User research is a highly skilled and highly demanding role in any service or organisation We need to focus on the details of research and then zoom out and understand high level implications, we need to switch our communications mode to match each of our stakeholders and with our users, and we need to research, analyse and present findings in incredible short turn arounds.
When your performance levels dip, anxiety can creep in and make things worse. We get anxiety because we know how important good performance is to do good research and present findings with good impact.
Here’s some practices to help support high performance and reduce anxiety.
1. Find peace with good enough
As researchers, our job is find the evidence to support decisions, sometimes big ones, so it’s important to get it as robust as we can. But as researchers we know how difficult that can be in some projects when you can’t find the right users, have to cram too much in a session or just don’t get time to properly analyse your notes. Even when all the stars align in research, the demands of working agile teams means we seldom get the chance to reach saturation of findings.
Never getting to saturation and therefore being confident in your findings can raise your anxiety levels and eventually start to erode your professional self esteem. It’s important here to take action and remind your self not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
You are good, and to remind you of that, here’s a short exercise to help you focus on the positives you bring to the research. For example, when you sit down to analysis (whether you’ve got just 30-minutes or a whole day), start with 5-minutes and write down the 3 things you did to make this a good research project. They could be:
- Designed robust session plan
- Used open questions in the interview and probed when users didn’t say much
- Invited a subject matter expert to the analysis sessions so we didn’t miss the nuances
Just 5-minutes focusing on the positives you’ve brought to the research can help recenter, reduce anxiety and bring the energy you need to bring your best researcher skills to the day.
2. Block time to build your narrative
Collaborative working is so valuable for user research. Not only do you bring a wide range of eyes to the data but it also brings the team along and engages them in the findings. But sometimes the drive for collaboration means we researchers feel we can’t have any alone time.
This can be draining personally and professionally. We know the value of taking time after a round of research, just to mull over what we’ve seen and heard to get a sense of where the findings will be. We all approach this task differently but the outcome we’re aiming for is the same – that sense of where the patterns lie in the data and a mental map of where the interesting findings can be found.
Blocking out time to do this can be tricky with a collaborative team but it’s worth it for your professional sanity and the team. You’ll be able to plan and run a more effective collaborative analysis session and ensure evidence is correctly weighed.
It’s also worth blocking out time after each round to organise your findings and build a narrative of what you’ve learned. Think about what your future self will need, or your successor. What questions will you get three months in the future about how you built the evidence? And what story can you tell that will help a successor get a good sense of the research you’ve done and the findings within a couple of hours?
Building a narrative takes time but it’s worth it because story telling is the most powerful means of communicating and can really boost your performance as a researcher keeping you both grounded in evidence and ready to share with whomever you meet.
3. Become a ninja with checklists
Checklists might sound formal and restrictive but they’re one of the simplest and most powerful tools to keep you performing well and enable you to get better.
Writing down a list of what you need to do in a particular situation creates a kind of external brain that reduces the pressure on the one in your skull. Even if you’ve a regular routine with well worn tasks, here will be times when you’re interrupted or need to juggle two things at once so having the checklist means you can put down and pick up where you left with minimal cognitive load.
For example when you’re setting up for a research session, you need to run through technical set up and checks so you know you can present whatever’s being tested and securely capture the recording. There’s nothing worse than finding out the prototype link has been changed when you’re mid-session or that you forgot to plug in the mic at the start of the day so all your recordings are silent.
The problem is, as a researcher out in the field you’ve got to set up fast while you’re also building empathy with your participants and accepting cups of tea. In the lab it might be easier to be more routine but you’re also briefing in your observers and calling up who’ve got lost on the way. Having a checklist helps ensure you don’t miss a thing.
Checklists are also a great way to help you improve your skills and performance. As a researcher you’d design a session plan to ensure you have consistency of data from your participants. Checklists let you apply this to your own practices so you can see what tests well and what doesn’t so you can make an informed decision on how to improve.
Taking the research set up example again, write down the list of things you need to do to set up your kit and recording. Use your list for the next few sessions and amend as you find anything you’ve missed. Now you’ve got your baseline of what works, you can create a checklist v2 to test out any improvements in the next few sessions. If they work, keep them in and celebrate, if they didn’t work then scratch and reiterate.
4. Discover and work with your energy levels and drains
Working as a researcher means you spend a lot of time with other people. For many it’s the appeal of the job and fills them with energy to speak to users and share what they’ve learned with their team and organisation.
You might expect the domain to be peopled by extroverts who thrive in highly social environment, but many researchers are introverts, drawn to the role by their skills of sitting with data and finding patterns. At the end of a long day of research sessions, or meetings with people talking all the time, introverts need to withdraw and recharge their batteries but this can be difficult in collaborative teams filled with extraverts who thrive in social interactions who don’t understand what a pressure this can be.
If that sounds like you then make sure you book some time out each week, every day if possible, to work alone so you can recharge your batteries. Walking breaks from your desk and mindfulness can also help by creating micro breaks to recharge every day.
5. Build and use your support network
Behind every woman is a group of supporting friends, behind successful researcher is a friendly and reliable support network.
Many organisations set up communities of practice where you can meet up with fellow researchers and talk shop. These are great for solving common research related problems and making friends across teams but it’s also worth considering other people to build into your network.
If you’re working in a multi-disciplinary team then make friends with your product manager. They are there to help shape what the team does, and what requests and demands should be prioritised so they can help you set your boundaries so you can work and deliver your best.
Hopefully you’ll know some fellow researchers in your organisation through your community of practice but it’s also worth finding a buddy researcher who works in another organisation. Not only will it help you see different approaches to similar work but also give you a chance to let off steam and get perspective on what ever is happening in your project.
Being a user researcher is a very rewarding role but can be highly demanding and a drain on your mental reserves.
Following some of the tips in this article: finding peace with good enough, blocking alone time to work and recharge, using checklists and building a network, can help you build and maintain your researcher wellness and help you deliver your best work.