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UX research prioritisation: Avoiding low impact projects

Over the past years we’ve seen discussions in the UX research community and our teams evolve. From a focus on creating appetite and buy-in for research to juggling the overwhelming amount of research work. How can we deal with the increased demand while ensuring we focus on most impactful projects? We need to invest in UX research prioritisation. 

There are various ways in which you can prioritise UX research projects ranging from very operational, such as first-come-first-serve, to more strategic: where you use your longer term research team mission and vision as your compass. Once you’re clear on your long-term vision, you need to translate that into the tactics. 

In this article I’d like to dive into the tactical way to prioritise UX research requests and opportunities. How to spot the most promising projects? And how to identify those that risk having little to no impact at all? I’ll also walk you through the 5 steps to help you implement UX research prioritisation.

1. Establish a UX research roadmapping process

The first thing to get in place if you want to change how you prioritise UX research projects and opportunities is a clear research roadmapping process. For our researchers at Backbase it is generally a quarterly cycle that looks as follows:

Example of a UX research roadmapping process

2. Gather research needs & opportunities

To identify the most promising projects it is important to first develop a base level understanding of them. In our research team we generally do so by running a stakeholder UX research roadmapping workshop. 

In this workshop we define the high level research objectives: what questions and hypotheses should the project answer. We also discuss what decisions the team aims to make based on research and where in the product development they are.

Finally, we spend some time on understanding the relative size of the project in terms of effort and cost. For example, will it be a swift unmoderated usability test on an easy to recruit audience? Or maybe an extensive contextual inquiry covering multiple geographical areas?

3. Define your prioritisation criteria to evaluate projects

Based on the intel we gather from those workshops we can then evaluate all research opportunities and requests and prioritise them. The criteria you use here can differ, but these are some that I’ve found helpful:

  • What is the stakeholders’ ability and willingness to pivot? Are they willing to learn and maybe be proven wrong in their assumptions? Or are they looking to prove their points or ‘market’ their own ideas?
  • Is there clarity on what the team wants to do with the insights? What decisions do they aim to make? The clearer it is, the more likely the team will actually use the insights.
  • How well are the different project stakeholders aligned on the research objectives? The more the different stakeholders such as the product team members are aligned on what they need, the better. When there are huge gaps, e.g., when a designer is looking to evaluate the UI, but a product owner wants to explore a problem you risk having limited impact.
  • What is the ratio between cost and value? Does the value of the project outweigh the time, effort and financial resources required? Needless to say – the lower the cost (in resources) and the higher the value – the more priority we should give to the project.
  • When does the team need the insights? Are timelines wide enough to be able to deliver a valuable contribution? But also not the opposite of where we are looking too far in the future that by the time the team plans to actually act on the insights priorities have changed.
  • Is the main focus exploratory, or evaluative? We aim to find a good balance on our research roadmaps between both types of projects. This means we might need to de-prioritise some evaluative efforts to make space for exploratory initiatives.

4. Outline your UX research prioritisation process

Depending on the total amount of research opportunities you are evaluating and how explicit and well documented you prefer to make this exercise, you can consider using a matrix where you assign scores or values to your projects based on the mentioned criteria. See the example below:

Example of a UX research prioritisation matrix

In this way the projects with most potential will be highlighted and can be put into your roadmap first. Then you can fill the gaps with lower scoring projects. It’s best to deprioritise projects with the lowest scores. Finally, we can consider how to have a good balance between exploratory and evaluative initiatives. So, when there is already a good bunch of exploratory projects on the roadmap we can add the highest scoring evaluative ones.

5. Determine your red flags 

Finally, based on the aforementioned and other considerations, you can identify if there are any ‘red flags’. Sometimes projects sound promising, but there are risks involved that might have your insights end up on a shelf. I would like to highlight a few I commonly encounter:

  • Teams that have not (yet) acted upon a previous project you have done with them
  • Limited buy in and commitment from key stakeholders, e.g., showing low interest or motivation in participating in the project, slow or no responses when requested to provide input
  • Teams not putting effort to do any desk/secondary research but defaulting to a researcher to conduct a new study
  • Having no time or resources allocated to act upon the research output
  • Extremely tight timelines

If any of those are the case, I’d recommend either proceeding with caution – by highlighting those issues and working with your stakeholders to address them before kicking off. Or, if you can, deprioritize the request.

A road with a yellow writing 'Caution' on it
Photo by Goh Rhy Yan on Unsplash

How to make prioritisation work

Make your prioritisation criteria explicit

Whichever way you choose to prioritise it helps to make your considerations explicit. This supports having a constructive conversation with your stakeholders and it allows them to better understand our work. If you’re lucky enough to work in a team of UX researchers, aligning on and unifying how you set priorities enables you to move forward as a team.

Get (some) ownership of UX research prioritisation

Not every research team gets the autonomy to set their own priorities. However, I truly believe that a research team can only maximise their impact when they are responsible for setting priorities on what should be researched and what not.

If your team is not yet autonomous, you can consider working with the people who decide on research priorities. Craft those criteria together as a first step in getting more ownership of your research roadmaps.

Adapt it to your context

Finally, it’s not one-size-fits-all so pick the criteria and processes that work best for your team and the context you are working in.

Cover photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Ilse Blom (she/her)

Ilse enjoys working with an amazing team of 8 Researchers on establishing solid research habits and practices across a multitude of product streams and development teams at Backbase.

After finishing her master’s in Interaction Design, Ilse started a career as a UI/UX designer at a health insurance company and later at funda. When a researcher position opened, it was through participating in candidate interviews and passionately telling candidates about the role that she discovered a secret crush on research. She got the role and the opportunity to build the in-house research practice and later the team from scratch.

LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/blomilse/

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