“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”—Ben Franklin
How many of you spend adequate time planning your UX research projects? Taking the time to plan your UX research saves you time in the long run. When you’re gearing up for your next UX research effort, it really pays to spend some time figuring out what you’ll need to do. In this edition of my column Discovery, I’ll examine the value of planning your UX research projects and explore what sorts of things you can do to ensure that your next research endeavor has a smooth takeoff and a successful flight rather than a crash landing.
Planning what you need to do to complete your UX research successfully offers the following benefits:
Planning gives your projects a greater level of predictability.
It helps you manage changes to schedules as they arise.
It enables you to better compartmentalize tasks within the project.
It increases the confidence your stakeholders have in the project’s success.
While many of the suggestions I’ll provide in this column are specific to early-phase user research, some of them also apply to summative studies.
Planning gives your projects a greater level of predictability.
There’s nothing more comforting than knowing that you can complete your research project on time. This helps all of the stakeholders who are involved in a project to plan and scope their efforts accordingly. A great way to ensure predictability is to put your project-manager hat on and break down your research project into a series of tasks, which lets you create more accurate time estimates and be more transparent with your stakeholders. If dates slip, as they often do, you’ll be better able to manage your project and determine when you can again meet its deadlines.
The task breakdown, or project plan, effectively serves as your rear-view mirror as you navigate the project’s timeline. The project plan is a useful artifact during weekly check-in meetings with your product team. Everyone can see when each task is supposed to happen and can then plan around your expectations for when they need to be available to complete any tasks for which they are responsible. Table 1 shows a sample project plan.
Table 1—A sample project plan
Effort (in days)
Defining recruiting criteria
Designing the study
Reviewing the study design
Writing the discussion guide
Building the prototype
Reviewing the discussion guide
Piloting the discussion guide
Running the sessions
Organizing your data
Generating the findings
Writing your report
Delivering the results
Reviewing next steps
A simple spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets works just fine for planning a study. But, if you want to get a little fancier, you could use project-management software such as Microsoft Project Manager or OmniGroup’s OmniPlan. You should consider any additional effort of figuring out how to use these applications. They are not easy to use by any means.
Something these project-management applications can do for you that the simple ones can’t do out of the box is automatically recalculate task’s durations and starting and ending dates. For example, if I think writing my discussion guide is going to take five days, I can enter 5 days into the effort column and, assuming I’ve already entered a starting date, the ending date recalculates. After wrestling with these applications for a while, I’ve managed to use both of these project-management applications with some level of intermediacy—though certainly not mastery! If you need to compute dates and times, you can also do this using formulas in Excel or Sheets. (Download a rudimentary project-plan spreadsheet template that includes basic research tasks, with formulas for calculating ending dates that are based on days of effort and exclude weekends.)
Another great feature that the project-management applications offer is Gantt charts, which let you visualize your projects over time. This feature is probably the biggest reason I use project-management software. Visualizing the project lets me see whether conflicts exist with other projects I might be working on. Plus, you can WYSIWYG your way through the plan by dragging the task bars in the chart to update your starting and ending dates, which recompute automatically! This capability alone, is worth the cost of learning these applications. But you’ll need to judge for yourself.
If you’re able to use one of these project-management applications successfully, you’ll feel a greater sense of control over your project because the effort of reworking dates that slip or dealing with other risks is significantly less than trying to figure them out manually—and much more reliable than a crystal ball.
Planning helps you manage changes to schedules as they arise.
You can plan all you want, but ultimately, there are myriad things that are completely out of our control. For example, you may have planned for your prototyper to spend a week building out tasks for your study, but he might not be available when you need him. His unavailability would delay all of the subsequent dependencies in your study plan—likely forcing you to push out your research sessions to a future date. But having a set plan lets you quickly modify dates on the fly and make the right decisions to help move your project forward.
Knowing that your prototyper’s unavailability would delay your project by one week would give you time to rethink your entire plan as necessary. Maybe your stimulus doesn’t need to be so interactive. Perhaps a wireframe would suffice, letting you meet your research goals without delaying the project. If you can’t compromise on the stimulus for the study, there might be other ways to meet your dates on time—such as reducing your sample size, which would also reduce the time necessary for both recruiting and your research sessions.
Laying out your project in a project plan provides you with a canvas that lets you pivot wisely. But you just might be able to deal with any headwinds and meet your deadlines after all. When you plug in new dates that are based on changes to your plan, you might find out that the delay is tolerable. Only by mapping out your project in this way can you gain the vision and courage to be transparent about delays or changes to the schedule with your stakeholders.
Planning enables you to better compartmentalize tasks within the project.
Knowing when resources are available during your project allows you to allocate your time wisely and focus on the tasks that best utilize your expertise. If you know that your participant recruiter is not going to be available to work on your project for another week, but has given you a solid commitment then, you can spend time preparing the tasks for your prototyper, who is available to begin work on your project in the next couple of days. You can use such unexpected pockets of time effectively.
During any research project, you’ll find that there are opportune moments for you to focus. For example, specific tasks could require that you project mentally what a session might look like. What should you ask participants to do so you can capture the metrics you need to meet your research goals? This is not a moment for shallow thought. Such moments require concentration and tinkering with your ideas. Throughout a project, you must allow time for such thoughtful moments and blend these with collaborative time for sharing your thoughts, approaches, and ideas with stakeholders.
It’s easy to get distracted by competing priorities. You must compartmentalize! Serial entrepreneur and business writer Ryan Blair attributes his ability to compartmentalize successfully by acknowledging mental and emotional limitations, “focusing on only the few things that matter most,” and saying no to everything else. Of course, this is easier said than done. Your saying no might impact someone else’s progress. But it could free you up to focus on all the tasks a successful project requires.
Compartmentalizing is not just about prioritization; it’s also about recharging. (Did someone mention sleep?) You might be wondering: Why on earth is Mike talking about recharging and sleeping in a column about planning UX research projects? Recharging is not just about getting sufficient sleep. It’s also taking time away from thinking about your project. Planning time in your day for deliberately not thinking about your research project can help provide clarity when you get back to working on your project later. A hobby could become a way of recharging, so when you’re ready to start working again, you’ll feel more motivated and ready to begin.
A 2014 study from San Francisco State University cites a positive relationship between creative activity—for example, hobbies such as knitting or playing the piano—and recovery experiences that let you detach from work and performance-related outcomes. According to the study, those who engaged in a creative hobby performed 15–30 percent better at work. Plus, they also felt a greater sense of control and mastery—something we could all use more of when running our own research projects!
Planning increases the confidence your stakeholders have in the project’s success.
This insight is especially relevant when you are working with particular stakeholders for the very first time. While they may have heard about you from others—hopefully, only good things—you need to ensure that they can trust you with their idea or product.
The first time you meet with new stakeholders, consider giving them an overview of how you operate, what they can expect from you, and what you expect of them. Whipping out a project plan might be a good idea, enabling them to visualize the effort necessary for your research and demonstrating that you have got your act together. Giving stakeholders an overview of what to expect and having them answer any questions you might have can also help build trust and credibility with them. The more opportunities you offer for them to speak out, raise concerns, or highlight anything you’ve missed, the more likely they’ll feel that you’re a true partner on the project.
Communicating with stakeholders at regular intervals—rather than sporadically—also increases their confidence in you. Even if there is no news to report, knowing you’re there, on top of things, is comforting to stakeholders.
Once you’ve planned a few studies, you’ll quickly realize the benefits of checking in with stakeholders with your project status on a regular basis. Plus, you’ll be able to determine what must change during the project to ensure its success. Feeling that you are in control of all the moving parts is key if you’re to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Dates in your schedule might shift. Resources might become constrained. But whenever things change that are out of your control, your planning can help you navigate the unexpected more effectively.
Ever wonder what might be missing from your UX research analysis and planning toolbox? In an upcoming Discovery series that is titled “Beyond Rows and Columns,” I’ll explore some ways in which you can unleash the power of spreadsheets to facilitate your analysis of UX research data.
Eschleman, Kevin J., Jamie Madsen, Gene Alarcon, and Alex Barelka. “Benefiting from Creative Activity: The Positive Relationships Between Creative Activity, Recovery Experiences, and Performance-Related Outcomes.” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, April 17, 2014.
Michael has worked in the field of IT (Information Technology) for more than 20 years—as an engineer, business analyst, and, for the last ten years, as a UX researcher. He has written on UX topics such as research methodology, UX strategy, and innovation for industry publications that include UXmatters, UX Mastery, Boxes and Arrows, UX Planet, and UX Collective. In Discovery, his quarterly column on UXmatters, Michael writes about the insights that derive from formative UX-research studies. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Binghamton University, an M.B.A. in Finance and Strategy from NYU Stern, and an M.S. in Human-Computer Interaction from Iowa State University. Read More