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Why I Decided to Revise Just Enough Research

Wow, thinking about 2013 is like looking back at the Cenozoic Era. And yet, it was only six short years ago that Just Enough Research popped into being following a lot of late nights staying up writing in a panda kigurumi. (Best way to stay warm and comfortable while typing at 1 am. When you’re working on a book, you do what it takes.)

I decided to write it in the first place because I was tired of making the same case for including research as a fundamental aspect of design, over and over and over. Why should ignorance be a virtue in solving complex problems, especially those involving the use of scarce time, money, and expertise? Fear, ego, a lot of vague bad associations with the word “research”.

Over a decade of design consulting and endless conversations with peers and clients and colleagues demonstrated the need. To me, and to many of the designers I knew, learning new things was the best part about the work. For a lot of clients, overwhelming anxiety about cost, outcomes, and consequences meant they were more interested in a false promise of certainty than the true benefits of curiosity, at least at the outset.

Clearly the world needed a portable pal to squash those fears and make the case. (I was kidding about flinging it at obstinate heads. Really.)

Over twenty years of hands-on experience are now compressed into this little orange book. Yikes!

So, I wrote the shortest, friendliest introduction to design research I could. Then I insisted the cover be orange. Bright, energetic, visible from a distance—and of course, good for a built-in Dutch audience.

Now here we are, six years later. Time for a redesign! Well, not visually, because that orange really works. But the book equivalent. My editors and I went through the whole darn thing word by word to retain the good stuff, update the dusty bits, and add what the modern era demands without bloating beyond enoughness. (Were there weird fights in the margins? The weirdest!)

And here’s why…

Just Enough Research has remained popular

I have been absolutely gobsmacked by the fact that people all over the world have continued to buy and share and refer to my book and write to me about it and assign it in their classes. That’s really cool. This past spring I spoke at a conference in Seoul and met the Korean translators, along with a bunch of fans, which was lovely and amazing. (Do we call them “fans”? Design research fans? Sure, why not.)

And yet, six years is a very very long time for a book with a lot of references to the internet. So, if folks are still finding value in it, might as well freshen it up.

I want way more people to read it and talk about it together

When a designer or a researcher hands this book to someone else on their team I don’t want them to have to answer the question “Why should I read this outdated book from 2013?”

Sure, of course, selling more books is great. However, even more important than that is the fact that the systems we’re designing are getting more and more complicated and require more and better information and more and better collaboration. And apparently we still have a ways to go on that.

Bad design gets out in the world not because the people working on it lack skills, but often because the decision-making process is broken. Fixing that is a team effort that has to go bottom up, top down, and all the way across.

Managers are still demanding that complex understanding distills into a simple score. And optimizing for that score often undermines the actual strategy.

Designing complex systems requires better information and more collaboration.

And it remains all too common for researchers to learn some stuff in the beginning, designers maybe incorporate some of those insights into the initial concepts, and then deadlines and anxiety and needing to deliver and business requirements that weren’t shared at the outset and the differently-informed opinions of people with power all creep in. Then what launches is less the product of informed intention than…it could have been.

Or a product team thinks anything other than “build and test” is a waste of time and they totally miss out on what they didn’t think to ask until it’s too late.

Or the marketing team is doing their own market research and the designers are doing their own UX research and the business analysts are crunching numbers, and all these pictures are not lining up and there are weird territory battles that burn huge amounts of resources and goodwill.

Or everyone has a login to some research or testing platform or another and a lot of low-level decisions based on bad data are adding up to a mess that sometimes works.

I don’t want everyone to be a researcher. I want every single person contributing to design and product and technology and marketing and business decisions to understand at a fundamental level what questions they should be asking when, and to have a shared understanding with everyone else in their organization. Just Enough Research is one small part of making that a reality in as many organizations as possible.

That whole surveys thing

I intentionally left surveys out of the first edition completely. Research survey design is an advanced technique, easily misused and abused. I didn’t want to contribute to that.

Well, the continuing misuse of surveys and their wild proliferation led me to write On Surveys. People liked it, so I printed that up in a little booklet, but it’s more opinion than instruction, so of limited utility. I thought it would be helpful to just write up a whole new chapter with some actual detailed guidance about why surveys are so tricky, and how to not mess it up.

In order to make the math more fun for myself—and for you—I fabricated a whole scenario about centaurs to explain probability sampling. Also, the historical origins of different survey techniques are really interesting. You’ll never think about a Likert scale the same way again.

And it will take all of our combined effort to curtail the egregious application of Net Promoter Score surveys. Really, mis-used NPS is a toxic kudzu strangling critical thinking.

The proliferation of tools and platforms

On the one hand, great. Both the profile and the practice of UX research have increased tremendously, leading to the development of tools and services to help designers learn more faster. It used to take way more DIY effort to do remote research, record sessions, analyze results, collaborate, etc. The emergence of all these new tools made a few references in the first edition obsolete, but that’s not a big deal.

The problem is that the desire for more insights faster with less effort combined with a universe of new tools, meant that the fundamentals are getting lost—especially the fundamentals of identifying goals and formulating questions before selecting a tool or a technique. In order to choose the most appropriate method or the most effective tool, you need to to be clear on your goals, your questions, and how what you learn will influence your decisions.

Those basic conversations are hard. They are so fraught with internal power dynamics, where do you even start? That’s what I want to help with.

In the absence of those conversations, a million annoying customer satisfaction surveys bloom.

Opportunity for a cool new foreword

When you get down to it, a lot of the objections to research arise from the fact that talking to other people is terrifying. No one wants to admit this, so they come up with a lot of other reasons that sound good.

Kio Stark gave a TED talk and wrote a terrific book about talking to strangers. So, I asked her to write a foreword to the second edition. And she was gracious enough to agree.

A chance to work with A Book Apart again

Not a lot of publishers provide very much editorial support these days. And good editors are everything. The folks at A Book Apart really care about the quality of the finished product and they are kind and benevolent taskmasters. When I started a weird fight at the last minute about whether it should be “OK” or “okay”, in retrospect it was just because I didn’t want the editing process to be over. They helped me work through that.

But it is over. We are done. My heart will go on. And I’ll think of another book to write.

So, now go pre-order the second edition of Just Enough Research.

Rupert looking at you

I have an office office and a home office, but I end up doing most of my writing at the kitchen table with this weirdo.