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019 // What to Do When You’re Too Busy for Research

Image with text. Text reads: Ideas from Dawan for people who think and solve like a designer.

“We don’t have time for research.” When we whisper, shout, type, or think these words, we secretly worship the myth that good research is separate from solving and acting. Good research helps us find more meaningful problems, build solutions quickly, and ensure they survive being launched into the world. And still we resist. When we get down on our knees and invoke the no-time myth and deity, we have options.

Option 1 — Fail

We can skip our research and hope we get lucky. This means we’re hoping that how we understand the problem matches how people are really experiencing it. We’re guessing about the context and hoping that our biased interpretations of it are good enough.

Hoping for luck means we’ll be building in our default ideas about what works without checking what might work well for the people we serve as they face this challenge. Not only are we hoping for each of these and more, we’re hoping that every dice roll we are counting on comes up in our favor. This form of hope is just a way of accepting failure with a plan to blame bad luck. (Reminder: there’s a reason the casino’s house is bigger than yours.)

Option 2 — Scope Down Your Challenge

Is there a smaller version of the challenge you face that will deliver most of the outcomes you seek? Scoping down a challenge can help us create space for good research. Thinking about the outcomes that matter most is a good way to reframe our challenge around those outcomes.
We end up with a smaller space to explore as we learn things about the problem, people, and context.

Option 3 — Divide It Up

There are two ways to use a divide-and-conquer approach. Dividing up the research is the obvious one. Everyone who pitches in needs to have a sense of how their contribution fits in. We also need to organize a shared place to put what we’re learning. Dividing up the challenge is the other way.

Unlike scoping down, we’re still tackling the whole challenge. We’re just breaking it down into parts, identifying which parts matter most, and researching those first. As we tick off parts of our challenge research, we use what we’re learning to update and revise the parts we have yet to explore.

Option 4 — Recycle

What research can you reuse or borrow? Few challenges are so unique and novel that there isn’t a little research already out there that we can build on. If your challenge is helping people search for vaccination locations, you might learn a great deal from research about how people find and choose urgent care providers. Look for research on analogous problems in adjacent industries.

Option 5 — Outsource

Another way around the no-tme myth is to bring on a researcher. Of course, now, we’re going to encounter the no-money myth: “Wait, we don’t have room in our budget for a researcher.” We can work around the no-money myth by making a quick list of everything that must be true for the project to succeed. Everything on that list that isn’t backed up by evidence is an assumption. Which assumptions, if wrong, would cost us the most money? Now we have a way of comparing research cost with the cost of not doing research. We can ask, “Is it worth investing X in research to save Y down the road?”

Option 6 — Stop

We can just stop. When we are unable to reduce our uncertainty enough about the problem we’re solving and how people experience it, stopping is a good business choice. Stop and look for a different challenge that aligns better with what we already know or where research is easy and inexpensive for us.

To make a good argument for stopping, play the assumption cost game in Option 5 and note all the negative impacts of incorrect assumptions. Stopping may start to look very appealing after revealing probable lost time, damaged reputation, litigation, customer dissatisfaction, team burnout, reduced market share, etc.

Best Choice: Do The Work

When none of the options work for us, we have to face down the work. The upside is that considering each option above gives us a much better idea of what’s at stake with this project and the value of doing our research well. Thinking through or sketching out the options also prepares us for the conversations about time and resources.

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