The less obvious skills you need to be a better researcher

People having a discussion in a meeting

No, I won’t be talking about curiosity and empathy

No, I won’t be talking about curiosity and empathy. These words have been so overused in the research and design community that they’ve lost meaning. At least to me. They’re up there with buzzwords like sense-making. So unless you can figure out what that means for you in practice, I’d focus on other soft skills. And that’s what I’ll do in this post.

If I’ve left you wondering about practical empathy in design, interaction design foundation has an excellent piece on this. And this UX Matters column covers curiosity in the context of real user needs and getting to the bottom of problems. It also talks about the broader soft skills researchers need. It’s useful, not buzzwordy.

I’m not going to paraphrase these great articles. Instead, I’ll talk you through the three skills that have helped me over and over again.

Conscious mirroring

Mirroring is a form of social intelligence. It means that we pick up the peculiarities of a person we’re talking to. And use them to build rapport. We all do some of this unconsciously, but we can also learn it just like politicians and great leaders do.

I consciously pick up the body language, anxiety level and even speech patterns of participants to figure out how best to approach them and make them feel more comfortable.

Useful mirroring is about empathy and attunement, not imitation. In research, it can help you establish rapport and trust quickly. So you get richer, more honest and reliable insights.

The dark side of this is taking it too far so that it’s obvious to your participants or stakeholders. So much so that it comes across as ridicule instead of an attempt to establish a genuine connection. Or cultural appropriation in some cases.

So be careful. Stay subtle. Don’t imitate.

Good memory

During sessions, researchers need to juggle many things at once. Like active listening, note-taking, keeping track of time, not forgetting questions to ask later and so on.

Remembering to come back to something is probably where good memory helps me most. I can focus on letting the person talk, and get more details later in a way that feels quite natural and conversational. Once the person has finished their train of thought I can say, “Earlier you talked to me about … can you tell me …” This is particularly useful if I’m not leading the session but can ask questions as an observer at the end.

So being able to remember something while a gazillion other things are going on is extremely helpful.

Good memory can make analysis easier too. But no matter how good your memory is, do your analysis properly because we’re all human. And the human brain is a wild place with many cognitive biases that can affect how we do research and what we remember.

For example, the recency effect means we’ll remember and give more weight to the more recent sessions, the availability heuristic makes us think that something is important just because we remember it. And confirmation bias makes us notice and therefore more likely to remember the things that confirm our own beliefs.

Luckily you can train your brain to remember things. If that’s not for you, try to adopt ways of supporting your memory like writing down questions to ask later, take good notes and back up with recordings.

Ability to improvise

I think my ability to improvise comes from studying music and being a bar manager back in the day (you’d be surprised how many things go wrong during service).

As a researcher, I find myself improvising all the time. Broadly speaking, I find improvisation useful to me in a few ways:

Doing just enough research and flexing the method

The method is important. But there’s no one right way to answer a question. And research is all about answering questions so that we can make decisions with a little bit more information than our own opinion. Improvising with your methods to me means being able to take a solid method, adapt it to the time, budget and other constraints and still get reliable insight.

Getting closer to the truth. Seizing the unknown unknowns

The bonus value of the kind of research you do is in the things you can’t anticipate, the things you never thought to ask about. But you discover them once you enter the context you’re interested in.  Steven Portigal

When I started, I was trying to do too much with my research all at once. And I still do. The difference today is that I do it intentionally. I’m not expanding the scope, so I’m looking at everything broadly. I’m not going down a rabbit hole, but I’m leaving enough room to uncover the unknown unknowns. To let the real problem and true needs reveal itself. Focusing on something too narrowly can be like asking about wine openers without realising people use screw tops so they don’t need a wine opener in the first place.

There’s unpredictable value in starting broad and zooming in. By giving more control to the participant you can better understand the context, underlying needs, behaviours and the language they naturally use. A combination of those makes products and services truly user-centred.

This approach can make project teams uncomfortable because there’s so much (often justified) fear around scope creep. In short, scope creep is making teams do more without giving any extra time or people to deliver the extras. So project teams need to be careful with research scopes but let go of the control and embrace the ambiguity of early, highly explorative research.

There’s definitely a place and time for tight research scope. But I’ve seen many examples where tight scopes do more harm than good. Researchers read out pre-defined questions at the early stages of discovery, even interrupting participants trying to control the session tightly. Teams park or ignore insight that doesn’t fall strictly under their research questions. Not great.

In practice, this means you’ll have semi-structured or unstructured scripts. But you’ll always have a clear overarching research question and objectives to keep you just focused enough. Don’t confuse just doing some research to see what happens with the ability to go off-script with a clear research question, goal or hypothesis in mind.

It can also mean taking in conversations going on during breaks during workshops and focus groups. Research sessions are only over when the participant is no longer with you (unless you’ve agreed that it’s okay to email follow-up questions). Some of the richest insights come from the conversations happening in-between the planned activities. So make use of that.

Getting the most out of research when things go wrong

In the research community, we know how important planning is. We also know that no matter how carefully you prepare, things always go wrong. Technology fails, the participant has a lot less time than you agreed, only one person turns up for your workshop, you get interrupted and so on.

Being able to think on your feet and improvise will get you out of sticky situations and help you make the most of the sessions when things go south. For example, if only one person turned up for your workshop, you could turn it into an in-depth interview instead.

The more research you do, the better you’ll get at improvisation. In the meantime, it can be helpful to write down all the things that could go wrong before you start. Chances are, it’ll all go smoothly when you’ve planned for the worst.

Either way, you’ll be more and more able to react quickly when things go wrong.

If you want to get better at researching, try to practice these skills. They will help you more than any tool in the world.