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Beyond the buzzwords: Alternatives to Research, Data, Insights

As a researcher, I use words as my medium to communicate, influence, and build confidence. I understand the importance of being mindful and varied in how I talk about my work because using the same words can limit my impact. Here are the most often used words associated with research, and how I diversify my language to be more descriptive about what I do.

The pitfalls of overusing words

Think about a typical day at work. How often are you using the words research, data and insights? Probably very often. Probably interchangeably (or at least others might be using them interchangeably but you overlook that). I started to feel like I was using the word research so frequently that it was losing its meaning. Once it began to lose its meaning for me, I noticed other people attaching their own meaning to that term.

For example, I noticed that some of my team members and stakeholders were associating the term “research” solely with the moment of being in the field or collecting data. This unintentionally caused them to overlook all the other essential efforts involved in crafting a study, such as planning, recruiting, analysis, and reporting. Consequently, some of them seemed less tolerant of the time spent on these important aspects outside of the data collection moment. This led to an increased demand for “faster research“.

Realizing this, I have been actively working to address the issue and make everyone aware of the diverse phases of the research process. By doing so, we can collectively appreciate the comprehensive work that goes into conducting meaningful studies and foster a more supportive and understanding environment for all our research endeavors.

For this article, I will focus on the words research, data and insights, and include how we can vary how we speak to each of these essential factors in our work.

Alternatives to Research, Data, Insights

Research

Often, “research” gets associated with a narrow range of tactical activities, most notably data collection. For some stakeholders, they also know other tasks such as recruiting, creating discussion guides, and generating reports are part of this labor. Unfortunately, this focus overlooks other crucial tasks that researchers actively engage in, such as conducting workshops, educating on credible decision-making, and contributing to product development. Recognizing this limitation, we can expand our understanding of a researcher’s work and acknowledge the diverse and proactive roles we play.

Consider these expansions for “Research”

1. Reference which step in the research process you are, or highlight the methods / approaches you will use

Instead of

“Our team went to people’s homes to do research.”

Try

“For data collection, we went to people’s homes.”

2. Draw more attention to the core question or learning objective that requires you to go learn / do research

Instead of

“We need to do research on people’s financial behaviors.”

Try

“We need to learn more about how people use digital solutions to make financial decisions.”

3. Elevate the benefits of a learning process (e.g., research) for the team by highlighting what was done to make connections

Instead of

“The research made us feel more connected to our customers.”

Try

“Hearing people’s experiences, emotions and motivations firsthand made us more connected to our customers.”

Data

We gather and produce many objects, and among them is “data.” However, using “data” alone can sometimes seem reductive when describing the rich variety of information we acquire from and about people. This term might make participants (and some stakeholders) uncomfortable. Moreover, “data” can imply a level of objectivity that might not always align with our goals in the research process. Recognizing this limitation, we can reflect and describe what exactly we are generating or illuminating from our efforts.

Consider these expansions for “Data”

1. Get granular and tell an anecdote, or go deep and tell a story. Play around with being specific and broad

Instead of

“Our data reveal that people’s hospital experiences are lacking.”

Try

“After spending 3 weeks in the hospital, P2 indicated feeling depressed and hopeless. Here is P2’s experience…”

2. Use industry terms from the social sciences to remind your audience that we are studying human beings, not abstracted notions like “our customers

Instead of

“We have substantial customer data on morning routine activities.”

Try

“We have a deep understanding of the lived realities of people’s morning routines. Here are some stories / examples.”

3. Assign specific meaning to different types of data so it’s clear what their services and limitations might be

Instead of

“Research is a process of generating / leveraging data to make decisions.”

Try

“Usability testing results in objective data such as time-on-task, and subjective data such as perceived ease of use.”

Insights

We use “insights” to paint a picture of today (what we learned). It’s a term we employ to describe our interpretations of what we heard and observed, and how teams can convert that understanding into action. However, “insights” can remain an abstract concept, lacking sufficient basis for all stakeholders to grasp how to apply them effectively. Recognizing this limitation, we can assign more meaning to how insights can be put to work.

Consider these expansions for “Insights”

1. Apply a lifecycle or time limitation to the output of your study / research efforts

Instead of

“Research insights help us prioritize design decisions.”

Try

“Our study’s findings apply only to this prototype, which has since evolved.”

2. Include concrete and observable qualities rather than rely on vague and misinterpret-able terms

Instead of

“Our insights reveal that we have not yet improved the check-out workflow.”

Try

“The check-out workflow is problematic because users could not locate the Cart.”

3. Give space to non-research-generated truths that may not have resulted from a study or formalized learning process

Instead of

“We always make decisions based on insights, they are more objective than our team’s intuition.”

Try

“In addition to our study’s recommendations, we also know that the team has some ideas on how to evolve the design.”

Your turn!

Take some time to reflect on words you use every single day in your practice. Maybe even take a team poll on what they believe these terms mean. You might be surprised by what you learn! Ultimately, it’s very important for us to be more thoughtful about the words we use and how. Be more descriptive, be less economical with language if you think it will help your team understand. Work hard to be as mindful as possible when using these words as well.

Many researchers are already doing this, especially by being consistent with their definitions of research, data and insights. So, speak with other researchers on your team to align on “what does this word actually mean to us”.

As a researcher, I actively use words to communicate, influence, and build confidence. By being mindful of diverse language and overused terms like “research,” “data,” and “insights,” we can ensure clearer and more impactful communication in our work.

Cover photo by Paulette Vautour on Unsplash

Zarla Ludin (she/her)

Zarla is a design strategist with over a decade of experience in research and consulting. She has worked as a Research Director at Craft, a digital design studio, and at Motivate Design and Essential. Zarla weaves together research mechanics, alignment mindsets, and design engagement to help teams in various domains including civic services, financial, healthcare, consumer packaged goods, and engineered products.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/zarlashtahludin/

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