Effective Research Teams

Program Design: Solve Business Problems with User Research

Research requires an all-hands approach to be successful, at any organization. From brainstorming study ideas to coming up with interview questions, synthesizing findings,  and taking action, every team member has an important role to play.

To pick an analogy, you’re using many of the team-building skills that you learn playing a sport like basketball, soccer, or football. You have limited opportunities to reach your goals. The path from point A to point B can be confusing and full of obstacles.

Outcomes are better when people on teams work together, specialize, and trust each members’ judgment. Well-orchestrated collaboration drives faster execution. But how do you harness people-power to meet a strategic goal for your business? What happens when you have too many ideas to pursue?

This chapter will equip you with skills and best practices for using research to work through real problems in your business.

Who this Guide Is For

This chapter is for anyone looking to build an effective research team or make research, as a function, more valuable within an organization.

For the purposes of this guide, we’re defining  a “research team” to include any group within a company, coming together formally or informally, to conduct studies or run experiments. This could be a cross-functional team, a team of researchers or researchers and designers, or that team may simply be you in many moments of your study design and execution. This chapter builds upon the techniques that we introduced in the section devoted to improving strategic collaboration.

This guide is for individuals who want to use research as a workhorse, to solve business challenges and build products faster. It will equip team leaders with the skills they need to shepherd groups towards a goal. You’ll learn how to turn teams, tactics, and best practices into high-performing, centrally run, and well-managed operations.

The sections below will help you transition the role of research within your organization from an activity to high-performing strategic operation.

Research as a Problem-Solving Tool: an Example

Research helps organizations reduce risk, eliminate wasted time and resources, and identify market opportunities. It enables teams to uncover paths forward that they may not have known existed. The best way to understand this idea in practice is through stories from other businesses. Here’s one to get started.

AppFolio, a company that builds software for property managers, was looking for new business growth opportunities. It wasn’t immediately clear, however, which business directions would be most profitable to pursue. In one instance, leadership within AppFolio identified an opportunity to create an app, RentApp. Leaders within the organization saw a market opportunity to create a new app. After showing prototypes to customers, the company reached a consensus that users liked the app. They scaled up experiments using paid search campaigns on Google. Results validated that the app would be popular.

So why did AppFolio decide to shut down the idea, despite its apparent early success? User research revealed a nuance that AppFolio hadn’t considered.

According to Ursula Shekufendeh, one of AppFolio’s lead product managers, the app that the company was deliberating building—RentApp—would have created an overall opportunity cost to the organization. Through in-depth research, consisting of a mix of market analysis studies, user interviews, and other techniques, AppFolio realized that the company’s resources would be more valuable in other areas. Research put an end to RentApp and saved AppFolio time, energy, and money along the way.

The following video walks through Shekufendeh’s research methodology, from hypothesis through the launch of an experiment to concept-test RentApp as a product.

And that’s the value that research brings as a problem-solving capability for business: perspective that teams would not otherwise see.

A Simple Way to Kickstart Your Program

Every company’s research program will be different. What’s most important is that you put forethought into building it and identify repeatable methods that integrate well with your business. You may choose to house your research team under the oversight of someone with “research” in their  title. In some companies, research reports into product, marketing, design, or the CEO. Regardless of what resources or organizational backing that research has, you need a simple way to get started.

Whether or not you have an in-house researcher or team, a simple way to begin is through customer interviewing. Set aside time to talk to potential and existing customers, on a regular basis. Collect feedback. Incorporate this feedback into your product strategy moving forward.

Ideally, you’ll have have at least 3 people, each representing different teams within your organization (i.e. sales, engineering, marketing), influencing  this process. If you’re a team of one, bring in perspectives from stakeholders at the questionnaire design stage. The value of having these cross-functional perspectives is that you’ll gain an understanding, in advance of conducting your study, of how to apply your insights to different facets of your organization. Your research, as a result, will have more value.

Here are two well-run customer interviewing programs you can learn from, as you figure out how to build your own.

Intuit’s Story: Use Interviews to Explore New Product Terrain

One of the challenges that large organizations like Intuit face is how to explore new product ideas. Customer interviews help Intuit create a pipeline of new product ideas. For the last several decades, the company has run a program called Follow Me Home, in which research teams structure visits, in-person or via video, with users. This program has been instrumental to the company’s evolution and growth.

Hugh Molotsi, who previously spent 22 years at Intuit as a product leader and is now an entrepreneur, explains that research teams need to be careful about their resources. Molotsi was in a unique position running a group that built new products for new markets. Research programs such as Follow Me Home were instrumental in helping teams within Molotsi’s incubator determine which ideas to pursue. In an interview for this chapter, Molotsi explains that his team’s ideas were held to stringent criteria, with only “a few notable initiatives panning out.”

Molotsi’s approach was to assemble small teams and let them run with complete autonomy. Research was a vehicle for measuring the success and communicating results to leaders. All new product development under Molotsi’s team followed a “learn by doing” process.

“If a team was building an app, they would instrument it in a way to measure what’s happening with customers,” Molotsi says. “Every hypothesis that we tested was measurable. We made sure that there was a clear experiment design, so people were not executing tasks. With a typical Intuit-funded initiative, before people have even come up with ideas, there’s been work done in immersing yourself in understanding customers and the problems you’re trying to solve.”

High-performance research teams will often get requests to assist in several projects at once. One of the challenges that they will encounter is how to prioritize among projects  in a way that drives business impact. Research priorities, especially in budget-strapped environments, can begin to compete with one another.

“People get sparks of ideas over the course of their work,” explains Molotsi. “During a customer visit or over the course of a study, people would start thinking, ‘Intuit should do x, y, z…’”

There’s a risk of tunnel vision, he elaborates.

“They get really excited about an idea,” says Molotsi. “And we want to capture this passion. But is an idea the best approach to solving a problem? Should we be going deeper or looking at something else? We want to capture that passion. One of the ways to kill it is to tell someone to set an idea to the side.”

Intuit resolves this challenge by asking team members to validate their research ideas by talking to one customer.

“We call that the unit of one customer,” says Molotsi. “It was a sanity check to ask—would somebody find this useful? A lot of people would say that’s not a lot of scrutiny. But you’d be surprised by how many initiatives fall apart on that one test.”

Molotsi’s advice: keep experimentation autonomous, as a source of continuous learning and discovery data. Customer interviews play a vital role in orienting this process.

Copper’s Story: Use Interviews to Connect Research to Revenue

After AppFolio’s IPO, Shekufendeh went to work for another startup, Copper, before heading over to Patreon. There, she built up, and currently runs, a product team with research at the center of all operations. The team is responsible for connecting research ideas to product goals and revenue outcomes. Here are the tips that she recommends for building a high-performing research function:

  • Keep the team small, with representation from multiple departments throughout the organization.
  • Help team members see how research helps with prioritizing their time.
  • Talk about the problem that you’re looking to tackle, as a group.
  • Tackle one project at a time, investing as much time as the initiative needs.

One recommendation that she has when connecting research to revenue? Don’t let the loudest or most expensive customer skew the direction of your research program or reporting.

“Sometimes it's tempting to go after what's asked of the customer that screams the loudest, or that brings a lot of monthly recurring revenue,” Shekufendeh elaborates. “So, one thing that, we have an amazing team here, so actually some folks from our success team and our sales team have worked together to standardize the process that feedback is actually submitted.”

In the following video, Shekufendeh describes how she and her team align research interests with MRR in the Copper Product:

Here’s a summary of her recommendations:

  • Standardize your interview or feedback collection form, so that answers tie directly to your business goals
  • Ensure that the information that you collect is translatable into data or visualizations that tell a story about the revenue impact of your product
  • Use the structure that you’ve established and the data that you generate to drill into the specifics of the feedback that you collect

You can learn more about Shekufendeh’s process for building a reporting framework in chapter 3 of this module.

Align People and Processes

People and processes are the two major components to every organization’s research puzzle. How do you make sure that everyone is on the same page and that all initiatives stay aligned towards a clear end-goal? While seeming simple, it can be tough for organizations to see their research efforts through. One of the major challenges is that people aren’t sure how to do their jobs and be researchers, too.

A simple approach is to assemble one research team, from start to finish, on a project. Everyone receives a set of roles and can choose whether to participate in both planning and execution. This group is involved at all stages from methodology design to execution and analysis. When teams see the full picture, from start to finish, they are more likely to see trends and accommodate findings into their work. The more perspectives are on this team (i.e. engineering, design, product development, marketing, analytics), the better?

The advantage of this approach is that you don’t have to build a permanent research team structure and work through all the necessary budget and approvals and so on to make that happen. You thoughtfully, but quickly, create a team for one project at a time, so the project gets done with accountability, with cross-departmental perspective, but without the hassle and bureaucratic slowdown of a permanent team.

In the following interview, Kaari Peterson, director of user experience and design research at Chegg, explains how she assembled a team for one diary study that looked at how university students use textbooks to learn in a course across a semester.

Tying It All Together

High-performing research teams build repeatable processes, to work towards the same revenue and functional goals. It will be important for companies to stay on the same page.

Remember that with every twist and turn, your ultimate goal is to learn together. Over time, research teams will become more cohesive and build new ways to solve problems at your company. Focus on tying initiatives to a clear functional use case and revenue goal. You’ll not only solve problems in your business—you’ll have a clear understanding of your research program’s return on investment.


Build a Research and Reporting Habit

Build a habit of ongoing research, reporting, and follow-up studies to help your organization become more methodical and confident in its decisions.
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