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Is user research a team sport?

Participants during a user research workshop.

The mantra ‘user research is a team sport’ is often heard throughout the public sector, and has a large impact on what people expect from user researchers.

I recently attended a session hosted by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) debating whether it was true. The session re-emphasised the importance of collaboration in research, but also highlighted to me some of the areas that people often misunderstand about the saying. On reflection, I can see that these misconceptions exist at PDS, which has encouraged me to share what I’ve learned.

It’s more difficult than just running good research

The ethos behind ‘user research is a team sport’ is that research should be run collaboratively. The researcher should create opportunities for decision makers on the team to be involved, and invested in what’s being learned from the study.

This is much more difficult than just ‘running good research’. But we believe that it’s worth the effort for the benefits it brings. To extend the sport analogy, good research can tell you where the ball and goals are, but researchers are not the ones who score the goal. We need to work closely with product managers, designers, and the wider team to win.

As researchers, we think the best way of letting teams know where the ball and goal are, is involving them in the process of finding them.

At the MoJ event, many of the benefits of running research collaboratively were raised. It reduces the communication gap between researchers and their team, increases the impact of findings, and reduces the opportunity for misunderstanding as team members are actively learning through doing.

By working closely together, it also helps the researcher understand what their team needs to know, which teams may often find challenging to convey verbally.

It also helps keep researchers honest. By opening up and exposing their work to the wider team, it creates opportunities for critiquing, explaining their work, and refining their approach. A good researcher should always be able to explain their decisions and justify why they made that choice. Opening up our decisions so we can justify them, creates better researchers.

What doesn’t ‘research is a team sport’ mean?

This ethos can make people think that user research isn’t a specialist skill, or not recognise how our researchers’ years of experience and academic expertise helps make reliable and robust studies. Not everyone can do research well. And a lot of what researchers do aren’t the obvious parts with a user in front of you.

In organisations, like PDS, who are new to user research as a discipline, it’s very common to underestimate the complexity of it and assume that ‘anyone can do it'. This can lead to bad information and decision making.

A good round of research run by professionals includes a lot of activities that aren’t immediately obvious to the team:

  • working to uncover what the team really need to know, not just what they think they want to know, and designing a reliable and robust study that will find good answers
  • making sure that the sessions are run in a manner that reveals the right information, while avoiding bias
  • making sure that the right information is being captured during the session to allow prompt analysis
  • analysing a huge amount of disparate data from a variety of sources to look deeper than the surface level observations. Then identifying the meaning that they reveal, and what that means for the team
  • making sure that the team have correctly understood the findings from research and that it’s influencing decision making

Even the visible stuff that looks like 'just talking to people' is easy to get wrong, and there are common errors that non-researchers often do:

  • not recognising your own biases, and looking only to validate your own assumptions
  • not probing deep enough to understand the ‘why’ behind what is said
  • ignoring information that doesn’t meet your pre-defined narrative
  • confusing subjective opinions with objective behaviour
  • assuming people are telling the truth. What people say is often very different to what they do, and people won’t say everything they do
  • failing to analyse the results appropriately and acting prematurely

What can go wrong?

There are some risks caused by assuming that ‘research is a team sport’ means that everyone is able to run research. If non-experts run research poorly, it’ll affect everyone’s perception of the validity and usefulness of all research. This can discourage teams from basing decisions on what would be useful to their users. Badly run research will also cause the team to make bad decisions, creating financial and reputational problems.

User research needs specialists to own and be responsible for the research, which a good researcher can do. One of the most important areas for this is in the analysis, and understanding ‘what does the research mean for us?’. This has the most risk of going wrong if done badly. It needs people with appropriate skills to make sure that the research is rigorous, robust, and useful.

That’s what good researchers should do. Great researchers can create spaces where others can contribute and learn while playing an active role in the research process. Good researchers can run high quality research but great researchers can bring a team with them on the journey.

As a final note, while this post was being written, Will Myddleton wrote a great guide for researchers on how to make research a team sport. It’s a really useful resource for researchers looking to put this ethos into practise if you're interested in learning more.

Read more posts about user research in PDS

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