After graduating college, Erika Hall took a temporary job conducting research for a tech company. She had no training, no desire to cold-call strangers all day, and no idea what she had gotten herself into. But it paid the rent and that would do for now – at least, until she found a better opportunity to apply her interests in communications and problem-solving.
Today, the acclaimed design researcher, author, and speaker looks back fondly on this pivotal, albeit bumpy, experience during “the dawn of the web when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.” She didn’t know it then, but this introduction to the world of research would set the stage for the better opportunity she found next. Hall transitioned into design and consulting at an agency, Studio Archetype, where she met a design anthropologist whose collaborative, evidence-based style of work inspired her to co-found her own agency, Mule Design Studio, with the same ethos.
In the latest episode of People Who Do Research, Great Question’s Principal Researcher Jane Davis sat down with Hall to discuss her wealth of experience and weigh in on topics shaping the future of research, including:
Let’s dive in.
The #1 thing design researchers still forget
Hall published Just Enough Research in 2013. In the decade since her first book hit the shelves, this succinct, actionable guide to research has had a tremendous impact on the direction of the field at large and the individuals who occupy it.
Still, Hall sees one vital concept of design research that goes overlooked: setting a clear goal to “make this decision by this date.” To carry out successful research, you have to start here. Otherwise, the project doesn’t stand a chance – no matter how much skill or organizational buy-in you have.
Research is a tool for making better decisions, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Research can’t magically answer your question if the rest of your house isn’t in order. The data itself can’t do the job, and without a defined framework for organizational decision-making, a researcher has nowhere to apply this information.
“There’s no such thing as a research emergency if you don’t work for the CDC,” Davis said, sharing a mantra she uses to emphasize the importance of defining a framework for decision-making before investing in research.
This framework is a crucial system Hall often sees missing in organizations, even in those with well-developed research teams. It helps underscore the role that sales plays in design research – a skill that Hall and Davis agree is the most essential of all.
How to break through barriers to organizational buy-in
For researchers in individual contributor roles up to management, winning buy-in is a battle that requires you to sell your solution to their problem. To break through, Hall believes it’s important to “set aside your own preferences and biases and the things you want to work on and start by understanding the people you work with.”
This means asking questions. Lots of them. It demonstrates you’re listening from a place of genuine care and curiosity, and you possess a desire for a deeper understanding of the problem you both are trying to solve. Because their problem is now your problem, too.
As for what this looks like in action, Hall said the simpler you start, the better.
“Tell me about your job, what’s hard for you, what do you do, who do you work with – all the stuff you might ask somebody out in the world to understand what you’re doing fits into their life. It’s the same thing, just by talking to someone for like half an hour, and all of a sudden, you have this shared relationship.”
This approach taps into the essence of sales, popularized by Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It also helps establish common ground early which is essential because, as Davis points out, research requires understanding the full context of all the factors at play in an organization. So you better make sure you start out on the right foot.
“It isn’t just about understanding the goal of the research project. Our whole job as researchers is to understand the full context of people and how they operate and that includes the organization,” Davis said. “Let me understand what your job is and your whole context so I can understand how to work effectively with you and use the research as a vector for making progress in that relationship. It’s not just I want to understand why you want to do this research. I need to understand the context in which you are making your decisions.”
It’s important to remember that decision-making in business is often emotional, rather than the product of a carefully-constructed process. This can easily put designers on defense, creating a disconnect between the two parties.
“We’re getting some great examples of that right now,” Hall said. “Some great, terrible examples.”
What to do when your design research fails
Of course, this friendly “tell me about your day” approach to research isn’t foolproof. There will be situations where your efforts to move toward an evidence-based decision-making process stall or even fail.
Then what? Let’s retrace our steps.
Wipe out doubt early
First and foremost, emphasize your solidarity. Your job as a design researcher is to help move the organization to a better place, and your work is in service to the organization’s decision-making. This means being clear about the goals of the research project, and perhaps more importantly, separating out your own goals. Wipe out doubt from the start.
Celebrate big and small along the way
Big wins are easy to celebrate because they are few and far in between. That’s why it’s critical to celebrate small victories, especially when people are willing to see things in a new way.
“If you’re clear in your goal, then you can see progress and you can celebrate incremental progress,” Hall said. “This stuff happens like any organizational change – one conversation at a time.”
Use your POV to your advantage
For outside research consultants coming in, it’s important to remember in-house employees often lack the cross-organizational visibility needed to identify patterns without the influence of bias. This goes for the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Everyone is afraid that somebody is going to say ‘I don’t have the information to do my job’ and that’s everybody at every level,” Hall said. “And the higher up you go, the more fear there is because people have fewer peers to check in with, and they’re supposed to demonstrate leadership. Having this awareness that everyone is like a scared little animal in these organizations really helps with that.”
Learn to let go
Researchers also have an uncomfortable reality they must come to terms with in their roles.
“There is a certain letting go required, especially when you are an in-house researcher,” Davis said. “You are not the decision-maker. Your job is to support decision-making and that can feel uncomfortable or even disempowering for researchers. At the end of the day, everyone is trying to make the decision that is right for users.”
Signs of good and bad research clients
Even if you execute the research process to a tee, you can’t force an organization to change if it’s not willing to. That’s why design researchers should know what signs to look for in organizations as potential clients, the same way organizations look for employees that align with their values. It sets everyone up for success.
Hall and Davis agree that companies with an ethos of learning, collaboration, and curiosity are the most likely to benefit from design research, and thus make for the best clients. Organizations without this ethos often make for bad clients because they treat research as a checkbox. A way for leadership to validate preconceived beliefs and ideas that can easily be discarded if it doesn’t yield results that tell them what they want to hear.
“You can tell by the way people talk to each other,” Hall said. “Not everyone is taught critical thinking – it’s a skill. In conversation, critical thinkers separate out personal preferences. That’s a good client. It’s bad if people say my preferences speak for the audience, the user. That’s bad. That’s a tell.”
Like a good design researcher, a good research client has stakeholders who are comfortable taking a step back and removing their personal biases and preferences from the problem they are trying to solve.
Many come from backgrounds in journalism, where storytelling, collaboration, and deadlines are all just work – something that more people in business should embrace.
“Not every shitty startup is changing or saving the world,” Hall said. “It’s a business – do your thing and do it well, but you have that sense of perspective. Be ok with what you do. You don’t have to save the world.”
“Work can be meaningful without it needing to be everything and without the product of your work needing to be life-changing. It’s ok to just enjoy what you do and do something neutral-trending-positive that makes people's lives a little bit better and just have it be a job. That’s good – more people need to do that.”
Democratizing research sounds great. But does it make sense?
The goal of research is learning that leads to a decision and creates a shared point of view based on evidence. The goal of Great Question is to democratize research – to provide an all-in-one customer research tool that empowers anyone in an organization to conduct research.
But Davis wonders if there is a better way to talk about the company’s founding mission “that doesn’t set us up for a weird binary reaction.”
Hall points out that businesses aren’t democracies and even democracies rarely function as such. Without a clear sense of how research influences decision-making, territory battles emerge over who owns the truth.
“Fights happen when goals and roles aren’t clear,” Hall said.
It doesn’t help that the purpose of research can be easily misinterpreted, given its different meanings in different contexts. In academia, the work is to produce new knowledge. Academic researchers want to ask and answer questions no one has addressed before. What people do with it doesn’t matter. In business, this doesn’t matter at all. The work is to make a decision.
“The research output is not the main tool at our disposal,” Davis said. “It is the research process that is the number one way to accomplish better decision-making. The research artifact is not the goal – the decision is the goal.”
For all the good that democratizing research promotes, it may present an unintended problem – more bad research done by people who don’t know how to do good research.
“You have to fix what happens at the end of the research project at the beginning of the process,” Hall said. “The reason why research goes bad – were you really clear on what you were trying to learn? What’s our standard of confidence? So much of the conversation is about methods and activities – if you just pick the right one, that’ll solve it. Really, it all comes with the way you articulate the question. The most important part and most neglected.”
Key takeaways & final thoughts
In their spirited discussion, Hall and Davis covered many of the central topics that shape the state of design research today and its future, including:
Hall also touched on the pitfalls of brainstorming ideas versus brainstorming questions – a passionate and concise stance that exemplifies the care she puts into every ounce of her work.
“I think brainstorming ideas is garbage,” Hall said. “No one should ever do it and it’s anti-collaborative. Brainstorming questions is so useful. Get everyone together and say ‘hey, what are our knowledge gaps” and then once you have a question, what’s the best way to answer it to a level of confidence. You can’t fix research if you start with a bad question.”
So, where is a great place to start? Davis has an idea.
“Will we make a better decision with this information than we would without it?”
Quotes in this article have been lightly edited for clarity. You can watch the complete webinar recording here.