Fostering a Culture of User Research in Your Organization

At Viget, user research isn't just an activity, but a mindset. Here are five ways we've worked toward our goal of doing research on every project.

Usability is central to the work of user experience design, which means that user research is central to our work as designers. At Viget, we've come to see research and design as inseparable. Yet it isn't enough to conduct research every now and then, when a client asks for it. What's needed is a culture of research, a shared habit of testing design assumptions with real people.

A few years ago, we realized that we weren't doing the research we needed to be doing, and had to change. This post describes our shift to become a more research-oriented group of designers. We’ve grown as design researchers since then and hope that what we’ve learned along the way can help you improve your process and convey the value of research to clients and coworkers. Here are some of those lessons.

1. Commit to making research a priority

For research to become integral to the way you work, it needs to be prioritized across your entire organization — not just within your design team. To that end, you should:

  • Identify and share achievable research goals. By identifying specific goals, you can share a clear message with the broader organization about what you’re after, how you can achieve those goals, and what success looks like. Early on, we shared our vision for research at Viget with everyone at the company, in particular talking with folks on the business development and project management teams about specific ways that they could help us achieve our goals. They often have the greatest impact on our ability to do more research on projects.
  • Track your progress. Once you’ve made research a priority, make sure to review your goals on an ongoing basis to ensure that you’re making progress and share your findings with the organization. Six months after the research group at Viget started working on our goals — things like learning new methodologies, discussing project management processes, and identifying ways to talk research with clients — we held a retrospective to figure out what was working and what wasn’t.

2. Educate your colleagues and clients

If you want people within your organization to get excited about doing more research, they need to understand what research means. To educate your colleagues and clients, you should:

  • Explain the fundamentals of research. If someone hasn't conducted research before, they may not be familiar or feel comfortable with the vernacular. Provide an overview of the fundamental terminology to establish a basic level of understanding. In Curt's post, Speaking the Same Language About Research, he outlines how we established a common vocabulary at Viget.
  • Help others understand the landscape of research methods. As designers, we feel comfortable talking about different methodologies and forget that that information will be new to many people. Look for opportunities to increase understanding by sharing what you know. At Viget, we go about this in a few ways. Internally, we give presentations to the company, organize group viewing sessions for webinars about user research, and lead focused workshops to help people put new skills into practice. Outside the company, we talk about our services and share knowledge through our blog posts and webinars (here's one about conducting user interviews from last November.)
  • Incorporate others into the research process. Don't just tell people what research is and why it's important — show them! Look for opportunities to bring more people into the research process. Invite people to observe sessions so they can experience research firsthand or have them take on the role of the notetaker. Another simple way to make people feel involved is to share findings on an ongoing basis rather than providing a report at the end of the process.

3. Broaden your perspective while refining your skill set

Our commitment to testing assumptions led us to challenge ourselves to do research on every project. While we're dogmatic about this goal, we're decidedly un-dogmatic about the form our research takes from one project to another. To pursue this goal, we seek to:

  • Expand our understanding. To instill a culture of research at Viget, we've found it necessary to question our assumptions about what research looks like. Books like Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research teach us the range of possible approaches for getting useful user input at any stage of a project, and at any scale. Reflect on any methodological biases that have become well-worn paths in your approach to research. Maybe your organization is meticulous about metrics and quantitative data, and could benefit from a series of qualitative studies. Maybe you have plenty of anecdotal and qualitative evidence about your product that could be better grounded in objective analysis. Aim to establish a balanced perspective on your product through a diverse set of research lenses, filling in gaps as you learn about new approaches.
  • Adjust our approach to project constraints. We've found that the only way to consistently incorporate research in our work is to adjust our approach to the context and constraints of any given project. Client expectations, project type, business goals, timelines, budget, and access to participants all influence the type, frequency, and output of our research. Iterative prototype testing of an email editor, for example, looks very different than post-launch qualitative studies for an editorial website. While some projects are research-intensive, short studies can also be worthwhile.
  • Reflect on successes and shortcomings. We have a longstanding practice of holding post-project team retrospectives to reflect on and document lessons for future work. Research has naturally come up in these conversations, and many of the things we've discussed you're reading right now. As an agency with a diverse set of clients, it's been important for us to understand what types of research work for what types of clients, and when. Make sure to take time to ask these questions after projects. Mid-project retrospectives can be beneficial, especially on long engagements, yet it's hard to see the forest when you're in the weeds.

4. Streamline qualitative research processes

Learning to be more efficient at planning, conducting, and analyzing research has helped us overturn the idea that some projects merit research while others don't. Remote moderated usability tests are one of our preferred methods, yet, in our experience, the biggest obstacle to incorporating these tests isn't the actual moderating or analyzing, but the overhead of acquiring and scheduling participants. While some agencies contract out the work of recruiting, we've found it less expensive and more reliable to collaborate with our clients to find the right people for our tests. That said, here are some recommendations for holding efficient qualitative tests:

  • Know your tools ahead of time. We use a number of tools to plan, schedule, annotate, and analyze qualitative tests (we're inveterate spreadsheet users). Learn your tools beforehand, especially if you're trying something new. Tools should fade into the background during tests, which Reframer does nicely.
  • Establish a recruiting process. When working with clients to find participants, we'll often provide an email template tailored to the project for them to send to existing or potential users of their product. This introductory email will contain a screener that asks a few project-related demographic or usage questions, and provides us with participant email addresses which we use to follow-up with a link to a scheduling tool. Once this process is established, the project manager will ensure that the UX designer on the team has a regular flow of participants. The recruiting process doesn't take care of itself – participants cancel, or reschedule, or sometimes don't respond at all – yet establishing an approach ahead of time allows you, the researcher, to focus on the research in the midst of the project.
  • Start recruiting early. Don't wait until you've finished writing a testing script to begin recruiting participants. Once you determine the aim and focal points of your study, recruit accordingly. Scripts can be revised and approved in the meantime.

5. Be proactive about making research happen

As a generalist design agency, we work with clients whose industries and products vary significantly. While some clients come to us with clear research priorities in mind, others treat it as an afterthought. Rare, however, is the client who is actively opposed to researching their product. More often than not, budget and timelines are the limiting factors. So we try not to make research an ordeal, but instead treat it as part of our normal process even if a client hasn't explicitly asked for it. Common-sense perspectives like Jakob Nielsen’s classic “Discount Usability for the Web” remind us that some research is always better than none, and that some can still be meaningfully pursued. We aren’t pushy about research, of course, but instead try to find a way to make it happen even when it hasn't been defined as a priority.

The tips above reflect some of the lessons we’ve learned at Viget as we’ve tried to improve our own process. We’d love to hear about approaches you’ve used as well.

Originally published on the Optimal Workshop design blog.

Laura Sweltz

Laura is a senior user experience designer in our Boulder, CO, office. She helps clients such as PUMA, the Lupus Foundation of America, and Craig Hospital understand the needs of their users and create captivating experiences.

More articles by Laura
Brandon Dorn

Brandon is a user experience designer with a Midwestern concern for craft and people. He works with clients such as Privia Medical Group, iContact, and The Nature Conservancy from our Durham, NC, office.

More articles by Brandon