Ask Cindy: What is the best way to help others understand what research is learning and why it’s taking so long?

Here’s a thing that took me years to understand: when people complain that something “is taking too long”, it’s not about the time

It’s not about reducing the hours or days or weeks.

It’s about these three feelings:

  • I’m not sure this is valuable enough
  • I’m not sure when it’s going to be done
  • I’m not seeing tangible evidence of progress

These feelings aren’t unique to research!  Designing, coding, or writing – really, any form of creation – also provokes these feelings of uncertainty.  But when people can see mockups, lines of code, or pages of text, it reduces that uncertainty somewhat.

Now that you know about these three feelings, you can proactively minimize them.  Let’s talk about how.

I’m not sure this is valuable enough

I never assume that the people I’m working with understand the value of talking to customers. It’s my job to continually remind them as I share research plans and insights.

“We’re going to talk to six high-usage customers and six customers at risk of attrition to understand the differences in their experiences and how we might improve our documentation to make it easier for more customers to become happy, high-usage customers.”

“We’re doing a day of quick usability studies – any quick bugs we can catch, we can fix next week before launch and reduce support tickets.”

Sometimes a stakeholder will disagree with research I’m planning (“We probably already know everything important, don’t bother”). 

It’s a waste of time to try and argue with that perception or ask permission. 

Do the research quietly and don’t say anything else until you can share the results.   Show value by showing results/answers/insights.

I’m not sure when it’s going to be done

Talking to customers has an extra variable that not all disciplines have – customers!  Recruiting and scheduling is unpredictable.  As a result, we’re often reluctant to give timelines. 

Internally, we’re thinking I don’t want to commit to 2 weeks if it might take 3.  Our stakeholders are thinking if she won’t commit to a date, what if this 2 months or longer?

Here’s where I use a concept I talked about in Lean Customer Development – “a plan for a plan”.  Tell people what you do know, and give them a date by when you’ll know more. 

For example:  Our plan is to conduct 10 interviews with customers who’ve never tried X functionality.  I’ll start recruiting now, and by the end of the week, I’ll update you on whether we’re likely looking at a 2- or 3-week timeline.

I’m not seeing tangible evidence of progress

I’ve worked with many researchers who aren’t comfortable sharing ‘incomplete’ research.  And for good reason – often the first few insights don’t form any kind of coherent pattern. Or stakeholders fixate on that first insight and don’t balance it against the other things you continue to hear.

You can always share a weekly update, even if you don’t reveal any insights yet.  It’s a good cadence for communication, and a good forcing function for you to review your notes along the way.

A simple effective format for updates looks like this:

At the start of the week, we believed [your hypotheses/assumptions]

During the week, we learned [3-5 bullet points]

Next week, we’re planning to [share how you’ve iterated on your plan, or actions you’ve got scheduled]

So, to summarize, your job is not just “doing the research”.  It’s proactively addressing peoples’ concerns around value, timeline, and progress through clear communication.   

You’ll need some patience, too.  One timeline or progress report won’t immediately change perception, but consistent repetition over months will.