What moves a research team from good to great?

This month my focus shifted back to my UX roots as I was conducting usability testing for an IBM project. Since I spent the first decade of my career planning and facilitating usability tests, this practice will always hold a special place in my heart.

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to observe research teams at all levels of maturity. I've conducted research with many different teams in varying industries and I've seen firsthand how getting your team into a cadence of testing frequently with the right audiences leads to better products. Yet even though everyone wants websites and products that are customer-focused and built on a culture of seamless improvement, they don't always take the steps to get there. This makes for frustrated UX teams and marketers with eyes glazed over with the knowledge that their messaging just isn't quite hitting the mark.

Lately, as I've been working with a highly effective research team, I've been thinking about what consistently sets apart mediocre research teams from truly stellar ones.

Here are 5 things that seem to matter, both for UX research and marketing research:

  1. Leadership support: Stakeholder buy-in (both in attaboys and budget!) is essential to the consistent practice of user research. Without leadership who understands the value of research and is dedicated to real customer feedback, your products (and marketing) will suffer. There's no way around it.

  2. Systematic recruiting pipeline: The teams that have recruiting down to a science are the ones that wind up scheduling and conducting testing on a regular cycle. When my company Bixa is hired to conduct bi-weekly or monthly UX research for our clients, we book testing sessions at least 4-6 weeks in advance. Having testing participants ready to go means you'll never have to postpone research because you're waiting on somebody to get back to you. This preparation step goes a long way to ensuring consistency of recurring rounds of studies.

  3. Seamless handoff with lightweight reporting: Sometimes major findings are lost in the handoff between Research and Design and Development. If your organization is set up with distinct groups, there are a number of ways to get everyone involved. This might include having teams watch the testing from a viewing room, or making sure the report has video clips that highlight major issues. Ensuring that everyone has seen the problems makes for increased empathy. It's not a game of telephone this way either. Recently I've seen very successful teams skip the formal reports totally, opting instead for InVision comments and a few key video clips.

  4. How the team talks about user research: Ask one of your team members why they do research. Go ahead, I'll wait. Teams who are less effective tend to spend a lot of time talking about the return on investment of UX and will bring up time and money savings for your company first ("If we design it right the first time, we'll save money on the maintenance later. We estimate this is a 10x ROI"). The most effective teams, however, have a different outlook on the research. They will explain that they do research because it makes a better product for the end user. Their explanation will be for the benefit of the customer; not for the benefit of the organization. Shifting the "why" behind the research will shift the focus of findings as well, making the team more value-driven vs. cost-driven.

  5. How the team talks about each other: When I first start a project, I often can get a sense right off the bat of how effective the team is going to be based on how much gossip is going on behind people's backs. The more catty, the less effective the team will be. This is a totally unscientific and I did no research on this - it's just a personal observation based on my experience as plug-and-play on many different teams, at many different maturity levels, across many different industries. When everyone on the team respects each other and has each other's backs, things seem to go smoother. There is an art to creating a culture like this, and in the past, I have at times been brought onto teams for the sole purpose of serving as a coach and mediator. Fixing work culture will immediately improve the quality of your work.

  6. Skillful moderators: Not surprisingly, skilled moderators pull more from an interview than beginners. They know what strings to tug, and how to lead the conversation back to stay on track with time and purpose. Even if it's just a 5-minute debrief right after each session, have observers provide feedback to moderators immediately following (do not wait until the retrospective because you will forget the details). When providing feedback for a moderator, focus on these criteria: (a) how quickly the moderator built rapport, without sharing personal opinions; (b) time management during the session; (c) level of comfort going off-script to follow the conversation and probe deeper into areas the participant brings up; (d) non-biased question phrasing, open-ended follow-ups. Strengthening skills in these key areas will build the skills of moderators on your team.

Ok, I said five but I got carried away and wrote up six.

What else do you think sets apart a good research team from a great one? Send me a message (I do read every reply)!