be counted on to “make it work.”

For example, when presented with a research request that isn’t feasible, a researcher “making it work” will outline some alternatives that would be viable and valuable. Rather than delivering findings to a team that users really didn’t like a new product design being tested, a researcher might “make it work” by offering recommendations to improve the product based on the research and by suggesting another round of testing. Rather than dismissing outright a request that has too tight a turnaround, great researchers will use the opportunity to talk about prioritization and ensure that research projects are appropriately sequenced.

#4: Having a longer term vision.

In many companies, Facebook included, there are always plenty of smaller-scale, tactical research requests coming from teams, which can make it feel like you’re working in a research fast food window. It can be hard to prioritize conducting larger-scale, foundational work that helps teams think bigger and that drive product roadmaps.

The best researchers are able to strike the right balance of these flavors of research — not too skewed in either direction. By planning and piecing together different research projects as part of a longer term research vision, a great researcher can provide stakeholders with a meal that will provide them with delicious and nutritious research findings.

#5: Keeping a foot on the gas pedal.

Embodying our company motto of “Move Fast” doesn’t mean cutting corners in the research process or doing a hasty, sloppy job in, say, programming a survey or reporting findings. Rather, it means establishing a regular cadence of completing research phases across different projects and moving on to the next stages — whether it’s survey or discussion guide development, data collection, analysis, or reporting.

It also doesn’t mean a researcher needs to work around the clock or sacrifice having work-life balance. Rather, it requires that researchers make informed, thoughtful tradeoffs about how to use their time wisely in order to maintain several interesting irons in the fire and can pump out meaningful research on a regular basis.

#6: Following up.

From both the research vendor side and the client side, I’ve seen researchers get frustrated or discouraged when teams seem to be moving in directions that diverge from what the research takeaways indicated, and yet are reluctant to ask why. However, most teams actually welcome and value researchers reminding them of findings and holding them accountable for making thoughtful decisions that are grounded on research insights. Even here at Facebook, where researchers are embedded with their product teams and it’s much easier to stay closely involved after delivering a report, sometimes researchers are hesitant to follow up because they (incorrectly!) believe that without a new research report to share they don’t have any value to add. But they do! Researchers bring to bear not just the latest, hot-off-the-press research report, but also an important perspective that product teams need and want.

Following through with teams is also an ideal way for researchers to measure the impact of their work and to see meaningful changes happen as a result of the research. Furthermore, by following up and learning how research is used by a team — learning what worked well and what could be better next time — an effective researcher will continuously hone their skills.

#7: Giving more than you take.

Another Facebook motto — and one that I particularly love — is “Give More Than You Take.” Whether they’re a new researcher out of school or seasoned professional who has decades of experience, great researchers make it a priority to give to their fellow researchers.

Maybe they give helpful feedback on others’ survey drafts. Maybe they observe others’ focus groups or UX sessions and give constructive feedback. Maybe they collaborate on projects where their skills complement each other to deliver research outcomes that are better than what either could do solo. Whatever the medium, highly effective researchers give more than they take by teaching, training and leading others.

I’ve learned a lot from some very talented researchers. By applying the motto of “Give More Than You Take” and sharing learnings from my experiences as a researcher, I hope this post is helpful in reminding others about these 7 Habits and can help good researchers grow into great ones.

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