Getting Started With Foundational UX Research
Foundational UX research can be daunting. Here are four principles for getting started on the right foot.
Foundational research, sometimes referred to as “exploratory” or “pathfinding” research, centers on a problem or topic that hasn’t yet been clearly defined. It is critical in all research fields, helping teams generate initial understanding, establish priorities, and anticipate and adapt to changes in the competitive landscape.
A primary value of this type of research is that it enables teams to scrutinize problems and patterns beyond the scope or depth of a single feature or product area. This is essential in a company that seeks to stay (or get) ahead of the competition.
While this work has great potential for impact, it also requires a significant up front investment of time and resources. And in the short term, it doesn’t always lead to clear, measurable deliverables. It can be exciting, but also intimidating, to take on.
Here are some principles to keep in mind when getting started with foundational UX research.
1. Engage cross-functional partners
Before launching a foundational study, spend time up front learning which topics are the highest priority for your team and why.
Decide whether these are best explored through the methods of foundational research. If so, determine which research questions, hypotheses and methods to pursue. Consider using multiple methods to triangulate findings. Next, come up with a plan for engaging your cross-functional partners throughout the study — these may include product managers, engineers, data scientists, designers, and others.
Assign partners small tasks, such as observing or taking notes during sessions. Debrief with them afterwards and ask for their high-level take-aways. Provide regular — but not boring or repetitive — updates, perhaps via a website or FYI group. Let your partners know when they can expect interim and final share-outs from you.
Once your research has concluded, review your findings and compare them with the team’s initial thinking. If your results diverge from the hypotheses the team set out with, organize a meeting to make sense of the results together and to determine the best way to communicate them.
2. Show impact in the short and long term
Foundational research typically takes place over a longer period than other user research studies, such as usability, prototyping or A/B testing. It may be useful to craft a brief that defines your timeline and deliverables, and to share it with your cross-functional partners. Getting early alignment and buy-in sets expectations for a successful study.
Build interim deliverables into your plan. These serve not just to inform, but also to inspire and motivate. Short-term deliverables may include a foundational literature review, preliminary product recommendations, and revisions to the team’s overall roadmap.
Longer-term, more comprehensive deliverables may include product insights/implications and new knowledge and understanding. Decide which your study will result in. These deliverables can confirm or invalidate product plans, drive strategy, spin off a working group, and/or generate a design sprint.
3. Deliver insights in different formats
Foundational UX research often involves seeking to better understand people, how they’re using (or not using) different technologies, and what their needs are.
Whatever your findings may be, determine the most compelling format and medium to share your research in. If your team is most receptive to in-person talks, present it. If you have great video footage, showcase it. If your findings lend themselves to text, write it.
Other formats to consider include a game, a 1:1 conversation, a note, and a planning session. When possible, share your findings in a variety of formats to help the community understand and internalize your findings.
For controversial findings that diverge from your team’s initial thinking, share multiple data points. Walk others through the methods and processes you used to arrive at your conclusion.
4. Build in time for reflection
It’s not always easy or possible to set aside time to reflect on what you’re learning, but it can be very helpful. Think of each phase of the foundational research process as an opportunity to troubleshoot and course-correct if needed. Consider keeping a document or journal accessible to jot notes about what’s going well, what isn’t, and what you might do differently next time.
Foundational research can feel isolating, especially if you’re the only researcher on a project that lasts several months. Seek process/methodological input from veteran researchers and directional input from cross-functional partners.
Foundational UX research can greatly impact the trajectory of teams, but it sometimes may seem formidable to take on. Hopefully these principles will help you on your way.