My company built Airtime UX on the assumption that a collaborative, continuous research practice is superior to a dedicated research team’s running big-budget, discrete research projects several times a year—in many cases, working in isolation from one another. Collaborative research is effective because a whole product team can gain insights instantly while also getting face time with clients. Plus, collaborative research breaks down organizational silos. Continuous research is effective because having regular, light touchpoints keeps your client relationships going, lets you iterate product designs on the fly, and costs less.
Let’s assume that the many benefits of this research paradigm have convinced you and that you now want to adopt collaborative, continuous research in your company. While you can involve more colleagues from more product teams in your research, you’ll also have to book more, albeit shorter appointments with outside research participants. This involves a lot of additional administrative effort.
These days, it seems there’s software for almost everything, including a wonderfully diverse set of productivity tools that make conducting research more efficient. In this article, I’ll propose your using some free tools that can make your life easier when you’re first implementing a collaborative, continuous research practice. Try them out before committing to pricier, more customized solutions.
Key Steps of Collaborative, Continuous Research
When you’re doing collaborative, continuous research, your aim is to include all stakeholders from a product team, including product managers, designers, and developers. All of these stakeholders can get face time with your client, ask their questions, and gather insights. Researchers coordinate rather than execute or interpret client insights. Thus, the product team becomes a close-knit unit with a shared understanding and purpose.
In addition to the obvious need for scheduling, you can distribute tasks across your stakeholders. For example, if you’re conducting user interviews, UX researchers still lead and facilitate the meetings, but you can have others take notes, observe and interpret clients’ metacommunications, and ask about certain topics. User session postmortems become a group effort. Developers can weigh in on technical limitations, designers can share UX best practices, and product managers can define new requirements within the context of their existing product pipeline.
When you do collaborative, continuous research at regular intervals, you’ll need to have a pool of external research participants at hand—your user panel. You’ll need to have enough participants available to feed insights to you continuously, while avoiding research fatigue. Maintaining regular touchpoints your with participants requires strong, external scheduling capabilities, too.
Ultimately, you must extend your administrative burden on many fronts. Spend time coordinating this effort to achieve a better understanding of your clients’ needs, as well as a better information flow that lets you build truly exceptional products. Sound like a fair trade? The good news is that you can automate many of these processes. This is where your software tools come into the picture.
Tools for Continuous Research
Let’s look at each key step in your new continuous-research process. My aim is to paint a holistic picture rather than provide an exhaustive list of the available software.
Building a User Panel
In my column “Automating Recruitment for User-Research Panels,” I discussed how to automate recruitment for user panels using trigger-action pairs. Triggers are behaviors that present an opportunity to invite a new member to join your panel, and the corresponding actions are automated invitations. For example, when a lead requests pricing information, you can add a panel-recruitment call to action (CTA) to your automated email reply. Or, when someone visits your Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, you can display an automated recruitment pop-up message.
email platforms—Tools such as Mailchimp have freemium models and provide automated messaging using templates. Higher pricing tiers let you support entire customer journeys through series of email messages that are tailored to different business cases. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems such as HubSpot, Pipedrive, and Salesforce also offer this capability, but they cover a much broader set of customer-facing processes so are pricier. If you’re planning to implement CRM software, you should add its email capabilities to your decision criteria as well.
pop-up interrupts—These are taking over the Web to the constant annoyance of consumers and the benefit of ad networks. While some news providers might be reducing the useful space on each page to a small peephole, pop-ups are not all bad. If you set up a few pop-ups strategically, with good triggers and messaging, they can work wonderfully. We just released this functionality to beta in our own Airtime app. Please come and join our beta community! You could alternatively consider a wide variety of freemium providers. Although OptinMonster is not free, it offers many different customization capabilities, has a relatively intuitive design user interface, and is very versatile.
Sending Invitations and Scheduling
Scheduling seems easy using any calendar application, but can quickly become a big time waster once you take cancellations, rescheduling, and attachment handling into account. When you’re working with many stakeholders internally and externally, simply getting all of them in a virtual room is challenging enough. On top of that, if you want to share an outline of your interview questions with your colleagues, as well as various external documents such as consent forms with your clients and participants, the whole process can become a game of email ping-pong.
A dedicated appointment scheduling service can automate most of this, saving you a lot of time. Freemium providers with great add-on services include Calendly, Cal.com, CalendarHero, Doodle, and Simplybook.me. Our Airtime beta also includes appointment scheduling that specifically targets research and product teams.
Conducting interviews is the bread and butter of user research. Any of the big meeting-application providers such as Google Meet, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams are good, but you should also consider the up-and-comers who are offering alternatives to the video-call incumbents. Stability is by far the most important feature these services must offer, so try a few of them, then choose one that operates consistently, without any lag and other technical issues.
When multiple people take notes during an interview, the processing of all these notes can require a lot of effort. You must align and combine the notes from various notetakers to create a final version from which you can derive insights. There are two ways in which you can reduce the effort of coalescing all your notes.
Your team can take notes in parallel using a word processor such as Google Docs. Another great freemium tool is Tetra Insights, which even timestamps the notes you've captured during a session, making it easier to work with video recordings. Whatever tool you choose, this method produces a single document that is the single source of truth. To prevent your producing disorganized, confusing notes, you can work with an outline of the interview session, which serves as a sort of structured template. You could also use Miro, an excellent visual tool. (More on this later, in the postmortem section.)
Many people have their own style of notetaking—whether shorthand or another way of writing notes that might not be immediately comprehensible to others. If this is the case, taking notes in one document might not be a good idea. Instead, nominate someone to be the lead notetaker, then after a session, have others add their notes only if their points have not yet been captured. This lets everyone use whatever software they prefer. (I’m a big fan of the no-frills notepad.)
If, for any reason, you want to keep a historical database of interview notes, Evernote provides a great service. You can save your notes in the cloud, structure them in folders, and use its powerful search algorithm to find the information you need.
Notetaking is an important step that suggests your post-processing approach. What you write down and how you capture it can become the basis for the insights you glean from your research. Because you must build on the judgment of the notetaker, you cannot automate this process at all. So instead of focusing on notetaking tools, I recommend that you first work out the best process for your team, then align your notetaking tool to that process.
Identifying and Synthesizing Insights
This is the step that can make or break your research. It’s the moment of truth and is where collaborative research shines brightly. When different people on a product team identify insights together, the results will be both nuanced and complete. There is much less chance for any important information to fall through the cracks.
As in the case of notetaking, you can use many tools for this process, ranging from a word processor that supports highlighting, an Excel table that provides structure, or something more modern and visual such as Miro. The main point is to have the whole team work together collaboratively using this software, at the same time, during an open discussion.
Miro is a powerful tool because it is visual. You can play with color coding, the size of your sticky notes, boxes, and text, and drag and drop anything on your board to move it around. All of these qualities make the platform excellent for affinity mapping, and Miro is a personal favorite of mine. It is also free for a limited number of boards that should last a while. However, if you are not a visual analyzer, Airtable is a good solution. There are two archetypes for researchers, the visual and the analytical, and this stage is where they might diverge significantly.
Feeding Your Insights into Product Processes
Another great benefit of collaborative research: there is no need to channel insights to the product team because they already know about them! Because everyone has taken part in the research process, you can drop the summary pages, analytical explanations, and PowerPoints.
Of course, you still need to document your key learnings during synthesis. Your product team should resolve any disputes, then build a common understanding of your research findings to which you can refer when your memory is no longer vivid. Ideally, you’ll write down your insights and your actions or user stories. Insights go into the tool that you used for synthesis, while your actions, or user stories, go into your roadmapping tool—for example Jira. Be sure to link your Jira tickets back to your insights or notes so you can always trace where a ticket came from.
As you can now see, it is quite easy to implement a collaborative, continuous research philosophy in an organization of any size. This approach doesn’t require a large headcount or a big software budget. Just organize your research processes to achieve better outcomes. Even the smallest application-development company with no dedicated researchers can do collaborative, continuous research. When you use these free productivity tools, there’s no need to commit a large investment to conducting research.
This low entry barrier makes dipping your toes into collaborative, continuous research especially easy. You can try this approach with a single team over a limited period of time and see how effective it is. Once you’re convinced, as I’m sure you will be, you can roll out collaborative, continuous research across your broader organization by building on the support and credibility of the initial team.
When you’re fully convinced that collaborative, continuous research is the way to go, you can start budgeting for dedicated software and people. You have a lot to gain and virtually nothing to lose.
At Airtime, a software company that develops collaborative user-research tools and helps organizations implement collaborative-research practices, Peter heads up operations. Peter and his two founding partners launched their user-research platform because they felt that many products—whether digital or physical, business to consumer (B2C) or business to business (B2B)—are less than optimal and could be improved through the simple exercise of listening to customers. Peter has a diverse background—from investment banking to institutional sales to working for asset managers, asset owners, and broker-dealers in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. For seven years, Peter worked for the leading international provider of equity indices and investment analytics. Following his stint in the financial industry, Peter switched to freelance startup consulting and investment-analytics publishing. Peter has a Masters in Capital Markets from the Corvinus University of Budapest. Read More