In one Lord of the Rings scene, Bilbo Baggins tells Gandalf, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” Unfortunately you are not alone if you have ever felt this way as a user researcher! We user researchers commonly field research requests from several stakeholders, and oftentimes with competing timelines. This is a recipe for being stretched too thin and feeling burnout, and why it is crucial to proactively plan and prioritize your work.
In addition to avoiding over-committing yourself, there are other benefits to upfront research planning. For example, research planning prevents rushed projects that can equal sloppy work. Proactive planning also prevents duplicating research that has already been conducted internally or externally, a common occurrence in larger organizations that is a waste of time and money. And finally, planning your workload often brings visibility to just how busy and in-demand you are, and in-demand resources are often viewed as more precious and credible resources.
In this two-part article, we outline ten recommended steps for research program planning. In this first article, we guide you through necessary steps in gathering needed information for planning, and in the second article, we walk you through how to prioritize and socialize your work. Keep in mind our recommended steps are focused on planning a series of research projects over an extended period of time, for example, one quarter.
Step 1: Identify Accountable Partners
The first step in planning a research program is to identify your accountable partners, who will give final approval on your prioritized list of projects. When we say accountable partners, we mean those who will ultimately approve your projects and have the strongest influence over driving decisions in response to research learnings. You should strive for these accountable partners to be cross-functional, and willing to participate in the research through sponsoring it, providing feedback on study plans and reports, and even participating in the research.
There is a sweet spot in terms of how many accountable partners you should identify. Too many partners can equal too many cooks in the kitchen, and trust us when we say that research planning by committee is as messy as design by committee. From our experience, three accountable partners seem to work well, and these often include leads from design, research, engineering, or product management. Depending on the culture of the team, you might also include a marketing lead.
Sometimes user researchers have the beautiful challenge of having too many people interested in research and wanting to weigh in and provide feedback on a more detailed level. In this situation, a good solution is to use a responsibility assignment matrix, or RACI matrix, to effectively identify and guide conversations around who on the team is responsible vs. accountable vs. consulted vs. informed.
Step 2: Solicit Research Questions
Email is sometimes necessary in research planning, but face-to-face time is the ideal. This is why, in our typical second step in planning research, we try to schedule one-on-one meetings with those the RACI matrix calls both accountable and consulted parties. In simpler language, this means both those who will give final approval over your projects as well as broader team members who have valuable feedback to share. The goal of these discussions is to identify questions the broader team would like to see answered through user research and to gather clues as to how to prioritize these questions.
Questions you might ask in these meetings include the following:
- What are your highest priority projects and goals for this quarter?
- What are the most important research questions to answer this quarter?
- How will answering your priority research questions affect decision making?
- What are your hypotheses around the likely answers to research questions?
- What do you already know related to priority research questions that might be relevant?
- How much time and bandwidth do you have for participating in research this quarter?
In these conversations, you should be looking for commitment for participating in research, areas of impact in response to questions being answered, and if research questions are novel. This information will be helpful in subsequent steps, when you will start prioritizing projects.
Step 3: Understand Priorities
Now that you have touched upon priorities of individuals on the team, it is important to take a step back and consider the team and even your company’s priorities. This is important because it is likely that each individual you talk to will express their domain as mission critical, or a “P0,” and so you need to consider the bigger picture to help you prioritize.
At Google, each product team establishes quarterly Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), which we examine closely in research planning. Your team might not use that exact framework but should have something equivalent in place. Because OKRs can be more short-term focused, we also look at the company’s annual goals or any vision documents or presentations that might be available to help us make sure we are accounting for long-term and short-term goals.
Step 4: Add Your Research Questions
Armed with an understanding of your partners’ research questions and your team and company’s short and long-term goals, the next step is for you to brainstorm the questions you think are most important to address through your research program. Remember, your responsibility as a user experience researcher is not just to answer research questions, but to make sure your team is asking the right questions.
One thing to keep in mind as you try to identify gaps in research questions is that cross-functional partners most commonly ask for tactical research (for example, Can people use this without difficulty?), so make sure your list of potential research questions also accounts for more foundational questions (for example, What unmet user needs might we address?). Sometimes external sources—that is, academic papers, trade journals, market research companies, news articles—can be a helpful source of inspiration for unanswered foundational research questions.
Figure 1. Tactical research, such as usability testing, is a common request from project partners. (Credit: Alexa Koenings)
Alt text for accessibility: Screenshot of fake email to “UX Researcher” from a product manager stating, “More usability testing, please! Signed, your PM.”
Step 5: Synthesize and Brainstorm
Step 5 is one of our favorite steps because the research projects you will work on for the quarter will start to take shape. More specifically, Step 5 involves synthesizing all of the information you have collected in Steps 1 through 4 and brainstorming what types of research would be needed to answer questions.
Bundle questions by higher level themes or groupings, perhaps through affinity diagramming. Based on these themes, ask yourself the following questions: Are there duplicate or similar requests that could be combined? Are there gaps that should be addressed by additional researcher-led initiatives? Consolidate questions and fill in additional research question gaps as needed.
Once your research question themes are identified, brainstorm ways to answer the questions. The following are some things to consider as you do so:
- Are you answering the questions in the most efficient way possible?
- Are you in a methods rut? Spicing up the research plan with a variety of methods helps the team (and researcher) stay engaged.
- Do the projects align with your career goals? If not, look for ways to align projects to meet both your career and your team’s goals.
As you note potential projects, also document the number of weeks that each project would likely take to execute. You might want to add extra time for factors such as being new to the team or working with difficult-to-recruit target users.
It is additionally important to note the intended level of impact (for example, High, Medium, or Low), the category of research (for example, foundational, evaluative, or tactical), and details such as the last possible date feedback can be given in order to have an impact. All of these data points will be helpful indicators of how you should prioritize the research in the following steps.
While Steps 1 through 5 provide the essential foundation for drafting a research program by identifying potential research projects, Steps 6 through 10 are where critical tasks in prioritizing your work will occur. Where many user researchers go astray in planning is stopping the process at Step 5 and not prioritizing their work based on the time that is given to them.
Stay tuned for the second part of this article, in which we will guide you through such topics as how to identify your bandwidth, how to prioritize projects given your bandwidth, and how to socialize your prioritized research program.
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