Not a question you want to be asking at the end of a project.
Making sure that the research is actually being used and adding value is one of the main challenges of doing research. It is particularly challenging when it involves people whose primary job functions do not include research or when conducting exploratory + formative research. But this type of research is often essential to informing decisions with more data than “instinct.” It’s up to us, the researchers, to package our research in a way that maximizes utility and presents a way forward.
I treat research and analysis projects like individual products — and treat the process like a product development cycle. This helps me clarify problem the research should solve, push back when the customer requirements and solution aren’t aligned and deliver something usable and actionable.
Step 1: Identify the users and the problem
As with any product, identifying who the users are is an obvious first step. This is true for research as well — who will be consuming the results of the research and what problem does it help them solve? This is the time to get any helpful context about your “users” — why is this research important to them and their work?
The answers of these questions will provide context for all of the next steps, including the timeline of the project, which methods to use and what format the deliverables should take.
Step 2: Achieve product-market fit
Ha, as if it were that easy! What is “product-market fit” for a research project? It’s when the stakeholders agree to devote time, attention and resources for a proposed research project + deliverable. This means it’s important and needed enough that someone is willing to “pay” for it (with their time, attention and sometimes participation). If you can’t get this buy-in at the start of the project, you should ask yourself why you’re doing it.
Part of achieving a “product-market” fit is making sure the completed product is delivered at a time where it’s relevant and useful to the customer. If the work can’t be done within the desired timeline, you’re missing a product-market fit and you should consider whether to take the work on. Perhaps, a smaller piece of value can be delivered on the required timeline. This is a good time to adjust the scope of the project based on what needs to be delivered by when.
Step 3: Define what success will look like for this research project
Notice I did not use the word “metrics” here. That’s because to most people, metrics = numbers and it can be hard to directly tie qualitative research to numbers, especially with early or formative research.
Here are some research project success metrics that are not quantitative:
- Identify the top 3 purchase decision drivers behind product X
- Understand and define the main user personas of product X
- Validate whether or not customers have problem X during their commute
None of these are numbers to hit, however, each of them are outcomes of a successful research project. Research may not always directly tie to metrics and KPIs like revenue or customer retention, however, research is the key informant of decisions that do affect those metrics.
Step 4: Define and break down the work
Scope creep is scary! Research projects can spiral out of control, requiring more time or resources than originally planned on, extending the timeline beyond the point of usefulness.
After completing the prior steps you should have enough information to decide on methods, timeline and break the work down into steps and organize it chronologically. No task is too small to break down — even tasks like “draft email for recruiting participants” should be defined. This ensures essential steps aren’t missed and there is clarity for everyone about what the work is and approximately when each milestone will be reached.
Step 5: Execution is everything
Plans are great but it goes without saying that execution is how you actually deliver on promises. A few of my must-do’s learned from prior projects:
- Market / competitive research: it’s helpful to create a standard rubric against which you can evaluate whatever you’re researching, whether’s it’s other companies, products, user types, etc.
- Interviews / usability tests: if possible, record these and have someone dedicated to taking notes. Leave time to recap and write down major takeaways and insights while they’re fresh in your mind.
- Surveys: do a test survey first — whether it’s on a group of colleagues or a small batch of users. This will help you quickly find out if anything is unclear to the survey taker, if the survey could have been better organized or if options / questions were missed.
Here are some of my favorite resources for choosing the right research method, survey development and creating personas.
There is also ample opportunity to keep other stakeholder’s informed throughout the execution stage. Sharing a summary of key insights, early survey results or memorable quotes from an interview helps keep stakeholder’s engaged and looking forward to the completed project results.
Step 6: Product marketing the research results
When the work is done and the final deliverable is created, the biggest mistake you could make is just emailing it to the stakeholders and expecting them to read and takeaway the key results. This would be a huge disservice to yourself as the researcher.
This is the time to “product market” your research to anyone who could benefit from the work and results. There are a number of different ways to engage stakeholders with the research results. At the very least, getting all the stakeholders into a room (even virtually, if needed) and going through the results will ensure everyone is taking time and attention to internalize the learnings. This step also provides an opportunity to be creative and show off your domain expertise.
Other ideas for product marketing research results:
- Creating a highlight reel — if you conducted interviews / discussions with users, it’s likely that other stakeholder’s won’t have the time to listen to all of the interviews. Creating a highlight reel of the major insights allows them to get a sense of the conversations without a major time commitment.
- Doing an interactive activity with the results — this helps people retain the results and better understand how the results could be used. For example, if the project was to research and develop user personas, the activity could require coming up with 5 feature ideas that the personas would use based on what was learned about the users.
- Creating an infographic of results — who doesn’t love a good infographic? If we’re being honest, infographics are much more fun and engaging to read than reports. Survey results might transfer well to an infographic.
Educating others about the research and results goes a long way in making sure the research has an impact on business results. It seems obvious but the key is not that the results should be shared, but that they should be shared in a way that makes usage of the research results as easy as possible.
Step 7: Rinse and repeat!
The hard thing about research is that often times the implementation is out of the researcher’s hands. It’s possible that despite setting your research project up for success, decisions are made that contradict the results. In these cases, it may be helpful to conduct a “retrospective,” to identify what was useful and what wasn’t to better inform future projects.
Regardless, I hope this framework helps you better plan and execute research projects to maximize added value!
Special thanks to Heddy Stern, Matt Lavoie, Kristen Womack and Morgan Gore for taking the time to read this post and sharing helpful feedback! Greatly appreciated.
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