9 tips for building a research practice from the ground up

Heather Young

Heather Young,

Design Research at Front

29 July 20210 min read

Front’s Design Research Lead Heather Young shares her 3 areas of focus when building out a new research practice—from building a strong process to diving into the numbers.

Starting a research practice from scratch can be daunting. There’s a mountain of endless questions, all high priority, and you still don’t have the infrastructure to get the team running. What’s a researcher to do?

I’ve had the privilege of building research practices at three different organizations now, and each time I do, I learn so much that helps me refine my process. When I’m getting started, I think about three areas of focus:

  1. Creating the practice

  2. Building partnerships

  3. Doing research

Depending on your organization, you might prioritize one of these areas over the other. If you work in an organization where there’s not a lot of buy-in that research will be valuable, focus on building partnerships and doing some strategically chosen projects before you spend time developing processes. In my case, Front understood the value of research, and Product Managers and Designers were eager to do their own projects. I prioritized creating the practice so they would be empowered to do their own research because that was what would be most valuable for Front.

Creating the practice

There’s no way around it—research can be pretty process-heavy! For example, participant recruitment (finding people to participate in research) is core to research. This process alone may require you to think about who owns customer relationships, the tone, and channels for your outreach, how you can ensure you don’t overwhelm your users with invitations, legal requirements, and so on. Developing strong processes will set you and your stakeholders up for successful projects.

  • Empower your partners to do their own research. Some people think that more researchers means Product Managers and Designers do less research - I want more researchers empowering them to do more and better research! Creating templates for research plans, discussion guides, and findings reports isn’t just about building a clear process, it also helps people easily plan their own projects. Teaching people about the various methods available to them helps them start building their research toolkit and become aware of the types of data available to them.

  • Ask for input and feedback. The process is for the people using it, so leverage your skills as a researcher to design user-centric processes by getting feedback early and often, and adjusting course as needed.

Building partnerships

As the first person in a brand new discipline, you’ll likely encounter a lot of people who have no idea what you do. By developing strong relationships throughout the organization, you’ll smooth your path and hopefully gain some supporters along the way.

  • Get to know people. Research is in a unique position in an organization - because researchers represent the user, we see how the different parts of the organization culminate in the user experience. That means it’s important to get to know people throughout the organization, whether you work directly with them or not - these relationships will prove to be valuable time and again as you’re learning more about the product and your users.

  • Let your expertise shine. Especially in an organization that has not had research or when few of your partners have worked with research before, it’s your job to educate them and meet them where they are. After being met with silence when asking for input on a research plan early in my time at Front, one designer told me, “We trust you! You’re the researcher.” That was empowering to hear and helped me reframe my role.

  • Be accessible. As the research practice grows, you’ll need to manage time and priorities more carefully - there is always more to do than can possibly be done when it comes to research! This may be controversial (and believe me, I am a huge proponent of setting boundaries and protecting your time), but when I’m getting started, I try to be available whenever, wherever, for whatever.

Doing research

Finally, the fun part! The reason we’re all in this field, right? Even if you’re hired to build a team, don’t overlook the importance of getting your hands dirty—this will help you build out stronger processes and demonstrate the value of research while you get to know your users first-hand.

  • Choose your projects wisely. In some cases, your manager or stakeholders will have a high-priority project that desperately needs your attention from Day 1. However, in many cases (and arguably even in this case!), it’s up to you to determine where your time is best spent. Choose a couple of “low-hanging fruit” projects that can help you quickly demonstrate what research is, how it works, and why it’s valuable, but take your time before committing to a more extensive or in-depth initiative.

  • Use consistent frameworks and vocabulary to talk about research. This isn’t revolutionary, but there is a lot of variability in the language used to describe different research methods and models for support. At Front, we talk about Discovery, Exploration, and Validation research, depending on where you are in the product development cycle. Clearly defining and consistently using these terms throughout all of your documentation and conversations about research ensures everyone is on the same page.

My final tips go for anyone starting a new job, regardless of their role, but I think they’re particularly applicable for researchers.

  • Take copious notes, and be a packrat. Think about the last time you had a new colleague join your team. They undoubtedly asked a ton of questions, some with obvious answers, some that may have challenged your thinking or inspired you to re-examine the way things are done. When you start a new job, especially when you’re the first person in the role, that’s you! You’re taking information in faster than you can process it, so create a single “brain dump” doc for yourself and take tons of notes, capture all the links people share with you, and build in time to reflect after each meeting. You never know what might turn out to be an earth-shattering original insight or an incredibly valuable resource as you grow into your role.

  • Be like water. As with anything you’re doing for the first time(or third time!), there will be moments when you feel nervous, uncertain, or afraid you’re failing. It’s all part of the process. Don’t force it, and trust that you will emerge stronger and more knowledgeable.

If you’re looking for a role in design research, head over to our jobs page to explore our open positions.

Written by Heather Young

Originally Published: 29 July 2021

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