Skip User Research Unless You’re Doing It Right — Seriously
Is your research timeless? It’s time to put disposable research behind us
“We need to ship soon. How quickly can you get us user feedback?”
What user researcher hasn’t heard a question like that? We implement new tools and leaner processes, but try as we might, we inevitably meet the terminal velocity of our user research — the point at which it cannot be completed any faster while still maintaining its rigor and validity.
And, you know what? That’s okay! While the need for speed is valuable in some contexts, we also realize that if an insight we uncover is only useful in one place and at one time, it becomes disposable. Our goal should never be disposable research. We want timeless research.
Speed has its place
Now, don’t get me wrong. I get it. I live in this world, too. First to market, first to patent, first to copyright obviously requires an awareness of speed. Speed of delivery can also be the actual mechanism by which you get rapid feedback from customers.
I recently participated in a Global ResOps workshop. One thing I heard loud and clear was the struggle for our discipline to connect into design and engineering cycles. There were questions about how to address the “unreasonable expectations” of what we can do in short time frames. I also heard that researchers struggle with long and slow timelines: Anyone ever had a brilliant, generative insight ignored because “We can’t put that into the product for another 6 months”?
The good news is that there are methodologies such as “Lean” and “Agile” that can help us. Our goal as researchers is to use knowledge to develop customer-focused solutions. I personally love that these methodologies, when implemented fully, incorporate customers as core constituents in collaborative and iterative development processes.
In fact, my team has created an entire usability and experimentation engine using “Lean” and “Agile” methods. However, this team recognizes that letting speed dictate user research is a huge risk. If you cut corners on quality, customer involvement, and adaptive planning, your research could become disposable.
Do research right, or don’t do it at all
I know, that’s a bold statement. But here’s why: When time constraints force us to drop the rigor and process that incorporates customer feedback, the user research you conduct loses its validity and ultimately its value.
The data we gather out of exercises that over-index on speed are decontextualized and disconnected from other relevant insights we’ve collected over time and across studies. We need to pause and question whether this one-off research adds real value and contributes to an organization’s growing understanding of customers when we know it may skip steps critical to identifying insights that transcend time and context.
User research that takes time to get right has value beyond the moment for which it was intended. I’m betting you sometimes forgo conducting research if you think your stakeholders believe it’s too slow. But, if your research uncovered an insight after v1 shipped, you could still leverage that insight on v1+x.
For example, think of the last time a product team asked you, “We’re shipping v1 next week. Can you figure out if our customers want or need this?” As a researcher, you know you need more time to answer this question in a valid way. So, do you skip this research? No. Do you rush through your research, compromising its rigor? No. You investigate anyway and apply your learnings to v2.
To help keep track of these insights, we should build systems that capture our knowledge and enable us to resurface it across development cycles and projects. Imagine this: “Hey Judy, remember that thing we learned 6 months ago? Research just reminded me that it is applicable in our next launch!”
That’s what we’re looking for: timeless user insights that help our product teams again and again and contribute to a curated body of knowledge about our customers’ needs, beliefs, and behaviors. Ideally, we house these insights in databases, so they can be accessed and retrieved easily by anyone for future use (but that’s another story for another time). If we only focus on speed, we lose sight of that goal.
Creating timeless research
Here’s my point: we’ll always have to deal with requests to make our research faster, but once you or your user research team has achieved terminal velocity with any given method, stop trying to speed it up. Instead, focus on capturing each insight, leveling it up to organizational knowledge, and applying that learning in the future. Yes, that means when an important insight doesn’t make v1, go ahead and bring it back up to apply to v2. Timeless research is really about building long-term organizational knowledge and curating what you’ve already learned.
Disposable research is the stuff you throw away, after you ship. To be truly lean, get rid of that wasteful process. Instead, focus your research team’s time on making connections between past insights, then reusing and remixing them in new contexts. That way, you’re consistently providing timeless research that overcomes the need for speed.