When to compromise on depth of research and when to push back

10 min read Ashlea McKay

Time, money, people, access, reach. The resources we have at our disposal can also become constraints. In the real world, research projects don’t always follow a perfect plan. There are times when we have to be pragmatic and work with what we have, but there are limits. Knowing where those limits are and when to push back can be really challenging. If we don’t push back in the right way, our research results and design decisions could be compromised and if we push back in the wrong way, we may be inviting a whole host of new resourcing constraints that might just make life harder for us.

Let’s take a look at some research approach compromises that you should push back on, some examples of useful workarounds that will still allow you to gain the insights you need for your project and some constructive ways to lead those push back conversations.

4 research depth compromises that you should push back on

When you’re asked (or told) to talk to experts and frontline staff instead of users or customers

We know we’re not our users and this is definitely one of those moments where we have a responsibility to speak up and try to find a better way. Experts and frontline staff who interact with users or customers all day long certainly have a lot of value to contribute to the design process, however you really do need to gather insights from the people you’re designing for. Failing to include users or customers in your research has a high likelihood of coming back to bite you in the form of poorly designed products, services and experiences that will need to be redesigned costing you more time and money. If you do happen to get away with it and produce something that is fit for purpose, it’s because you were lucky. Don’t base your design decisions on luck and don’t let your stakeholders and team do it either.

When you’re told to just run a focus group (and nothing else)

Focus groups are a pain for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest issues is that the information that you’ll gather through them more often than not lacks depth, context and sometimes even authenticity. When you bring a group of people together into a room, instead of useful and useable insights, you’re more likely to end up with a pile of not-so-helpful opinions and you open your research up to a delightful thing called groupthink where your participants may say they agree with something when they actually don’t. Also, the things that people say they do in a focus group might not align to what they actually do in reality. It’s not their fault – they most likely think they’re being helpful but they’re really just giving you a bunch data you can’t be sure of.

When you’re told to just run a survey (and nothing else)

There’s a time and a place for when a survey might be appropriate, but a standalone research study isn’t it. A survey on its own isn’t enough to gain an appropriate level of depth to inform complex design decisions – it’s more of a starting point or a study to complement a round of user interviews. Surveys don’t allow you to dig deeper into participant responses – you can’t ask follow up questions in that moment and keep asking questions until you get the insight you need. You also don’t know what they’re doing or where they are when they complete your survey. You have no context or control over their environment – they might not complete the whole thing in one sitting and may leave it open on their device while they go off and complete other non-survey related tasks.

Surveys function best when they’re brief and don’t take up too much of your participant’s time because if they’re too long or require in-depth detail to be shared, people might just start providing quick or less than helpful responses just to get through it and finish. If there’s an incentive on offer, you also run the risk of participants providing nonsense responses just to complete the study to obtain the reward or they might just tell you what they think you want to hear so they don’t miss out.

When you’re told to skip discovery research

Skipping this very important early step in the design process in the hopes of saving time or money can end up being quite costly. If you launch into the design stage of a new product or a major redesign of an existing product without conducting UX research upfront, you’ll likely end up designing something that isn’t needed, wanted or fit for purpose. When this happens, all that time and money you apparently ‘saved’ – and then some – will get spent anyway trying to clean up the mess like I mentioned earlier. Start your design journey out on the right foot and work with your team and stakeholders to find a way to not skip this critical piece of research.

4 research depth compromises that won’t kill your project

Talking to a smaller group of users when the only other alternative is doing no research at all

If you have to choose between talking to 5 users or customers or no one at all, always pick the former. Talking to a smaller group is far better than talking to absolutely no one and essentially designing off your and your team’s opinion and not much else. Research is scalable. You don’t have to run 20+ user interviews to gather useful and deep insights – in many cases patterns tend to appear around the 5-10 participants mark. You can run your research in smaller bites and more often to save on time and keep your project moving along. If you’re short on time or money or your customers are hard to reach location wise, run your user interviews over the phone!

Guerrilla research

I’ve met people who aren’t a fan of the term ‘guerilla research’. I’ve been told it’s a negative term that can imply that you’re doing something you don’t have permission to be doing. Well guess what? Sometimes you are! We’re not all in privileged positions where UX research is an accepted and willingly supported practice. UX maturity comes in many shapes and sizes and some of us still need to prove the value of UX research to our stakeholders and organisations.

Hitting the streets or a customer facing environment (e.g., a store) with a mobile device for a few hours one afternoon is a good way to gather research insights quickly. While you will have to limit your interactions with participants to under 3 to 5 minutes, it can be a good way to get a lot of responses to a handful of big burning questions that you might be tackling during your discovery research.

As always, research begets research and this approach might give you the insights you need to secure buy in for a much larger piece of research. You might also use this technique to gather quantitative data or run a quick usability test a new feature. First-click testing tools like Chalkmark for example, are great for this because all the participant has to do is click on an image on a screen. It takes seconds for them to complete and you can include post study questions in the tool for them to answer or you can just have a conversation with them then and there.

Remote research

When it comes to remote research there are a lot of different methods and techniques covering the entire design process from start to finish. It’s super flexible and scalable and the level of depth you can achieve in a short space of time and effort can be significant. The depth compromise here is not being in the same room as your participants. For example if you’re running a remote card sort with OptimalSort, you won’t get to hear a conversation about why certain cards were placed where they were, however you will gather a decent amount of solid quantitative data quickly and most of the analysis work is done for you saving even more time. You can also fill in any qualitative research gaps by including pre and post study questions and you could also use your findings to help prove the need for resources to conduct face to face research to complement your remote study.

Live A/B testing

Also called split testing, live A/B testing on a website or app is a quick way to test out a new feature or an idea for a new feature. Much like with remote research, you won’t get to ask why your research participants did what they did, but you will obtain quantitative evidence of what they did in real time while attempting to complete a real task. It’s a quick and dirt cheap way to find out what does and doesn’t work. You could always ask your website visitors to complete a quick exit survey when they leave your website or app or you could consider positioning a quick poll that appears in the moment that they’re completing the task e.g., during checkout. You can test anything from a whole page to the language used in a Call to Action (CTA), and while the results are largely quantitative, you’ll always learn something new that you can use to inform your next iterative design decision.

How to constructively push back

When approaching push back conversations it can be helpful to try to understand where these requests or constraints are coming from and why. Why are you being told to just run a focus group? Why isn’t there any funding for participant recruitment or a reasonable amount of time for you to complete the research? Why has it been suggested that you skip talking to actual users or customers? And so on. Talk to your stakeholders. Consider framing it as you trying to understand their needs and goals better so that you can help them achieve them – after all, that is exactly what you’re trying to do.

Talk to your team and colleagues as well. If you can find out what is driving the need for the research depth compromise, you might just be able to meet any constraints halfway. For example, maybe you could pitch the option of running a mixed methods research approach to bridge any resourcing gaps. You might run a survey and 5 x 20 minute user interviews over the phone or a video call if you’re short on time for example. It’s also possible that there might be a knowledge gap or a misunderstanding around how long research takes and how much it costs. A little education can go a very long way in convincing others of the importance of UX research. Take your stakeholders along for the journey and do research together where possible. Build those relationships and increased UX maturity may follow.

Pushing back might feel intimidating or impossible, but it’s something that every UX researcher has had to do in their career. User and research advocacy is a big part of the job. Have confidence in your abilities and view these conversations as an opportunity to grow. It can take some practice to get it right, but we have a responsibility to our users, customers, team, stakeholders and clients to do everything we can to ensure that design decisions are supported by solid evidence. They’re counting on us to gather and provide the insights that deliver amazing experiences and it’s not unreasonable to have a conversation about how we can all work better together to achieve awesome things. It’s not about ensuring your research follows a pitch perfect plan. Compromise and pragmatism are completely normal parts of the process and these conversations are all about finding the right way to do that for your project.

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Ashlea McKay

Ashlea McKay is a UX researcher, writer and keynote speaker with an industrial design background. She has more than a decade of professional experience spanning both the public and private sectors. Ashlea co-founded UX advice column UX Agony Aunt with Optimal Workshop in 2015 and is based in Australia.