At Cake & Arrow, we value a rigorous and flexible approach to user research. Over the past two years, we’ve double-downed on our research practice. We’ve streamlined recruiting, simplified our research style, and incorporated teammates from all disciplines. The result? An efficient user research practice that consistently produces deep user insights and lead to game-changing experiences our clients, and their customers, love.

Last year we completed a staggering 257 hours of research. To put that into perspective: that’s just over 6 weeks (12% of the year) on full-time research last year alone. We averaged 1.75 research events per month.

Below, you can find some recommendations for how you can replicate what we have done within your own organization.

1. Embrace remote user research

The technology available today can make remote research even more valuable than in-person events. Remote research offers you:

  • A cost-effective, high-quality experience. The screen sharing and HD video available via platforms like Zoom and GoToMeeting are terrific and easy to use.

  • An opportunity to recruit for diversity. Remote research affords you the ability to recruit participants of any age, location, economic status, etc. This helps ensure that you hear a wide-range of feedback on your designs from users of all walks of life. We found that this has had a significant impact on our design direction as it takes shape.

  • Participants who are more at ease in their own environment. We have found that when conducting research remotely, conversations are more productive. When users are at home, not in an artificial lab environment, their dialog and interactions with the experience tend to be more natural.

2. Find a good recruiting partner

A quick, cost-effective recruiting practice unlocks your ability to operate more efficiently. It’s critical that you’re able to find qualified participants at a good price.

We’ve partnered with this past year for our recruiting. We’ve found that they’re able to reach high-quality participants quickly and affordably. Using their robust platform, we’re able to deploy a screener and invite participants. Their site sends automated reminders for each event, ensuring solid attendance.

Last year I gave an overview of how we leverage in our research practice. Since then, they’ve added new question formats for their screeners as well as conditional logic, which we’ve found useful. They continue to be our recommended platform for recruiting.

3. Create a repeatable system and process

A repeatable process ensures scalability. It helps us save time, and makes the best use of our client’s budget. Here’s how we’re able to run 3–5 research events for a 6-month project.

  • Create a research checklist to guide planning. We created a checklist outlining the various steps to conduct a research event. It ensures team alignment and is a helpful tool for project scheduling. Download our user research checklist.

    Download Checklist

  • Prepare a superset of questions to simplify research prep. We’ve recruited across various industries, such as insurance, electronics, e-commerce, and charitable organizations. We now have a good bank of questions to pull from when creating screeners and discussion guides. Having this bank of questions on hand helps us quickly pull these deliverables together for each event.

  • Take the time to train moderators. Early on, we learned that research does not need to fall squarely on UX. We’ve democratized our research process by opening up our research to all teammates. Those that show an interest can choose to moderate a research session with coaching from our experienced staff. Over time, we’ve had great success with this approach. We now have a staff full of competent researchers and don’t need to rely exclusively on our UX team.

4. Involve the entire project team

As a small team, a second or third set of hands is always helpful. Immersing the entire project team, from project managers all the way to developers, has greatly improved our process. Before each event, we recruit volunteers to help take notes during the sessions. Allowing them to observe the research and hear feedback first-hand.

Involving team members has caused a tangible shift in our conversations and debates. Taking notes in the research helps build empathy and a shared understanding. Since involving the entire team in research, I have witnessed a notable shift in how our teams make decisions. They are increasingly centered on what the user needs, and no longer about personal preference.

At its essence, this is what it means for us to be a person-centered organization—when everyone talks and thinks like the user.

5. Create a user-friendly research experience

Taking the time to create a positive experience for your teammates is an important component of a successful research practice. We’ve put a few pieces in place to improve the experience for those helping out with the research:

  • Conduct an internal research kickoff meeting. In the meeting, we’ll review the research goals, discussion guide, and stimulus. I’ll also share the research method, and what we’d like to learn since it differs for each event. I’ll also share the types of direct quotes to capture, and where notes can be paraphrased. Providing this context ensures the team is aligned with the outcomes of the research.

  • Create a note-taking template. Take a few minutes to create a Google Doc template before each event. Include headers for key research areas, and any metadata you’d like the team to capture, e.g., participant name and location. This simple step removes the guesswork and ensures your team is not stressed to take perfect notes. From Google Docs it’s a quick copy-and-paste into Basecamp to share the notes internally.

  • Schedule a 10-minute debrief immediately after each session. This helps us capture what went well, and what needs to be improved while it’s top of mind. These notes are consolidated at the top of our note-taking template so we can easily refer to them later.

  • Limit yourself to a lightweight summary-of-findings. The key to moving quickly is reducing the effort to synthesize your insights. We use affinity mapping to extract key insights. We also have a specific outline we follow for our research findings that helps us efficiently deliver findings to our clients.

Taking the time to create a positive experience for teammates not only ensures they’ll enjoy the process, but increases the chances they’ll volunteer next time, and can lead to better insights from the research.

What's Next?

As a company that believes we are all works-in-progress, here are a few opportunities we see for continued improvement.

  • We want to help new UX designers arrive at insights more quickly. This year, we’re embracing affinity mapping to help our teams improve how they derive research findings.

  • We want to share more user quotes and video snippets with our clients. This helps encourage customer-centricity within their organizations and adds context to our findings.

  • We aim to get better at sharing insights across project teams at Cake & Arrow. We found other teams can often apply findings to their own projects to improve the quality of their work as well.

  • We want to add to our research portfolio. We’d like to introduce the same rigor into our card sorting, tree testing, and first-click research practice to expand our portfolio.

We’re proud of the research practice we’ve built at C&A. We believe the techniques we’ve fine-tuned can help your organization build a scalable research practice. Are there any techniques or ideas you have found to be effective? I’d like to hear from you on Twitter!