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Finding Budget: how do we increase the proportion of money spent on design research?

newsletter #34 | 20-Mar-2018

Every few weeks I create an estimate for a potential client’s problem space research study. Sometimes they want a ballpark*; other times they want a detailed line-item estimate, with a timeline. We discuss the options for balancing what they need with the overall cost. And 4 out of 5 times, after a few weeks they send me a crestfallen email saying they couldn’t get budget for the project, and that they will try again with the next fiscal year.

It’s a struggle. Given what I hear, it’s not just lack of budget for hiring an outside team to help with research. It’s also a struggle for teams doing research internal to a company.

A couple of years ago Mark Hurst wrote this widely-read post about budgeting for customer experience vs. advertising, where his key statements are summed up this way:

$25,000,000……Driving people to the website
$20,000…………..Customer experience (what happens when they get there)

On 10-March 2018, John Maeda released a report about Design in Tech, in which he references an NEA study by Albert Lee and Dayna Grayson saying that only 46% of late-stage (design mature) companies conduct qualitative research. Sam Ladner responded via Twitter that, in her book Practical Ethnography, she cites that the majority of this is money spent on focus groups.

Focus groups.

So, how do we increase the proportion of money spent on design research? We can do this together, as a tribe, then share it with each other. Here are a few ideas:

1. Dogfood it: Do some qualitative research internally to benchmark stakeholders’ awareness of design research. Go do five listening sessions with stakeholders. Have they been thinking about it over the past six months? What was their inner reasoning is about the topic if they’ve been thinking about it? Then let’s share our findings about stakeholder inner reasoning, or lack thereof.

2. While we’re benchmarking, do some human-network-node-following to find the various persons who know how much is spent on any kind of research, throughout the various divisions of the organization. To Mark Hurst’s point, find out the advertising budget, too. And marketing. Dig below the surface of the labels to see what the research comprised, exactly.

3. For the design research projects that have occurred (if any) over the past few years, track down how those research results were used. See if you can list the outcomes. The stakeholders will want to see values assigned to these outcomes, so track that down if you can. Did it affect hitting OKRs or other business goals?

If we do these things and tell each other what we found (in terms that won’t betray our org’s IP), then we’ll have some convincing tools to use to in our arguments for more budget. It will hinge on us sharing the information, because we all get caught in the “that’s the way we do it here” trap. If we talk to stakeholders about the recent history of other orgs’ research efforts in conjunction with our own, then it will provide a bit more of a jolt. Hopefully.

(Where should we share? How about via Medium posts?)

* Here’s a snapshot of ten different variables that I use to help potential clients decide how to balance needs against budget.



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Indi Young

Indi Young

Freelance problem space researcher helping digital clients find opportunities to support diversity; Time to Listen —