3 Ways to Take a Step Back and Think Strategically

February 19, 2018

Maybe you’re excitedly reviewing research questions for your upcoming study on internal communication and messaging, and your manager asks how your work will impact the product team’s larger communication strategy. While you’d thought about the larger communication strategy at the beginning of the project, its importance has slowly waned as you focused on creating your interview guide. Or worse, you’re presenting your research findings on improving the usability of a tool in wide use, and your main stakeholder asks how this will improve awareness and adoption of the tool overall. Somehow, that initial goal faded during the research planning discussions.

These sorts of things can happen all too easily. Sometimes we throw ourselves into planning and executing our user research, getting caught up in the details, until someone barges in and asks a simple question: Why? Why are we doing this? What is the overall goal of the research?

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Develop Your Research Goals Collaboratively

As a researcher, it’s critical that you work with your stakeholders to carefully craft your research goals. Once you’ve established them, they should be the North Star that guides you as you plan, moderate, analyze, and present your research. You always need to come back to why you’re doing your research. What do you want to learn? What’s the bigger picture? What are some assumptions you may be taking for granted? What are you ultimately trying to get out of this research?

Once you answer these questions, you can craft your research strategically around these inherent goals to ensure it will have a clear, targeted impact. Without adequate focus on your goals, your research will tend to take on a life of its own and morph into an ill-formed morass. In addition to delineating your research goals up front, it can be helpful to define the expected outcomes of your research. These could be anything from developing a journey map, to better understanding users’ mental models of a feature, to making a decision about the future of a product offering. By pausing to define the desired outcomes at the beginning of your research, you can stay more focused on your goals.

For example, on one of my recent projects, the overarching goal was to increase adoption of a certain product. Exploratory research suggested there were a variety of factors preventing its adoption—such as busy practitioners who were focusing on higher-priority tasks, a general lack of awareness of the product and its value, and some product usability issues. Our stakeholders wanted to focus on the usability issues because we had the most control over them, but we weren’t sure that fixing the usability issues would address the larger awareness and adoption issues. We raised this issue, asking our stakeholders to clarify our key goals for the research—improving adoption or improving usability? Only once our team had agreed upon our main goal could I start planning appropriately targeted research.

Once you’ve collected abundant, rich data from your qualitative research sessions, you’ll need to sift through your data to identify the valuable insights that address your main goals. But don’t be tricked by fool’s gold! At first, it might be painful to disregard much of your data, but this is necessary to gain clarity. The most digestible, effective research reports are concise, clearly organized, and succinctly address the key research questions through an engaging narrative.

Pause and Take a Step Back

Tackling a new research problem is exciting and invites creative, critical thinking. But it’s all too easy to jump in and get caught up in the details of crafting just the right wording for an elusive question or cultivating the perfect crescendo of questions. Remember to take a step back and consider the larger picture and the core goals for your research project. Why are you doing this research? What do you hope to get out of it?

Let’s say you’re doing research with Sales, Service, and Implementation associates, studying internal communications around a new product. When creating the research guides for each of these three types of associates, you must maintain coherence and obtain complementary data across all participants, but you also might want to include some questions that are specific to each role. How will you balance convergent and divergent questioning with each associate type? How will you use your overall findings to impact your product’s internal communications strategy? If you pause and take a step back, you can focus on the larger context and goals, which will set you up for success.

Everyone benefits from taking a step back and reframing their perspective. Once, I was participating in a design standup, during which UX designers shared what they’re currently working on and elicited feedback from their team members. One designer shared a flow that asked users to create an account and provide contact information. We discussed the design possibilities in great detail, including the proper order for collecting primary versus secondary contact information. After a lively debate, one person finally asked the right questions: What’s the overall goal here? What information is essential? What do we need to do with it once we’ve collected it? He pulled us out of the weeds and helped us to see the bigger picture, enabling us to make smarter, more informed decisions. Understanding the users’ needs and the goals for the flow helped the designer make it as efficient and enjoyable as possible.

Focus on Users’ Real Needs, Not Their Suggestions

During analysis of your research findings, it’s important to focus on your participants’ deeper needs and wants, not simply accept their initial suggestions. For example, if a participant says she wants color-coded communications, dig deeper to find out why she wants this. Does she need quick visual cues to aid in skimming content, or does she just want more color in her life? Her answer will have significant design and product implications.

Make sure you don’t make assumptions based on what research participants say. Instead continue questioning participants until you fully understand their deeper needs. If you find a user has suggested color coding to help her categorize and scan communications more quickly, you can consider other options that would also aid quick skimming—such as clearer subject lines or having a consistent structure across all communications. As a researcher, you need to thoroughly understand the users’ problem and leave their solutions to product, design, and development.


In our daily work, we often get caught up in the details, failing to pause and take a step back. On every project, we must clearly define both research and business goals, as well as the expected outcomes and uses of our user research. Only once this foundational framework is in place can we begin building out the details. Remember to regularly check your progress against the research goals, using them to guide and focus your work. From time to time, pause and consider the larger context for your work. Taking these simple steps will save you significant time, effort, and money. 

UX Researcher at Factual

New York, New York, USA

Meghan WenzelMeghan is starting the UX Research team at Factual, a startup focusing on location data. She’s establishing research standards, processes, and metrics; building partnerships across teams, and leading research efforts across all products. Previously, she was a UX Researcher at ADP, where she conducted a wide range of exploratory, concept-testing, and usability research across products and platforms. She was also involved in ADP’s Come See for Yourself contextual-inquiry program, whose goal was to educate colleagues on the value of UX research and get them out into the field to talk to real users.  Read More

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