Continuous UX Research

by | Sep 1, 2020 | General

 | 8 min read

Remember having a piggy bank when you were a child? If you were lucky, your grandma would give you some extra money every Sunday she visited your home. This way your piggy bank did not only contain what you’ve earned by yourself but also some regular bonuses.

In her talk “The What and Why of Continuous Discovery”, product discovery coach Teresa Torres refers to continuous UX research as “putting money in a bank” with the potential to compound over time. This is a well-fitting metaphor: Having a deposit is always helpful, not only in monetary terms. Regarding UX Research, a UX repository (like consider.ly) serves as a piggy bank. Content to be put in the repository is easy to find: With each project, study, or testing session you conduct, you get insights about your users. 

But what about what you learn on the fly? Who takes over the grandma’s role and regularly puts something in the bank? To clarify those questions let’s take a look at the concept of continuous UX research.

What continuous UX research is

According to Tomer Sharon “Continuous user research is fast-rhythm research that is open-ended in nature. It’s not dedicated to any specific topic and it’s not research that anyone asks for.”

In other words, continuous UX means pro-actively researching and regularly gaining insights into your users’ behaviors, needs, and desires. Furthermore, its main purpose is not only to be able to adapt quickly to upcoming challenges but also to act foresightedly and to be one step ahead of tomorrow’s research demands.

How continuous UX research is different from common research

Looking at the example from the beginning, there are two ways of putting money in the piggy bank: Your normal income and what you get on top of that. You might not need the extra money from your grandma exactly on that certain Sunday when she gives it to you, but there will be a time when you will.

Let’s make this clear by demonstrating four differences between the process of continuous research and common research.

Initiation by the team building the product

Often, the starting signal for UX research is given by the management. You can imagine that as them saying “We have a certain project. Research that project’s topic”.

Whereas in continuous research the employee herself (e.g. the designer or developer) starts the research process. He or she directly turns to the UX researcher by saying “Hey, I need a piece of information about XY, find something for me”.. When the team building the product initiates research it is less likely that they question the results.

Structure of the workflow

Once the budget and resources of your company allow your UX team to do research in a non-project-based approach, you can get started. Since continuous UX research is not project-related, it doesn’t require permission for each research cycle.

On the one hand, that means that you don’t have a long lead time. On the other hand, you need a UX researcher who disposes of the required time contingent.

Shorter lead time

Continuous research is not about waiting until you are prompted to test something. The research processes are conducted in parallel with product development. This causes the lead time to be shorter than in usual processes. Lead time reduction is a significant advantage in agile product development: People need research input while they are working on something. When a researcher collects information over time he just needs to react to the research request resulting from his fellow workers instead of setting it as his starting point.

Reporting effort

Last but not least, let’s talk about reporting. In contrast to common research processes, results from continuous UX research don’t need to be explicitly prepared for a special audience. You don’t need to put your findings in well-designed PDFs or PowerPoint presentations. Continuous UX research isn’t about creating extra work for you.

Rather than that, you just save the results in a searchable format. The saving effort consists of only preparing the data in a way that allows another person to continue working with them. And then one day, when a certain piece of information is needed, it’s time to shine!

But that’s easier said than done. In practice, finding a proper data format proves to be quite challenging. Keep on reading, and find out how UX repositories can help you with that.

What continuous UX research helps you with

We assume if you’ve read until this part you’ve gained an understanding of what continuous UX research is. Following up on this, let’s have a look at some practical examples. 

In your childhood, you may have invested your savings in that fancy new bike. Of course, saving money is more fun when you know what you’re doing it for. Therefore, we give you a brief overview of what kind of findings continuous UX research can bring to you.

Deepen user insights

With frequently delivered insights you obtain a clearer understanding of your user base. Compared to only conducting experiments from time to time, continuous UX research gives you a holistic picture of your users instead of just snapshots. The goal should be to answer questions from your users’ perspective.

This is not to be confused with an expert review. In that case, the expert puts himself into the position of a user. On the contrary, continuous UX research answers questions based on an excessive amount of knowledge.

Reacting fast

After a while, you’ve created a collection of data that allows you to rely on it when you need to find an answer. This perfectly matches the concept of agile project management. Because with that amount of data up to your sleeve, you can recognize changes and react to them.

Observing long-term user behavior

User requirements may change over time. This is a natural process every UXer knows about. So conducting research multiple times during a product’s usage life cycle is very effective in order to gain long-term insights.

Detecting patterns

Another benefit that comes with long-term observation of your users is the possibility of detecting patterns. If your research process fulfills the condition of having a knowledge repository, this is a lot easier to achieve. By connecting old and new information, you may discover correlations between certain ways of behavior. Those discoveries can lead you to interesting insights.

Supporting decision making

Product decisions are made every day. There are bigger ones, like “which requirements does the product need to fulfill” and smaller ones like “which color should the button have”. 

Continuous UX research supports your product-based decisions in two ways: First, when you’re permanently talking to users, you get information on current issues quickly. And second, if you’ve collected a body of knowledge, you can make your decisions based on prior experiments. And by continuing your research your decisions are never based on user data that is already outdated.

Unveiling hidden potential

As Tomer Sharon states, regular studies “will only and always answer the questions they are designed to answer. They will almost never answer questions you didn’t know you should ask […]”. This is another advantage of continuous UX research that comes into effect. It helps you to reveal opportunities you would have never found by only doing project-specific research.

How to integrate continuous UX research into your daily work routine

Being a child, integrating saving money for your piggy bank into your daily life was hard. It included asking other family members to donate, setting up a savings plan, or sometimes declining to go to the expensive cinema with your friends.

Luckily, integrating continuous UX research into your work routine doesn’t require to skip the cinema with friends.

Clarify the budget

Analogous to requesting cash from patronizing relatives for your new bike, you should discuss with your management about the budget you can get for continuous research. This may be difficult in the beginning.

The challenge about continuously UX researching lies in the lack of cost predictability. Costs are easier to estimate when everything happens project-specific. Continuous UX research, as its name suggests, causes continuous costs, which are not directly relatable to a specific project. Also, there is no defined end of the research process. For these reasons, calculating the ROI requires a new way of thinking. Look at continuous research as an investment for your company’s future. 

You may not immediately encounter its advantages but if your researchers are doing a good job and handle their findings in a sustainable way, we promise you will soon achieve first successes. Also, once you and your team have seen that continuous research works, it is easier to put trust in it in the future.

For those of you who find this still too vague: Summed up, we recommend you to include a financial buffer for continuous UX research in your project’s cost estimation.

Plan research intervals

Teresa Torres recommends engaging with customers at least every week. She suggests collecting a week’s questions and then discussing them together with (potential) users. This way, you continuously get input and turn your product development into a co-creation process. Marc-Oliver Gern, Senior UX Design Manager at Appnovation, adds to have a research calendar that is shared company-wide.

If short testing intervals scare you, we recommend taking a look at the concept of lean UX, a possibility of working with little resources.

Integrate it into your team

Continuous UX research should be conducted by the team building the product. And by “the team”, we mean the team and not a single UX researcher only. Design strategist and consultant Erika Hall comments on that by saying “The most common mistake that well-meaning product companies make is to hire or cultivate a great research specialist and put them in a corner alone”.

Why she is right, is easy to understand: If many join the research process, there is more input – two heads are better than one. Also, if the whole team has access to the storage of research findings they must not first communicate with the UX researcher. Instead, they can add their input themselves. This has the positive side effect of information not getting lost.

Set rules for knowledge storage

When people collaborate they need rules. Otherwise, everything turns into chaos. Applying that on continuous research, it means the knowledge storing process needs to be regulated.

How you organize knowledge management depends on your company. The most important hint we can give you is to keep your knowledge actionable and to store it in a way that allows you to index it later.  A practical way of organizing your research is the concept of Atomic UX research, which aims at dividing findings into searchable atomic units.

By the way – if you need an example of how continuous research processes could look like or how they can be organized, see the Opportunity Solution Tree framework by Teresa Torres.

How a research repository helps you to make UX research a habit

Now that we’ve talked about how to give your piggy bank of UX insights input, let’s focus on the piggy bank itself. As already mentioned, a UX research system can serve as your bank.

Central data storage

Continuously conducting research is worth nothing when all your precious findings are never to be found again. You wouldn’t either have your money lying all around the house, would you? If you save your money at different places around the house, chances are you lose some coins or don’t remember all your hiding spots. The same goes for UX insights – if you store findings at a central location they are much easier to work with.

Powerful knowledge base

Once your data is stored safely, you can always refer to it. And by referring we mean

connecting what you already know with what you’ve recently learned. This way you keep your old research actionable and create a reliable base of knowledge over time that will prospectively help you to answer upcoming questions.

Knowledge synthesizing as a motivator

Synthesizing your findings eventually appears to you like putting together a puzzle. And like every game a puzzle is more fun when doing it in a team. Seeing how your puzzle part connects with others to create a new insight can increase your team’s motivation to contribute to the continuous research process.

Knowledge distribution

Having a place where your UX knowledge is centrally stored makes it easier to communicate about your findings with others. It is not only simplified to onboard your colleagues to the knowledge collecting process but also to keep other departments up to date. Starting from the UX repository, the knowledge is able to leave the UX department and be utilized e.g. for marketing campaigns.

Why continuous UX research is worth it

We’re glad that we could make you familiar with continuous UX research. If you are contemplating if it’s worth integrating it into your company, here are our final thoughts about why it definitely is.

Continuous UX research affects the past, the presence, and the future. For the past, it can retrospectively uncover unintended behavior that explains former incidents. For the present, you may find something during your research that is just needed in your current project. And for the future, you gain findings that might be relevant later on. So all in all, returning to Teresa Torres, if you’re ready to “put money in the bank”, it will pay off and have positive effects on your work in the long term.

You’re interested or already conducting continuous UX research? And you’re looking for a way to store your results efficiently? Try out consider.ly, our UX repository designed for keeping your findings central, safe, and actionable.

consider.ly is a fast-growing tool for quali­tative data analysis and UX research repository.

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Isabelle Woytal

Isabelle has experience in different kinds of usability testing and thinks putting effort in UX makes the world a little bit better.
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