Getting started with user research is like getting started with a new game

Loads of people talk about doing user research one day.

They moan about never having the time or the space to do it. As if there will come some magical day when their to-do list is empty and their boss will cheer them on, as they dance with customers through sun-drenched fields of blossoming insights.

This will never happen. “Not enough time” and “not enough space” – these are just excuses.

The real reasons they're putting it off:

  • It involves talking to strangers, which is scary

  • They don't know exactly what to ask to get the answers they're looking for, which is scary

  • They're not even sure exactly what answers they're looking for, which is scary

  • Or how to find the right people to ask the unknown questions, which is scary.

It's scary. Hence procrastination. Getting started with research is uncomfortable. It's always tempting to plan to get around to research later. You know – when you've figured things out.

I know this thought pattern, because it's how I've felt about getting started with research EVERY TIME.

But I also know better. I know that every time I've put off research “till later”, we ended up making the wrong thing or the thing wrong. And that every time I got stuck in and got started, it wasn't nearly as scary as we expected, and we made better decisions.

Perfection is the enemy

It's never happened that I jumped in and nailed the research on the first go. Because of course it hasn't. If we knew all the answers up front, we wouldn't need to do any research.

The first round of research is always about working out who we should really be talking to, what questions we should really be asking, how we could ask our questions better. And so's the second round. And the third. Each round of research is a chance to improve the way we do research.

Think of it like playing a new computer game

You start small. You master the quirks of the controls, figure out the basic rules of the world. You meet some weird beasties and do easy missions to pick up some resources. You also run into walls, fall into pits, and die. A lot. It's ok though, because you can always have another go. And next go, you'll do better.

What you don't do is waste time working out your plan to take on the end boss before you've even had your first go. That would be peculiar. (Even if you've played lots of this type of game before.)

A new user research project is the same. You don't try to nail the whole thing in one "life", with every move perfect. You don't take on the big final question on your first go. You start by bumbling about a bit and falling down some holes.

Lower the stakes

The fear of research really bites when we have to do it in front of peers and colleagues. It’s embarrassing and scary to fall down holes in public. Here are some ideas to help you play on easy mode, even when you feel the pressure:

  • Do your first round of research quietly, using friends or colleagues as your participants. Bring in the strangers later, when you feel more comfortable with your research plan

  • Speaking of which, don’t obsess over trying to guess your way to a perfect research plan. Get started using your crappy draft plan (discussion guide, usability protocol, etc.) and improve it every round, as you learn more

  • Never do a “one-shot” study. Divide the research budget into as many smaller rounds as you can. Then it doesn’t matter if one round goes “wrong”. Choose 1 person a week for 10 weeks over 10 people in 1 week

  • Similarly, don’t jump straight to trying to answer the big important question. Break it down into smaller questions and assumptions.

  • Frame the first round of research as a “pilot study”

  • Do the first round as early and quietly as you can. Train your research muscle to just get started, even though you’re not quite ready

  • If you can, start on “easy mode” with a type of research that’s hard to get wrong, like in-person usability testing of an existing thing.

Notice how little of the above is about avoiding mistakes, only reducing the cost (perceived and real) of the mistakes you can’t avoid making.

Getting answers from research has never required making no mistakes. It's only ever required getting started, and learning as you go.