When you think of large, legacy companies, you might assume they have an army of researchers informing every decision. But here’s a secret. The size and maturity of an organization’s research practice doesn’t always correlate with the size and maturity of the actual organization.
Researcher and author of Research Practice, Gregg Bernstein, has spent his career honing his research skills on small research teams — but not always at small organizations. He was just the 119th hire at Mailchimp, joined various other companies of all sizes as they started their research teams, and is now at the iconic Condé Nast, a media company with thousands of employees but a research team under 5 people.
Throughout his career, he’s learned the qualities, attitudes, and methods that can help small research teams thrive. He sat down with Sprig’s Head of Research Auzita Irani to discuss how to approach challenges, scope, and tooling as the first researcher, how to assess research readiness and fit research into the current roadmap, and the skills needed to succeed in a small research environment. Whether you’re an early hire at a startup or a researcher blazing new trails at a legacy organization, these are the tips you need to succeed.
How to Be the First UX Researcher
As someone who’s entered multiple organizations as the first or one of the first researchers, Bernstein says the key is to be tightly scoped and ruthlessly priority minded. You don’t have time to chase fluffy projects or waste time. He advises looking at opportunities to make an immediate impact and focusing there — keep in mind that to grow your team you need to show why investing in research is essential.
At Condé Nast, two researchers were already focused on the biggest magazine titles and he joined them on those projects to make a big impact quickly. He learned that the right tooling is critical when you’re a small team. If you came from a large organization, tooling is often already established but, on a small team, it’s a new frontier. Utilizing tools that allow you to conduct more and efficient research with fewer people is critical, including unmoderated concept testing to reduce time and effort by testing before you build and in-product surveys to capture valuable insights from your users in real-time. You need to be equipped to get in and get to work.
Are the questions on everyone’s mind something you can answer with qualitative research?
Are all their questions predominantly around quantitative measures and analytics?
Are requests focused in one area of the business?
Which trends emerge in the requests?
Your job as a solo researcher or on a small team is to integrate into the organization’s roadmap and enhance it, not to disrupt their flow. In those early days, your biggest impact comes from answering the questions that are already nagging the organization and standing in the way of business outcomes.
How to Build the Research Plane While Flying It
You’ll also want to make research happen where they are already working and communicating, rather than reinventing processes right away. Take on a project and work the way that’s already working best. Bernstein explains that if the team works in Google Drive and they love it, adapt to Google Drive. If they are happy with Zoom for interviews, go with it.
Work how they work, jump in on projects, and, as you learn their processes, then you can make recommendations — but not until you’ve gained the team’s trust. You have to build the research plane while flying it .
Before you make any recommendations, ask, “Can I make this better or can I make it work?”
The 3 Skills You Need to Build If You Want To Grow on a Small Team
If you’re not already a researcher on a small team or you’ve never taken a role as the first researcher at an organization, you’re probably realizing that it takes a certain type of person to jump in as a research pioneer. Since he’s been there many times before, Bernstein shared the three qualities and skills he thinks are most important to build if you want to grow as a researcher on a small team.
You need to be flexible
Smaller teams jump from project to project quickly. There’s often feedback coming in from customers that you weren’t anticipating and need to be nimble. You may have been working on a new feature but need to jump back over to onboarding research to understand why users are dropping off or to answer a burning question that no one anticipated.
Projects and launches move quickly and it’s often the researcher’s responsibility to adjust their approach, methodology, and schedule to adapt.
You need to be comfortable with not doing perfect research every time
Bernstein admits, “I’ve yet to do a project that is academically sound.” When you’re working as a researcher at a revenue-focused organization (as many of you probably are), there usually isn’t time for statistically significant sample sizes (though in-product surveys can give you a quick pulse on larger numbers of users!). You don’t have time to conduct research as if you are being published in an academic journal.
You have to adjust your expectations and get comfortable with doing the best work possible while realizing it’s never going to be perfect. You’re always going to be juggling projects, even in the best of times.
You need the ability to read the room in distributing research
Here’s a secret: you can sometimes get away with a research report that’s literally an email with 4 bullet points rather than a full report. Extensive insights with evidence aren’t always necessary — or wanted. And you need to learn how to get the team the data they need, in the format they’ll read.
In his own career, Bernstein has seen that different organizations’ preferences vary wildly. At Mailchimp, he often did big coffee hour presentations and long reports, where colleagues devoured every insight. At Vox Media, he worked in two-week sprints on aggressive research goals and presented them via bullet points in Slack. It was the bare minimum — but it’s what people had time to consume before moving on to the next project.
Your job as a researcher is not only to understand your users, but to understand the stakeholders, how they communicate, and how you need to speak to them.
How To Decide Whether an Organization is Ready to Make a Research Hire
But it’s not only on you to succeed as a solo researcher or on a small team. The organization also needs to be ready to invest in the research function. Bernstein recommends asking several questions to decide whether the organization is open to make a research hire.
Can you tell me a time research helped you make a decision? Do they respect research’s input?
What was the chain of communication that led to this role opening? If it’s backfill, great, there’s already a precedent for researchers!
Are you feeling confident in the product roadmap? Or does it currently feel risky? If they’re anxious about the risk, then they may recognize that research plays a role in whether or not it’s a successful launch.
How do you typically make decisions? Where does a project come from and who is involved? Is research already an integral part of their process?
3 Biggest Challenges in a Small Research Environment
All research (all work!) has its challenges, and a small or early stage research environment comes with its own unique set of challenges. Come prepared and, keep in mind, success in this situation often comes down to flexibility and adaptability.
You’re building the plane while you fly, and you may have to figure out what the research process looks like from the ground up. You have to take your time to learn how the organization works — even when you feel short on time.
When you’re brought in to build out a team, you need clarity around the who, what, when, and why of hiring. Bernstein explains that you need to know what new team members will be doing before they’re hired so there’s clarity around what’s expected of them. Set them up for success by understanding the why before you bring them on board.
There’s an inherent challenge in being the first researcher — you can’t lean on your team if you don’t have one! Bernstein encountered this when he joined Mailchimp. He was early in his research career and wasn’t sure if he was doing things the most efficient or smartest way. His solution? He reached out to anyone he could find with “UX” or “research” in their job title and started setting up calls. He asked any question he felt could help guide his work, no matter how basic. “How do you write down your interview notes?” “What does a discussion guide look like in your organization?” “How do you share your findings?”
He’s brought this approach with him throughout his career and, when he manages a small team, he encourages them to learn from their network outside the organization. He sets up lunch and learns to share stories, challenges, and advice. In Bernstein’s words, remember, user research isn’t a state secret. Everyone’s just trying to do good research and learning from each other lifts everyone up.
Unsure how to reach out to a research peer? Reference the reason you want to connect — everyone wants to feel like they specifically can offer value! “I saw your tweet about that blog post and found it fascinating. I’m struggling with the same thing, and I would love to talk shop.”
Conclusion: How to Make a Small Research Team Successful
Being successful as the first researcher at a startup, the first researcher at a larger organization, or the member of a small research team requires flexibility, a willingness to learn what’s important to others, and also the confidence to set boundaries and make an impact.
You want to come in and satisfy all the demands for research and make everyone at your organization happy, but, as Bernstein explains, all stakeholders are important, but not all of their questions are.
Focus on the research that is directly connected to the bottom line. Answering strategic questions is important, but tactical research tied to business and revenue outcomes should usually move to the top of the research roadmap. A small team can make an impact — if they’re focused on company goals.