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8 Tips to Build a Quicker, Easier Research Practice

We partnered with Aurelius to bring you a webinar full of great research tips

Building and maintaining a research practice is a lot of work. It takes time and effort to recruit great participants, put together thoughtful studies, analyze your learnings, and organize everything in a way that makes sense to you and your team for years to come. If reading that sentence made you sigh, you’ve come to the right place. 

We teamed up with Zack Naylor, CEO and Co-founder of Aurelius to share some ways you can make your research practice quicker, easier, and more impactful. Without further ado, here’s the recording 👇.

Pretty great right? Right.

If you’re a person who likes to read instead of watch, never fear. In the webinar, I promised I’d whip up a handy blog post that would lay out our tips in writing. To start, check out our super cool slide deck.

To begin, let’s be clear: there’s no magical research fairy 🧚. Zack and I cannot grow wings, get magic wands, or send anyone to the ball in a pumpkin. The tips we shared are meant to make research easier, quicker, and more impactful, but meaningful research still requires a hefty amount of manpower, human curiosity, and insight. We’re not here to tell you to turn it on autopilot. With that said, let’s get to the tips.

1. Make research habitual

Building healthy habits is hard to do. It doesn’t matter if it’s eating a salad for lunch, going to the gym once a week, or building a habitual research cadence, habit-building takes a lot of willpower. By establishing a cadence that works for you and your team, based on realistic expectations about your resources, and sticking to your schedule, you can get into a groove of talking to customers on a regular basis. 

Establish a cadence

No one knows your schedule, your team, and your resources better than you. While research experts suggest getting into the habit of talking to customers weekly, you’ll need to decide on a cadence you can keep up with. Building habits is easiest when you start with something you can do frequently, without much effort. So, starting out with a 20-minute conversation once a week can help you build up to bigger research projects, while staying in the habit of talking to users. 

Be realistic about your resources

Research takes up more time and resources than you may think. You’ll need to consider you and your team’s time, the cost of research software (like User Interviews and Aurelius), and the incentives you’ll pay participants for their time. These costs don’t have to be prohibitive, and there are tons of free or low-cost tools and resources out there to help you build a research practice that doesn’t break the bank. Regardless of how you build your practice, it’s important to consider how much time and $$ you’ll need to make it go right.

Time-wise, consider planning meetings to launch and close research projects and blocking off the time you’ll need to devote to the actual research sessions. If you’re talking to customers weekly, keep in mind that you don’t always have to have an interview planned. It can be anything from a five-minute conversation about a customer pain point to an in-depth usability test. Keep it loose, but stay consistent in whatever cadence you decide on.

Stick to the plan

Product discovery coach Teresa Torres recommends blocking off weekly time on your calendar for research. That way, your research is baked into your schedule, just like anything else. Deciding on a time that works for you helps you stick to the habit of research. For example, our product team does research every week at 2 pm on Thursdays. 

If you decide to take it a step further and recruit participants through Research Hub, you could have your weekly time slot automagically filled with a user or participant, so all you have to do is join the meeting. 

2. Organize your research projects consistently

You can do the best research in the world, but it won’t matter if it’s buried and impossible to find when you need it later. Zack has even heard some people say, for them, it’s easier to do entirely new research than dig through old research to find what they need. Keeping your notes, findings, and data organized helps make the resources you spend on research go further. Work smarter, not harder. 

Group your projects by research effort or product

When it comes to actually creating an organization system for your research, Zack recommends sorting by product or research effort. Organizing by product works well if you’re managing multiple products and wondering if people found the signup process difficult for product A or B. If you don’t have multiple products, or would rather group your findings another way, organize by research effort. Grouping by research effort helps you keep everything from one project in one place, and you can use tags or subcategories to further refine your observations. 

How to organize notes and observations

When it comes time to do your research, make sure you’re organizing your notes as you go. Zack suggests starting with a clear naming structure for your projects, notes, categories, and subcategories. There’s no right or wrong way to set a naming structure, or to organize your notes, it’s whatever works best for you and your team. What’s important is that you keep it consistent as you build your knowledge base. Zack provided this great example of a naming structure

Project name: “New customer user interviews - March 2019”

Note groups or categories in the project
: “Interview 1 with GN” (in this example, “GN” would be the initials of the person you interviewed)

Repeat as necessary for the number of interviews, usability testing sessions, etc.

When it comes to actually organizing the notes you take during research, Zack suggests avoiding big walls of text. Not only are they intimidating to look at, but people are less likely to read them. Break up your notes into digestible nuggets that illustrate your point (hint hint, Aurelius's bulk import feature does this automatically). 

3. Assemble a panel of participants

A panel of participants is a group of people (users, potential users, members of your target audience, etc.) who you can always call on to participate in research. Panel management tools allow you to keep track of when a participant last took part in a study and add information about them as your research practice grows. Research Hub can automatically track your current panel + any participants you recruit through our app. This can be helpful if you’re starting from scratch, or looking for a central place to keep track of all your research participants.

How to build a panel of participants

So how do you build your panel of participants? There are a few places you can start, and our VP of Growth & Marketing dove deep into the topic while writing about how to build an automated customer research machine. I’ll outline some of them here, and highlight a few tools you can use to help get you there. If you have a customer list that you’re allowed to use for research, that’s the best starting point!

First, you’ll need a feedback opt-in form. This is a simple form that asks for a bit of information about your potential participants and clarifies that you’ll be contacting them to invite them to future studies. You can create an opt-in form through free software like Google Forms, or use another survey tool, like Typeform

Here’s an example form (which you can copy and use for your research).

You can distribute your form through social media or in-context links (like your blog or support pages). You can also allow people to opt in to your panel through in-app intercepts (like Appcues, Usabilla, or Drift), or after chatting with your support team (through Zendesk, Intercom, or another support platform). 

4. Tag and organize notes as you go

Keeping organized notes as you conduct interviews can help you find your research easily later, and get the most out of every research effort. 

Keep detailed participation notes

If you’ve assembled a panel, you can continue to improve it as you build it by adding detailed participation notes. If someone didn’t show up for a session, you’ll want to track that to make sure you’re not left hanging next time you do research. If you want to start keeping track of the household income of your participants, you can continue to update your panel as you do more research. Documenting new information as you gather it makes it easier to find what you need later, and allows you to build a data-rich panel of potential participants. 

Speed up analysis time later, and allow yourself to dig deeper

If you’re constantly coding your notes by project or product, then adding tags to identify themes and trends, you’ll be able to quickly identify what you learned when you start analyzing everything. If you can take note during research of instances when participants talk about something specific, you'll be able to use your precious analysis time to actually read through and digest everything you learned, instead of spending it coding your notes. 

A sample of how you can organize notes and tags in Aurelius.

5. Involve the whole team

Research is a big task, and sometimes it’s too much for one person to do alone. Besides, getting your team involved in research can help them learn more about your customers. This makes it easy to keep customers top of mind when building new solutions, designing new stuff, or talking about what’s next. 

Set learning goals that have more impact

The best way to ensure research is impactful and valued at your organization is to align your research goals with the goals of your team and your business. No one knows those goals better than the people who actually set them and the people whose jobs depend on them. Work with your team to establish research goals for your projects that have an impact. This makes research a teammate too, something everyone can use to help get to the finish line, rather than another task that has to get done. 

Take notes & synthesize data

Your teammates can also help with the research itself. For example, you could ask them for help taking notes in sessions and coding the data you gather. Taking notes is a low-effort task that allows them to contribute in a meaningful way, hear firsthand from customers, and observe research in action. If you’ve established clear naming and tagging conventions, they should be able to tag and code their notes quickly after the interview, or even during it. You can make this even easier by sharing clear templates that outline how notes should be taken. In fact, I’ve gone ahead and made one for you.  

6. Document everything you can

Since research takes a lot of work, you’ll want to get everything you can out of it. So use your team, take great notes, and document document document. 

Take diligent notes

Diligent notes can help cut down on time you’ll need to spend on analysis, and you never know what could be useful to you and your team later. UX researcher Nicola Rushton recommends asking note-takers to take verbatim notes. This ensures that you have everything you need later, and keeps distracted note-takers focused on the participant for the entire session. While getting absolutely every word is probably not quite possible, capturing how your participants say what they do can help keep your insights true to the participant’s experience. 

Code your notes as you go

Try your best to code your notes as you go, and be sure to leave a 15-minute buffer between sessions to catch up. This cuts down on time you’ll have to spend later analyzing your data and ensures that you’re coding your notes with the session still fresh in your memory.

Put everything in one central location

Keeping everything central makes it easier to access later. It also ensures that it’s easy to reorganize insights in case they are miscategorized or need to be expanded. Be sure to add any additional assets you gather during your research, like a recording of the session, pictures of the testing screens, or anything else you gather along the way. 

7. Create key insights for sharing nuggets or findings

Sure, data is great, but without a clear organization system and an easy way to digest what you’ve learned, it’s unlikely thatyour findings will be used to make meaningful change. Zack suggests building key insights that help you and your team make sense of what you learned. 

A key insight has four parts:

  • Title: Statement of what you learned
  • Description: Details about that statement and why it’s important
  • Supporting Data: Notes, observations, and artifacts that support the key insight and provide more context
  • Tags: Labels that describe the key insight to easily organize, find, and reuse the insight by pattern or theme 

8. Group relevant key insights across projects and get them shared

Key insights, or “nuggets”, as Tomer Sharon coined them, are an easy way to make sense of where your research data fits into the bigger picture of what you’re trying to build. It’s also a good way to organize insights from multiple studies into one main thought. Sharing key insights with your team—communicating what matters and why in a format that's easy to digest—is the last step to getting your research practice making an impact. 

That’s all, folks! We had an awesome time creating and hosting this webinar. Thank you to everyone who came, everyone who watched after the fact, and a special thanks to everyone who asked questions. We hope these tips help you create an awesome research practice that works for you and your team.

Carrie Boyd
Former Content Writer at UI

Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.

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