Just Enough Research — A Review

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I just finished reading Erika Hall’s updated version of her book “Just Enough Research.” As a designer and strategist, I do research all the time and have done so for over 20 years. I found Erika’s book refreshing, informative and critical. Critical as in every designer who does for research as part of their jobs should read this book.

If I would focus on one major thesis of the book it would be this: rigor. Hall makes the compelling case that good research, whether done by a professional or amateur demands rigor. And that rigor stems primarily from discipline and checklists. Elementary, right?

My experience in the design field tells me that this doesn’t always happen. Let’s take, for example the simple description of roles in chapter two, aptly named “Basics.” For interviewing, there is an interviewer, an observer, and a notetaker. Sometimes these last two are the same person. In addition, throughout the book Hall stresses the importance of recording interviews. The notetaker and recordings (and transcripts of the recordings) are the essence of accurate documentation.

And yet… far too often I see and hear about individual designers interviewing alone, scribbling notes while they try to listen, and not recording at all (transcribing is either really expensive or takes way too much time!!!). To me, this is the foundation of the rigor for good research. I was lucky to have, among others, Elizabeth Glenwinkel as one of my research teachers and have Steve Portigal’s Interviewing Users as my research bible.

Hall does a good job of stressing these basic, elemental steps of conducting and analyzing research in order to uncover findings of value, for organizations, their employees, and the people they serve: customers, users, citizens.

The more I read Erika’s book, the more I was reminded of Luma Institute’s definition of Human Centered Design — the discipline of developing solutions in the service of people.

Discipline, solutions, people. One could describe “Just Enough Research” with almost those same words.

Overall the book does a great job at describing the different types of research and the challenges and opportunities therein. Hall has her strong opinions about various types of research. She is after all one of the founders of Mule Design which I consider one of the bravest, honest and opinonated design firms in the world.

The chapters on Organizational, User and Customer, Competitive and Evaluative research takes readers through the basic ways to conduct each and describes strategies and pitfalls.

She describes organizations as different types of terrain that need exploring. She warns, though, about the tribes inhabiting those terrains. For example, “Organizational politics are a depressing reality in most companies. If you pretend they don’t exist, you’ll be in for a world of pain.” Most importantly she stresses the need to prepare the organization for the results, that is how a suggested change will affect the organization.

In the chapter User and Customer Research, she describes the research task as “You need to figure out how to break into their brain — only after being invited, of course, like a vampire of the mind. If you go in through the front door, asking direct questions, you’ll run into defenses and come up with pat, and potentially useless, answers.”

In all of these chapters, Hall provides lots of discipline and checklists to follow. Some are hard (don’t talk about yourself!) while others are common-sensical (cheap tests first, expensive tests later). Both pros and amateurs have lots to gain from reading these.

In her chapter Analysis and Models, Hall describes the different outputs of the research. One part that leapt out at me was her descriptions of Personas. If I had dollar for every time I’ve read online that “personas are dead” I could retire early. My take is that the people who right this aren’t very good at creating or using personas, so they blame the instrument that sounds terrible when they play it.

I like personas which is why I was glad to see them show up prominently in the book. The same is true of one of my other favorite tools, scenarios. Of course, Erika has a money quote for this too: “Your personas are the Simpsons, your scenarios are the couch gag.” I wish I could write like that.

Her last two chapters about Surveys and Analytics are worth the price of the whole book. These chapters should be required reading in every MBA program and for every time an organization hires a manager, director or C-level.

Surveys she describes as the most dangerous research tool. What’s the worst that can happen, she asks? Brexit.

For most decision makers surveys seem like an easy solution to gather accurate data that will point in a clear direction for decision making. In reality, the managers are substituting metrics for meaning, something called surrogation. That’s why Hall describes surveys as the most misused and misunderstood research tool. And yet, the chapter does a good job in describing how to create one that, in my words, causes the least damage. That chapter ends with a bang in her description of Net Promotor Score. Teaser alert: stop using them!

And while she’s on the subject of metrics, her Analytics chapter goes a bit further. Here’s the money quote to start: “Just because a thing has numbers doesn’t make it magically objective or meaningful.”

Erika Hall has written a book useful for both experienced pros and newbies. The book is short, to the point, and full of valuable tools and tips. When you need more, she provides links to deeper dives within the various research disciplines. She writes simply, directly and with a good dose of humanity, personality and humor.

I found several sections of the book that I am currently threading into client work and future proposals.

Anyone working with human centered design, service design, CX and UX design or organizational design should have this book on their desks or at least in their libraries.

Design Director and co-founder of Savvy Design Collaborative, design-driven entrepreneurship at YALI Dartmouth, VPR commentator, now playing in Sweden.

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