Consistency & Continuity: Key Ingredients to Scale User Research

Dominoes falling over from left to right

The field of user research is exploding. So much so that a whole subfield has sprung up around operationalizing that work, aptly dubbed “Research Ops”. Some organizations are actively hiring for Research Ops roles. Others are preparing to expand. And still others are just trying to wrap their heads around what this whole Research Ops thing is all about.

Before you run off to write that job description for Director of Research Ops, we wanted to share a couple of key factors that we think are essential to successfully scaling up and operationalizing research in your organization.

  1. Consistency — the ability to develop a body of research that conforms to a set of internal norms and standards which enhance discoverability, shareability, and credibility of the research. 
  2. Continuity — the ability to maintain access to research and to continue to build on past research as teams evolve.

You can think of having strong consistency and continuity as enabling scale in a couple of different ways:

  • Scaling up the number of people doing research
  • Scaling up the impact of the research your team is already doing

Consistency and continuity are mutually reinforcing ideas. Let’s look at each in turn.

Consistency

Consistency is a valued principle in UX design, brand management, leadership—the list goes on and on. Thinking about more mature research disciplines within academia. Each field has their own standards to drive consistency around the presentation of information so that work coming from different researchers is mutually intelligible. Consistency helps us to make comparisons between work done across time and by different teams. Consistency helps us demonstrate rigor and establish credibility.

When thinking about consistency in your own organization’s research practice, here are a couple of practical areas to consider.

Guidelines and Templates

We all know the pain of onboarding at a new job and trying to figure out how things are done. Most often, we grab whatever examples of existing documents we can find and model our work off that. Or we might take a lack of existing templates as license to do whatever we think has worked well in the past.

Without established guidelines and templates, researchers can spend a significant amount of their time just thinking about how to structure a document and what should be included. Not only does it take longer to create, but inconsistency also leads to unfamiliar documents that take longer to collaborate around and consume.

With a very small team of people communicating regularly, it can work ok for everyone to be doing things their own way. It can even be beneficial to be able to innovate more freely. It is at scale when we start to feel the pain of inconsistency.

That pain is felt by teams the world over. We know this because “Guidelines & Templates” is one of the eight pillars of Research Ops that emerged from the excellent series of global workshops organized by the ResearchOps Community.

In the context of research, there are so many opportunities to establish a consistent way of doing things. Here are several that span the research process.

  • Research plans
  • Interview guides
  • Survey questions
  • Participant screeners
  • Informed consent forms
  • Formats for taking notes (to capture qualitative data)
  • Analysis frameworks
  • Insights
  • Reports (for sharing findings)

Using a Shared Vocabulary

Every organization has their own way of talking about what they do and how they serve their customers. This represents another opportunity to drive consistency—around how we store and share research. With a shared vocabulary, we can effectively organize research and insights, making it easier to search for and find.

As a practical example, think about taking words from your shared vocabulary and turning them into tags. If you are keeping research in a centralized location (see below), these tags can then be applied to studies and insights. People consuming research then have a consistent way to search and browse through existing research to answer questions they have on their own.

Continuity

People come and go. But that doesn’t mean that all their knowledge has to go with them. When it comes to maintaining continuity over time and as teams evolve, here are a couple areas to consider.

Plans and Processes for Personnel Changes

We need to think about two different types of personnel changes:

  • When someone leaves — making sure that research isn’t lost when someone leaves a team or the company
  • When someone arrives — making sure that new team members can effectively find and absorb existing research

Most organizations have procedures in place for when someone leaves the company or switches teams. If you haven’t already, consider expanding the offboarding checklist to include some research housekeeping items.

  1. Hand off all files and data associated with any active research projects to a colleague who will continue the project. 
  2. Move any research-related files on non-shared drives to shared locations.
  3. Ensure that all recently completed research has been documented with sufficient context for colleagues to make use of.

These may sound like no-brainers, but they too often get left off the priority list as someone makes their way out the door. And over time, the impact of not attending to them adds up.

On the other side, when new people who do research are joining the team, it can be a real breath of fresh air to be able to provide them with even a few representative examples of existing research deliverables. If available, strive for a blend of higher level research with more of a strategic focus and lower level stuff that gets in the tactical weeds. It is helpful to have access to a spectrum of work to compare and contrast approaches.

Centralized and Well-Organized Storage

The considerations above around personnel changes are easier to address and maintain with a centralized research repository in place. If team members are already centrally storing research files and insights, it is less likely that one of them is going to have a report sitting on their desktop or in some other location inaccessible to the rest of the team.

Beyond the relatively straightforward problem of not losing files and insights as people leave teams, a centralized research repository makes it feel as though your team is building something together. Collective knowledge gets deeper and richer rather than feeling shallow and ephemeral. This history of past research is ultimately what creates a sense of continuity over time.

While following research practices that lead to greater consistency and continuity can help your organization be successful in adopting a research repository, the opposite can also be true. The right research repository can also be a driver of consistency and continuity. Deciding when it’s the right time for your team to adopt a research repository can be challenging. For more reading on that topic, check out our previous post on the risks of DIY research repositories.


Whether you’re scrambling to figure out how to have greater impact with existing research resources or are trying to align the efforts of an army of researchers, consistency and continuity are principles that can serve you well. We’d love to hear how these principles are being used in your organization. Leave us a comment or get in touch.


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