The Right Way to Involve a Qualitative Research Team

June 12th, 2017

Most teams significantly under-invest in qualitative research. Growth teams especially are all about data, but they think that data can only come from experiments. This can make teams overly reliant on what they can learn from experiments and the quality of the data they have, and under-invest from what they can learn from talking to users. This problem is usually exacerbated by the fact that existing researchers at startups aren’t usually assigned directly to teams or work independently. I’ll talk about some of the problems I’ve seen, and the right way to invest in qualitative research for your growth team.

Learning and Applying from Research
Using the right type and method for your question is key. Of course, qualitative research is one component of the research stack along with quantitative research and market research. There is also different types of qualitative research depending on what you are trying to learn.

I remember when I was at Apartments.com and went to my first focus group, a common type of qualitative research. It was a mess for multiple reasons. The first reason was structure. Finding an apartment is not a large social behavior, so why were we talking with a group of ten strangers at once? As what I later learned usually happened, one or two participants volunteered the majority of the feedback, so while we paid for ten people’s opinions, we really only received two people’s opinions. So, I now only do research with multiple people in the room if it’s a social product, and it’s a group that would use it togethers e.g. friends or co-workers.

The second issue was delivering the feedback to people who weren’t there. I wrote up a long perspective on what the issues were with Apartments.com vs. our competitors. It primarily included product feedback on why we were getting crushed by Craigslist in major cities. I sent it to my VP and received a one sentence reply, “Don’t get ahead of yourself.” What a waste of time, I thought. We do all this research, generate real insights, and no one’s interested.

I’ve now learned that research teams inside companies feel this every day. At Pinterest, we had an amazing research team, but they were originally a functional team, which meant they had to determine their own roadmap of what to research. Depending on the stakeholders you listen to, this can be broad strategic projects like “What is the deal with men?” to specific projects like “Help us test this new search flow already built.” Research can add value at both stages, so the team worked on both.

What I think research found when they worked on the broader strategic issues was similar to my response at Apartments.com. “Cool, but not my roadmap!” say the product managers. Research then gets filed away never to be looked at again. Researchers get very frustrated. To be clear, this is a failure of leadership — not the product teams — if these areas aren’t prioritized. But it is common. On the flipside of working on something already built, success was more variable based on how well the product team defined what they wanted to learn. Frequently, what the product team wanted to learn was that they could ship it, so they selectively listened to feedback to things that indicated they were on the right path.

What I have learned suggests that qualitative research cannot be effective unless 1) its people are dedicated a cross-functional product team and 2) research is involved throughout the entire product development process, from initial research on market to determining a strategy to testing concepts to testing nearly finished products. The value of research accrues the more it is a part of each step in the process.

This approach solves for two main problems. One is that product teams will only pay attention to feedback that is directly related to their current product and on their own timeline. Without being part of the cross-functional team that includes product, engineering, and design, it is hard for research to to be on the same timeline. The second problem this solves is it helps research prevent the rest of the team from locking on assumptions that they may be wrong, so they are focused on the right solution to the problem with research, instead of confirmation bias at the end of a project. The Pinterest team has moved to this model, and for my teams, it made both sides much more successful.

When to Research and When to Experiment
For teams that rely too much on experiments and not enough on research, I tell them two things:

  • Experiments are great for understanding what people do and don’t do. Research helps you understand why they do or do not do those things
  • Experiments don’t help you understand the under-represented groups that might be the most important to learn from e.g. non-users or smaller segments of users

A great way to get started with research as a team is to answer why your experiment didn’t work. Sometimes, the answer is there in the experiment data, but frequently it is not. You have to talk to users to understand why they are doing what they are doing. The best way to do that is to ask them the context of them doing or not doing it.

There is also the middle ground of quantitative research that can be helpful (usually surveys). What I usually like to do is use qualitative research to understand the universe of reasons for something, and use quantitative research if I need to quantify the importance/commonality of those reasons.

Research also helps you isolate users you may not be able to isolate with your usage data. For example, at Grubhub, we were trying to understand how many people used Grubhub regularly for delivery, but not for every order. So, we asked. Then, we called those users to understand why they sometimes don’t use Grubhub, then sent another survey with those reasons to quantify which ones were most important to address. I outline that process more here.

But I Don’t Even Have a Research Team
At Grubhub, we didn’t have a research team for the first couple of years (or even a product team for that matter). So, when we needed to learn things, me, someone on my team, or our sole designer (hello Jack!) would do one of three things: 1) throw flows up on usertesting.com, 2) survey users on our email list, or 3) call users on the phone, and provide them with free food for their time.

You don’t need to be a professional researcher to do this, though they are better at it. You just need to determine what you’re trying to learn and who from. You want to watch people go through that situation if you can. If you can’t, ask them about the last time it happened and what they did and why. You will get better at it the more times you do it. Startups are starting to hire researchers earlier in their development because of the importance of understanding users beyond the data. So, you may be able to justify a full time role here earlier than you thought.

Thanks to Gabe Trionfi for reading early drafts of this and providing his feedback. HeHAH!

Currently listening to Beyond Serious by Bibio.

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