Can Research Data Be as Sexy as Design? You Betcha.

Written by Valle Hansen & Jonny Hill

If you read Valle’s previous post about why product owners and stakeholders have a tendency to skip over discovery research and go straight to design—and then skip over validation research and go right to release—you know that one of the main drivers is the fact that looking at designs is fun. Looking at numbers and bulleted lists of findings is not (as much) fun (for stakeholders). With designs, they get to see their product progressing and growing from inception to build. Data is more behind-the-scenes; it may drive design, but so what?

So. What if we changed the game? What if we could make research as sexy as design?

It’s not a foreign concept. Look at the advent of the infographic. It takes research on anything—even research on why infographics are stupid—and makes it look cool (or at least entertaining).

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It’s not pages and pages of dry reporting with numbers and words and maybe a few bar graphs or tables. It’s neat! It has colors and images! It grabs your attention!

…And it’s also likely not created in Word or PowerPoint, which is how many of those research reports get passed around. These tools encourage the use of text over imagery. You can create an interesting template in Word or PowerPoint, but it’s challenging to translate your data into a visual that is easy to construct, modify and understand.

We don’t want to make pretty research visualizations just for the sake of looking cool. They need to be useful, usable and reusable. We need to take into consideration “the UX of data.” If our goal is to make data more interesting and more actionable, then we need to approach it with the end-user, or stakeholder, in mind.

Take personas—a traditional research visualization. A persona necessarily contains a lot of text because we need to understand the user’s story, her narrative, her needs and goals, her motivations and behaviors. Those aren’t things that are easily—or efficiently—conveyed through images instead of text. But over the years we in the industry have made them more interesting by telling the story through images and text.

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Sample Expero persona

Here’s the thing: You need both. No one wants to read a six-page research paper or watch a 30-minute slideshow about a fictional user. The persona needs to be prepared with the stakeholders in mind, and presented in a way that is clear, digestible and helpful. The visualizations should reinforce and accurately represent the data, and the data needs to be easy to understand and to the point. When these elements are skillfully and thoughtfully combined, stakeholders aren’t just more likely to care about personas; there’s a good chance they’ll become more enthusiastic about the project as a whole. It’s much easier to care about something that has been explained clearly and concisely.

What’s more, persona templates are largely reusable. Sure, every project has its own niche needs and goals (just like its users!), but most visualizations can be repurposed or created quickly.

And best of all, stakeholders love well-crafted personas (after they’re created). They can use the personas in so many areas of business, not just for designing an app or tool. Personas are useful in marketing, requirements gathering, R&D…you name it. The end-user is, or should be, front and center everywhere.

How, then, can we translate that text-image balance of personas into a report of findings about usability testing or survey results or contextual inquiries so stakeholders find them as visually interesting (okay, maybe not as interesting) as wireframes and design concepts?

Visualizing Word & PPT

Well, for the more formal efforts—when stakeholders want a report to digest, pass around, come back to, and show their bosses—it’s a good idea to maintain the traditional PowerPoint or Word format but jazz it up wherever you can. A little typographical love can go a long way.

For example, quantitative data like rating scales can go from this:

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…to this:

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In both instances, you can pretty quickly digest the important information: range and average. But the visualization is more interesting—and shows a little bit more. You can see comparisons of data on the same page and visualize where the gaps or improvements are. In the example above, it’s plain and simple to see that design concepts are not wildly better in terms of usefulness, but they are significantly more usable than the current product experience. That information goes a long way.

You can also show feature-by-feature sentiment using a visualization created by Piotr Spiewanowski:

Clock the number of times a user or commenter said something negative, positive or neutral about a feature, and create a sentiment analysis to quickly identify where the major strengths of the product lie and what needs serious improvement.

Interactive PDF

But if you want to wow the team, you can turn your research up a notch and into an interactive experience. Instead of the old Word or PowerPoint, design some templates in Adobe InDesign—and make the report clickable and navigable both with and without the standard flow from slide 1 to 2 to 3 an on and on. Use the first few pages to highlight top findings and recommendations, then give readers the option to go deeper into specific findings without paging through a bunch of findings and research that might not be relevant to their goal. Allow readers to click on a hotspot in a wireframe image and see user feedback about that feature. Let them navigate easily through the report using bookmarks and page transitions. Include embedded highlight reels from user testing. Imagine using that feature-by-feature visualization above in an interactive PDF—click on a feature and get quotes from users about what they like and don’t like about your custom reporting capabilities.

It’s everything all in one place, and it emulates the experience—and the fun—of navigating through a prototype or product, while maintaining the traditional page-by-page flow for the more traditional folks.

Check out this video tutorial from Adobe to get started.

Obviously this approach is going to be more time-consuming and require more Adobe licenses (and skills) than the average Word or PowerPoint experience. But it’s way more engaging and usable, and that counts for a lot these days.

Interactive Web Solution

And if you really want to go wild…create your own interactive web solution with all that interactivity built in, and more. Anyone with the link can just click a button and see everything they want to know about Feature X, User Study Y or Persona A—all in one place. No more sifting through folders of documents to find the right report or the right persona. No more silos. Just a cohesive, unified experience that makes data cool again.

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Research is important. Vital, really, to the success of a product or project. But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Turn it up!