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11 common challenges you face as a researcher

26 June 2023
Jess Nichols
Lisa Nguyen

As much as I love being a researcher, we experience some challenges when we try to lead research. Below I will share some of the common pain points other researchers, and I have faced within our roles.

What are the problems faced by researchers during research?

1. Research is slow and expensive

As research as a separate team is relatively new compared to engineering, product, or design, many stakeholders may not have worked with researchers in the past and understand the value that a researcher can bring to the table.

Additionally, because some research methodologies take time to execute or require external vendor support to get the best insight, there are perceptions that research is slow or expensive and will be a barrier or blocker in building or shipping products.

These can lead to research not being included in product conversations early, or at all, limiting the ability for analysis to provide strategic or directional support.

In other cases it may lead to research not getting the right budget to effectively perform their work, leading to researchers having to be scrappy, hacky and de-prioritize research that may take up a significant percentage of their budget.

2. Research teams of one, or silos

When research is not valued, organizations will not invest in a group. Many organizations will have an individual researcher across the entire company or multiple product areas, which can strain the researcher to rigorously prioritize what projects they work on and lead to frustrations with other teams if they are not getting research support.

In cases where research teams exist, researchers may be embedded in discrete or separate product areas, making it hard for researchers to collaborate or pair with other researchers on projects. When researchers come together to attend crit or share feedback and experiences, researchers spend time setting the context of what they're working on with peers (especially in non-consumer facing experiences) to ensure peers can provide meaningful feedback to support their projects.

3. Research execution

Sometimes, after a researcher has spent the time and effort creating a robust research report, it isn't used. A research report is usually not used because of a mismatch in expectations of the stakeholder and researcher. Researchers need to ensure that stakeholders are taken along the research creation journey to ensure there is alignment and buy-in from stakeholders.

In some cases, researchers may "throw research over the fence" in that they may not invest the effort in creating research outputs that resonate with stakeholders or take the time to have conversations and presentations with stakeholders to open a dialogue about the research and help the stakeholder understand how to leverage the research

4. Research not used

In other cases, product priorities may have shifted, or new dependencies now prevent the research findings from being integrated into products and design. Inaction on research can make it harder for researchers to feel like they impact their team when their work doesn't create change in the product.

Researchers must determine other ways to generate value from the work that they have done. Value might be in the form of looking for broader opportunities to share findings outside of the direct stakeholder team or share with their research team, where outputs have the chance to be used for related work.

5. Too much effort to add and search for previous work

Researchers can spend a lot of time looking for past research or data to support a stakeholder or research project. Because researchers have to quickly jump from one project to another to ensure they can continually provide value, 'meta work' such as knowledge management is usually deprioritized in the research process.

Researchers may actively try to stay up to date with knowledge management activities. As each researcher may have a different mental model for how to tag and store insights, other researchers can find it difficult to find research unless they know the right search keywords.

Whatever the format a researcher presents in (such as a presentation or report), it will be the same format that it is stored. An inconsistent storage format can be hard for future researchers to parse for insights, leading researchers to have to go through every individual report on a topic to determine if there are relevant insights.

6. Service model requests

Although stakeholders are critical to ensuring the value of research is understood, some stakeholders may come to a researcher with an explicit research request (e.g. "I want to do usability testing on this feature"). This experience puts researchers into a 'service model' and prevents researchers from providing real strategic value and looking for opportunities that may be blind spots from stakeholders.

Preventing service model situations from happening requires researchers to build strong proactive relationships with their stakeholders, so researchers are on the pulse of potential research opportunities and teach them how to come with questions, not solutions, to researcher conversations.

7. Institutional knowledge inhibits new research

As many stakeholders may have domain or institutional knowledge about the area that they are working in, they may make assumptions about customers or products, leading them to drive product decisions on their own experiences.

Although stakeholders might have daily interactions with customers, they are not customers. Their underlying biases and assumptions based on their experience may not always align with actual customer pain points and needs. Researchers must figure out ways to tactfully push back on these decisions to ensure that research can provide guidance, or analysis, to ensure customer needs are clearly understood.

8. Insight of one

If stakeholders are customer-facing, or are part of customer conversations, they are likely to receive feedback on the stakeholders' product or experience. Customers may also 'solutionize' (i.e. provide suggestions on fixing the product) during these conversations. If a customer is high value, stakeholders are more likely to reactively decide to change or re-prioritize work based on the customer's insight or product suggestion.

A robust stakeholder perspective may be challenging for researchers when they are looking to propose work that may be on a similar topic, as a stakeholder may be adamant that the insight they captured as part of the customer conversation covers the need to conduct additional research.

9. More time in operations means less time to research

The level of effort for research operations activities generally spikes right before, and right after research execution. When research teams are small or scrappy, they are less likely to invest in having a dedicated research operations resource.

The responsibility of all organization and operational activities are then put on the researcher, leaving them less time to focus on ensuring high-quality research throughout the process.

Having a dedicated research operations resource also enables them to focus on other ways to improve operations in planning, to run, and synthesizing research that can provide longer-term efficiency gains for researchers.

10. Recruiting participants is high effort

A large part of a research operations' role is managing the participant recruitment process. If a research panel with customers who have proactively opted to participate in research is not available (either internally or through a vendor), alternative sources have to be used to identify potential participants.

Email open rates generally average 15-25%, so if there is a niche participant type, it's even more challenging to recruit enough of the relevant participants to match the required sample size.

There may also be situations where participant types are not digitally active (e.g. truck drivers), which means potential participants need to be called and manually scheduled individually.

Additionally, managing participants can take more effort: in most cases, confirmation calls are conducted with participants the day before a research session to minimize the potential of no-shows, and allows participants to reschedule.

11. Managing vendors through onboarding processes

Vendors support research in two key ways:

  • Recruitment & Logistics: Managing participants, including recruiting, scheduling, and incentive management. Vendors help when there is difficulty finding participant requirements, non-customers / users of a product or if the study is blinded. They may also rent out research labs for researchers to facilitate sessions if internal facilities are not available.

  • Research execution: Running full research projects, including planning, recruiting, execution, and synthesis. These are useful when there is a scoped project with little to no ambiguity (e.g. competitive review, usability testing).

In both cases, vendors need to go through procurement to agree on the work, cost, and expected outputs.

There are usually questionnaires related to security, privacy, and operational structures for larger or enterprise organizations that one or more internal teams may manage. In these cases, the researcher / research ops must become the middleman, working across both the internal teams and vendor to prevent timeline slippage of projects.

Procurement can become more complicated if organizations have stringent privacy or data protection processes, as there are strict requirements on what data sharing with external parties (e.g., personally identifiable information or PII off-limits).

If there is data that the researcher needs to recruit with and they are denied access because of company policy, it can lead to the researcher and vendor having to determine workarounds that may risk the quality of participants or research output.

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