As a user research team of one, or a user research team of 20, there are times you need to do a project by yesterday, or colleagues need insights on a short timeline. When I was working as a solo researcher, I had requests coming in from 12 teams and precariously balanced three to four projects at once. Soon, I was stretched beyond my limits, and it led to mistakes.
At one point, I walked into a research session thinking we were testing one prototype, only to be reminded by my confused colleagues that I had the wrong prototype open. I felt terrible for my teams and participants. Luckily, I switched the topics and completed the usability test, but I knew something had to change.
I quickly realized I could not create and conduct all research studies equally. I had to streamline and operationalize my research process if I was going to handle all these requests and ensure I was doing the most impactful research for the organization.
How I streamlined my process
The first thing I did was to audit my current process. Back then, I had people requesting projects via email, Slack, or just approaching my desk. I didn’t have a prioritization process, a backlog, or any overview of what was currently happening and the timelines. Most of the time, I did everything from scratch.
All of this took up an unbelievable amount of time. It also led to one of the worst places to spend time: meetings (lots of them). Since people would write me one to two lines about a research request, I would have to schedule a follow-up meeting to further understand it. Since I didn’t have a shared document, I would take notes but inevitably forget to ask this or that question, which would lead to more meetings or interruptive conversations. Ultimately, I would try to figure out when I was doing what and how to fit projects into my Tetris-like timeline.
My process—if you could call it that—was a nightmare and a headache. Here are the steps I took to improve and streamline my process continuously:
Audit what you are doing and figure out what isn’t working. The first thing I had to do was understand where I was going wrong and what my biggest pain points were in my process. Doing this helped me understand what took most of my time (spoiler: meetings), and what I could do to fix it. Look at your current process to know where you need to streamline and operationalize.
Send a shared intake document for requests. Creating an intake document saved me hours of meetings and thousands of messages. Whenever someone wants to request a research project, I send them this document to fill out to get as much information up-front and start prioritizing without a single meeting. Another perk of this document is that it encourages asynchronous work, so people can leave questions and comments instead of having a formal meeting.
Have a straightforward prioritization method. Before, I had no idea if I was conducting essential research for the organization. I would take on projects without understanding their potential impact and what choosing one project over another meant. I put into place a clear prioritization method that all my colleagues had access to. Once I received a request and cleared up any questions, I plugged it into this prioritization template to assess whether I should take on the project.
Create a research roadmap and backlog. Like any other product team, I learned that I needed to know what I was currently doing, what timelines I was operating in, and what was coming up next. This information wasn’t only important to me but also my teams. I created a research roadmap, showing all current and future projects. The roadmap helped me understand where my time was going, if I could slot in another small project, and if I was balancing evaluative and generative research. Also, by creating a backlog, I quickly filled in new, important projects in case timelines were shifted last minute.
Use templates for as much as possible. Whenever you can, use a template! I created canned responses for recruitment emails and had templates for almost everything. Not only did this help me during the research process, but it also enabled other team members to do tasks, freeing up more of my time. Check out some of my templates:
Set up a research plan. A research plan is the North Star of a project and keeps you aligned with your team. Research plans keep the entire team focused on an outcome and provide an easy reference to keep “need-to-know” stakeholders in the know. They prevent everyone from getting bogged down in the details and switching the research goal in the middle by mistake. Most importantly, they allow researchers (or whoever is doing the research) to ensure the research plan’s objectives will be answered as effectively and efficiently as possible by the end of the project.
Ask for tools that help you. There are some software and tools you can use to further streamline your process. For example, I use Calendly in conjunction with my recruitment emails for easy scheduling.
Looking into and changing my process positively impacted my work. I felt much more capable of helping others, staying on top of projects and requests, and better handling what I was working on and why.
When to avoid streamlining
Although teams and colleagues want research done and insights delivered in short timelines, there are some areas in which we can’t cut corners. Regardless of the fast pace of technology and product companies, research needs rigor and that means taking time during certain parts of the process.
These are the steps that I take more time on and don’t streamline:
Writing a screener survey. I never skip this step. Without understanding who you want to speak to and a proper screener survey, you could jeopardize the entire study. Take the time to ensure you are recruiting the right people.
Synthesis and analysis. Every hour-long research session requires two hours of analysis and synthesis. I know that we all wish synthesis could be shorter, but this is the part in which we have to apply rigor. If we don’t take our time synthesizing results, we could create the wrong insights or inform teams with incorrect information.
Creating video/audio clips. Video and audio clips are the best ways to capture colleagues’ attention and help them understand users. I always make video clips, especially around particular pain points. Investing in this means you will have an increased chance that teams take your work seriously and act on it.
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There are many ways we can help ourselves and others on the team by taking a look at our workflows and trying to improve them. I didn’t achieve this overnight! It took time and effort to make my process better, but it was completely worth it in the end. Now I can assess, prioritize, and move forward with a request in a 24- to 48-hour turnaround—a dream for my teams!
Written by Nikki Anderson, User Research Lead & Instructor. Nikki is a User Research Lead and Instructor with over eight years of experience. She has worked in all different sizes of companies, ranging from a tiny start-up called ALICE to large corporation Zalando, and also as a freelancer. During this time, she has led a diverse range of end-to-end research projects across the world, specializing in generative user research. Nikki also owns her own company, User Research Academy, a community and education platform designed to help people get into the field of user research, or learn more about how user research impacts their current role. User Research Academy hosts online classes, content, as well as personalized mentorship opportunities with Nikki. She is extremely passionate about teaching and supporting others throughout their journey in user research. To spread the word of research and help others transition and grow in the field, she writes as a writer at dscout and Dovetail. Outside of the world of user research, you can find Nikki (happily) surrounded by animals, including her dog and two cats, reading on her Kindle, playing old-school video games like Pokemon and World of Warcraft, and writing fiction novels.