February 7th, 2018

Research methods for discovery

Photo by Choreograph/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Choreograph/iStock / Getty Images

I read a post about using different methodologies for user experience research written by Vicki Riley from the Co-Op Digital team a couple of weeks ago. I very much agree with her conclusion that it's easy to stick to a research method because it's familiar or we feel confident using it. The market research industry are constantly berated for relying on focus groups but I am constantly surprised by how much the user research community rely on interviewing (often in a lab).

I have been a mixed methods researcher since I started my first research job in the Audience Research department at the BBC (cough) 17 years ago. Over the years I have used and commissioned many different methodologies, always basing the approach on the needs and outcomes of the project. I frequently get my hands dirty with data analysis and use quant methods but have always had a leaning towards qual and ethnography. After undergoing creative facilitation training at the BBC, I found my big passion was bringing audience/customer/user insights into the innovation or discovery process. For that reason, this post will focus more on methodologies that work well for discovery or innovation research.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about whether you should do it yourself when it comes to research or call in an expert. I talked through the research funnel and how it's important to understand how close to the problem/solution you are. I think the ideal place for mixing up your research methods is at the top of the funnel when you are furthest away from the solution and undertaking exploratory research.

Another way to look at this is by using the double diamond that many product design teams use to explain the design process. Here is an example from Jane Austin at Moo.com that I really like.

Moo.com's double diamond
Moo.com's double diamond

Whilst you're shaping the problem space and then during the first diamond of understanding and defining which user needs to focus on, you should ideally get out of the lab or the office. When you have defined your solution and are iterating on it, that's the best time to use your go to method - lab usability testing in a lot of cases, remote interviewing is mine. This is because you are likely needing cycles of quick feedback and iteration so you need a tried and trusted method so you can spin up a sprint of research quickly and efficiently.

So how about when time and efficiency isn't quite so important and the quality and depth of understanding or engagement of stakeholders are the key drivers? Here are some examples from my toolkit:

Home visits

Vicki talked about these in her post and they tend to be used more in consumer rather than B2B research. The B2B example of this is customer safaris (see below). 

I've used this type of method quite a few times. One example was at the BBC when digital had just started to disrupt people's viewing habits and we were researching the 6-7pm news hour. I organised for senior management and production staff to go and meet the audience in their own homes and then facilitated a workshop analysis session after the fact. 

This was a brilliant project for many reasons but particularly for engaging teams who wouldn't normally spend much time with your average TV viewer in Wales. We deliberately paired staff with unlikely viewers - my favourite pairing was the Head of Commissioning meeting a flat full of student nurses. We sent people to the deepest darkest corners of Wales and got them out of their Cardiff safety net. 

The key to the success was meticulous planning and project management. We trained people on how to interview and observe and also how to take notes. We also had to think about people's safety and used an external recruitment company for screening all our respondents. 

The quality of the final analysis was probably not as good as using a research consultant to do the work for us but it was much more thought provoking and engaging for the key stakeholders than many of the other projects I delivered.

Customer Safaris 

If you work in a B2B environment, your user is generally using your product in a work context. You need to get out and watch them do their job and talk to them about the challenges they encounter. 

This is often something a really good Account Management team or Customer Success team will do so you may find you can accompany them on site visits or join their phone calls. We used this method at Monotype recently during discovery and as a team we accompanied the Sales team to their meetings in person and over the phone. 

Around 5 years ago, I ran a project with the team at CERN whilst I was working at Mark Boulton Design. During the discovery phase of the new CERN People (internal) app, the whole CERN web team as well as two of us from Mark Boulton Design went out and interviewed people from across the organisation (their internal customers). 

It really challenged a lot of the assumptions we as a team had been making and resulted in a completely different approach than we had first outlined (and proposed/costed for). This showed us first hand that discovery research is really important before you get to solution-ing!

Vox Pops

Vox Pops were quite popular in the Market Research industry when I worked at the BBC and video has obviously seen a huge increase in popularity since then. 

In large organisations such as the Beeb where many production teams are very far removed from the audience, Vox Pops or videos are an ideal 'second hand' way to challenge people's views on viewers/listeners without having to involve them in research. As we had access to high quality cameras we also filmed and produced our own. We would generally pick a number of questions and then go out and ask them to unsuspecting passers by. 

I did several projects where I hung out at random places like Pontypridd Market and asked people what they thought about BBC Radio Wales. My favourite project was when I hung out at the BBC Radio 1 Big Weekend in Cardiff and filmed vox pops with younger hard to reach audiences. 

Techniques have definitely got much more sophisticated since then but even a few curated video clips of usability testing are a good way to add colour to a presentation for people who haven't been involved in your research.

Diary Studies 

Diary Studies are a great way to get lots of insights that you would otherwise miss. 

We used this method combined with one on one interviews for Radio Wales a lot. We asked people to fill out a diary for a week before their interview so that they could record the context of their radio listening. It helped us to gather insights on how listening to the radio made them feel, what they were also doing at the time and any specific thoughts that were triggered by the output they were listening to. This rich source of insights were used by the production team when coming up with new programme ideas.

Paired depths or friendship groups 

Sometimes one on one interviewing is really overwhelming for a respondent or in the case of children not appropriate. 

In retail, accompanied shopping and friendship groups are often used in place of regular focus groups particularly when discussing a sensitive topic such as sanitary towels or family planning. 

It's also helpful to talk to people in a group if they work together - so for example in B2B often a buying decision isn't made by one person but by a unit of people so you need to try and talk to several people who are involved. At Monotype I met lots of customers together for informal lunches or breakfast meetings and facilitated conversations using a mostly memorised discussion guide.

The key to all of these methods is to get out from behind your computer and open up your senses to the real world. It is only when we truly open our eyes, ears, noses and even our sense of touch that the magic lightbulb moments happen. In my experience, the lightbulbs are moments of clarity when you know you're onto something. As a research professional, it's often not your job to experience all these 'lightbulbs' for yourself but to facilitate the process or enable the right environment for this to happen. 

This is the key to discovery - generating the lightbulbs, not just in your own head but in the heads of your team. Lighting the way, as it were.

Previously : Going freelance
Recently : Repost of The Research Funnel