From Seedlings to Sequoias — Nurturing UX Research

In August 2018, I presented a 10 minute talk at UX Australia. My talk focused on a pattern I’d observed emerging among UX researchers and teams — that UX research sometimes felt a little unloved, and difficult to execute. I wanted to share some tips and tricks I’d learned to help UX research flourish.

This is the written and slightly expanded version of my talk. It comes with a great SketchNote summary by Judy Shaul.

The audio can be found here:

So let’s talk about UX research. Do you work in an organisation where…

  • UX is relatively new?
  • UX research is unheard of?
  • You have to justify the need for UX research?
  • Or, the size of your UX practice has exploded?

I imagine some of you are nodding along at this point — but our tale of woe doesn’t end there. Say you’ve cleared the above hurdles and you get some research done. Lucky you! But at the other end, maybe the research findings get ignored, or forgotten about. Then, your organisation hires even more UX folk with varying levels of research experience…

I know what you want. You just wanna do good UX research.

So how do you do that? By following these steps three:

  1. Plant the seeds
  2. Fertilise (…feed) your saplings
  3. Propagate the trees

1. Plant the seeds

Get your research sprouting with tools and templates. Planting the seeds has three sub-steps:

  • Create the basics
  • Talk to people about it
  • Build a crew

Create the basics

If you care about getting research done, and doing it well, this makes you a research champion. It’s up to you to provide your team with a toolkit to help make research happen. Don’t make your team think any more than they have to.

What kinds of things might such a toolkit include?

Perhaps a template interview guide, some consent forms, a research brief template (so your team can document why they are doing the research, and who it’s for), and a set of ethics (protect your team and your participants). Dream big.

While there is much more you can include in such a toolkit, the above things form a foundation. They give people in your team (particularly new folk) something to bounce off. It’s a lot easier starting with something as opposed to staring at a blank Word document — how scary is that?

Secondly, creating a toolkit means the team now has a standardised way of communicating — your stakeholders will come to know what to expect from UX research, and UX research develops a brand of its own.

It also means any research programs of work are:

  • Understood 1, 5, 10 years from now
  • Repeatable — particularly important for usability baselining or building on a set of themes (building a picture of your users)
  • Reportable — there’s not much point in conducting research unless the approach and findings are documented somewhere, somehow, so that they can be referred back to

Lastly, you may want to outline some common forms of UX research as a guide — this gives your team yet another springboard and helps your stakeholders understand why guerrilla testing isn’t always an appropriate method.

Talk to people

Great. So you’ve got the beginnings of a toolkit, and some guidelines on what kind of research to do. Now check that it works.

Sit with a few people in your team and run them through the templates you’ve created. Do they have research coming up? Ask them to trial the toolkit for you.

Once you have people in your team trialing your toolkit, you learn what works and what doesn’t work. It could be that your research brief is too complex, or that your team wants to understand how to use usability metrics.

That’s OK. You’re in UX. You know what UXers are really good at? Iterating things! You can learn how people are using (or not using) your toolkit and adapt it so that people will use it. Then test it again.

Build a crew

Your toolkit guinea pigs now become your research crew. Once they’ve used and contributed to the creation of the toolkit, they’ll tell people about it — then those people will start using it too.

Use your crew to help you build and refine the toolkit over time, and then work together to help define other processes like remote testing tools, ethics frameworks, and equipment use. This is especially useful if your team doesn’t have a dedicated UX researcher — your team can work together to tackle the big research process problems in short bursts.

Seeds planted.

2. Feed the saplings

Make sure that the research conducted is of a high quality, and appropriate for the problem or gap its trying to address. Feeding the saplings has three sub-steps:

  • Coach your team
  • Coach each other
  • Use your resources

Coach your team

Run some practical coaching sessions for your team. These could be things like questioning and responding techniques, choosing an appropriate research method, usability metrics or how to synthesise data — whatever you’ve heard your team asking for.

You could run these yourself, get someone external in to do it, or even look at some articles/videos and discuss them as a team — a sort of book club.

Coach each other

Now that your team have the basics down, continue to make yourself available for them to ask questions, and bounce ideas off you.

Keep coaching each other by observing each other’s research sessions, checking your scripts, and providing feedback. Remember that crew you built? Use it!

We often engage in design critique. It is equally important to engage in UX research critique. Check your approaches, scripts, technique, and reporting with each other. By doing this, you foster a culture of peer review in your team. Secondly, you ensure any research outputs are of a high quality — two brains are better than one! Peer reviews also help us to recognise our own biases and thought patterns, and ensure we learn something new, or look at things from a new perspective.

Use your resources

By now, you may be thinking “This is all very well and good, but I don’t have a dedicated researcher in my team!” You may not have a tame UX researcher* on hand, and that’s OK. You can still build a strong culture of research…with The Internet™️.

Use your networks to find great people to chat to about their research practices. Use The Internet™️ to look up research methods, recommendations, articles, usability testing tips and tricks (find some at the end of this blog post!). There are plenty of digital and paper resources out there — use them. If you’re struggling with the best way to tackle a problem, it’s likely that someone else out there has tackled the same problem, and done the thinking for you.

Now, your research saplings are loving the attention you’re giving them, and are being fed with knowledge. They’re thriving.

3. Propagate the trees

Spreading the Word of Research.

  • Co-create from the get-go
  • Put your stakeholders to work
  • Workshop it

Co-create from the get-go

Get your stakeholders involved in your research project right from the start. I’m not talking about note-taking — think waaaay further back than that.

Co-create the research brief with them. That is, the research objectives (what you want to find out), potential questions to ask, the audience, and the method. This is useful for not-well-defined exploratory pieces (you can really dig out assumptions and deep-seated beliefs here) as well as faster-paced concept validation.

This part can sometimes worry dyed-in-the-wool researchers (what?! Letting stakeholders give you ideas?! But the leading!) — however, your stakeholders are much more likely to buy into the research findings if they’ve had some hand in shaping the objectives. And hey — hypotheses are there to be (dis)proven.

Secondly, it’s important to have people with different perspectives in the room. You’ll build a better product if you have people of different disciplines working with you and sharing their ideas. Research does not exist in a vacuum — it has to play nicely with technical feasibility and business viability, as does UX design.

You can pull out your stakeholders’ hypotheses and assumptions by using:

Or literally just paper and pens, you don’t need to be fancy.

Put your stakeholders to work

Continue to keep your stakeholders engaged by asking them to take notes for you. Stress the importance of note-taking as reducing synthesis time, thus getting your team to the results more quickly. You can email your team with a sign up list, or stick a physical sign up sheet somewhere near your desk (I once laminated mine for an easy wipe n’ reuse).

You’ll need about 15 minutes before each session to brief each stakeholder on the content of your interview guide, and how to take good notes.

After the session, ask for their thoughts and what they found interesting/surprising. Go through their notes and make suggestions on how they could improve (provided they have asked you for this feedback!)

It’s important to remind your note-takers that observing user research is a privilege — we’re not there to make friends with participants, or sell an idea — we’re there to learn.

Workshop it

Once the research sessions are complete, run a debrief and synthesis session with your note-taking stakeholders.

Use an hour — spend about 20 minutes discussing what sorts of things they observed in the session. Finding commonalities or surprises helps cement in their minds the things they saw, and also broadens their viewpoint from just one or two sessions, to a big picture of common themes.

In the next 20 minutes, give each stakeholder a set of notes (ones that they did not write), a Sharpie (every designer’s fave tool) and some sticky notes. Ask your stakeholders to write down one observation per sticky note, and stick them up as they go, reading each one aloud.

As more and more notes are put up, get a few helpers to start affinity mapping these — this gives your stakeholders some ownership over the eventual synthesised findings, and ensures what they observed from the session really sinks in.

Lastly, when your synthesis and reporting is complete, share the insights via a workshop with your broader team — quickly run through the findings, and print these off. Then, ask your workshop attendees to sketch up concepts or ideas based on the findings.

All you need is one person walking away saying how interesting the session was — the rest will follow. Some never will — but that’s their loss.

In summary…

Keep in mind that nurturing UX Research takes time. It is a SLOW process — don’t expect an attitude change overnight. Each step takes a few months to embed itself. Rely on your research crew to keep using and talking about your tools and techniques as outlined above, and it’ll soon become the norm.

Secondly, there will be instances when you simply don’t have time to complete all the steps above — we’re all human, we all get busy! Keep in mind that doing some of the above is better than nothing, though. You’re still making a difference.

Here’s those resources I mentioned…from The Internet™️

Note-taking and Observer Guidelines:

Some research templates:

Making a UX Research plan:

Sharing research:

Even more sharing research:

Affinity Mapping:

*When I say tame UX Researcher, I am making fun of myself.

With thanks to Danya Azzopardi, Kayla Heffernan, and Judy Shaul.