Evidence-based design serves the users truly, and actively using user research insights provides the evidence. Use workshops and other collaborative tools to help your team work with user research findings and make insights active.
☕ Activating insights for the design process
(Thanks for the topic idea, Gabriele!)
Let’s imagine you just did an awesome and beautiful generative study. The research went well, the users were great, and the findings were compelling. You synthesize and share the findings. Now what? How will the product team work with these findings? How to make sure the design is built upon the findings, that the process is evidence-based (done with rigor, with well articulated decisions supported by data)?
We had this old rule of thumb that UX research is approximately 30% doing the actual studies (so planning, recruiting, conducting sessions, analyzing, and creating artifacts), 30% of the time figuring out what to research, and 30% making sure the results are heard and used within the product development.
This last 30% consists of multiple activities, like reframing past studies done, participating in team rituals such as planning to make sure insights are followed, being generally an advocate for the users, and helping the team to work with the findings and insights produced. Helping the team to work with research results is called downloading (aiding the team to digest the results) and activation (making sure the results become part of the design process).
Ideally, most generative research would be done in or together with the product team. Product trios would do research together (maybe with the assistance of a UX researcher) continuously. At the very least, the product designer is part of the research process from defining research questions up until synthesis. This makes activation easier, the designer would be already marinated in the user insights and is set up by the user stories heard to better understand the problem space, create hypotheses, and generate solution ideas.
But even in these cases, members of the product team like engineers would need to have a good understanding of the users to be able to do great work. This is where activation becomes important and a key part of planning the research. To drive decisions and to successfully activate the findings, research needs to fit into the overall flow of product development. It’s not enough to think about it when the study is about to be completed.
Depending on the needs of the study, the maturity, and the specific context of the product team, the researcher might select which activities to do together with team members, and how much to involve them. Besides driving concrete decisions, user research should also improve product intuition, so more involvement is usually desirable.
In each phase of the study, the researchers can decide to involve the team members. Setting the research goals together is usually the most important and easier, while instead of getting people into interviews, a speedier way might be to have watch parties.
- Setting research goals: While each study should focus on a few key questions to drive decisions, these key questions would be accompanied by a broader set of research questions. These can be brainstormed and prioritized with team members and can act as input in creating the protocol.
- Team members in sessions: A great way to increase exposure (getting people to meet actual users), team members can act as observers, and note-takers (with instructions on how to take great notes) or even ask questions. Doing sessions together also makes debriefing and quick analysis faster.
- Collaborative synthesis: Working with the research findings helps people to get a deeper understanding, while diverse perspectives might bring things to light the researcher would have missed on their own. However, good facilitation is necessary to avoid false glasses like confirmation bias when looking at the findings.
- Other phases (like coming up with interview protocols, facilitating sessions, and analysis) need more rigor, so better to do with trained people, and just getting the results in front of the team.
While all these assume that the research was done in collaboration with the team, sometimes the researchers had to go ahead without the team’s input, and sometimes the research was done earlier and maybe even for a different purpose. In these cases, sharing reports and presenting decks rarely makes the day. While better reports, storytelling, and actionable insights all help, they won’t get the insights to be truly part of the design process. The team needs to work together with the researcher on the findings to make the insights active.
This is where workshops are the way. A simple structure would be to first explore the findings, extract a list of prioritized opportunities, open the solution space with how might we questions, do design studio for solution ideas, make a user story mapping to establish a holistic overview, and finally define MVPs or experiments for tests and a roadmap to follow. The important point is to support each step in the above approach with the evidence gathered from the users.
The output from research can do even more. Personas, journey maps, design briefs and other artifacts summarize findings in a useful way. Stories gathered and described in the insights can act as design criteria, informing the design decisions. During the design process, these act as requirements that the design can be checked against. A simple way to do this would be to list and prioritize all the relevant needs, pain points, and goals from the research findings together with the researcher.
If design leaders want to make sure the designs created serve users, they should make sure the design process is based on evidence coming from user research, that is the findings from research studies are actively used. While setting clear expectations for collaboration and using insights help, I found that regular active feedback is also helpful - asking how results have been used after a study and how results have been incorporated into the design. Shared workspaces, collaborative tools and pair design are also great tools.
🥤 To recap
- User research findings need to be actively used in the design process. The product team should work together with research to understand the findings and identify opportunities to improve the product or service.
- Collaboration is key. The best way to ensure that user research findings are used effectively is to involve the entire team in the research process. This includes designers, engineers, product managers, and other stakeholders.
- Use workshops to help the product team work with the research findings. This can involve exploring the findings, extracting opportunities, brainstorming solutions, and creating a roadmap.
- User research findings can be used to inform design decisions in a variety of ways. For example, they can be used to create user stories, personas, journey maps, design briefs, or design criteria. This will help to ensure that the design meets the needs of the users.
- Design leaders should set clear expectations for collaboration and use insights. They should also provide regular feedback to researchers and designers on how they are using the research findings.
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🍪 Things to snack on
I liked the simple description of how to frame each step in generating the research output and impact, From finding to doing by Jemma Frost. The steps are Data, Findings, Insights, Frameworks, Opportunities, and Recommendations. The article has a bunch of examples and tips for each of these.
Leisa Reichelt writes about what each role is responsible for in the process of downloading research in From insights to actions. Or, what should we do with this research?. Researchers should make insights actionable by describing what is happening and why it’s happening, but they can’t answer on their own what the team should do. Designers, product managers, engineers, and data scientist will all bring their perspectives into the process to get to that.
Nikki Anderson-Stainer has two great articles about activating insights:
- In Have Research Insights Collecting Dust? Here’s How to Activate Them she describes the step where insights would be used in the design process as activation. This happens after the research insights are delivered, and it’s about making sure the conclusions are heard and used by the org. The article offers a few techniques for activating both within the project (involving stakeholders, using video clips, running debriefs, having brainstorming sessions, and having space for Q&A) and after the project (HMW statements, ideation workshops, and insights hackathons).
- In Use Ideation and Co-Creation to Supercharge Your Insights she shows two ways to work with insights in the design process. Working with insights in an ideation workshop would mean having a clear pain point or need as the focus—as supported by insights from the research. Co-creation goes beyond the immediate team and brings participants into the process to have a direct perspective in the process, rather than just a stand-in insight.
Using Journey Lines: Insights and Ideation by Beverly Freeman and Mark Wehner is an interesting method for both collecting stories in user sessions and brainstorming for solutions afterward. In the sessions, the users build a journey together with an interviewer, a visual representation, and a simplified user journey of their experience. Later with the team, the same journey lines can be used as a brainstorming stimulus. The workshop members can take a look at the journey lines and should brainstorm ways to make them a better experience, thereby coming up with ideas to explore.
From Generative Interviews to a Strategic Roadmap with Atomic UX Research is a nice use case from Dovetail by Katryna Balboni about using insights. The article explains in a straightforward way how to use atomic insights to support opportunities, but maybe the more interesting part is how detailed design also needed a clear strategy to start.