In the first installment of the Working with External User Researchers series, we explored the reasons why you might hire a user researcher on contract and helpful things to consider in choosing one. This time, we talk about getting the actual work done.
You’ve hired a user researcher for your project. Congrats! On paper, this person (or team of people) has everything you need and more. You might think the hardest part of your project is complete and that you can be more hands off at this point. But the real work hasn’t started yet. Hiring the researcher is just the beginning of your journey.
Let’s recap what we mean by an external user researcher. Hiring a contract external user researcher means that a person or team is brought on for the duration of a contract to conduct research.
This situation is most commonly found in:
- organizations without researchers on staff;
- organizations whose research staff is maxed out;
- and organizations that need special expertise.
In other words, external user researchers exist to help you gain the insight from your users when hiring one full-time is not an option. Check out Part I to learn more about how to find external user researchers, the types of projects that will get you the most value for your money, writing a request for proposal, and finally, negotiating payment.
Remember why you hired an external researcher
No project or work relationship is perfect. Before we delve into more specific guidelines on how to work well together, remember the reasons why you decided to hire an external researcher (and this specific one) for your project. Keeping them in mind as you work together will help you keep your priorities straight.
External researchers are great for bringing in a fresh, objective perspective
You could ask your full-time designer who also has research skills to wear the research hat. This isn’t uncommon. But a designer won’t have the same depth and breadth of expertise as a dedicated researcher. In addition, they will probably end up researching their own design work, which will make it very difficult for them to remain unbiased.
Product managers sometimes like to be proactive and conduct some form of guerrilla user research themselves, but this is an even riskier idea. They usually aren’t trained on how to ask non-leading questions, for example, so they tend to only hear feedback that validates their ideas.
It isn’t a secret—but it’s well worth remembering—that research participants tend to be more comfortable sharing critical feedback with someone who doesn’t work for the product that is being tested.
The real work begins
In our experience the most important work starts once a researcher is hired. Here are some key considerations in setting them and your own project team up for success.
Be smart about the initial brain dump
Do share background materials that provide important context and prevent redundant work from being done. It’s likely that some insight is already known on a topic that will be researched, so it’s important to share this knowledge with your researcher so they can focus on new areas of inquiry. Provide things such as report templates to ensure that the researcher presents their learnings in a way that’s consistent with your organization’s unique culture. While you’re at it, consider showing them where to find documentation or tutorials about your product, or specific industry jargon.
Make sure people know who they are
Conduct a project kick-off meeting with the external researcher and your internal stakeholders. Influence is often partially a factor of trust and relationships, and for this reason it’s sometimes easy for internal stakeholders to question or brush aside projects conducted by research consultants, especially if they disagree with research insights and recommendations. (Who is this person I don’t know trying to tell me what is best for my product?)
Conduct a kick-off meeting with the broader team
A great way to prevent this potential pushback is to conduct a project kick-off meeting with the external researcher and important internal stakeholders or consumers of the research. Such a meeting might include activities such as:
- Team introductions.
- A discussion about the research questions, including an exercise for prioritizing the questions. Especially with contracted-out projects, it’s common for project teams to be tempted to add more questions—question creep—which is why it’s important to have clear priorities from the start.
- A summary of what’s out of scope for the research. This is another important task in setting firm boundaries around project priorities from the start so the project is completed on time and within budget.
- A summary of any incoming hypotheses the project team might have—in other words, what they think the answers to the research questions are. This can be an especially impactful exercise to remind stakeholders how their initial thinking changed in response to study findings upon the study being completed.
- A review of the project phases and timeline, and any threats that could get in the way of the project being completed on time.
- A review of prior research and what’s already known, if available. This is important for both the external researcher and the most important internal consumers of the research, as it’s often the case that the broader project team might not be aware of prior research and why certain questions already answered aren’t being addressed in the project at hand.
Use a buddy system
Appoint an internal resource who can answer questions that will no doubt arise during the project. This might include questions on how to use an internal lab, questions about whom to invite to a critical meeting, or clarifying questions regarding project priorities. This is also another opportunity to build trust and rapport between your project team and external researcher.
Conducting the research
While an external researcher or agency can help plan and conduct a study for you, don’t expect them to be experts on your product and company culture. It’s like hiring an architect to build your house or a designer to furnish a room: you need to provide guidance early and often, or the end result may not be what you expected. Here are some things to consider to make the engagement more effective.
A good research contractor will ask lots of questions to make sure they’re understanding important details, such as your priorities and research questions, and to collect feedback on the study plan and research report. While it can sometimes feel more efficient to handle most of these types of questions over email, email can often result in misinterpretations. Sometimes it’s faster to speak to questions that require lots of detail and context rather than type a response. Consider establishing weekly remote or in-person status checks to discuss open questions and action items.
If moderated sessions are part of the research, plan on observing as many of these as possible. While you should expect the research agency to provide you with a final report, you should not expect them to know which insights are most impactful to your project. They don’t have the background from internal meetings, prior decisions, and discussions about future product directions that an internal stakeholder has. Many of the most insightful findings come from conversations that happen immediately after a session with a research participant. The research moderator and client contact can share their perspectives on what the participant just did and said during their session.
Before the researcher drafts their final report, set up a meeting between them and your internal stakeholders to brainstorm over the main research findings. This will help the researcher identify more insights and opportunities that reflect internal priorities and limitations. It also helps stakeholders build trust in the research findings.
In other words, it’s a waste of everyone’s time if a final report is delivered and basic questions arise from stakeholders that could have been addressed by involving them earlier. This is also a good opportunity to get feedback from stakeholders’ stakeholders, who may have a different (but just as important) influence on the project’s success.
Don’t treat an external contractor like a PowerPoint jockey. Changing fonts and colors to your liking is fine, but only to a point. Your researcher should provide you with a polished report free from errors and in a professional format, but minute changes are not a constructive use of time and money. Focus more on decisions and recommendations than the aesthetics of the deliverables. You can prevent this kind of situation by providing any templates you want used in your initial brain dump, so the findings don’t have to be replicated in the “right” format for presenting.
When it’s all said and done
Just because the project has been completed and all the agreed deliverables have been received doesn’t mean you should close the door on any additional learning opportunities for both the client and researcher. At the end of the project, identify what worked, and find ways to increase buy-in for their recommendations.
Tell them what happened
Try to identify a check-in point in the future (such as two weeks or months) to let the researcher know what happened because of the research: what decisions were made, what problems were fixed, or other design changes. While you shouldn’t expect your researcher to be perpetually available, if you encounter problems with buy-in, they might be able to provide a quick recommendation.
Maintain a relationship
While it’s typical for vendors to treat their clients to dinner or drinks, don’t be afraid to invite your external researcher to your own happy hour or event with your staff. The success of your next project may rely on getting the right researcher, and you’ll want them to be excited to make themselves available to help you when you need them again.