Research is a Process
Even if you've identified a fruitful research question, there's still a chance your study will go entirely sideways. It has to do with the fact that research is not an object or place but a process. You can’t really touch research, but you can observe and participate in it. Without alignment, it's easy for everyone to have different expectations for how the research process will go.
Think about this: you've done all of this amazing research. You talked with participants face-to-face and felt their emotions. You did the tedious work, cleaning and analyzing all of the data. You're the one who made a short but meaningful report to communicate the learnings back to your stakeholders.
Now pause. You did that; your stakeholders did not. The entire research process is what matters, not the fact that you made a report or created a survey. The diagram above shows how quickly even the most invested stakeholders get farther and farther away from the active research process. Without alignment before a study, you can expect negative consequences after your study. So what exactly is alignment?
Alignment means that you and your stakeholders agree upon your research goals, purpose, and post-study decisions. One part is answering the “So what” question (from Topic 1 in this handbook). Another part is confirming what you’re setting out to study, who you will be learning from, and how exactly you will collect any data matches what your stakeholders expect and need.
Study alignment is also about documenting or discussing what are the possible or limited number of post-study decisions your stakeholders or business can take after your research concludes. If your stakeholders need help deciding between two possible designs, your research should help them figure out which design is better, why it’s better, and how that design can be improved or implemented. Without being aligned on what’s possible post-study, your research might collect data and findings that can’t be used or applied.
The list below covers the minimum ideas or topics needed for alignment before a study. Notice that this is the minimum, meaning you might need to add extra topics for complex or longer studies.
The minimum ideas or topics needed for study alignment
- The research question(s) and/or research hypotheses to be studied
- The Most Informative Participant (MIP) definition (jump to Collection 2, Handbook 1 for more)
- The possible or considered post-study decisions
- The method(s) or approach to be used to collect relevant data (jump to Collection 3 or Collection 4 for more)
- The rough timeline for when a study needs to have sharable findings and data
- The agreed-upon format for research findings to be shared, delivered or communicated (jump to Collection 6 for more)
All of these ideas are covered further in the guide below on getting study alignment before you start a research study. The answers and agreements on the topics above should end up in your research plan. Your research plan serves as a research artifact or any observable, tangible output that comes from or for the research process.
The takeaway is that you must align with your stakeholders before starting your study. Remember: you feel the impacts of fruitless questions after starting a study, not before. If you can, it's better to take time and study something important than rush a study and produce nothing valuable for your team.
You feel the impacts of fruitless research after starting a study, not before.
Let’s end this Handbook by reviewing two important goals you should accomplish before starting any study: getting stakeholders involved and setting expectations.
Get Stakeholders Involved
Pre-study alignment is a necessary but insufficient way for your stakeholders to see value in your research. You have to go a step further and get them involved. The closer your stakeholders get to the process or research, the more meaning, value, and excitement they’ll get from your research.
You can demystify the research process when you ask stakeholders to help narrow down which participants to test with, take simple notes during an interview, or record videos during field research. Research is not about findings but the act of learning together. And the closer you get your stakeholders to the research process, the more likely they'll encode or remember what they learned. Findings and insights will resonate and stick with them far longer than someone trying to recall a statistic from one of your past reports.
Research is not about findings but the act of learning together.
Below is a short list of ways to get your stakeholders involved in your research. Don’t be afraid to start small. Pick one stakeholder and one phase of your research study and get them involved. As mentioned in the Handbook 1 of this Collection, if you don’t make the effort to expose and engage your stakeholders about what fruitful research can be, you’ll be stuck running research with little impact and a lot of stress.
Ways to Get Stakeholders Involved
- Help draft interview or survey topics or questions
- Help filter and select participants to learn from
- Help decide what locations or environments to visit
- Help take notes during live sessions
- Help with coding and categorizing qualitative data
- Help discuss recommendations and the challenges of implementing them
- Help connect you to other relevant colleagues or parts of the business
One final piece of advice is to set communication expectations for how you’ll interact with stakeholders before, during, and after a study.
Set Communication Expectations
You might be happy to ignore stakeholders when you're actively collecting data. After all, you’ve got plenty of decisions and challenges to overcome to run any study. But you need to be open and ready to discuss what’s happening during your study as you’re running it. For most stakeholders, research becomes real only when your report comes out. But if your stakeholders are waiting to learn, you’ve already done yourself a disservice because research can feel slow or lethargic.
Get in the habit of discussing when and how you’ll communicate with stakeholders. If the recruitment is going poorly, explain how early you’ll inform them and possible strategies to fix it. If you’re learning about urgent issues that need to be solved quickly, let stakeholders know they’ll get an email or message with that relevant information.
Communicating during a study doesn’t mean sharing tons of data or conducting deep analysis; it means that you’re doing whatever you can to close the distance between those aligning on a study and the final learning from that research.
You’ll need to set different communication expectations based on your stakeholders, timeline, and resources. If you can engage stakeholders with even 2-3 bullet points of quick information from your active research, do it. It’ll help your stakeholders recognize that research can be lightweight and engaging and not something tedious or slow.
Handbook Closing Thoughts
Studying a fruitless question means you're doomed from the start. Recognizing, refining, and aligning on a fruitful question with your stakeholders means setting everyone up to learn the most possible from any single study. Do whatever you can to avoid studying these fruitless questions. You'll slowly help your business de-risk and jump over obstacles while making it easier for everyone to gravitate towards meaningful ways to improve the experience.
One idea that your stakeholders might not know about is how risky research can be. You'll have to make a series of predictions before starting any research. One of the riskiest decisions you'll have to make and put in your research plan is around participants. In the next Collection, let's better understand participant recruitment.