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10 Steps for Drafting a User Research Program (Part 2)

In the first installment of “10 Steps for Drafting a User Research Program,” we covered the first five steps to collect the information you need to move forward with prioritizing your research projects:

  • Step 1: Identify accountable cross-functional partners who will have the strongest influence over driving decisions in response to research learnings and who will be willing to participate in the research.
  • Step 2: Solicit research questions from your team to uncover the most important questions they have that will inform product and design decisions.
  • Step 3: Understand the priorities of your team by looking at annual company goals and vision documents to conduct research that impacts both long-term and short-term product goals.
  • Step 4: Add research questions that the team may not have thought to ask that will result in an overall balance of tactical and foundational questions.
  • Step 5: Synthesize and brainstorm potential research projects by grouping research questions into higher level themes.

In this next installment of the article, we lean into Gandalf’s advice to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” This involves taking necessary steps to prioritize your emerging list projects given the time available.

Step 6: Determine Your Bandwidth

Now that you have an idea of the type of research projects that would be needed to answer your team’s research questions, you need to determine how much time is available for you to complete the projects. Start with the total number of weeks available in the time period for which you are planning. Take out time for vacation, holidays, strategic thinking, and some buffer time for unexpected projects—trust us, there will always be surprise research requests! The remaining time can be used to conduct research.

And when we say block out time for strategic thinking, we mean time for tasks such as planning research, participating in design sprints, attending conferences, and staying in the know on relevant internal and external research conducted by others. Just like designers need heads-down time for ideation, user researchers also need dedicated thinking time for brainstorming and exploration.

Step 7: Prioritize Research Projects

At this point you likely have more potential projects from Step 5 than you can complete given the time you just calculated as available in Step 6. Don’t freak out. In Step 7, we address this through a process of prioritizing your research projects.

Using a project tracker such as this Sample UX Researcher Quarterly Tracker, list all the potential projects and the time needed to execute them. Then, start eliminating projects until your project work matches the actual amount of time you have to complete projects.

Leveraging all of the information you gathered in Steps 1–5, good project candidates to eliminate include the following:

  • have unknown or low impact
  • do not align with documented priorities
  • seek to justify or validate a decision that has already been made
  • seek to resolve an internal political conflict
  • have already been answered through prior research

Still overbooked?Ask yourself the following questions in looking for ways you can increase your research coverage:

  • Are there more efficient research methods that would gather similar data?
  • Can studies be outsourced to an external consultant in full or in part?
  • Can you partner with other researchers at your company who are externally working on similar questions?

You want to make sure as you deprioritize projects that your research program continues to be a balance of project types. The 60-30-10 rule (60% tactical, 30% foundational, and 10% evaluative) is a good guideline but may need to be modified based on your unique team and product needs.

For projects you do not have bandwidth to support, one idea is to document them in your project tracker as “below the line” or “not in scope.” By documenting them in your tracker, you acknowledge the request and can keep track of it for next quarter or in the event unexpected free time pops up. Noting unsupported requests can also be used to justify getting more research headcount or funding.

Step 8: Get Approval

Remember in Step 1 when we had you use the RACI matrix to identify who on the team is responsible vs. accountable vs. consulted vs. informed? In Step 8, you want to present your final list of prioritized projects to those responsible for final approval. It is rare for everyone on a team to agree on what the research priorities are for a project or team, which is why final approval should come from this smaller group of high-level decision makers.

During these conversations, you want to be prepared to speak to what fell below the priority line and why, as well as why you think the final list of prioritized projects include the right things to focus on.

Also, be prepared in these discussions for your responsible partners to ask you to take on additional work. Do not assume they understand implications to your bandwidth as such requests are made. Instead, as they make such requests, make sure to show them via a project tracker or other artifact how the additional work impacts your available project time. And then ask them, “If we include this additional project, what work can be taken off my list of priorities this quarter?”

Step 9: Socialize Your Priorities

You have prioritized your research projects with final approval from your responsible partners. Now in Step 9 it is time to share the output of your prioritization with your broader team. There are a few ways you can go about doing this, including the following:

  • sharing priorities in team meetings
  • adding a link to your project tracker in your email signature
  • emailing the broader team
  • scheduling 1:1 meetings as necessary

Do not rely on one method to get the word out—it is best to caution on the side of over communicating your upcoming commitments. It is also a good idea to share that the final list of projects was prioritized in collaboration with your responsible partners, as doing so can help reduce any pressure you might receive from other partners to squeeze in additional projects you do not have bandwidth for or are lower priority.

Step 10: Adapt and Stay Flexible

One of the fun parts of being a user researcher is that we often work in the midst of changing priorities! This is why it is important to check in with your responsible partners on a regular basis to make sure the research projects you initially prioritized are still the most important projects to work on.

Expect to encounter unexpected, yet urgent, studies after you have planned out your quarter or whatever timeframe you are working with. Buffer time that you hopefully blocked off in Step 6 will come in handy to work on these projects without upsetting the rest of your plan. Remember, if the buffer time goes unused, you can bring up one of the projects that fell “below the line” to fill the time at the end of the quarter.

A Few Closing Considerations

Research planning is an essential but commonly overlooked step. It is overlooked because user researchers often gain satisfaction and assign value to conducting the research and writing reports. They also feel evaluated by the volume of their work, and planning takes time away from this. From our observations, we have watched far too many talented researchers burn out through not prioritizing their work and instead running at a pace that is not sustainable. Making matters worse, once an unsustainable pace is established, it can become the expectation and norm.

Also, if you are not taking that time to collaborate with your peers on priorities, you are being a service provider rather than a thought-partner. In order to maximize the impact of research, user researchers should always strive to be thought-partners who have a point of view and product recommendations that serve users. Service providers, on the other hand, simply execute research without having a say in what research happens or how the team incorporates findings into the product.

If you will entertain us with one final Lord of the Rings quote, let it be Bilbo Baggins’ advice, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Don’t get swept off your feet in conducting user research—instead, use our recommended 10 steps to avoid burning out.