Setting up a research practice

8 min read

For all you hear about the benefits of UX research, many companies are only now starting up their own research teams. As surprising as it may be, many organizations continue to take products from the drawing board through to development and launch without ever sitting down with a user or running a simple usability test.

As surprising (or unsurprising) as it may be, many organizations still don’t have a formalized research process in place. It’s true that some type of research is being done, but this is often a secondary task for product managers, designers and marketers. This is starting to change, but it’s still far from the norm.

The logical next step, in these cases, would be to formalize the process of user research. Instead of leaving it up to whoever has the time or ability, set up a dedicated practice to track and manage research projects and then deliver the insights at the end.

It’s important – establishing a research practice in the right way is often a deciding factor in how successful research is within the organization in future. Looked at another way, a successful research practice can help to set a precedent for how research is embedded in the decision-making process when it comes to product development.

This guide explains how to go about setting up a research practice, right from square one.

Figure out what you need to focus on and where research sits

One of the first activities for any research practice should be prioritizing work. This can be a tough task, especially if there’s high demand for research insights within the organization. Start by identifying what you need to focus on based on risk or even areas of uncertainty among other parts of the organization. For example:

  • Sales staff may not have enough information about how people use your organization’s products.
  • Marketing teams may be struggling to target campaigns as they don’t know enough about potential customers.

You also need to identify where research sits on your organizational chart. You need to know who you report to, where directives or tasks are likely to come from and where you can draw support from. This may be something you have to figure out yourself by sitting down and talking with stakeholders and other teams.

Learn who your users are

The point of UX research is to learn about your users, so it stands to reason the first thing you should do when setting up a research practice is to figure out who these people are. Beyond that, you’re going to need participants to carry out your research.

First things first: Are your users internal or external? Both? Is your organization looking at targeting a new market? If you don’t know where to start, it’s often best to look internally. You can find a wealth of information about your users by speaking other departments. Sales, customer support and design teams are always good starting points. From here, you can start to form proto-personas that can help guide your initial research.

Once you’ve got an idea of who your customers are, spend some time developing personas based on insights from real research. Existing resources will prove useful to begin with – like support tickets and emails – but you should also conduct user interviews to flesh these personas out and ensure they are as evidence-based as possible. A set of focused personas can prove useful across your organization, increasing the general understanding of who you’re building products for. Be sure to share the results of your persona creation with the wider organization too and ensure that each one is considered when developing products at your company.

How to educate others on the value of user research

Research can’t exist in a vacuum – it’s a practice that thrives on collaboration and integration with the wider organization. You can’t run research activities as a one-off, you need to integrate research into the daily operations of the organization. For research to really succeed, everybody needs to be onboard.

There are 2 major things you can do to ensure that the value of research is well-understood.

Educate others about user research

Sit down with individual teams and describe  what UX research is, why it’s important and how you can both work together to grow an understanding of research. Host dedicated sessions for the different areas of your organization for an opportunity to tailor your message. Consider how you might want to speak to the engineers in your organization as opposed to the sales team.

You may also want to teach others how to do their own research. This could be as simple as asking members of other teams if they’d like to come along to a usability test, or perhaps even hosting sessions on the ‘how’ of user research instead of the ‘why’.

Build an internal resource

If you want to take your organization education a step further, consider creating an internal resource focused on user research. Using a digital platform like Confluence or Notion (or even Google Drive), start to build a repository of your research notes, best-practice guides and study results. Logging everything research-related in one place means anyone interested can access your insights, plus you’ll have a clear record of your own research activities – useful for when new researchers join your team.

It’s also a good idea to collate insights from around the organization. Customer support and sales staff will undoubtedly be learning a lot from customers and potential customers already, but just have nowhere to pull all of this information together. In reality, the most valuable internal resource isn’t one that stores research findings, but any useful insight regardless of origin.

Find your tools

While it’s true that you can do a significant amount of user research without the help of dedicated tools, they can make your job much easier – and in some cases even elevate your work. Powerful analysis features, for example, can pull insights out of data that you may have never otherwise noticed.

Of course, the tools you choose will depend on the research you do, as well as what you’re familiar with, but it’s a good idea to put together a comparison before you decide.

Given that we’ve got our own suite of UX tools, we thought we’d run through the features of the Optimal Workshop suite and also take a look at some other products that act as useful accompaniments.

Research tools:

  • OptimalSort A card sorting tool. OptimalSort reduces the time required to set up card sorts and offers a number of options for running your card sorts. Analysis features help you to derive useful insights from your data.
  • User TestingYou can run OptimalSort card sorts with the User Testing platform, giving you audio and video of participants completing card sorts. This means you’ll learn more about why people make certain decisions.
  • TreejackA tree testing tool. You can use Treejack to test the information architecture of your website and see if your navigation and labels make sense.
  • dScout A video research platform that collects in-context “moments” from a network of global participants, who answer your research questions either by video or through photos.
  • Reframer A qualitative research tool. Reframer makes the process of taking notes far easier by giving you a place to store and tag every observation. Analysis features can show you patterns across your notes.
  • EthnioA research tool designed to intercept people who land on your website (through a pop-up) and then carry out some form of research with them.
  • ChalkmarkA first-click testing tool. Use Chalkmark to see if your users get off on the right foot when they land on a particular page.

Productivity tools:

  • CalendlyScheduling user interviews and usability tests can be difficult. Calendly is essentially an assistant that allows your research participants to pick a time in your calendar that works for them.
  • MuralA so-called digital workspace, it helps to think of Mural like an online whiteboard where you can collaborate with your team in real time.
  • DescriptThis transcription tool speeds up the process of transcribing interviews from audio into text.

Socialize your findings

UX research is more than just conducting your study and analyzing your results, you’ve got to take these findings back to the relevant teams and stakeholders so the insights can be actioned. It’s not easy – communicating your findings in the right way and to the right people can be one of the toughest parts of user research. The challenge is finding the right way to present what you’ve discovered.

Documenting your research activities is one way to set yourself up for success in this regard. With clear documentation of your research, you’ll find it much easier to pull out the necessary details for a presentation. Think about your audience too. You may find that managers and department heads will be happy with a short one-page document outlining your findings, but designers, engineers and developers will likely want more in-depth and technical documentation. The key here? Be prepared to back up whatever you present with data and justification.

Where to from here?

By following the path we’ve outlined in this guide (or something close to it), you’ll hopefully be on your way to establishing a strong research practice in your organization.

While a good set of tools, an understanding of your users and a company that understands the value of research are all great starting points, remember that the work of a good researcher is ongoing. Research is an ever-evolving practice that gives you an opportunity to always learn and grow and teach others.