Building Research Teams

June 18, 2021
5 min read

When technology has established itself as an irreplaceable element of our daily existence, the future of a company is frequently tied to the excellence of its digital experiences. Hence, understanding the subtleties of user needs, preferences, and behaviors is the silent force propelling the creation of successful digital products and services.

Given the rapidly evolving nature of market trends, technological advancements, and shifting user expectations, the role of an internal research team is critical. Such a team can provide continuous insights to fuel innovation and align digital experiences with user needs.

Using case studies and expert opinions, this write-up underscores the significance of an internal research team, emphasizing its potential to deliver substantial business impact and return on investment (ROI).

An internal research team is like an organization's compass, guiding product development by continually mapping user needs. Its primary aim is to achieve 'invisible design,' a term coined by cognitive science pioneer Donald Norman. Invisible design refers to products that so closely meet user needs that the design itself goes unnoticed.

Airbnb provides an excellent example of the impact of internal research. Through continuous user research, Airbnb found that high-quality photos greatly influenced a user's decision to book a listing. In response, Airbnb offered professional photography services to hosts, leading to a significant increase in bookings. This case underscores the tangible business impact of aligning digital experiences with user needs.

However, creating an internal research team is a strategic process that must be tailored to an organization's unique context and stage of growth. For example, early-stage startups, often limited in resources, may start with a versatile researcher capable of conducting user interviews, running usability tests, and synthesizing data into actionable insights. As the startup grows, this role can evolve into a research lead position.

As the organization matures into a medium-sized business, the research team can expand to meet growing needs and project complexity. For example, adding UX researchers, data analysts, and research operations managers can enrich the pool of user insights. Regardless of the growth stage, fostering a research-oriented culture is critical. Encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing between the research team and other departments can lead to high-impact solutions. This culture can be fostered by regularly sharing research findings and their impact on product decisions to highlight the tangible value of research. In addition, involve non-research team members in the research process - let them observe user testing sessions or contribute to the analysis. This increases empathy and cross-team understanding. Also, consider providing opportunities for non-research team members to develop research skills through internal training sessions or online courses. This step can further promote a research-oriented culture and demonstrate the value of research.

However, building an internal research team comes with its own set of challenges. These include the costs associated with hiring specialized researchers, the need for ongoing training and development, and the time and resources required to establish structured research processes. 

Beyond financial implications, other challenges include:

  • The integration of the research team with other departments.
  • Maintaining the relevance of research amidst rapidly changing user needs and industry trends.
  • Sustaining motivation and morale within the team over long research cycles.

Nurturing a research-friendly environment can also be challenging, as it requires constant advocacy to emphasize the importance of research findings in decision-making processes.

Considering the business growth stage, here are some strategic recommendations for building an internal research team:

For Startups

  • Appoint a generalist researcher: Hire a researcher adept at handling various aspects of the research process.
  • Cultivate a research-oriented culture: Encourage all team members to engage with user insights. Promote cross-team understanding through regular meetings where research findings are shared. Provide opportunities for non-researchers to develop research skills through internal training sessions, online courses, or industry conferences.

For Medium-sized Businesses

  • Scale the research team: As your business grows, so will your research needs. Consider adding specialized roles to your team.
  • Standardize research processes: Develop a structured data collection, analysis, and sharing workflow.
  • Set a dedicated research budget: Allocate funds specifically for research activities, acknowledging their role in driving product innovation and business success.

Building an internal research team is more than a means to an end. Its ultimate goal is to create a user-centric organization where decisions are informed by data and empathy for the user. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen puts it, "Even the best designers produce successful products only if their designs solve the right problems. A wonderful interface to the wrong features will fail."

The NFL Game Pass provides an excellent example of a digital sports experience shaped by an internal research team. Similarly, Amazon's Prime Video service and Uber Eats have utilized their internal research teams to enhance user experiences.

Amazon's team identified that users often struggle to decide what to watch due to overwhelming choices. By conducting research, they introduced features like personalized recommendations and 'Customers also watched,' facilitating easier user decision-making.

On the other hand, Uber Eats discovered through research that users often faced difficulty tracking their delivery in real time. As a result, they implemented a feature that allows users to track their delivery on a map, improving the overall user experience. These examples further underscore the effectiveness of user research in shaping successful digital experiences.

Recognizing the diverse needs of its global fanbase, the NFL used research insights to create a more engaging and personalized experience for its users. For example, the 'Condensed Games' option, allowing viewers to watch an entire NFL game in about 45 minutes, was born out of user research. This feature significantly enhanced the NFL's value proposition for fans who wished to consume all the action but had time constraints. Similarly, the 'Coaches Film' feature, which provides exclusive camera angles and play-by-play breakdowns, catered to the more strategic and technically-minded fans, further showcasing the effectiveness of user research.

However, building an internal research team is not without challenges. The costs associated with hiring specialized researchers, the need for ongoing training and development, the time and resources needed to establish structured processes, and the potential need for cultural change can be considerable. Despite these challenges, the benefits of building an internal research team are substantial, particularly as the digital landscape continues to evolve.

As such, the decision to establish a research team requires serious commitment. But, the rewards for businesses that create user-centric digital experiences make it a worthwhile investment. Moreover, by acknowledging and preparing for potential challenges, organizations can better position themselves to reap the full benefits of this strategic investment.

Regardless of your company's size or stage of growth, it's worth considering the value of an internal research team. Could this team revolutionize your understanding of your users, guide your product development, and increase customer satisfaction and loyalty? Are you ready to make this strategic investment, incorporate a research-focused approach into your organizational culture, and realize the dividends it promises? Reflecting on these questions may shape the future of your business.

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