Sustainable UX research and its three principles: Reuse, recycle, reduce

by | Jan 7, 2021 | General, Research

 | 6 min read

Sustainable UX research makes research more efficient just like acting sustainably makes the world a better place. How can we UX researchers make use of sustainable UX research to at least make our world a bit better? In this article, we show you how to do this, using the three principles Reuse, Recycle, Reduce.

What sustainable UX research is

The Cambridge Dictionary defines sustainability as “the quality of being able to continue over a period of time”. And this is exactly what we UX researchers want to do with our accumulated knowledge. We want to use it sustainably.

In the context of UX, sustainability can also be interpreted in terms of green UX. But today we want to look at it in a metaphorical sense. We consider sustainability in the sense that we want to make our user research economically sustainable. We want to spend our resources (effort, budget, and collected knowledge) wisely.

The questions addressed by sustainable UX research include the following:

  • What is an efficient way to use the data we’ve already collected?
  • How do we document in a way that allows us to retrieve the documented information later?
  • Can we avoid double work?
  • Is it possible to preserve knowledge for when a UX researcher is ill or leaves the company?
  • How can we document today without knowing what we will need tomorrow?

In the following, we try to find answers to those questions using the three basic pillars of sustainable UX research: Reuse, Recycle, Reduce.

Basics of sustainable UX research

To give you a better understanding of the basics of sustainable UX research, we explain it to you by using the example of a tin can.

The first principle of sustainable UX research: Reuse

To reuse the tin can, we use it in its current form, but in a different context. Perhaps it was previously filled with a hearty soup. Now it becomes our new pen holder on the desk.

The reuse is therefore about making use of knowledge that we have already gained. Analogous to this, existing knowledge should be transferable to a new context for avoiding redundant work.

To search for reusable insights, comprehensive information about products, target groups, and channels should be considered. The goal is to create a whole insights collection at the end. This collection should contain observations, relevant sources, findings, and conclusions that can be continuously reused

Create an explicit collection of knowledge

One obstacle is the often only implicitly existing knowledge and thus the formation of information silos. To avoid this, it is a good idea to create explicit collections of knowledge, for example with spreadsheets or micro sheets.

Communicate findings directly

When knowledge is limited to a certain individual, it is also problematic. Especially when a certain person is ill or leaves the company. Thus, communication must be the priority. There must be an exchange of results, be it in emails, meetings, or internal newsletters. An agile environment with elaborated review processes is beneficial for that.

Create a centralized list of findings

Centralized knowledge is powerful – so avoid distributed knowledge storage. Instead, we recommend a shared storage, e.g. a presentation folder.

The second principle of sustainable UX research: Recycle

Returning to our tin can example, we would now like to produce a lunch box made of tin. We would have to produce new material, but instead, we melt down the material of the tin can to create the lunch box. In this way, we can utilize the raw materials in the long term and we don’t have to build them from scratch.

Recycling is all about reusing existing user research data in the long term. This is the core idea of sustainable UX research: Collect resources and use what you collect. Besides, new and exciting research questions can arise from the growing knowledge database.

Save, document, or request (raw) data

Of course, recycling is not possible without having a basis. It is therefore important to save and store everything. 

Especially the current times with digital collaboration offer practical possibilities for this. Digital whiteboard tools, remote studies, and written communication are valuable tools that make knowledge collection easier.

If your knowledge base is still at its beginnings, relevant data can also be requested from other departments of your company or service providers.

Introduce a centralized storage location with an efficient search

centralized storage location

Many UX researchers are probably familiar with this situation: You know there have been interesting findings, but where the heck are they? To prevent this from happening, a central storage location with an efficient search mechanism is essential.

Research data should be exportable from the respective tools and stored centrally. This way, access can be granted to anyone who needs the data. It is therefore important to use a data format that anyone can read.

Shared folders can be an entry into knowledge structuring. But it can be done in an even easier way, e.g. with a UX research repository. UX research repositories also have specialized search mechanisms that are designed for knowledge organization.

Create specific structures

Speaking of organizing knowledge: A lack of structure is another pain point when it comes to recycling research data.

Structuring collected knowledge reduces the amount of data you have to consider for one research question. As a non-binding starting point, we recommend sorting the data by use cases, target groups, and jobs-to-be-done. This way, you can quickly narrow down the collected material during a search. The practice has shown us that it’s often necessary to adjust such structures over time – so don’t worry about doing so.

We also recommend not to make everything within your knowledge collection editable company-wide. The more participants there are, the more confusing the whole thing becomes. This makes it more difficult to stick to the defined structure. Instead, it is important to find the right balance when selecting possible contributors.

This all sounds very abstract. For an insight into what a practical structuring method looks like, it’s worth taking a look at the framework of Atomic UX Research. Read all about how to apply Atomic UX Research in our blog post about the framework and its advantages.

Last but not least, when recycling, be aware that older knowledge can be outdated.

The third principle of sustainable UX research: Reduce

We have now seen that our tin cans are reusable and recyclable. We want to do this more often in the future. To make the process worthwhile, we are making it more efficient. We do this by optimizing it so that it saves time and resources.

The “R” in “reduce” refers to the reduction of time and costs during analysis and research. This aims to save resources in the future by using synergies and already existing data.

Create lean documentation

Documentation needs time, but it is worth it. It can contain valuable information that supports sustainable UX research processes. Therefore, it is important to rather invest time in good documentation than researching the same thing over and over because the results have not been documented.

To make the documentation process efficient, question the necessary level of detail. Adapt documentation in such a way that it only contains what the person who will continue to work with it needs.

Standardized working

If several people work together on something, this requires additional organizational effort. You can reduce the extra effort by introducing standardized work. This includes, for example, using templates and creating linked tables of contents.

Maintaining existing data

You avoid unnecessary effort in UX research by looking at what you already have. Data from support, sales, competitive analyses, etc. can contain “hidden treasures”. Increased use of already existing sources makes these sources more sustainable and saves time and costs that would’ve been necessary for new studies.

Recycle, Reuse and Reduce - the three R's of sustainable user research

Outlook

“But that’s a lot of work, isn’t one of the things we’re trying to do to reduce effort?” some of you may ask. It’s true: In the beginning, the realization of sustainable UX research involves a lot of work. But it is worth it with a view to the future!

If you continuously do UX research and keep the three Rs in mind, sustainable UX research will certainly pay off. Because when we draw the parallel to ecological sustainability: Sustainably producing a tin can seems to be a lot of extra work at first. But when it comes to conserving resources and acting sustainably, it is the best we can do.

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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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