IN THE LATE 1940s, a psychology professor named Roger Barker ran a lengthy contextual research project in the small Kansas town of Oskaloosa. For over 25 years, researchers observed and logged the activities of the town’s 725 residents. The notion of doing research about everyday people’s behavior in context (rather than in a laboratory) was radical at the time. In exhaustive detail, Barker documented ordinary activities throughout the day. Because it was a new approach to studying people, it wasn’t obvious how this data would lead to any insight. And while the results of Barker’s work were considered significant, there was an element of notoriety simply because of the volume of banal data he captured. I’m obviously oversimplifying terribly here, but consider that Barker may represent an era of academic research that privileged data over questions.
In product design today, we start with questions. Those questions may include a hypothesis, an assumption, or a set of missing information, but for the most part we set out to conduct research because there’s something that we need to know in order to build or improve a product, tool, service, or the like. And with practice, we can learn to do a pretty reasonable job of answering the questions we start with. But a vital outcome of research (not just the data that is gathered but the experiences we have in gathering it) is learning about what we didn’t know that we didn’t know. The most important insights often lie beyond the questions that we started with. Answering this initial set of questions is necessary, but often insufficient in order to impact our products in a meaningful way.
But to pull off this level of research requires a certain level of skill. Research is seemingly just getting people to answer your questions and sneakily implies a low barrier to entry for new researchers. An untrained surgeon acting from instinct would probably not do well (“it’s just cutting into people, right?”), but at least they would realize that. Research lures the unconsciously incompetent.
With practice, reflection, mentorship, and training (look at what you are holding in your hands), we can make progress. And yet research continues to challenge us. On a personal level, we have to be patient, be present, be curious, be prepared to set our assumptions aside. Professionally, we have to not only uncover insights, but also be on schedule and within budget, work to the pace that our audience defines, and create learning-ready moments to drive the internalization of information.
These professional challenges only exacerbate the personal challenges. When the team wants to constrain the question, the answer, and the approach, how can you possibly go out in the field and act patiently? When the team is excited (an emotion that sometimes presents as impatience), how can you possibly take the time to plan and to reflect? Yet the people (like you) that lean into this work know at an implicit level that this is how you get to the good stuff.
Doing research this way is unabashedly human. Research is about us as people and how we are with other people, which is fundamental to how we spend our time on earth. People learning research skills report on how it gives them a different handle on other interactions in their lives, with coworkers, with friends, and with loved ones. If you’re someone who knows and loves research, you might sometimes feel that research is about, well, just everything. And that everything leads us back to thinking about research. And while no book of finite size can be about everything, there’s a comprehensiveness here that reminds us how important this broad, inclusive view is.
Throughout this book you’ll find exercises that connect the tasks of research with the act of being in the world. This is a great strategy for building confidence. The book offers several ways to learn research through everyday practices. As a bonus, you’ll probably find that the research skills you learn can be applied to everyday situations. You’ll also see a good number of templates and sample tools. You can benefit from their experience and the work they’ve put in to pull it all together.
David and Brad appropriately frame the work of research as rooted in the context of making stuff (or if you prefer, “product design”). Unlike Roger Barker, we’ve got to ship something as part of this process. The more wide-eyed we are in our approach to research, the easier it is to lose sight of that ultimate objective.
David and Brad also take care in explaining the details required at various stages of the research process, articulating clearly what to do and what not to do. Many times we take that sort of thing for granted. One might be tempted to dismiss the detailed guidance as “obvious,” but the tactics of research require us to challenge some of our default behaviors. What’s obvious to one isn’t obvious to another.
From the novice to the seasoned, research at its core is challenging. This book acknowledges that, and through the tools here you can recognize and manage those challenges—and ultimately improve how you address them. Research includes planning, organizing, managing, and leading. As readers of this book (that’s you!) become better researchers, you will take on more of those facets. Wherever you are in your development, this book is the way to keep moving forward.