Nothing to Fear: How Agile Research Uncovers The Unknown

Posted by Carrie Yury Nov 21, 2014 8:41:00 PM

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Credit: Jon-Eric Melsæter

 Recently I was talking to a technologist friend who said that he thinks most companies are hesitant to include research into their design process because people fear the unknown. Call me naïve, but I was shocked to hear that. To me, while research may start with unknowns, its task is the discovery of knowledge. And knowledge is power -- especially knowledge about your target user. However, the more I thought about what he said, the more intrigued I became with the idea. 

Stepping back, my technologist friend had a valid point. Research presents a wide and complex swath of unknowns, from “who should we talk to and how long will recruiting take?” to “what will we learn, and how will the research findings impact the design/dev cycle?” Traditional contextual qualitative research strikes fear into the hearts of many because getting from the unknown to the known has historically been a “black box” process that has taken months, been costly, and provided insights too late to be of much use. Research findings and their ramifications introduce too much instability for most to stomach. 

But new technologies and adapted approaches to research are making it possible to understand and serve user needs while minimizing project instability. For example, remote testing tools, in-context recruiting tools, data analytics, and mobile data tracking all shorten the time between data gathering and insights. The trick is harnessing these tools in a way that increases speed while maintaining rigor. 

At BeyondCurious, we have done this in part by borrowing some of the thinking and approaches behind agile software development and tailoring them to the research process. For example, rather than two or three month long projects that culminate with a research report, we conduct research in sprints. Just as in Scrum development methodology, where each sprint ends with the ability to ship a minimum viable product, each of our Agile Research sprints ends with a minimum viable set of findings on a specific area of inquiry. Sprints are successive, allowing for rapid pivoting, and enabling the team to follow or jettison lines of inquiry as the product develops. The successive nature of the sprint methodology also means that our knowledge base about the target user is cumulative, giving us both breadth and depth. 

We have conducted research sprints across the spectrum of the design process -- from up front conceptual research through participatory design and prototype testing to usability testing. Because research is conducted in sprints, we get from inquiry to insights in weeks, mitigating the usual fear-inducing factors (length of time, cost of research, impact to design/dev cycle). There’s still impact to the project timeline. But early incorporation limits cost down the road. Case in point: in one recent round of usability testing and design iteration we increased our System Usability Scale score by almost 30 points, from 50 to 80. That’s an enormous difference that will have a huge payoff in user adoption of the solution. 

How have we been able to adapt lean methods to qualitative, contextual research? In part, this has been thanks to technology. As part of BeyondCurious’ Innovation@Speed methodology and mindset, we are constantly searching for ways that technology can help us be more efficient. To this end, we are doing everything from using online recruiting tools like and repurposing web conferencing tools like Skype and to developing our own research applications. 

But the other reason we’ve been able to shift to an agile approach to research has been thanks to a mental shift. Simply put, when faced with a research question, area of inquiry, or limited time frame, instead of saying no, we find ways to say yes. That mental and attitudinal agility has been just as important as the tools we use to enable our Agile Research methodology. The openness, flexibility, ability to pivot, and rapidity of insights generation that Agile Research enables has helped everyone from clients to internal teams conquer their fear of the unknown, and leverage the power of knowing target users. So there’s nothing to fear, but fear itself.

Topics: agents of disruption, innovation, BeyondCurious, Innovation Consultancy, innovation management, ethnography, Agile Research

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