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Creating valuable change starts with great research

To understand people, we need to step into their shoes. The best way to do that is with research — sit with them, take an interest, listen really hard, watch what they do, how they look and sound. The thing that led me to research was my curiosity. I was that annoying kid that always asked anyone who would listen “but why?”. They say to make a living out of what you love – and I can’t help asking questions and I love finding out the answers.

The reason I do research is to find out things we don’t already know, to challenge our assumptions and confront any bias. Sometimes the results of research can be surprising or confronting – and it can be hard to take this all on board. But if we really want to create human-centred experiences and products, we need to listen deeply to people.

Here are my tips for making your research, and ultimately your digital experience, matter.

It's the journey as much as the destination

Each research project is like going on a road trip – you need a good plan but you also want to be able to pull over at that cute little town that isn’t on the itinerary. The research purpose is the ultimate destination. This is a statement that clearly defines what you are trying to find out and how this will be used. But serendipity is the friend of all good researchers because you can stumble across the most brilliant facts, quotes, participants along the way. It should be said that all interview subjects (and data points) are not equal and sometimes you will interview someone who can articulate what you can see many of the others were experiencing. A lightbulb goes off and the pieces start to form a picture or a story about what you have learned.

Never stop asking questions

The first questions I ask as a researcher are “why should we research this?” and “why does the customer say that?”, which leads to “what are the common themes?” and “what does all this mean for the future?”. A big part of being a great researcher is being able to work out what the purpose of the research is and delivering on that. This is not as simple as it sounds. Usually we start with a general idea of why we want to do research, but further questioning always helps us to get to the nub of the matter. Crafting great research questions really is an art, it takes time and I usually pick the brains of the subject matter experts to make sure we get it right. Our customer insights team works with clients, customers, stakeholders, and colleagues to ensure we're asking the right questions at the right time. And by asking open questions and observing actions (or inaction), we can get closer to understanding people's needs.

Give people the space to tell their stories

There are lots of different ways to do research and build empathy. When interviewing people, it’s important to suspend judgement and be an active listener. A common response of “That is understandable” goes a long way to helping people feel comfortable and reassured.

This is particularly important when you are researching sensitive subjects. When people feel safe and get talking, they tell us things they don’t plan to say, and sometimes a throw away comment gives you the best insight. I recently interviewed a psychiatrist who was in his office at the hospital. He apologised for being "on call" and that our chat may be interrupted because they were short staffed due to the pandemic. It was a story that would be repeated during interviews with other health professionals. Being there and experiencing it for yourself is the best way to develop empathy, but that isn’t always possible. People often tell their story more openly in their own home, and one way to capture this is by asking them to keep a video diary.

I remember one particularly powerful video where a participant spoke about how important a local makers’ centre was to him. He was sitting in his living room, recording the diary entry while surrounded by the wooden figurines he had made at the centre. This video really helped those who owned the centre to understand how important it was to users – and helped to make the case to keep the centre open.

Pause before you act

Part of being a great researcher is checking yourself and your opinions – we all have them, whether they are about politics or eating habits. I often pause to make sure I don’t allow my opinions to bias our research. This is important because it is this ability to be open and objective that gives research its credibility.

It may sound strange but pausing during an interview is also really powerful. It gives you time to reflect on what's been said, and more importantly it gives them time to think about what they want to say next. If you pause, you sometimes find that the interviewee will fill that silence.

Research usually delivers a mass of facts and figures and notes all over the place, and to make sense of this you need to make judgements about what is important, and what is not.

I will often pause before dismissing information and consider why I think it is irrelevant. If I am not sure or have a nagging doubt, I will get a second opinion.

Be rigorous

A great researcher can put her hand on her heart and swear the research is reliable (so if we repeated the study, we would get the same results). This is where things get technical. Being rigorous starts with how we design a research activity, through to how we do the research, and analyse, interpret and report the results. The quality of any research depends on who the participants are – and at Liquid go to great lengths to make sure that we only include genuine people.

Asking unbiased research questions is essential because basically people are agreeable, and highly suggestable. This is one of the most common mistakes that new researchers make. Leading questions, such as “Was that easy to do?”, skew the results towards a positive response. Instead, we ask “How easy or complicated was that to do?”, which invites users to criticise or share any problems they have with their experience. Because after all, one of the main reasons for doing research is to get a better understanding of the situation, emotions and experience.

As a young researcher I was taught to double check any data that was interesting or unexpected because it was often wrong. I have found this to be true time and again. It is always a relief to correct an error in the data and exclude it from the analysis, or explore a result further if the data is correct. A colleague of mine had a good example of this where the data indicated visitation rates to a website had skyrocketed. Yes, it could have been a data error, but on further investigation, it was discovered a social media influencer had put a link to the site in their blog. It drove traffic to the site but unfortunately, they didn’t necessarily do anything once there. Always check, be thorough, and be curious.

Know the difference between analysis and insight

Analysis helps us describe what people do or say; insight brings us the underlying reasons.

Once we understand the “why”, this leads us naturally to “so what?”. The best research gives us new insights that are actionable. Research often delivers us a collection of data that we combine to answer the research questions. For example, in a Discovery phase we often do a series of activities including desktop reviews, stakeholder and customer interviews, and surveys.

We consider the sometimes-contradictory results from these various studies together and interpret what they mean through the lens of the research purpose and customer.

You’re a storyteller, not a spreadsheet

One of my favourite things about being a researcher is telling the story of what we have found. However, it is not always easy to capture your audience’s attention. We all learned from storytelling when we were children – and different types of stories had different purposes. There were funny stories, sad stories, scary stories, and cautionary tales.

A customer insight story is about what people do/think/feel about their experience of your products or services. There are usually many stories within a body of customer research – so we need to decide which stories to tell, which really depends upon your audience.

I have used storytelling in the past to help museum staff understand that a training module they had created about coding was too advanced for some of their intended audience - teachers. This was a challenging idea for the staff because they were experts in coding and thought the course was already very basic. The story I told them was about the consequences of teachers not fully understanding the training - they would go back to school and fail to teach the module because they didn't want to stand in front of a classroom full of teenagers and be caught out. Now, because the museum staff had all worked in classrooms themselves, they understood the teachers’ fear, so the module was reviewed. Good storytelling helps people connect on an emotional and intellectual level in a way that is inspiring and memorable. It builds empathy and understanding.


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