Hands holding an iPad, surrounded by a cornucopia of ingredients. Yum!

Taking Stock of Your Research “Ingredients”

Collecting customer verbatims and usage behaviour isn’t the goal; they’re simply ingredients to use for a greater purpose

Andrea F Hill


A few years ago, I was working on an IA project for a product LexisNexis had acquired. There was a lot of content on the site and we wanted to better understand how customers used the content, in terms of frequency and its importance. To slightly abstract this idea, I asked my interviewees to consider the content as though they were organizing their kitchen: would they place the content on the counter, in a cupboard, down in the basement, or in the trash?

On a counter, in a cupboard, in the basement on in the trash; using spatial metaphors to understand the participants’ perception of the content

The purpose of this was to lay the foundation for a discussion about frequency of usage, convenience and importance.

If I had simply written down “SEDAR Filings: cupboard”, that wouldn’t have been particularly useful for anyone in the future. The verbatim itself wasn’t valuable in isolation. Rather, it was a single data point that could be (had to be) combined with others to tell a bigger story.

I only used the kitchen storage exercise once, but I thought of it as I went to write this post today, since I’m cooking up a new metaphor to describe research. (See what I did there?)

When we get data from users, be it either qualitative or quantitative, primary or secondary, it’s not THE THING. It’s just an input we can use in the creation of something else. I use the word “creation” intentionally: it should be our goal to bring something into the world with what we have learned. Learning is not the end result.

Customer datum are ingredients.

This is why data can be so scary. In isolation it’s innocuous but used unethically or improperly, it can lead to disastrous results. (Note: I really struggled with what to link to here, since several options* immediately sprung to mind. That’s saying something, isn’t it?)

Let’s call data what it is: a potentially valuable element that can be used to make good or bad things. It is, simply, an ingredient.

Like an ingredient, research datum can become stale over time. Think of your latest round of customer interviews as herbs. When you grow that basil in your own garden, it’s as fresh as it can be. You’re getting it at just the right time, and for a specific purpose. But, if you pluck that basil from your garden and leave it sitting around for a salad in a week or so, it’ll get stale. You need to preserve it in some way. This may mean a compromise in the quality, but it allows for longevity. It means you can still have basil in the winter months.

Basil in two forms: dried and fresh (it’s a metaphor, see?)

This doesn’t mean you can’t (and shouldn’t) have both dried and fresh basil at your disposal, if possible. When you’re in the solution space, evaluating a specific design, you’re going to grab for that fresh basil if you can, to get the strongest, freshest taste you can. But you don’t want to be at the mercy of what happens to be in your garden at any given moment. You want to ensure you have access to other ingredients as well, which is why it’s important to spend time in the problem space gathering insights about your customers, separate from “their reactions to a specific feature”.

Ingredients can be used in VERY different recipes

Another reason it’s important to have a lot of ingredients on hand is to allow for more creativity. Cinnamon can be used for desserts or main courses, and so too can insights about your customers. Understanding your user and what he values can cascade through your organization: informing product features, marketing, pricing and sales. We want each department to have access to the ingredients so we’re not left being everybody’s cook. (See Tomar Sharon’s article on Democratizing UX, which has served as inspiration for this post since I read it a few years ago).

At LexisNexis, we have a very comprehensive product suite. We operate in many countries and we have products covering the gamut from legal research to workflow tools to practical guidance and we’re considered a leader in the legal analytics space, which is pretty cool and exciting. Each product is standalone, but obviously we have shared customers trying to get things done using a number of products from across the suite.

A select list of LexisNexis products

It doesn’t make sense for us each to collect and store our own dried ingredients, if they’re at the level of “how do law librarians conduct legal research in large firms in the United States”. These are long-lasting ingredients that can be used across the suite. For efficiency and to ensure consistent quality of our creations, we may be better off using the same ingredients.

When I talk about using the same ingredients, I immediately think about having a design system wherein we use the same proven recipes. But that’s at the level of implementation, which should be the subject of another post…

Collecting the ingredients you need

Have you ever started to prepare a meal, only to find you don’t have everything you need? You’re forced to either make something different, or substitute an ingredient. This may be ok sometimes, but not if the desired meal is for your seven year old’s birthday and HOW DO YOU NOT HAVE EGGS IN THE HOUSE?

Cookie monster cookies on Pinterest. Caption “nailed it” — the end result is NOTHING like the model

There’s some foresight that needs to happen to be sure we’re collecting the ingredients we need for culinary or UX magic. This means ensuring we have the right web analytics tags throughout our product so we can monitor usage, or having a panel of qualified customers to connect with. Thinking about the ingredients we need before we need them, even if it means every now and then you have to rid yourself of the stale agar agar you bought years ago and have never used. (seriously. I have no idea why I bought it).

You need ingredients. But you really want what they allow you to do

My job title at LexisNexis is UX Designer. Following this metaphor, that makes me the chef, the maker of meals. But my creations are going to fall flat if I don’t have the right ingredients.

Whether you’re a researcher, a designer or anyone else working in product, be sure you have the right ingredients if you want to create something palatable for your guests.

Andrea Hill is a UX Designer at LexisNexis, where she supports a number of products for the Canadian market. Previous roles she’s held with the company include Idea Designer (Customer Innovation and Discovery team), and Developer (Design and Usability, and later User Experience team).



Andrea F Hill

Director with the BC Public Service Digital Investment Office, former web dev & product person. 🔎 Lifelong learner. Unapologetic introvert