User research as a team sport - how do you enable your team to play?

The motto ‘user research is a team sport’ is something that is often heard amid product teams who recognise that getting everyone in a team involved in user research makes for better product.

This philosophy has a long history, from Jared Spool’s study into the positive impact of ‘exposure hours’, to its inclusion in the UK government’s official guidance on how to build a great digital service. It has become widely accepted that involving team members of all disciplines in user research has real pay-offs for the quality of the end product.

This can be quite tricky to implement in practice though. Getting people together to do something that’s outside of their specific role and tasks is always a challenge. Even with the best of intentions, its success can be marred by participant no shows, a shortage of available meeting rooms, or study design requiring team members to travel to users in order to conduct the research.

At Great State we have tried a number of different approaches to make user research a sport that is playable in many different contexts.

We recently helped the Royal Navy to improve the way they communicate their apprenticeships' offer to potential recruits. We approached this iteratively, running three rounds of research over six weeks. The whole project team was involved in every stage of this research, from planning, through execution to analysis and defining recommendations. In this ‘full fat’ approach, our focus was on being efficient with team members’ time and ensuring that the time they did devote was as valuable as possible. We wanted to avoid the nightmare scenario where the whole team sat in an observation room for a day with their attention divided between answering emails, taking part in Slack conversations, making tea and occasionally writing down some participant observations when something particularly unusual happened.

To do this we employed a three-part process:

  1. Make notes that count: Start with a 20-minute briefing to the team the day before the research on how to take great notes. We borrowed heavily from Leisa Reichelt’s thinking on this.

  2. Short amounts of high intensity effort: Each team member observed a single research session and they were the sole notetaker for that session. The single hour commitment and that weight of note-taking responsibility combined to ensure that each team member took detailed and useful notes.

  3. Enable everyone to contribute: The next day, the entire team gathered together for an analysis session, lasting 2-3 hours. Each team member informed the rest of the team what happened in the session they observed - telling the story of their participant’s experience. As a group we were then able to discuss what this meant for the product direction and come to an agreement as to what to change and test or recommend.

The benefits of this approach were immediately clear from the experiences of the team members: ‘It was interesting to see how the prototype evolved over the rounds of testing having had insight into the reasons behind why, rather than getting a bunch of changes at the end to implement.’

Take your lab anywhere – leave the observation room behind

But conditions don’t always allow for this level of involvement. What if your team is remote? With offices in Bristol and London, we are no strangers to this challenge. For other projects, where this is the case, we have used secure video streaming software to enable team members to follow the same process and act as notetakers even when they are elsewhere in the country.

Go on some epic road trips together

What if your users can’t come to you and it's not possible to stream sessions back to the studio because of connectivity issues? We have done a lot of work for the Army, the Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence. In these contexts, their users are at an Army, Navy or RAF base and cannot just head off to our usability lab for an afternoon. For such projects, all our research and testing are carried out in the users’ own environment. Inevitably, this makes it much harder to involve the whole team, but we still consider it a priority and try our best to do so.

Our tactic is usually to get team members to take it in turns to accompany us individually on these visits. This means in a single day each person will observe and take notes for 3-4 sessions. The cadence of exposure is therefore very different, but more than counterbalanced by the empathy that builds from spending time immersed in our users’ lives.

We have set ourselves a challenge that all our user research will be a team sport. Each new project will have its particular challenges, but the rules are flexible enough to adapt and we’ve already seen the many benefits it offers first hand.