Writing Effective Research Reports and Presentations

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This part of the field guide comes from our 2019 version of the UX Research Field Guide. Updated content for this chapter is coming soon!

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This chapter focuses on the most common types of research deliverables: the standard written report and the live presentation. We’ll go over when to use a report or presentation, and best practices for content and formatting, including our very own storytelling structure designed for UX researchers. We’ll also discuss more specific types of reports such as usability reports, analytics reports, and competitive analysis reports that you may want to include in your standard report or presentation.

What is a Research Deliverable?

As a user experience professional, you’ll need to communicate the extensive and often complex findings you uncover in your research. In the world of UX research, the term “deliverables” refers to any tangible document or presentation that shows a record of the work that has taken place. These deliverables often take the form of graphs, charts, maps, reports, videos, and presentations.

All research projects, and the information gathered from them, are going to be fundamentally different. That means there’s no cookie-cutter formula to create the perfect deliverable. You may even need to take advantage of multiple types of deliverables to make sure everything is communicated to your stakeholder as clearly and effectively as possible.

Reports and Presentations

Remember when you did science experiments in grade school and had to hand in a report with a bunch of data, or make a formal presentation? Reports and presentations for UX research deliverables are pretty similar! (Of course, they'll be more in-depth and not in the font Comic Sans.)

All jokes aside, reports and presentations are the most common types of deliverables UX researchers use to share their information with stakeholders. We’re going to talk about many different types of deliverables in the next few chapters (wireframes, usability reports, personas, etc.), but they are very often incorporated into a standard report or presentation.

Before discussing which UX specific deliverables can help add some spice to your report or presentation, you have to figure out which medium is best suited for your project and audience.

Written Report vs. Live Presentation: Which Should You Go With?

The main purpose of research deliverables is to be able to communicate your findings to stakeholders, and make sure they see the significance of the data. Hopefully, after reading your report or watching your live presentation, they’ll be as excited and familiar with the material as you are.

There are both pros and cons to using a report vs. a presentation, but your audience should be the key deciding factor for which you ultimately choose to create.

If you’re dealing with small groups of people, and they are technical stakeholders like engineers or other researchers, and they are geographically disparate, then reports are an effective choice. They’re a more standardized way of recording information and presenting findings, so if your stakeholders are scattered across the world and read reports frequently, this may be the appropriate medium for you.

Reports are also great in contexts where you need to include the full scope of the study data and information. In many companies, UX researchers create a standard report after each study, so they’ll have a comprehensive account of the study on record, regardless of what other deliverables they produce.

The downside to reports is that they can be tedious to read, and they’re usually not as engaging as a presentation or something visual. In fact, UX researchers commonly complain that stakeholders either don’t read or remember much of the information in their reports.

"Decks have the easiest validation method because when you have everyone in the room, theoretically they're listening to you. That's a part of it. The other part of it is making sure the research is sticky. I've been doing this for 6 or 7 years and I don't think I've had a single project where I've presented the research report to an intimate team I've been working with for a while and say, 'Here are the top 3 takeaways, A, B and C.' I'm never surprised when 2 days later somebody basically re-asks the same research question. 'Hey, have we thought about A, B, and C?' And I said, 'Yeah, we just literally talked about this 2 days ago.'"
-Geoffrey Priester, UX Researcher @ Google

If you’re trying to persuade a large group of people that they should do away with New Feature X, making them all sit down and read a 20-page research report isn’t going to be the most effective way to do that. Especially if a large portion of the people in that group aren’t other researchers. If your stakeholders are designers or people who are more visual, then you should use a presentation.

Presentations are becoming increasingly popular in the UX community because they are engaging and make it easier to relay certain types of findings.. If you’re having trouble getting stakeholders to read your reports, it may be time to switch over to presentations.

Presentations force researchers to be concise and curate the deliverable to only the findings that really matter. Many stakeholders,, like product managers and designers for instance, may not need or want to know everything about the study and how it was conducted. In fact, if you try to walk them through every last detail, chances are you’re going to lose their attention.

For those that might get lost in the weeds reading a report, create a presentation that just focuses on the key information such as the problem, supporting data, and recommended solutions for only those problems related to the research objectives. They will likely retain the information a lot better this way than they would by reading an extensive report.

So, when it comes to whether you should create a report or a presentation—we say do both! Making the information available in both formats will ensure different types of audiences and people can access your findings. And even if the presentation works best for communicating the information, it’s often helpful to have a more detailed report available for you and your team-members to reference, and for the company to have on file.

What Should I Include In My Report?

Now that you know how to choose between a report and a presentation, it’s time to actually create the deliverable itself!

To create a successful report, you’ll want to craft a thorough document that’s also easy to navigate. Fortunately, the usability community has a common industry format (CIF) for user research reports that covers everything you’d need to include in a formal CIF report. You can read the CIF below, and download the actual document here.

If you’ve ever written or read a study publication from a scientific journal, you’ll notice that the CIF for user research looks a lot like any other scientific article. But if you’ve read these publications, you also know scientific articles are often long and tedious to read. If your document is intended for other researchers, then it’s likely that they read and write documents like these regularly, and should be able to breeze through your report written in CIF, despite the length. In fact, the great thing about having a CIF is that universal guidelines make reading reports more efficient within the research community.

Reports in CIF are perfect if your readers are other researchers or if you’re required to create a thorough documentation of the study to keep on file. However, they’re not always ideal for busy stakeholders such as product managers and designers, who may be deterred by the sheer length. If you’re looking to make a report for a non-research audience, you may want to stray from the CIF, or at least spice up your document for readability.

Using Storytelling Structure to Engaging Your Stakeholders

Speaking of spicing up your document, we’re going to share our step-by-step guide to engaging your stakeholders.

Recently, we conducted interviews with practicing UX researchers to get a sense of their biggest pain-points when dealing with stakeholders and deliverables, and our conversations revealed that the common problem amongst them is getting stakeholders to engage with and retain the information in their reports and presentations.

While these researchers reported that using live presentations instead of or in addition to written reports has been helping them better engage their stakeholders, they still noted that the problem isn’t fully solved. Researchers continue to grapple with how they can make their information stick with their audience.

If you’re one of the many researchers that have come across this problem, there is a craft that can completely transform the way you present and communicate information: storytelling.

Stories and anecdotes are essential to how we make sense of our world and share that understanding with others. This is why we do things like watch movies and read books. It's also why marketers, lawyers, journalists, and, well, anyone who communicates ideas for a living, study storytelling.

So it should be no surprise that storytelling is critical to any good research findings presentation as well.

Fortunately, storytelling isn’t solely the domain of filmmakers and novelists. The popular notion that creative genius is a magical burst of inspiration and not something that can be learned is nothing more than a myth. Creatives work and rework their writing and practice their craft daily to tell impactful stories. (Don’t believe me? Allen Gannett just wrote a whole book on this called The Creative Curve.)

But you don’t have to practice storytelling every day to nail the basics. In fact, there’s a formula you can follow to tell a compelling story, that will get people to listen and care about what you have to say. Here’s how you can use that formula to present your research to stakeholders.

Narrative Structure

The secret to storytelling is following a narrative structure.

Narrative structure is all about story and plot. And what do Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Ladybird all have in common? (Besides the fact that they’re my favorite movies!) They all follow a standard narrative story structure.

It’s the same structure that Robert McKee writes about in what’s known as the screenwriting bible, Story: The Principles of Screenwriting, and Joseph Campbell analyzes in his famous guide to storytelling, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. You can also find these elements in Aristotle’s Poetics, the earliest known analysis of drama theory.

‍Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey

“Structure is a selection of events from the characters’ life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotion and to express a specific view of life.”
-Robert McKee

In other words, a lot of really smart, famous people have studied this and they’ve all come to some of the same basic conclusions about how to tell a successful story.

The storytelling structure that screenwriters use is pretty extensive, but there’s a simple, five-step version, initially designed by Andy Raskin, that’s meant for business and marketing purposes. Since a research presentation is different than a pitch deck, we designed a version specifically for UX researchers. Here’s how you can apply the basics of narrative storytelling structure to give your report or presentation the compelling edge it needs for your information to stick with your stakeholders.

1. The Inciting Incident: Name a Big Change in the World, Relevant to Your Product Solution

The first step in standard storytelling structure is commonly referred to as “the inciting incident.” It’s an event, usually outside of the protagonist’s control, that changes the course of their life and thus the story.

As a researcher, your inciting incident is the change or observation that sparked your research question. Instead of jumping right in with your research questions, give your stakeholders the context and preceding observations that sparked your questions in the first place.

If this were Star Wars, this would be the scene where Luke hears R2-D2’s message for the first time. Although he doesn’t know it yet, this is his first conscious connection to The Empire and The Rebellion.

As the hero of this journey, you are Luke Skywalker, the protagonist taking action. But before you took action by asking your research questions, there was an observation or series of events that led you to that point.

2. The Hero Takes Action: Introduce Your Research Questions and Your Study

After introducing your “inciting incident,” it’s time to tell the tale of how you took action by presenting your stakeholders with your research questions.

In the context of Star Wars, this would be where Luke Skywalker decides to join Obi-Wan Kenobi and see what being a Jedi is all about.

Now that your stakeholders know what caused you to ask these questions and conduct this study in the first place, they’ll have a richer understanding of the why behind the research. Just like you care about the protagonist’s mission in your favorite movie, your stakeholders will care about your research questions and the study you designed to accomplish your mission.

After you introduce your research questions, you’ll likely want to give a little context around the study itself. This is often the place where researchers lose stakeholders’ attention. Fortunately, there’s a screenwriting principle that can help guide you through this problem.

In screenwriting, every scene and line of dialogue must be purposeful and push the story forward. You can ask yourself the same questions screenwriters do when deciding what belongs in the story, and what’s unnecessary “fat” that could be cut out. Is it important that your audience knows this piece of information to understand the story? Does this piece of information push the story forward?

When you’re deciding what aspects about the design of the study are necessary to include in your presentation or report, the answer to these questions may be “no” for a lot of the nitty-gritty details. If it’s not essential for your unique stakeholders to know that piece of information, cut it out.

3. Tease the Promised Land (With Supporting Data)

After you’ve taken action, it’s time for the “second act” of your story. Screenwriters call it “teasing the promised land”.In storytelling, the promised land is the hero’s end goal. In Star Wars, the end goal is blowing up the Death Star, but in your presentation, it will be the solution to the product problems in question. Whether your Luke Skywalker or a UX researcher, the end goal of the story is desirable and difficult to achieve. This means there’s a lot that happens before getting there.

In your research, you didn’t go right from the questions to the answers. There’s data and analysis that happens in between that helps you get to that point. Before you present the results, which is the big climactic moment, you have to show them the events that led up to the climax. If Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star 40 minutes into Star Wars, it probably wouldn’t be such an exciting movie.

It’s also important to present the information it in this order. If you start with your results and then get to the supporting data after the fact, you lose the build-up, and thus the impact.

Writing the second act is often the most difficult part of screenwriting, but in UX research, if you’ve collected and analyzed data of any kind, Act II is already written! This is the section for any quantitative and qualitative data that was important in getting to your end goal. Again, ask yourself which information is absolutely critical for your stakeholders to know. Chances are you have a lot of data, but if you want to keep their attention, weed out anything that isn’t essential to understanding your results.

Since data is another section where stakeholders may start to tune out, there’s another screenwriting tip that can help make your information more digestible and engaging: Keep it concise and visual.

Some stakeholders like hard quantitative data, but others may be intimidated by numbers. After you’ve pared down your data to what’s necessary, find a way to present it in a visual way. Charts and graphs are a great way to help stakeholders visually make sense of numbers. Your qualitative data should be visually engaging as well. Try using quotes from participants, or even videos, soundbites, and images from the actual interviews and studies. Real participant quotes and reactions are much more colorful and impactful than simply having a researcher describe a problem or general user opinions.

Lastly, try to balance your quantitative data and qualitative data. Different stakeholders may be biased towards one type of data over another, so make sure there’s something for everyone in your “Act II.” This will also keep your data diverse and engaging.

4. Results: Giving Your Stakeholders “Magic Gifts” to Overcome Their Product Obstacles

Before we get to your final solutions and deliverables, “the promised land,” you have to present your stakeholders with the tools to get there.

In the hero’s journey, there is often an experienced character who imparts wisdom or “magic gifts”, that push the story forward and ultimately gets the hero to their end goal. This is where Obi-Wan teaches Luke how to harness his feelings to use the force. Had this not happened, Luke wouldn’t have been able to destroy the Death Star at the end of the movie.

In some cases, these “magic gifts” are literal, such as Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, but the gifts of UX research will come in the form of conclusions and results that help inform product decisions.

This section is where you’ll explain the meaning of your data and present your definitive results that will ultimately determine the next, and final, part of your presentation: Your solutions.

5. Your Solutions: Making The Promised Land a Reality

You’ve explained the inciting incident that led to you taking action with your research questions and study. You’ve teased the promised land with the most crucial data, which led you to your big learnings and results. Hopefully, your stakeholders are actively listening and ready to hear the solutions that will tie up everything you just presented to them.

This part of the storytelling structure is that big exciting scene where Luke uses the force to make a perfect shot that destroys the Death Star; the climax of the story.

Now, you can finally make actionable recommendations to your stakeholders about what they have to do to make their product better based on your research findings. This is the part that most directly pertains to your stakeholders, because they are likely the ones who will be making these changes.

Whether it’s a list of recommendations, a wireframe, or a prototype of how the updated product should function, this is the end goal of your presentation. If you’ve followed all five-steps of this basic storytelling structure, hopefully your solutions will have the impact they deserve.

Epic "Promised-Land" Scene From Star Wars

Final Thoughts

At first glance, research questions, data, and product solutions may not seem as compelling as Star Wars. There may not be battle sequences or alien creatures in the narrative of your study, but your research is urgent and important to your business, and should be treated as such.

Just like any other craft, storytelling is something that takes practice to get right. Next time you have a presentation, give this a try! The more you practice presenting your research using the principles of story, the better you’ll get at it, and hopefully your stakeholders will soon retain all of the important findings you present to them on a regular basis.

Other Types of Reports

You’ve likely heard of other types of reports besides your standard written report or live presentation. Some of these reports include usability reports, analytics reports, and competitive analysis reports.

Certain reports are specific to the type of research you’re conducting. So, if you did a usability test, you’re going to want to use a usability report. These reports are often incorporated into the standard report and live presentation to help inform the research focus.

Here’s more about each type of specialized report and how/when to use them!

Usability Reports

Usability reports are typically concise reports that answer very concrete questions and have a standard set of metrics that stakeholders know will be addressed. They tend to include information from the test plan, briefly identify the methods used, and use tables to display key metrics.

While reporting the results of a usability test, you’ll want to order your findings and recommendations by their overall importance for your company or client’s overall product, business, and user base.

It’s always a good idea to include visuals in a usability report to help illustrate exactly what are the main problem areas for users.  

Usability Report from Xtensio, a document and presentation platform.

Analytics Reports

Analytics reports are a standard way to consistently track the UX of any site, service, or product. Many departments have analytics measurement plans in place where regular analytics reports enable companies to gauge how users are using certain product features over time, and what’s working, and what’s not over the long-term.

Analytics reports are helpful for longitudinal UX research and measuring the overall health of a product’s UX over time.

Rather importantly, analytics reports give us consistent measures of “before” and “after” various product features are introduced or changed, allowing us to understand how those changes impact the overall user experience. After all, if there’s a change made to the UI of a product that its designers say will save major time for the user, then we should be analyzing whether that time on that task has actually decreased. Analytics reports are a great way of periodically examining these kinds of metrics.

Analytics reports should be data-heavy and straight to the point. Important changes in metrics should be highlighted and called out, for example:

  • Completion rates have risen 30% since last month, indicating the new bulk upload form in fact makes things much easier than the individual upload form.
  • Task time is up 25% with the new CAPTCHA form at the end, though invalid sign-ups are now down 100%.

What makes a change in metric important? Well, if you can reason that it impact the overall user experience. Does it improve the overall quality of the product? Could the change be enough to frustrate or annoy users? Then highlight it! Another reason to note and analyze a metric is if it is related to specific and relevant UX, marketing, and brand goals.

Market Research – Competitive Analysis Report

A competitive analysis report (CAR) is used to get all stakeholders up to speed on your product or service and understand how it stacks up to all of the other competitors on the market out there. These types of analysis often feature heuristics, or standard principles for user interface design – also known as heuristics – which can include anything from specific UI patterns to interaction models.

CARs are focused on helping understand where a product or service stands in the market, and its strengths and weaknesses compared to the competition. This kind of analysis is especially beneficial when making product changes, and at any stage in the development process when deciding how to focus efforts within the market.

These reports can inform the design process by helping designers understand where their product can improve to meet user needs. Designers might discover areas where competitors meet user needs better than their product does; or they might find areas where their current offering is well ahead of the competition, which can then ensure that feature is preserved and marketed more heavily. By conducting UX research and a competitive analysis, a UX researcher might also find that there are unmet needs among target users that no product on the market currently addresses.

How to Create a Competitive Analysis Report

First, you’ll want to start off with a competitor analysis matrix. You will want to include as many major competitors as there exist in this space for the product in question. For some, that might be just 2-5 competitors; for others that might be 13.

Potential categories on your matrix’s vertical axis:

  • Popularity
  • Brand awareness
  • Number of unique users per month
  • Average visits per month
  • Average level of user engagement
  • Usability metrics
  • Task time
  • Pain points
  • Benefits
  • Features
  • Search Bar
  • Bookmarks
  • Mobile functionality
  • User Chat
  • Video
  • Quick Links
  • Featured Selection
  • User perceptions
  • Brand
  • Appearance / style
  • Ease of use
  • Enjoyment of use
  • Product is for someone like me

Competitor Analysis Matrix

Final Thoughts

There’s no right or wrong way to create a report or presentation, and there are tons of additional materials, such as usability reports, that can be incorporated into a standard report or presentation. In the chapters to come, we’ll go in depth discussing other common UX/UI specific deliverables that you may find useful.

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