Effective Research Teams

Improve Strategic Collaboration

Research is a powerful tool for solving business problems, finding clarity amidst uncertainty in your market, making clearer revenue decisions, and building better products.  Any time that a company needs to make a judgment call, there’s a risk of making a wrong decision. Research gives individuals and teams more confidence and creates new ways to work together.

Even better? When people work together, research programs become more valuable, functional, and impactful. Let’s say that you’re running a study, testing program, or series of customer interviews, for instance. You’ll gain more from these activities when you bring in perspectives from different functions within your organization.

Research is more efficient and effective when different teams work together, towards the same goals. The challenge, however, is that research is often new to many teams. What are the best ways to collaborate? How can you make the most out of your time and accomplish goals, faster?

Who this Guide Is For

This guide is helpful for research practitioners who are looking for tools, tips, and frameworks to get teams aligned around the same research objectives. You’ll learn how to use research to solve business challenges and alleviate risk.

The techniques, case studies, and lessons described in this chapter will enable you to lead and influence through research. Each technique emphasizes a ‘learning by doing’ mindset. Through case studies from companies, you’ll learn how teams create alignment by working together, towards a common goal.

If you’re looking to drive more impactful business outcomes with your research—and you’re responsible for orienting teams towards a goal—this guide is ideal for you.

Make Research Everyone’s Job

Research has more value, is more efficient, and is more far-reaching when everyone within an organization is involved. The challenge, however, is that too many opinions can restrict a study’s efficiency. One recommendation that Kaari Peterson, director of user experience research and design at Chegg, suggests is to position your research team as a center of information. Make it easy for others to follow along.

In an interview with User Interviews, she shares the following techniques for encouraging collaboration at different stages of research:

  • Building research planning panel, with team members that represent different company functions
  • Identifying central, measurable goal (i.e. improve overall engagement within a product)
  • Identifying tools and techniques required to execute upon a research objective (i.e. interviews, surveys, analytics from business intelligence systems—all of the above)
  • Reporting processes back to stakeholders and other employees
  • Enabling one degree of autonomy, so that individuals can run small-scale research studies and experiments without extensive budget oversight

Over time, people become accustomed to working together. Teams can build upon one another’s knowledge by running independent studies. Give the teams the tools that they need to run their own study, but make sure that there is a central hub within your organization to provide best practices guidance. Peterson elaborates on this idea in the video, below:

Twilio’s Story - All Teams Conduct Research and Share Knowledge

Research is a part of everyone’s roles at Twilio. People conduct their own studies and work together to share insight/result through a team that oversees the administration of testing programs. Everyone benefits from working together and sharing knowledge but also conducts independent research, to collect data driven perspectives.

“The name of the game when creating and growing a successful business is understanding and solving your customers’ biggest problems, explains Laura Schaffer, product manager for Twilio’s experimentation platform, in an interview with Qualaroo. To do so,  it’s imperative to have efficient means to identify these problems early and fully.”

“To expand to an ever-evolving market like Twilio’s, you need to work quickly to stay in tune with the challenges customers face - both the ones they face today and the ones they will face tomorrow,” Schaffer says. “Customer discovery efforts are critical. How do you best put yourself in the customer’s shoes, and do so in a way that is efficient and easy to do at all stages of product development?”

Intuit’s Story - Research Helps Different Teams Work Together Better

Since the company’s founding days, Intuit has stressed the importance of studying customers in their everyday environments—and following their progress over time. Cross-functional teams within Intuit follow their customers home—literally, the company has named its program “Follow Me Home.”

Intuit oversees a line of business- and consumer-oriented financial tools that more than 37 million customers use each year to track expenses, manage payroll, and pay taxes. On-site studies keep the company close to customer behavior, observing customers in their homes, offices, and other locations. Many teams take part in research.

Listen to Hugh Molotsi, a former innovation VP  and engineering team leader at Intuit, discuss how research orients teams in an enterprise environment.

Here’s a highlight from the interview:

"By observing someone in their natural habitat we can determine how often they get interrupted when they are trying to do taxes, payroll, or perform some other task," says Intuit CFO Neil Williams in an interview with Business Insider. "Many people are probably not even mindful of how many interruptions they get or how many things distract them as they work on finances."

This perspective helps Intuit’s product leaders understand how often customers are switching devices, for example. Team members who conduct research use this information to navigate judgment calls in their jobs. Product managers can better focus their time and effort on specific features that need building and problems that need solving, for instance.

One best practice that Intuit embraces is to dive deeper on the trends that seem to make the least sense.

“For example, Intuit recently found that some users of its online money management service Mint weren’t behaving like the young-professional target market,” writes Geoff Colvin for Fortune.

“Investigating that surprise showed that these customers used Mint to manage self-employment income and spending; many were Uber or Lyft drivers, for example. With the gig economy growing, Intuit recognized a huge opportunity. So it created a version of QuickBooks especially for the self-employed. It’s the company’s fastest-growing product.”

Research R&D spending accounts for 19.3% of the company’s share of revenue. The company assesses the success of its research program based on engagement and retention rates. With one product, after noticing that customers were more likely to be successful when working with an accountant, Intuit was able to improve product retention by 16%. The driver was a new feature—an online matchmaking tool between bookkeepers and users.

Make Ideas More Tangible: the Role of Prototyping

It can be tough to collect feedback on an abstract idea. One way to avoid this challenge is to turn your ideas into something tangible. Build a prototype—an early version of your product. Here’s a starting point to start using prototypes for team collaboration:

  • Lock a small group in a room for an hour and a half
  • Look at the data that you have on hand—perhaps you are far-along in your research process; perhaps you are just getting started
  • Figure out what questions are most pressing to your business right now
  • Figure out, based on your data, what additional research you need
  • Come up with different research plans and project paths

For the purposes of research and insight gathering, a prototype can be as low-fidelity as a pen and paper drawing. For instance, you may be a technologist at a hospital, considering implementing new integrations with your electronic medical records (EMR) system. Because EMRs are complex with heavy compliance requirements, you need to demonstrate the value of what you’re considering building, which will be expensive, before you build it.

The point is that you want to see your potential customers interact with an idea, that your team has put brainstorming-power and definition around, in the real world. This perspective, whether you’re building a digital or physical product, can help you ensure that what you’re building is on-point with the needs of your market.

Prototyping Tips

1. Build prototypes around clear pain points.

Look at user data to determine drop-off points, and conduct exploratory interviews with customers to gain an objective perspective on your top pain points.

2. Each prototype will address and build upon a solution to one specific pain point.

Involve multiple functions in the prototyping process. For instance, Juvo is a  technology company that is building new pathways to credit for unbanked populations in cash based societies. The company regularly travels to meet customers in person, in locations such as the Caribbean and Haiti. From engineering to UX design and data science, team members from multiple functions take on roles as observational researchers.

3. Keep prototypes as simple as possible.

The goal of every prototype is to maximize the collection of feedback. These insights help companies uncover missed opportunities and resolve problems before user adoption is too high. If you can answer the question that you have with a simple landing page or drawing—that’s your prototype. Build the bare minimum that you need to resolve ambiguity.

As you build your prototype, your goal  is to move from low-fidelity to high-fidelity design and development—to collect data and iterate quickly.

Your Product Is Never “Done”: the Role of Rapid Prototyping

Rapid prototyping is a learn-by-doing/deploying research process that pushes teams to work towards on a tangible goal or output. Teams  can approach each stage as an opportunity to test concepts and answer lingering questions. The goal of rapid prototyping is to increase the speed of product development, through research. Software like Invision can speed up production time and get functional, early versions of products or marketing copy, in the hands of customers.

An outcome of this technique is that products perform with more predictability in the market. Because you’re collecting feedback throughout development cycles, you decrease uncertainties and potential for error, come launch day.

Exygy’s Story - Prototyping Is Never Done

Take a look at this story from Exygy, a consultancy that specializes in human-centered design and research techniques. The company recently worked with the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development to build a centralized platform for affordable housing listings—a program that is mission-critical to a region that is experiencing one of the worst housing crunches in the United States.

Exygy created a series of prototypes around distinct pain points in the rental-applicant journey. The diagram below shows what Exygy uncovered from a series of interviews with potential users.

For Exygy, prototypes included low fidelity versions of web experiences, messaging and copy, and design concepts. Feedback on web experience concept helped Exygy document a housing search journey, uncovering points of friction along the way. The takeaways: details were sparse, application processes were convoluted, and even basic eligibility instructions were difficult to understand.

Exygy built and launched a new website, prioritizing the following suggestions from users, for how to fix problems with the previous web experiences:

Companies need to continuously test, research, and improve upon their work. Rapid prototyping helps with this process—the idea is that you’re continuously running experiments on live products, seeking ways to iterate.

Here are ways that the City and County of San Francisco collect feedback, to research new iterations of future products. You can think of this process as an exercise in ongoing listening:

  • Helpfulness/happiness surveys - Short surveys track helpfulness of interactions and how website components ask their users how they feel.
  • Email engagement monitoring - Staff use email services to know if users are opening email, enabling the City and County of San Francisco to understand what information is valuable.
  • Web traffic tracking - Monitoring page views and search results on sfhsa.org on a regular basis helps the City and County of San Francisco know where people go and what they do on their website. Team members can make continuous improvements.

While rapid prototyping is a process that every team will make their own, one idea to consider is that research is never done. Even after an in-development initiative goes live, research and iteration needs to continue.

Final Thoughts

Brainstorming and collaboration make research studies, valuable opportunities for gathering data, more relevant. Every role is important within your company, and every individual has the potential to be a curious learner. User research is a tool for creating and generating answers to curiosity.

The challenge is that companies need to move from a point of ideation to execution quickly. Prototyping turns ideas into a tangible output. Just as you are building a product for your company, your eventual goal through research, more perspectives bring strength to the final outcome. Rapid prototyping helps teams move quickly. Over time, collaboration fuels company-wide research programs processes. Teams become more data-driven, as a result.

The next two chapters of this module will walk you through strategies and tactics for increasing the performance of your research team—to help you streamline individual efforts into a cohesive, impactful strategy for product development, marketing, engineering, sales, customer success, and other impactful functions.


Program Design: Solve Business Problems with User Research

Research requires an all-hands approach to be successful, at any organization. Learn how to get everyone on board and have an impact on the process.
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