Empowering non-career researchers: A playbook for success

Carol Rossi
May 6, 2024
Empowering non-career researchers: A playbook for success

Greg is an awesome researcher.

He knows how to get customer insights that will drive solid decision-making. He doesn't ask customers leading questions or expect them to predict future behavior. He listens deeply to customers and observes more than he speaks. He can take raw notes from customer conversations and turn them into actionable insights. He knows when to collect insights himself and when to call on his org’s career researchers.

Did I mention that Greg is not a career researcher? Greg is a design manager, and one example from dozens of non-career researchers I’ve seen run their own research well. 

Our work is evolving. Specialized UX roles have paved the way for a new breed of generalists. Teams want to adopt agile decision-making. One way they're doing this is by empowering PMs, designers, engineers, and content strategists to conduct their own research. As a leader, you need to develop programs, processes, frameworks, and onboard tools to support this effort. 

To some of us, this trend is not new. Drawing from more than 15 years of empowering non-career researchers as a leader, coach, and consultant, I've witnessed both successes and pitfalls.

Benefits to career researchers when we empower our peers

Despite the concerns by some career researchers, I’ve seen many positive outcomes. Mostly that our teammates have a greater appreciation for research, for what’s involved to do it well.

At one company, we did a ton of field research and would always take teammates with us. I’d offer them a chance to run the interview while I’d take notes, but they usually deferred — they knew they had the skills to be in the driver’s seat but were comfortable alternating or playing the supporting role.

At another company, designers and content strategists often created more treatments than could be A/B tested and needed a quick way to narrow those options to the most understandable. We set up templates and a framework for them to get user feedback, usually within a day. That work didn’t require a career researcher; the team needed to make quick decisions and had the tools to do it themselves.

At another org, I ran a ½ day “Research 101” workshop on reducing bias. Rather than thinking they were ready to run all the studies themselves, several attendees went to the CEO and told him they needed to hire a researcher.

"Despite the concerns by some career researchers, I’ve seen many positive outcomes. Mostly that our teammates have a greater appreciation for research, for what’s involved to do it well."

Here's how to make sure it's done in a way that supports decision-making based on high quality insights. 

Note: For the sake of this discussion, I’ll refer to non-career researchers as pods (some combination of PM, designer, engineer, content strategist, product marketer).

Establish a game plan

Before pods start doing their own research, think about your goals for this effort. Do you want to see quicker tactical decision-making? Do you want everyone at the company having direct conversations with customers because that’s just good practice?

This doesn’t require a huge amount of planning. You can map out goals and the gap between what's in place now and what’s needed in a single working session with key leaders. Outline this in a grid, with the left column as your “current state” and right column as your “desired state.” Then add a center column for your three-month plan to make it happen. Take a stab. It’ll be imperfect but will get you started.

Defining your north star and creating a realistic way to get started will be time well-spent because it’ll keep everyone aligned and inform the decisions you make next. It’ll clarify what you need in order to keep research “scrappy, not crappy,” not overdo with heavy process, and stay on track to build your product.

Set up ops 

Establishing research operations is an investment in the smooth running of your program. Set up tools, processes, training, and frameworks to make pods successful. But don’t let lack of infrastructure become a blocker to getting started. Know that getting the full program in place will take time, and start with the most obvious need based on your three-month plan, considering how much time, energy, and money you can invest at this point. 

If you are a research team-of-one, or a startup with no dedicated researcher, look for free tools that have built-in templates you can use to run quick studies to start safely making data-informed decisions. If you have a ResearchOps manager or dedicated researchers, you might outline parallel paths for getting tools in place while you start to develop training, and the career researchers could involve pods as notetakers when they run studies.

Thankfully, you can leverage a variety of research platforms, many AI-enabled, to support — from planning and recruiting to running sessions and deriving actionable insights. 

"Establishing operations is an investment in the smooth running of your program. But don’t let lack of infrastructure become a blocker to getting started."

Identify staff to support the program

Who is going to support pods in this work? Who’s going to run training, manage tools, set up processes, and create frameworks?

Ideally, you’d have an ops specialist or career researcher in this role so pods can focus on the research itself. Whether your ops specialist is from product, research, or design doesn’t matter as long as they have the chops to support pods. If, lucky you, you have one to two career researchers who can play an ops role that’s even better, because they can also do the heavy research lifting for researching business questions that go beyond the scope of pods’ capabilities.

Depending on the tools and processes you have in place, it could take 10 minutes to two hours to support each customer interaction — time the pods themselves may not have.

Conduct training

Workshops are an excellent way for pods to develop core research skills. Offer workshops at a regular cadence, like quarterly, and invite pods who join the org during the previous quarter. If you can arrange to have pods go through workshops together so it mirrors the way they work in real life, that’s ideal. Make workshops interactive and goal-based, with a tangible outcome from each workshop. If you don’t have career researchers who can run these workshops, find a consultant or agency to help. 

Workshops should cover things like: 

  • When a pod should collect customer insights themselves or engage a career researcher
  • Using research tools
  • Setting up tasks and asking questions in a way that makes for quality insights
  • Translating what pods hear from customers into actionable insights

Provide ongoing coaching

Training isn’t a one-and-done thing. Coaching is vital to reinforce learning and address real-world challenges that come up when pods start to run research. Pods need a place to ask clarifying questions, get feedback from the coach, and learn from each other.

Don’t ignore this step. I’ve seen it time and again, coaching is what makes the difference between a successful program and one that is not. Think about when you’ve learned a new skill — it takes repetition to build the muscle.

I’d recommend at least one to two hours per pod of post-workshop coaching. You want to see them in action if they’re doing live interviews (or co-watch videos if they’re running unmoderated studies) and discuss what went well and what could be improved. I’ve found that pods come to feedback sessions with self-observations that get the conversation started.

"Pods need a place to ask clarifying questions, get feedback from the coach, and learn from each other."

The bottom line

Preparing pods for success needs planning, ops, and ongoing support. The program will thrive if you’re willing to put in the necessary resources. When I heard Greg tell one of the PMs after a user interview “that’s a leading question,” I knew the program could run without me — and my job as coach was done.

Carol Rossi leads a consultancy focused on helping organizations see maximum impact from customer insights, whether or not they have an internal research team. She provides 1:1 coaching/advising and group training, through either internal engagements with companies or via public workshops. She's been working in user experience for over 25 years. She started the research practice at Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds from scratch, and led user research at NerdWallet.

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