[Guest post] Just Enough Research: in practice

Hand holding phone

Note: This is the second in a 2-part series about ‘Just Enough Research’. Back in Part 1, you can read a summary and mindmap of the fabulous book that inspires the posts.

Have you ever wondered how we design really meaningful, positive experiences for people who use a product or service? As a Director of Student and Academic Services, I think about this all the time. I think about our students’ conversations with support staff, events they attend in orientation week and how they interact with policies and forms on our websites. I wonder how the student is feeling at each and every touchpoint. Did we fix their problem? Did we help them navigate their study experience or encourage them to stick it out when times were tough? 

For my own professional development, last year I completed a course on ‘Service Design’ with Academy Xi. Over ten weekends I learned about the discipline of creating end-to-end experiences and putting customers at the centre of all our processes. Soon after, I joined a project at work to understand student personas and customer journeys, immersing myself in the student experience for a fresh lens on familiar problems.

And now, after the craziest year, reading ‘Just Enough Research’ brings me back to these issues I care so much about. In every chapter, design research consultant Erika Hall reminds us about the core focus of user-centred design: the living, breathing humans we’re designing for. 

In the six sections below, I’ll use Erika’s insights to reflect on myself, my team, the projects we do, the surveys we write, the things we ask of management and the education industry we’re part of. How much is too much? Where is there not enough? And how, exactly, do we make sure we have just enough of the right kinds of research to make a difference?

1. Personal Practices: Too much experience, not enough perspective.
"Once you know something, it's impossible to imagine what it's like not to know the thing, which makes it difficult to communicate about a topic with people who know less"

Ah, the curse of knowledge, and my personal challenge. After 15 years in student services, I’ve organised so many orientations, run a thousand different reports, analysed feedback and reviewed processes and I feel like I’ve seen (almost) everything an education institution can throw at me. 

However, this book has reminded me that “familiarity breeds assumptions and blind spots”. It might be a different campus, a different name over the door, but it’s the same old issues, same ways of working. It’s hard to step out of this environment and look critically at such familiar tasks. 

Just Enough In Practice: listening to student perspectives

So how do I get out of this cycle? Listen! Is that a student voice I can hear? She’s right there in front of me, walking past reception, sitting in a classroom. I don’t need a big new project; I can start small, seek out more opportunities to interact with different students – and not just when there’s a problem to fix or a complaint to handle.

I can focus on one task, one process, one tiny part of the student journey to improve. Once I start exposing those blind spots, I can’t resist digging deeper and deeper until answers start to emerge and suggest directions I never could have thought of behind the closed door of my office.

 contrived team-building activities - rope courses and trust falls - doing research together actually did make our team more collaborative. We were learning interesting, valuable new things, and everyone had a different perspective to contribute, which helped us overcome our biases.

You want diversity? We’ve got it! Across a team of 21, we currently have 12 different nationalities, including staff from Bosnia, Egypt, Macedonia, Mauritius and Poland. We come ready-loaded with diverse views and global experiences which are a huge asset in our work with both international and domestic students. 

The problem is, we’re not making the most of our superpowers. We’re so busy with operational priorities and student requests, we don’t make time for more open discussion and reflection on the themes we’re hearing. We’re missing a huge opportunity to collate and consider learnings from hundreds of hours of conversational data on enrolment, fees, deferrals, practical pressures and emotional pain points across the student journey.

Just Enough In Practice: capturing conversations

What if we could capture these stories and harness them to drive change and innovation? Unlike some industries, in education we have direct access to our ‘customers’ in our conversations with students every single day. In every student counselling appointment and email received, we have a chance to stretch our active listening muscles and fire up our empathy neurons.

Could this reflection become a standing item in our regular meetings? Can we create a shared analysis whiteboard on-campus or online to keep reminding ourselves of the themes we’re hearing and opportunities arising from them? If we can capture this wealth of insight and use it to stay focussed and take action on the broader student experience instead of just daily ‘transactions’, just imagine the difference we could make.

3. Project Practices: Too many decisions, not enough evidence.
"A design project is a series of decisions. And research leads to evidence-based decisions. But making evidence-based decisions requires collaboration - everyone involved working together towards a shared goal."

Almost every page of ‘Just Enough Research’ raises a new idea to implement, and a reminder of projects I want to apply it to. That review of student orientation; the online forms we wanted to fix; the long, long list of pre-COVID improvements we had laid out and post-COVID options that have emerged. But with so many possibilities and limited resources, how do we prioritise? 

Just as importantly, where is the evidence to support our decisions? Without this, we’re back to shouting out solutions based on flawed assumptions and in-built biases. As Erika points out, research can feel like putting the brakes on our exciting new ideas, but it really does save both time and money in the long run.

Just Enough In Practice: a little process goes a long way

Erika makes the ‘process’ part so easy, literally writing out a six-step guide: define the problem, select the research approach, plan and prepare for the research, collate data, analyse it and present it. I think it’s one of my favourite things about the whole book!

I wanted to rethink our approach to orientation for new students using this simple process. Is it a priority? Absolutely – effective orientation is critical to helping students settle in and succeed in their new environment. Are there constraints? Of course – compliance boxes to tick, challenges of online orientation and late arrivals, too much information and not enough engagement (and fun!). 

What if we stop our internal debates on orientation and work with students to understand their experiences and needs? Not with another survey (see next section!) but observing, listening and leveraging previous research which already gives us a framework to apply and hypotheses to test. Only then can we really say we’ve ‘re-designed’ orientation, and watch the difference it makes to student motivation, retention and success.

4. Survey Practices: Too many surveys, not enough insights
"It is too easy to run a survey. Surveys are easy to create and easy to distribute, and the results are easy to tally. And our poor human brains are biased toward information that feels easy for us to process, regardless of reality. This ease makes survey results feel true and valid, no matter how false or misleading they are"

Oh, how we love our surveys! They’re the addictive, quick and easy numbers-fix we crave in an uncertain world. And often easy feels right, especially if we’re short on time and budget, and have no alternative research skills to draw on. 

We’re all guilty of surveying our students and staff to confirm that our approach is the right one, rather than to uncover new insights or even (shock horror) stop something that isn’t working. And of course, surveys give you data that can be transformed into those pretty pie charts in your presentation for the boss. 

Erika goes even further in the book, arguing that ‘surveys are the most dangerous tool’, a weapon in the wrong hands. Even with the best of intentions, they can cause more harm than good. How do you think students feel when yet another survey lands in their inbox and (assuming they open it) they’re faced with a barrage of impersonal, convoluted questions demanding their rating on dozens of factors they may never even have thought about? And with assignments due tomorrow! 

Just Enough In Practice: what’s the alternative?

It’s time to stop torturing opinions out of our students, and be smarter about how we figure out the impact of our operational and strategic choices. We’re already measuring student satisfaction, orientation experience, graduation feedback, Net Promoter Score, whether we should put another vending machine in the cafeteria… can we please stop, and have a normal conversation like real people?

Let’s explore the research archives gathering dust in our files and folders, run experiments from one study period to the next, and compare results. Even better, let’s get into the habit of inviting half a dozen students into a classroom or Zoom room and let them talk us through their view on things. Small numbers don’t mean less value; we’re adding rich qualitative input to the numbers we’re already swimming in.

Still not convinced? Here’s Erika again:

“If you ever think to yourself, “Well, a survey isn’t really the right way to make this critical decision, but the CEO really wants to run one. What’s the worst that can happen?” 

Brexit.”

5. Management Practices: Too many distractions, not enough impact
"The point of research is to influence decisions with evidence. While the output of the analysis is generally a summary report and one or more models (see Chapter 8), you need to be strategic."

Research is not about proving we were right. It’s about challenging the status quo – which sets us up against different stakeholder groups with their own priorities, assumptions and blind spots. In education, this includes sales and marketing, academics, campus operations and senior management, to name just a few. 

This stakeholder mix means more perspectives to unpick and relationships to nurture. It’s crucial to getting budgets approved and building support for projects and initiatives. With this many stakeholders, we need the right evidence to influence decision-making and to know how to present it when our opportunity arises. 

Just Enough In Practice: evidence-based influence

So we’ve worked through the discipline of planning and gathering the right kinds of data, analysed it together and surfaced solutions. Now we use the research to connect the dots for the influencers, gatekeepers and decision-makers, and show them perspectives they haven’t seen before. 

Sometimes our audience will need to hear the numbers (it’s okay, we still have them) and others will sit up when they hear the broader narrative and student story details that human-centered research generates so well. If our research can show how delivering on student experience leads to better engagement, better academic outcomes, less need for transactional support and ultimately better retention… well, you can picture how the rest of that conversation goes. 

6. Industry Practices: Too much complexity not enough understanding
"For a design to be successful, it must serve the needs and desires of actual humans. Strangely, simply being human is insufficient for understanding most of our fellows. Design research requires us to approach familiar people and things as though they are unknown to us to see them clearly. We need to peel away our assumptions like an extraterrestrial shedding its encounter suit"

And finally we loop back to the start of the book, and my personal challenge to try and view what looks familiar with fresh eyes. As an industry, higher education needs to do the same. There are enough big brains in our organisations to tackle this, and yet the concept of research remains stubbornly academic or locked in soulless surveys which no longer serve their purpose.

It’s time to challenge the role of research, especially now, when there’s no ‘business as usual’ and we’re thinking on our feet. What do we actually understand about how our students are dealing with the pandemic, their studies and disrupted lives? How can we bring a (much) more human-centred lens to the important business decisions we’re making?

Just Enough Research To Survive

Personally, I know it’s time to dig back through the research we’ve invested in before and bring our student personas and insights back to life. I want to start applying and testing it as a collaborative, investigative process with our team and expand it to other areas in the organisation. There are staff workshops to run, new staff inductions and their fresh perspectives to add to the picture. 

It’s not a question of whether we have time or resources. We need this kind of work to feed our imaginations and re-invigorate brains which have been hammered by the relentless admin and stress of this year’s events. Human-centred research with real, designed outcomes is wholesome nutrition for our hearts and minds, giving us the energy-boost to take on whatever comes next for our institution, our industry and the world.

So how much is ‘Just Enough Research’, in practice? I’m not sure yet – but I know I want more of it.

Huge thanks to Anna Krajewska for some fascinating discussions and creative thinking over the last few months about how we put ‘Just Enough Research’ into practice. Anna is currently Director of Student and Academic Services at Western Sydney University – Sydney City Campus and SIBT. She has previously held roles at Kaplan, Open Colleges, Laureate and Think Education.