The Self-Service Research Sweet Spot.

A 4x4. The y-axis is cadence from one-off to continual. The x-axis is risk from low to high. The low-risk/one-off quadrant is labelled "self-service training". The low-risk/continual quadrant is labelled "self-service". The high-risk/continual quadrant is labelled "Researcher led / self-service training opportunity". The high-risk/one-off quadrant is labelled "researcher". Red arrows illustrate potential transitions from "self-service training" to ""self-service" through "researcher led" to "researcher".

A recent question on the ResearchOps Community Slack touched upon on how to split work between dedicated user research practitioners vs People Who Do Research (product folk, developers, designers, etc. using self-service approaches.)

FWIW I’ve found it useful to think about this question in terms of risk and cadence:

  • Risk: What’s the impact of the research work? Are we picking the right colour blue for a link? Are we helping make potential bet-the-company decision? etc.

  • Cadence: How often are we doing it? Is this a once a year opportunity to talk to a group of of otherwise unavailable valuable customers? Do we have a recruiting pipeline where we’re we’re doing continual research with customers every week? etc.

With self-service research work sitting best in the low-risk and high-cadence area.

Low risk is kinda obvious. The people with less experience will make mistakes — so ideally this needs to be happening in places where the impact of those mistakes is reduced as much as possible. Make things safe to fail.

High cadence can feel like a scary area to put less experienced practitioners in. Doesn’t more-often imply more-mistakes?

But the only way for people to learn and improve is by doing.

There is no way for people to go from no-user-research to good-user-research without going through some bad-user-research. The more often people do research work the higher the chance that mistakes will be seen and corrected (as long as we set up good feedback/learning loops!)

So you get something like the four quadrants at the start of this post.

  • low-risk/low-cadence — Great place for onboarding / training people with self-service research needs. The downside of any errors is reduced + it won’t suck up lots of researcher time helping with onboarding and training.
  • low-risk/high-cadence — The self-service sweet spot. Lots of reps so good for learning and improvement + risk of failure lower + removes huge time sink from research folk.
  • high-risk/high-cadence — Researchers should probably be involved because of the high risk, but the repetition makes this a great learning opportunity for people who might be ready to broaden their research experience.
  • high-risk/low-cadence — The dedicated researcher sweet spot.

(with the red arrows being the progression of folk’s skills through a People Who Do Research “career” path.)

One of the interesting things that comes up when I work through this model with some people is the spaces enabling good self-service work don’t exist in their organisation. That absence underlies many of the problems they’re having with adopting self-service approaches. For example:

  • Everything sits over on the “high” risk side — so there is no safe learning environment to onboard People Who Do Research who aren’t already experienced research practitioners.
  • There is no regular research work – so there are never enough reps for people to build experience and learn from mistakes.

Without those spaces introducing self-service research is going to fail. You cannot solve a “too much high-risk research” problem with self-service models.

Instead you need to look for ways to broaden the kinds of research work that happen. Look to lower the risk of the research work, and/or increase it’s cadence:

  • Can we break a big research question into smaller ones?
  • Can we turn a big study into several smaller ones?
  • Can we turn one-off work into longitudinal work?
  • Can we find smaller bits of valuable research work that we’re currently ignoring?

Which can feel a little counter intuitive. Since the push towards self-service approaches is often “We don’t have enough researchers for our current workload” — and here we are creating more research work!

But it’s different research work. Research work that more people can do successfully. Research work that makes it easier to spread research skills around. Research work that can start a pipeline of people who can potentially take on more complex work in the future.

TL;DR: Low risk and high cadence activities are the best fit for self-service user research — and sometimes that means you need to change your organisation’s approach to research work.


Published: Jul 1, 2024
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