Inclusive Software
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Inclusive Software

Yes to Problem Space Research

organizations are starving for knowledge, and they think everything is fine

If research is like nutritious food, then these two “organizations” don’t have it.

newsletter #2 | 5-Jan-2016

It’s an uphill battle–trying to convince others at your organization to pay attention to empathy-based research. You are not alone. There are many barriers practitioners face, and often these are so tangled up with other issues that even a determined person will eventually give up trying. I want to help you make the research happen. I have some advice in nine areas that you can use to make headway. You can turn “we haven’t gotten underway yet” into “we start today.”

1 Budget? What budget?! “I don’t control a budget. We don’t have a source of money for this.”

Advice: First, do the footwork to really understand the budgeting process at your organization. There might be places you can provide more input and influence than you guess. Don’t be reluctant; the worst that can happen is that the budget-holders will find out you’re interested. And if you already know your budgeting process, it’s worth reminding everyone around you that product development changes as much as the market landscape does. So it’s absurd to think of an organization’s process as carved in stone. Second, participate in that process! Make a case for the things you want to do, and clearly connect them to goals the whole organization holds dear. Third, team up with a group in your org that does get budget, yet could benefit immensely from the same knowledge that you seek to create with research. And fourth, make sure you know your own spending thresholds as an employee. Often there is a small fund for monthly or yearly spending that does not require approval to use–something like $300 a month will allow you to thank participants you recruit. You can charge it to your employee credit card without going through the purchase process. The knowledge you accumulate this way will prove your point about research and make budget commitment more likely in the future.

2 The boss won’t approve. “I suspect if we went to our stakeholders, they’d be likely to kill the project. There’s a lack of executive buy-in.”

Advice: You either suspect or know for sure that your boss doesn’t agree with you about the value of empathy-based design research. You know that, in certain circumstances, the value is much higher than other activities your boss has you doing. How can you change this? You can explain how “delight” and “needs” aren’t the way to design products and services. You can show some case studies. Put together materials or a presentation that you show stakeholders in wider and wider circles, to demonstrate the value. Download imagery from my books or updated imagery from my Twitter feed. Even better, hunt around to see if someone on a research team at the competition or in your industry is doing this kind of research.

3 We’re working covertly on this. “It’s a kind of guerrilla, under-the-radar, extra-curricular effort.”

Advice: Don’t be too covert about it. Let people know you’re doing this on your own time. Spread the excitement you feel about what you hope to understand. Hold lunchtime sessions to explain what you’re finding. Talk about it constantly. Emphasizing that you’re doing it on your own time will increase your esteem in others’ eyes–even the naysayers. I’ve seen many teams do the research during lunches and after hours. There was only one situation where keeping it a secret helped, and that was when one person wanted to drop a bombshell during a meeting. She wanted to contrast how much value actual research can bring to the decision-making process with the organization’s history of just guessing. Stakeholders at the meeting were dumbfounded and embraced ongoing research as a result.

4 If we get somewhere with it … “Then perhaps we can generate understanding, pick up steam, request some money, and get approval.”

Advice: I see this fail more often than not. There’s something too provisional about it. Either get the research to be official, or do it under-the-radar with zeal. If there’s no zeal, your momentum will be lost, and teammates will write off problem space research as a nice-to-have, since it never really took off. Problem space research is something you do continuously, in small bites, once a year more or less. It’s like scientific research or doing physics or mathematics … you will never know everything, but you will constantly seek a little more understanding. A scientist would never say, “If we get somewhere with experimenting …”

5 They don’t believe there’s a need. “If something seems to pass the tests, it’s rarely re-done.”

Advice: It’s true; there are times when design research isn’t needed. And there are times when it is needed. Be aware of the warning signs, and help those around you understand the difference between the research done in the think-make-check cycle and research done for strategy and innovation. Or worse, no research at all.

6 What’s it for? “Understanding the value proposition is a challenge. We have to keep explaining what we’re doing with the data, the outcomes.”

Advice: If you have to keep explaining, then people don’t quite get it yet. Try listening instead. Spend time one-on-one with each stakeholder and build your understanding of their concerns, what they are trying to accomplish, and their inner thinking and guiding principles that they apply to the work at hand. You’ll learn their vocabulary and what makes them tick. This knowledge will shift your own perspective a bit, and the time you spend helping each stakeholder feel heard will build their trust in you. Working on relationship building is key to your own career. Relationship building is key to making progress. Persuasion won’t be as necessary or difficult when you have stakeholders who trust you.

I’ve also heard of people showing possible outcomes to stakeholders by referencing similar examples or by creating a faux or mini version of a mental model diagram and opportunity map or thinking styles based on your guesses. Using their knowledge built from stakeholder listening sessions, they paint a potential picture for stakeholders about future research that relates to their goals.

7 It looks too hard. “The complexity of the concepts feels academic. It’s really hard to try coordinate it all. It’s not something that I can expect my team to do based on their current experience level.”

Advice: It’s actually easier than many user research protocols. You don’t have to think up interview questions in advance and tear your hair out making sure you’ve thought of every angle. Instead, you spend your energy defining what knowledge you need, framing the scope of a study, and selecting who you want to participate. That’s putting your energy toward a much more helpful, clarifying, inductive direction. Then the actual gathering of stories is easy. You sit down and listen, following where people think it’s important to take you in terms of their thought process. Team members who are less experienced at user research are at an advantage, because there’s less for them to unlearn. (It is harder to teach those who have done user research because they get stuck in the rut of “the user.”) The fact that you’re working in a different space than tasks, needs, and goals is what makes it seem “academic.” But this is the key value of problem space research. You have to get outside of your own world to be able to see new paths forward, new ways to support people. This is innovation. This is how you discover your blind spots and the people you are ignoring.

8 It’s time-consuming. “We can’t take the time for this. It won’t fit into our process. Speed is driven by the business folks.”

Advice: Take a small bite to get started; you will gain depth and confidence in the data later, as you keep adding to your repository of knowledge. Problems space data is long-lived — it lasts for decades. You add to it a little at a time. Most importantly, it’s not a part of the solution space, so it’s not a part of the design or development cycles.

There are a few ways to go short: skip the formal summaries and pattern analysis and work from what you remember.* Or conduct listening sessions with only one behavioral group, about 5–6 people. After all, there’s no reason you can’t make decisions based on a smaller set of findings. Or you can work with pre-existing interview data, if it’s rich enough. Or do the analysis collaboratively in structured working sessions where you spread the work of summarizing around the table, round-robin style.

If your organization is successful, there will be time for another small bite later. The best organizations conduct ongoing design research by exploring different audience segments or different questions with each round.

*I did an experiment to make sure skipping formal analysis would produce valid findings. I began with a set of stories I’d collected about near-miss accidents. First I wrote down from memory what I remembered for each person after each listening session. I arranged these memory-based summaries into patterns. Then, for comparison, I went through the transcripts and created formal summaries and patterns. The memory-based patterns constituted about one third of the total formal patterns. This third tended to be the patterns most important to the organization. It was good enough to get started with.

9 How would we keep it going? “I’ve struggled to make the research practice an ongoing, regular, repeating thing.”

Advice: A decade or so ago, it took a lot of determination within an organization to get usability testing to be repeated on a predictable schedule. But now it’s a standard practice across many organizations. Practitioners face a similar situation now with problem space research. I am certain that we will grow the practice. Speed is not of importance. In this case depth of understanding requires time to dwell in someone else’s mind-space. If your internal team is not growing, certainly your competitors’ teams are. Be determined. If you want it, you can make it happen.

Making design research, especially empathy-based design research, work at your organization can be a struggle. Know that you’re not the only one — that there are hundreds of other practitioners who see the value and want to include it in their organizations. Move forward in a few of these nine areas with zeal, as befits the game-changer you are.



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Indi Young

Indi Young

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