Nearly 3 years ago, when I had joined Treemouse as a Research Associate I had written an article under the title ‘Feel’d notes of a fledgling researcher’. Few weeks ago a friend pointed out that I shouldn’t call myself a fledgling just for alliteration’s sake. I realized it was high time I wrote a follow-up to that article as the relatively experienced researcher that I am now. Having grown from a Research Associate to Senior Lead of Research and Insights, I have gained significant practice in not just conducting research but also leading teams that do.
This is for the fledglings out there, to help you put some structure into planning your research project better.
Disclaimer: There are multiple food/cooking references in this article owing to the fact that it was written during the COVID Lockdown, go ahead only if you have a palate for it.
1. Research has a fractal structure
If you are reading this now you must either have some impression of design and research or are seeking to form one. Either way, there is one thing you must know/agree with: the fact that Good Research paves way for Great Design, speaking of design in the grandest sense. When on a quest to achieve a bountiful field research experience, secondary research initially helps in setting a baseline for your enquiries.
When a research project is slightly over mid-way through, a fuzzy image of insights and plausible solutions begin to emerge. This is when secondary research comes back into picture to help clarify these fuzzy images. It helps to quantitatively or theoretically validate some qualitative findings and hypotheses from the field. The project then spirals back to repeat the same steps.
2. Recruitment is like rice, put it on first
Let’s say one’s decided to make fried rice for lunch. The moment that decision is made there is one task that can start off without further ado — setting the rice to boil. That’s the slow part of the process, that also doesn’t require much interference. The case is similar with recruitment.
Recruitment happens in waves: The first wave of participants come in, then the second and so on. And with every wave one would have to refine their participant profiles as insights start emerging. The first wave of participants interviewed would set the baseline, so it’s better to ensure that that pool is as diverse as possible, covering all extremities. And luckily that requires the least involvement from a researcher’s side, if there is a recruitment agency involved.
As waves of participants keep coming and cycles of refinement happen, one might need some very specific profiles to interview. That would require researchers to run some dipsticks with shortlisted participants to make sure they fit well, to avoid committing to hours of interviewing only to discover midway that the participant is unable to help with the enquiry. At this stage there would be pressure to wrap up work too, leaving no opportunity for trials and errors.
3. All team members must be familiar with all data
When a team breaks up to conduct research from multiple locations simultaneously, there is a tendency for data coming in from different locations to get siloed. As much as contextual insights might be valuable to a study, it’s important to be able to utilize dispersed data to arrive at some overarching insights. For that, teams in different locations must be up to speed on progress and data from other locations. This will facilitate 3 things:
- Streamlining and keeping overarching inquiries consistent across locations
- Identifying contextual similarities and differences early on and validating them while the team is still on field
- Cohesive synthesis. Synthesis sessions progress smoother and turn out richer when researchers are familiar with each others’ data.
Daily catch up calls will not only allow researchers to wrap up their days’ learnings by summarizing it to each other, it will also immediately alter the discussion guide before the next day, to accommodate new contextual inquiries.
4. Data tastes best when served hot, but leftovers do taste better the next day
The approach to processing data should be the same as one to a lavish homemade dinner. Consume the majority of it the day it is made, but one shouldn’t force oneself to finish everything in one sitting. One would end up with a ‘gut feeling’ that that wasn’t the best idea. It is good to save some for the next day or a few days later. One is bound to discover some matured flavors that wouldn’t have occurred the first time. Similarly, with research, one cannot deny the value that ‘sleeping over data’ brings to the study, but that is only after one’s done a round of analysis as soon as the data’s collected. Especially with qualitative research, it’s important to process data when ones memory is the richest with details from the field.
(Note: Be prepared to be dreaming of interviews at this stage)
5. Synthesis is like an onion, expect layers
In my experience, the first day of formal synthesis (considering that several levels of informal synthesis have already happened on field) doesn’t always throw up the most mind blowing insights. If I had to reframe that, all of the mind blowing insights don’t come out in the first sitting of synthesis. With every round of synthesis deeper insights are bound to come out as layers of information mull in researchers heads and the team would have to keep peeling layers until no more is left. And just as in the case of onions, expect some tears as you progress through the layers.
6. Think out loud, Churn out more
Thinking out loud is the number one thing that gets the ball rolling when a team is synthesizing data. One person brings a point to the board, the other adds to it or challenges it, the third refines it further and so on. A thought that one person might have could set into motion a tangential thought in another. Synthesizing data is an activity that by nature demands a cycle of back and forth until a concise, precise insight emerges. Much like making butter, the churning involves a fair amount of back-and-forth movement and rich butter surfaces eventually.
7. Plating matters
Insights are rendered useless if clients can’t understand them in as much depth as one might need them to. We have all, at some point or the other tried to read, understand and assimilate a piece of academic writing. I’m sure all of us have also doubted our own intelligence in trying to comprehend some such content. A lot of academic reports seem to hold some pride in their nature of esotericism even when the topic of discussion is well within a layperson’s realm of comprehension.
One key to effective communication of research learnings is to ensure a variety in tools that are used. Words are the first option but may not always be the best. Diagrams, graphs, charts, maps, videos, analogies are some tools that can help. The effort put into making these collaterals will go a long way in delivering one’s insights with the right impact.
My team and I at Treemouse have been pushing ourselves to rely less on just words for our research presentations to clients. An important thing to keep in mind is to make reports that the client can comprehend and use on their own in the long run. Such a report will be quite different from something you’d present to a client in person.
It doesn’t all end with presentation to the client. In any research project, researchers are bound to stumble upon a lot more that what the sponsor/client might be interested in. But it in noway means that those insights are any less valuable. So, it’s an absolute necessity to strive to document these insights too, they would add to an organization’s intelligence pool, and might turn out to be of great significance at a later time.
I’m going to toss a few more treats in here
- Never agree to interview someone at a burger joint, it’s an absolutely counterproductive idea
- As much as possible, try to meet people where they would feel most ‘at home’. Could be their home.
- Female researchers, ALWAYS carry toilet paper. There are too many ways to develop a UTI
- Take 15–20 minutes to calm down and reorient before an interview. Preferably, don’t do anything else in this time
- Stress less, rest as much as you need to
Storytime: During a time of intensive interviewing once I was by myself on field for a high stakes project. A firsthand experience of psychosomatics– 10 days into interviewing I started losing my voice. Eventually, a doctor diagnosed it as acute laryngitis and made me go on complete speech rest for 10 days. Which means no speaking for 10 days straight. Of course, all interviews had to be cancelled and I was forced to rest. My mind decided “Oh, all this talking you’re doing is stressing you, so I’ll make you stop talking”. Counterproductive.
So, dear fledgling who read till the end, congratulations! You already have one of the virtues required to be a good researcher– patience.