An In-Depth Look at Organizational Research Maturity

With Jane Davis, Principal Researcher at Great Question
April 24, 2023
12 min
An In-Depth Look at Organizational Research Maturity

For the last two months, we’ve been digging in to what research maturity consists of in organizations. Research maturity is often discussed in the context of UX or Design Research teams themselves, but we wanted to take a step back and look at what it means for an organization, rather than a team, to build research maturity. As part of that, we spoke to people in a wide range of organizations and roles to understand what “research maturity” looks like in practice.

(A quick note about terminology and scope: this looks at research maturity in the context of conducting research within companies, rather than agencies or consultancies. I will also be using “research” as shorthand for the umbrella of different names (UX Research, Design Research, Product Research, Insights, etc) because of the proliferation of different terms across different organizations)

First and foremost, research maturity is really two things: impact on decision-making, and the infrastructure for conducting research in a scalable, repeatable way. Impact on decision-making is about how and when research is used in the organization to inform direction. Infrastructure can be thought of as how easy it is for someone with no organizational context or knowledge to conduct research within the organization.

Second, it quickly became clear that research maturity doesn’t require a dedicated research team. It’s possible, although significantly more challenging, for organizations without a dedicated UX or Design Research practice to build research maturity. We spoke with multiple organizations that didn’t have dedicated researchers that had managed to achieve a high degree of research maturity by investing in infrastructure and developing a culture of incorporating research into product decisions. These organizations still face considerable hurdles around reaching full maturity when it comes to research impact, but for organizations that are lacking buy-in for a dedicated research function, it’s helpful to have some examples of what investing in research looks like without dedicated researchers, and how those organizations can build a mature research culture.

The Basics

There are two factors to consider in organizational research maturity: impact and infrastructure. Impact is the measure of where and how research informs decision making in the organization. Infrastructure is the underlying processes and workflows that have been created and put into practice to support and streamline conducting research, in a way that is replicable and scalable. Organizations generally start from one or the other, either by conducting research using scrappy, ad hoc processes to maximize for impact, or by investing up front in infrastructure in order to lay the groundwork for impactful research findings.

The starting point for each organization depends largely on the organization’s relationship to infrastructure and operations more generally, not just as they relate to research. In organizations that view operations as a way to streamline and improve workflows, it’s possible to get buy-in for initial investments in research infrastructure as a way to ultimately increase the speed and efficiency of conducting research. In organizations that don’t have established norms around operations, it’s most common to start by focusing on doing research that has immediate impact, using ad hoc processes.

There’s no “correct” place to start when it comes to building organizational research maturity. The most important factor in being able to continue progressing towards greater organizational research maturity is understanding the organization’s existing norms and expectations around how decisions get made and how and when to invest in operations and infrastructure.

Understanding organizational norms

Let’s take a quick look at how to assess organizational norms before embarking on your larger project of building organizational research maturity.

  1. Review your organization and its structure. Are there already roles dedicated to operations, even if they aren’t Research Operations? Does your organization have Technical Project Managers, Design Operations roles, or other functions that are specifically meant to develop and improve processes and efficiency?
  2. Look at how decision-making currently happens. What data sources and information are regularly incorporated? What happens when someone tries to bring in new information that doesn’t agree with what people previously wanted to do or what they already believe? What happens when the team feels like it doesn’t have sufficient information to make a decision?
  3. Talk to people! Ask them about their experience trying to advocate for process improvements or other ways of streamlining work. Ask them what information they use to make decisions in the course of their work, and how and where they get it.

The last thing to note is that organizational research maturity isn’t as simple as following a linear progression or moving up the steps of a ladder. There are twelve key components of research maturity, and each one is a spectrum, rather than a binary. Organizations can work on any number of these at a time, and it’s possible to be fully mature in any one component while still having room to improve in the others. We’ll get into those components and how to make progress on each one, but let’s start by looking at what impact and infrastructure maturity look like.

Impact

The ultimate goal of all research is to enable organizations to make informed decisions at every level. Organizations that are at the high end of research maturity when it comes to impact have reached a point where research is incorporated into decision making throughout the entire organization. These organizations include research in the scoping and planning processes from the product feature level all the way through the company strategy level. They have frameworks in place for determining what information they need and how to get it, and they are willing to pause work in order to gather more information through research if their existing knowledge base isn’t sufficient.

Hallmarks of impact maturity:

  • Research is integrated into decision-making at every level of the organization
  • People at all levels reference relevant research in the course of their regular work
  • When the organization doesn’t have the required information to make a decision, the norm is to delay the decision until research can be conducted
  • Research is sought after when crafting a point of view on key topics

Infrastructure

To reach its full potential, an organization’s research practices need to be replicable, scalable, and streamlined. That means processes have been clearly defined and documented, and tested and refined as the organization’s needs change. Anything that can be automated or otherwise streamlined has been, and it’s easy for new members of the organization to learn and follow best practices for conducting research in the organization. Research findings and other artifacts are communicated to the organization as they’re produced, and are easy to find and retrieve months and years down the line.

Hallmarks of infrastructure maturity:

  • Research processes are standardized and ad hoc approaches have given way to a set of documented best practices
  • Kicking off a new research project requires a minimum of effort
  • Anyone conducting research understands and applies best practices to each step of the work
  • The organization has replicable, standardized ways of communicating, distributing, and archiving research findings
  • Onboarding new members of the organization to conducting research happens in the same way every time because the required documentation and processes for it already exist
  • It’s more efficient to retrieve and review existing research on a given topic than it is to conduct new research on it

Key Components of Research Maturity

Within the larger realm of research maturity, there are twelve distinct components that go into creating a mature research organization. Each has at least one visible indicator of when an organization has progressed to full maturity in that specific area. It’s also important to note that each of these is a spectrum, not a binary, and that organizations can move in both directions on that spectrum as they grow and shift.

The twelve components are:

1. Sphere of influence

  • Research is listened to and represented at every level, and has supporters and stakeholders throughout the organization
  • Indicators: research is consistently included in meetings, representation for research exists at every level of the organization, research is frequently referenced in documentation and presentations put together by non-research functions

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Identify research “champions” across the organization and give them ways to stay closely informed about what research is happening 
  • Identify areas where research isn’t currently part of the conversation and work with research champions and stakeholders to create a plan for beginning to incorporate it
  • Sit down with cross-functional partners to help them understand why research is asking to be involved and how being in meetings can speed up the research and product processes.
  • Create multiple channels for disseminating research across the organization, not just with regular stakeholders or teams that engage frequently
  • Ensure research reports, presentations, and artifacts are stored somewhere where everyone in the organization can access, share, and comment on them (H/T Libby Perold)

2. Ease of conducting research

  • Research projects are low-effort to run and new team members are able to rapidly get up to speed on how the organization conducts research
  • Indicators: clear processes and documentation exist for each part of the research process, ease and speed of onboarding of new people to the research process

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Create a single location for all process-related documentation to live
  • Create and share templates as each new process is created
  • Document the end-to-end process of conducting research in a single document that can be shared with new team members
  • Document the questions new members of the organization have about conducting research as they come up, and create and continually update an FAQ for them

3. Diversity of approach and participants

  • Using the best-fit method for the project is low effort, participant diversity and inclusion are considered a key part of the research process
  • Indicators: a variety of methods are supported and in regular rotation, inclusive and representative recruiting policies, data collection on representation

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Include a “Plan for inclusive participation” section in all study guide templates and study kickoffs
  • Set clear goals for inclusion and representation for research participation, and create a way to track progress
  • Create a resource to help people who are conducting research identify best-fit methods
  • Host regular workshops and trainings to help the people conducting research expand their methodological toolkit

4. Having the time to invest in maturing the practice

  • Team members are able to spend time on process creation, documentation, mentorship, training, and scalability
  • Indicators: professional development budget exists and is used by individual team members, the team has time to create process, mentoring of other people conducting research is happening regularly

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Research and document the existing learning and development resources and policies at the organization
  • Set aside time every month for the team to get together and work on documentation
  • Create a structured program where people of varying skill and experience levels can match with others who are looking to teach or learn
  • Identify ways to build professional development into working time, like article discussion clubs or monthly learning sessions

5. Consolidation of materials

  • Research materials, both artifacts and processes, are consolidated in collections that are findable, searchable, and shareable
  • Indicators: insights repository, process library

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Identify a lightweight way to ensure all research lives together, or at least has a central location where links can live
  • Create a single location for all process-related documentation to live
  • Give everyone a single place to go with questions, like an “ask a researcher” chat channel

6. Finding previous work is more efficient than duplicating it

  • It takes the organization less effort to find and internalize existing work than to spin up a new study on the same topic
  • Indicators: insights repository, multiple channels for dissemination of research information, clear understanding of who to ask about a given topic or project

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Create a single location for research findings and presentations to live
  • Add a step to the documented research process for checking for existing work
  • Document and socialize the research team’s operating model. For centralized or consultancy models, ensure every team or department has an assigned point of contact.

7. Feedback loop between product and research

  • Research is regularly incorporated into product development at each stage, and the product roadmap informs and reinforces what research is conducted
  • Indicators: links between research findings and product roadmap, tracking impact of research, links between product roadmap and research roadmap

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Document and socialize a roadmap for upcoming research projects based on the product roadmap
  • Schedule a quarterly cross-team session with Product partners to review their roadmap and identify open questions
  • Tag research insights and findings back to specific initiatives and product teams
  • Socialize research as it happens, rather than waiting until the findings are complete
  • Include a clear point of view on what the product implications are in research findings and shareouts

8. Feedback loop between other insights functions and research

  • Research readily incorporates information from other user-facing and insights functions, like Customer Support, Data Science, and Sales, and shares back findings and information to those functions
  • Indicators: research projects reference multiple insights sources, formal councils or recurring meetings across insights functions

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Develop a recurring meeting between insights functions where the intention is to share roadmaps and identify areas for collaboration
  • Ask other functions about the best way to stay aware of what they’re learning
  • Include other insights functions on all research shareouts and socialization plans

9. Consistency of both process and outcomes

  • Processes are documented and repeatable, findings are consistently high-quality
  • Indicators: defined quality bar for research, processes are not just documented but are findable

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Ensure people who are newer to research have a more experienced partner to review their findings
  • Create templates for research deliverables such as reports, presentations, and one-pagers
  • Create and socialize a process library

10. Visibility of research

  • The organization is aware of past, present, and future projects
  • Indications: awareness of work in progress exists both across the people doing research and the organization more broadly, organization-wide awareness of recent and current findings, published and socialized research roadmap, previous findings are regularly accessed

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Select a set of “must-read” research for new hires to read when they onboard
  • Document and socialize a research roadmap, even if it’s only for the next few months
  • Create and socialize a centralized repository for research artifacts and deliverables
  • Start a regular digest of recently-completed research findings and share it with the organization
  • Create a place where people can publish their research findings as they come out

11. Returning to past work is a regular practice

  • Indicators: new research builds off past research, past research is regularly revisited and used or updated

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Include a section for existing work in research templates
  • Set aside time every quarter for people who do research to review and synthesize existing work related to key topics (e.g., “What’s everything we know about [x]”)
  • Ensure all research documentation includes dates

12. Quality control built into process

  • Indicators: automated or manual checks exist to ensure research is consistent and high-quality

Recommendations to build maturity for this component:

  • Identify areas where it’s possible to automate quality control (for example, if you use software to manage your repo, make it impossible for people to upload or add new findings without the correct fields filled out)
  • Identify multiple people who can help share the quality control responsibilities (for example, reviewing usability tests before they’re published, or helping with survey language)
  • Document expectations for where in the research process reviews will take place

Jane is the Principal Researcher at Great Question, where she help companies make better decisions faster through insights. Prior to joining Great Question, she created and ran the UX Research practice for Zoom, was head of UX Research for Zapier, ran the Growth Research team for Dropbox, and led UX Research for BitTorrent. She’s worked as a researcher, a designer, a librarian, and an event planner. She lives in Oakland with her partner and their two children, and spends as much time as humanly possible outdoors. In her heart of hearts, she believes research is actually a sales role.

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