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Choosing User Research Projects that Drive Product Strategy

How to choose the right research projects to drive change at the right time.

Ashley Tudor

User research is thriving at Flatiron Health, a technology company that focuses exclusively on oncology. The methodology drives important decisions and continues to make us better at building more thoughtful software for doctors. User research methodology comes into play not only in product development, but also when determining which projects we commit to. With countless research requests across the organization, we have to be selective and regimented when choosing the projects we take on. Here’s how we do it.

Systematically Uncover and Refine Research Questions

Team members will often make valid and passionate arguments for investing in specific user research questions. While some inbound requests warrant support from our team, a more proactive approach enables us to be more thoughtful about what we choose and why.

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The first step is to build out initial project plans. First we meet with project managers to scope their research questions. Defining and shaping good questions is more art than science. It is a collaborative process where we explore different approaches. It is also an opportunity to help develop our ability to define and refine user research questions as a team. For each research topic, we ask the following set of questions:

Project goals: What are we setting out to accomplish? What questions are we asking?

Project team: Who will be the product champion? Who will participate?

Timeline: When does this project need to be completed? Why?

Expected impact: What is the expected result? What will we do with our learnings? How will these learnings help drive the team forward?

Next, we zoom out. We think about our product roadmap, or larger trends or business priorities that warrant further study. We seek key stakeholders to collaborate with around potential projects and flesh out these projects as well.

Evaluate Options

With a comprehensive list of projects that range from tactical to strategic, we move on to evaluation. This is most often done with the director of design or head of product. This conversation allows us to add a layer of critical thinking on top of proposals. It also offers an informative perspective around staffing, organizational dynamics and historical context. Together we ask questions about the projects that sponsors might not, such as:

  • Who should carry out the research? Is this a true UR question? Is there a better method to uncover this information (i.e., internal interviews)? Can a team of non-researchers do the project?
  • Is a best guess good enough? Will going with our informed intuition get us far enough? What will happen if we get the answer wrong?
  • Implications: What impact does the answer to this research question have? What happens if we don’t do or wait to do the project? How will we change our course of action as a result?
  • Audience: Who is the audience for this information, the project, product, or executive team?

We go through the process of ranking projects into buckets: now, soon, later or never. With a bucketed and ranked list to choose from and a thoughtful framework to talk about, we can get into specifics about which projects will drive the most impact for our team.

Over the course of the quarter, we continue to build this list and come back to it. Sometimes a project that we didn’t want to do a quarter ago is a great project for us to take on now with the right champion.

Conclusion

Following a systematic process for uncovering and evaluating projects has upleveled the role of user research at Flatiron. The more thoughtful we are about choosing projects with impact, the more the needs of our users become a powerful voice in steering the direction of strategic planning. And isn’t that the goal?

What have been some of your strategies to uplevel your research practice? How have you engaged your team to refine meaningful research questions? Let’s all learn together.

Ashley Tudor

Ashley Tudor is a Lead UX Researcher at Flatiron Health. Previously, she headed up research at Thumbtack and worked in research and design thinking roles at IDEO and RentPath. She's a big believer in constantly showing, and teaching, the impact of your work as a user researcher.

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