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The realities of UX research: momentum vs learning

When it comes to starting a new digital project of any sort, a discovery phase almost always comes first. In order to make good UX decisions down the line, learning as much as possible about the problem to be solved and the context it sits in is vital.

You have to know where you’re trying to go before you can make a plan that gets you there.

Whilst there’s no one size fits all formula for a discovery phase, it’s fair to assume that engaging with users and stakeholders through interviews, surveys, usability testing and/or various other tasks will play a major part.

Based on your research at this stage, you’ll get to know who you are designing for, what users are trying to achieve and what their pain points are. This will help you find out how you propose to go about tackling them with a digital product. There’s always a lot to learn!

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However, a tension can arise between keeping up a project’s momentum and learning as much as possible. Constantly balancing the trade-off between optimal research and speed of movement can be a real challenge.

A set of scales with 'momentum' on one side and 'learning' on the other

Why does momentum matter?

Whether you’re revamping an existing user experience or creating a brand new one, moving at pace is really important. Markets and user needs move fast, and a rapid product development cycle leads to a competitive advantage in an ever-changing world.

Factor in too that there are few things more demoralising than reporting back to a board keen to hear of project progress with the news that it has stalled.

Ultimately, it’s not just morale that goes down. Budgets aren’t usually protected come what may, and it’s possible that all the hoops jumped through to secure that allocation can close back up.

There are, sadly, a lot of ways that a project can fail but a loss of momentum is a big one.

Why can learning slow things down?

Fitting into people’s diaries is hard to do!

It’s a tough pill to swallow but the majority of users don’t care enough about your product to commit to taking part in your research. People have busy lives and the more you demand, the less likely you are to get uptake (tasty incentives aside). It’s not uncommon to reach out to 100 people and only hear back from 10.

Stakeholders are also busy, and the size of a business can have a big impact on success when it comes to securing their time. At a startup, it can be relatively easy to get senior people booked in, as they’re generally closer to the ‘front line’ and more engaged with the project.

With a larger enterprise, however, reaching the people at the top and carving out time with them can be very tricky. Many bigger organisations may despair that they are too much of a lumbering beast to ever get stakeholder interviews done at pace.

The bigger the beast, the slower it moves.

How might you balance momentum and learning?

In our experience, timeboxing and keeping to a strict schedule is a lifesaver when it comes to ensuring your project keeps up the pace.

You might decide for example that month one is ‘discovery month’ and anything not done during that time, in terms of contact with users and stakeholders, just isn’t going to happen.

You might timebox two weeks and hit user interviews super hard, with an aim to learn fast and move on.

Give your project the biggest chance of success by setting your timebox rules early. When you hit the date specified, it’s time to either re-assess where you are or say “we’ve learned enough, time to press on.”

There will always be more that could be learned, but you need to weigh up the value of ‘just one more’ interview with the impact that hanging on for that one elusive user or flakey stakeholder could have.

Internal buy-in

We find clients at large organisations are often surprised by how much thought and planning is required (from both us and them!) early on, despite understanding the importance of the discovery phase.

For example, ideally stakeholder interviews would be booked in and emails to users sent even before the kick off meeting. It might feel too early, but if people are excited and prepared for what’s to come, everything moves so much quicker further down the line.

We’ve found that when it’s a partner agency who gets in contact with the people who’ll be involved in discovery, we tend to be easy to ignore – don’t worry, we don’t take it personally! Response rates are significantly better when a request to participate comes from someone within the organisation.

A successful project also needs buy-in that’s more than financial for learning and momentum to meet the sweet spot of balance. Giving team members the time and schedule space to participate in their research stage, and dedicated project management resource makes all the difference.

No matter how good the digital agency you partner with, they can’t be the only ones to push things forwards.

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Conclusion

Whilst the checks and balances involved in doing plenty of learning and keeping up the pace can be tricky, our suggestions above should go some way to helping.

Remember too, this is definitely not your only chance to talk to users and stakeholders. As you grow and add features you should be in good contact with the people who use your product, and the people internally who’re on the frontline of customer service.

Ultimately no-one with a digital product should ever stop learning about the problem they’re hoping to solve, but they do need to push on and get something built before they can progress and iterate.