Making strategic impact with research - Slowing down research to make the team move faster
Punit Jajodia and Prabhas Pokharel
Researchers always live in a tension between responding to the immediate needs of product development teams versus generating strategic, lasting impact that the company as a whole can benefit from. We're trusted to generate insights that last beyond the specific moment for which they were generated. But since we mostly operate in an agile environment where velocity is celebrated, we also have to be careful not to be perceived as slow.
At Thumbtack, researchers Cordeila Hyland and Erik Olesund discovered that speeding up the planning and execution of research studies and slowing down the synthesis and "socialization" of research gave them the right balance and credibility. Almost counterintuitively, they found that sometimes slowing our pace during synthesis helps the team move faster.
Thumbtack is an online marketplace for local services. On their app and website, you can find and hire local professionals for pretty much anything: from plumbing, wedding photographers, chefs, landscapers, even magicians. They serve pros and customers across the entire US, and their mission is to help them do life's work with joy and purpose.
In this article, we'll share 4 techniques from the Thumbtack research team on slowing down so that research leaves a longer lasting impression. We'll also talk about how they sped up their research ops work to buy the time they needed to slow down during synthesis.
#1 Slow down: to compare findings to past studies
There's nothing more satisfying for a researcher than sharing the results of your work with the team, especially when it involves on-field work. However, once the findings are in, it's important to hit pause and compare those findings to similar studies that might have been done in the past, maybe even by a different research team.
A literature review of relevant past studies may sound dry or academic and not something a product manager thinks that they need, but by reviewing past research, we can uncover trends that we can't see in a single study.
This is especially important in the context of research democratization because the project manager might be able to perform a usability study by themselves, but they'll probably not put in the work required to parse through six studies and see patterns across time.
#2 Slow down: to get people to engage with research artifacts
When you have three projects running at once, it's tempting to recycle the same report template and do a quick share-out with the team. But if you believe that the insights from a study will still be relevant months from now, it's important to think about how to convey those insights in a way that's engaging.
This might mean putting in a little bit extra time at the beginning to contextualize the problem and the research for future insight seekers who will be looking to this as a resource after you've left the company. For instance, the researchers at Thumbtack once took nine studies around a particular topic and created a portal to those insights.
It might mean sharing research snacks over Slack to keep team engagement high throughout the process.
Reduct allows you to quickly extract short clips that will set your company Slack on fire. Our customers like to call them research snacks and they're the fastest way to get your company excited about research, as it's happening! Learn more.
Engaging stakeholders might require turning the design studio into a self-guided tour of field research, where stakeholders actually have to walk through and find the answers to their own questions.
This is easier said than done– carving out time for a big group of people to get together and process research observations is hard. It would be much easier for a researcher to just block off their calendar for two days, hide in a corner of the office, and just do this themselves. So even though, involving others in this process slows you down, the Thumbtack research team has found that it actually pays off for the team.
How early in the research process should stakeholders be brought in? The first phase of synthesis is a great time to do it because then they can go beyond being note takers and observers and start helping move sticky notes. The goal is to make everyone feel like owners or creators of the insights that are generated from research, and not just consumers.
An additional benefit from this is that while the research team is still synthesizing, a product manager is already learning something new about users, weeks before the report is done. The researcher is moving slower, but the rest of the team is able to move much faster.
#3 Slow down: to reformulate insights to create something that feels new and relevant today
Researchers are often asked to research the same questions again and again by different people and teams, and it can feel frustrating when this happens.
Instead of going, "Uh! just go and look at the studies..", we need to understand that to a non-researcher, it feels like they're asking a new question because they're tackling a new project.
In such cases, it's important to reframe insights from the past studies to answer the specific questions being asked instead of being bogged down by the seemingly repetitive theme. Sometimes, researchers need to put their researcher hats on and think of stakeholders like users instead of colleagues, and look beyond the feature request of new research to the underlying need, which is insights that'll guide their decisions today.
When requests for a particular topic keep resurfacing, maybe it's time to dig deep into past research and create a "State of X" document that takes insights from past and more current sources and puts them in a refreshing new light. Researchers should get into the habit of using the existing archive of research to respond quickly to company's strategic questions.
#4 Slow down: to "socialize" research insights
To build stakeholder trust in competence with how to use research, researchers need to slow down in order to socialize research findings across the organization. Socializing research findings goes beyond just sharing a report on the company Slack or a few distribution lists. It's about ensuring that stakeholders know what researchers learned from a study but perhaps more importantly, that they trust the learnings and know how to use them.
The most difficult part for a researcher here is to accept that everyone didn't read your research reports and even if they did, they may not recall the findings in the moment when they need them.
The researcher needs to be there in person to insert those key findings in the moments where they are most needed. This means going to a lot of meetings where you don't feel needed. You need to wait for that key moment when a strategic decision is about to be made and you have some insight that allows you to be the customer's voice.
Even in moments when you don't have a specific data point or insight that's relevant, you need to trust the unique perspective you bring to these meetings since as a researcher, you might think in a different way than another function, or because you spend so much more time face to face with customers.
Another aspect of slowing down to socialize findings is to share them often and in more forums, even if you feel like a parrot sometimes. You might feel that you're repeating the same insights over and over again, but chances are that a good proportion of the audience hasn't heard about the particular research before or even if they did, they didn't pay attention the first time or remember it at this time. A researcher needs to be comfortable with sharing the same work in different forums repeatedly until it sticks with the people who are listening.
How to buy the time needed to slow down
In order to give themselves the time and space to move much slower when it comes to synthesizing and socializing research insights, the Thumbtack research team have gradually increased the pace of their research activities by streamlining the recruiting and operations.
They found that they could have the greatest leverage by speeding up the process when it comes to planning and executing research. For instance, by optimizing activities like recruiting and scheduling of participants, managing calendars of stakeholders and observers better, and making sure that people show up to the room and don't interrupt the session, they were able to save the time needed to slow down during synthesis and spend more time sharing the final product in more forums.
We all want to create products that people remember for a long time, and we want our research to be at such quality that our colleagues learn what good insights look like, and that allows us to earn a seat at the strategic table.
In engineering driven companies like Thumbtack, teams are measured by their velocity of throughput and how many experiments they ship in a given quarter. As researchers, we need to be careful to not fully adopt this mindset of shipping. If we do, there's a risk that we start to think about our work primarily as measured by how many reports we can ship in a quarter, rather than ensuring that the work actually has an impact.
Because for research to have a seat at the strategic table, it's not just enough to do more, we also have to do better. In order for us to be invited to that table, our colleagues have to see the value in our work. In order to see the value in our work, they have to see our work. And once they see it, they have to find it to be relevant and helpful in answering their questions.
So that's where the research team at Thumbtack deliberately slows down to invest in socializing and synthesizing insights.
Just like a good wine, quality research can last for a long time. And when you store it properly, you can revisit your cellar to pull out a favorite vintage.
Reduct helps create a searchable archive of your entire organization's qual research videos so that you and your team can search through hours of past research videos and create shareable insights from them.