Picture of board with post-its and research notes.

How to create a research program, even if your company doesn’t believe in research

The research paradox

Life is full of unknowns. And that’s why I’ve always been amazed when companies think of research as an afterthought. For all the guarantees and assurances they claimed to want, there was rarely an understanding that talking directly to people might actually help clarify and narrow down ideas.

Instead, there was often a false sense of security around analytics. Quantitative data was valued over qualitative. This imbalance made teams devalue the most important thing about customers—the fact that they’re human and have a lot of context around why, how, and when they make decisions.

In my last company, a co-worker and I knew we could do better. We knew that research was a valuable tool. Before we started working together, she’d been introducing new processes and definitions for research. Together we were able to create enough momentum that we instituted an entire research program and built out a team.

Bringing research to your internal team

First, we had to figure out what we didn’t know. So we started at the beginning—with internal research. Just like any research study, we made sure that it was focused. Our main goal was to understand what was currently working with the research process and what wasn’t working.

We asked the team a few questions, including:

  • How do you currently complete research?
  • What works with this process?
  • What’s frustrating about the process?
  • What would an ideal outcome look like?

We got a lot of responses and found that the main problems were:

  • Action items from research were often too vague for teams to use.
  • The value of research was not communicated clearly to stakeholders.
  • There was a fear that research would take too long and be too expensive.

This gave us the opportunity to solve for the three main problems people had mentioned.

We made a big effort to include the team in the research process from the beginning. Overall, this helped internal stakeholders feel more involved and invested throughout the research studies.

We made lots of changes, including:

  • Updating and shortening the research process with clear steps to request a research project. We would provide cost and time estimates upfront before the research project began. Why this worked: It set realistic expectations and addressed the fear around the ambiguity of research projects.
  • We provided different “levels” of research. That meant we could run really quick and easy studies or offer more detailed and in-depth studies. Why this worked: Product managers got to choose the “level” of research study they wanted which helped them take responsibility and feel dual ownership of the research.
  • We trained and included product managers, engineers, and designers on active research studies. Why this worked: This helped all team members feel like they were part of the research process and so they were more invested and excited about communicating results internally and externally.
  • We worked directly with product managers to review research findings and work on solutions together. Why this worked: This made internal stakeholders feel heard and involved.
  • We created summary templates or presentations that listed out proposed action items very specifically. Often, we would highlight only one or two changes based on the research, but list out all suggestions in an index. Why this worked: stakeholders felt they had clear direction, action steps, and autonomy to decide what to do next.

Previously we had only been talking about research with team members currently doing research. We found that was actually doing us a disservice:

So, we also changed the way we communicated with teams on a wider scale:

  • We created a research focus group to set goals, prioritize work, and grow the research program. Why this worked: We were able to set and measure goals for the research program. We also got ongoing feedback from the engineers, PMs, and project managers we worked with to make sure we were providing value.
  • We widely communicated the value of research at company meetings by showing past research studies and how they helped us reach our client goals. Why this worked: We showed that research wasn’t just valuable to the client but was also valuable to the company since it could help us retain, grow, or entice new clients.
  • We summarized and communicated in progress and completed research results more frequently in team meetings. Why this worked: These updates helped the team know that things were progressing for specific research studies.

Did the changes work?

Yes! A couple of months after we consistently instituted these changes, we saw that people were talking about potential research studies more frequently, our requests for research skyrocketed, and more clients were signing on to do research heavy, or research only contracts.

How to get started with your team

If you’re trying to create a research program at your company, or just get more teams practicing research, start with your own internal study.

Figure out what fear, pain, or confusion is holding people back.

Typically, when people are able to see measurable progress of research, the value is clearly explained, and people receive easy to read summaries and/or results, they’re much more willing (and excited) to incorporate research into their work.