There are more similarities between investigative reporting and user research than you might think
It was 8am on a balmy Puerto Rico day.
“For today’s class, you‘ll go outside of the campus and find a story to tell.”
As first-year students in our Journalistic Writing class, approaching strangers outside of campus to find a story felt like a huge undertaking. This part of town had a gritty reputation, and few of us fresh-faced newbies had ever ventured out on foot outside of the familiar campus gates. What’s more, we were not allowed to work together; each student needed to find a story of their own.
In the midst of a mostly-derelict public plaza, I came upon a lone vendor running a humble hot dog and snack cart. As we started talking, our conversation delved into the complex interplay between the campus, the community and the new private development project looming just across the street. The neighborhood was changing.
But it was in the moments when she spoke of her own life, struggles and dreams that the full impact of her story hit me. I learned that the cart has been a family business for three generations. I heard her voice shake as she recounted the 1996 explosion in a local shoe store that killed 33 people right across from where we were standing, forever changing the vitality of that main street. I also saw hope in her eyes as she nervously admitted believing that the new development might bring her more customers. Through her candid and personal reflections, I was granted a glimpse into the human dimension of known issues, and the immense resilience required to sustain a family business through constant change.
The next day, as we reconvened as a class, I was struck by the depth and vibrancy of the stories narrated by my peers. Through our shared experiences, many of us had gained a newfound appreciation for the struggles and triumphs of the community around us, and a commitment to using our future platforms to advocate on their behalf.
Although I eventually transitioned from journalism to a career in market, product and UX research, my encounter with the lone vendor in the public plaza remains a constant source of inspiration.
In many ways, the goals of responsible journalism and research should be one and the same — a commitment to understanding the nuances of human experience and harnessing that understanding to tell impactful stories that benefit the world in some way.
Many years later, I still seek out stories that capture the human heart behind any issue in my work — albeit in the context of brands, products and services.
Here are some of the invaluable lessons journalism taught me that help me in my research career to this day:
You can read stats and trends all day but there is nothing quite like personally connecting to the people behind the numbers. Before my class assignment shared above, I knew about gentrification and the changes in the neighborhood, like a neat timeline with plotted data points. But the reality and depth of the experience came alive once I spoke to someone that had lived it. Data alone can’t tell the whole story. While data can lead to knowledge, connection does something deeper: it leads to advocacy.
This lesson applies to product, UX, and market research as well. To truly understand the people behind the numbers, we need to connect with them on a personal level. This means a constant, intentional, and genuine effort to see, hear, and learn from their experiences.
Even among metric-obsessed teams, I will always advocate for qualitative and contextual research. There’s simply no replacement for actually talking to a person about the impact of your product on their lives and seeing this play out in their day to day.
Let’s do a quick mental exercise together.
Scenario 1: You’re asked to design a product for women.
What would you come up with? This is too broad!
Scenario 2: You’re asked to design a product for women who are first-time moms.
This is better. You have a more specific description to guide the direction of the product. You might look up top-selling mom products, Google common first-time mom questions, and talk to a few new mothers via quick Zoom calls to decide on something with a narrower focus than before. This might be the equivalent of waterfall or project-based research, where you get a specific question once in a while and lead research to answer it.
Scenario 3: You’re asked to design a product for your sister who just had her first baby and whom you’ve been visiting every week.
Ah, now it gets personal. You’ve witnessed first-hand your sister’s challenges, fears, and hopes. You’ve seen her struggles as she navigates learning how to be a mom, all the while recovering from major surgery. You’ve seen the products she’s relieved to have, and the ones that make her pull her hair in frustration. Ah! You think of an idea that will solve some of her problems. You speak to other first-time moms with your idea, and it’s resonating…
As you can see, the third example best leads to a targeted, empathetic, and innovative product fueled by personal connection. While I’m not suggesting that your research subjects should be your family, I am emphasizing that constant presence, conversation, and observation are worthy efforts.
Practically, this can look like a continuous research program where you make a point to talk to ‘x’ number of customers on an ongoing basis. This can also mean championing for contextual research like field and diary studies (trust me, the sheer richness of what you’ll get with this is worth the investment + effort!). At minimum, you can add open-ends to transactional surveys for a constant stream of customer feedback that goes beyond a rating scale.
Taking it a step further, I firmly believe we also have to take some responsibility in how we are conducting research. Are we truly connecting or just conversing? Instead of approaching interviews as just a means of extracting yet another data point, personal connection means creating a safe place for customers to feel heard and share their experiences with candor and honesty. There is a big difference.
As part of my journalism coursework, I was required to study ethics. The first lesson in my ethics class? All journalists are people and people are inherently biased. It takes work and intention to write balanced stories about the world around us.
Case in point: getting tasked to cover the elections. As a journalist, you’d likely need to cover all perspectives, not just the ones from the candidates you like. And you need to give everyone a fair chance to tell their story. Yes, even those whose views you might strongly disagree with.
The same is true in research. We have to avoid falling into the trap of confirmation bias, only seeking out information that supports our existing beliefs. This can mean becoming comfortable with rocking the boat once in a while when findings don’t fully align with the expectations of cross-functional teams or stakeholders.
I’ve seen this happen all too often, with research being brought in at the end of the product development process as a way to “validate” what’s already been decided, or when uncomfortable research findings end up buried rather than faced head-on. This leads to missed opportunities for growth and improvement. This leads to an unbalanced, skewed and dishonest perspective.
As researchers, it’s our responsibility to be courageous in presenting the voice of the customer, embracing with humility when findings contradict our preconceived notions.
A crucial part of interviewing is asking the right questions.
Picture this: you are a journalist covering a big story and you’ve finally scored an interview with a public figure that will provide the most pivotal piece of the puzzle.
Your mind is buzzing with a million questions, but alas, there’s a catch.
Your time has been cut.
You only get time for ONE question now.
Which one will you choose? Talk about pressure!
This pressure-cooker situation isn’t only exclusive to journalists. As researchers, we too face the challenge of making every question count, especially when grappling with time and resource constraints.
To navigate this challenge, it’s crucial to start our process by building solid and focused research objectives that anchor our questions. We should also have a clear definition of the type of impact we are hoping the research informs.
I also like to use a simple technique I call the ‘5-minute outline’. When crafting discussion guides for interviews, I ask myself — if I only had 5 minutes with this person, what would I want to know? The outcome of that is a ‘5-minute’ outline that helps me effectively prioritize what matters as I build out the guide — and then serves as a guiding light at the end when I need to cut out the “fluff”.
As a journalist, you are expected to go where your sources are. In my initial example, I interviewed the vendor right at the plaza where she was working. It is not even a question whether you will go where people are. It’s just what you do.
Yet, in UX and market research, it is more typical to prioritize stakeholder comfort over participant comfort.
Here’s a confession: nothing irks me more than making research participants jump through a million hoops just to share their thoughts.
Let’s face it, we sometimes expect too much from them. In some cases we ask them to commute long distances to a facility, during work hours (seriously, who’s always available in the middle of the day?), and then want them to recall difficult details. Would you be able to remember all the food in your fridge if a stranger stopped you on the street and asked? But if someone asked you that question while you’re in your kitchen at home, it’s a different story. You can actually check, right? It just makes more sense.
That’s why I’m all for trying out asynchronous research, where people participate whenever they want and wherever they are. Whether it’s a busy exec, a night-shift worker or a stay-at-home parent, it’s about giving people the dignity of providing feedback in a way that feels natural and comfortable. Field studies are another great example of this, meeting people in their natural environment.
Now, I understand that some studies require the formal structure of a facility due to the methodology chosen, sensitivity of stimuli and/or nature of the research. But even in these cases, I’d challenge you to do research on research. What’s one way you can make this experience more comfortable for the participant? Ask them! Is it comping their parking? Providing a meal? How about making your facility or room look like a coffee shop / living room so they feel like they are meeting a friend for a conversation vs. studied in a lab? At Nube Research, houses are rented for in-person studies, and I’ve noticed people put their guard down almost instantly as they sink into a comfy sofa with a coffee or tea in hand.
Further, think of the potential bias of your methodology — are you only accommodating freelancers with a flexible schedule, or are you also making room for those with 9–5s? It’s essential to consider the diversity of your participants and ensure that your research is inclusive and not just limited to people who are “ideal” research participants.
Every news story starts with a lead: the most crucial paragraph or sentence of the entire piece. As such, “burying the lead” means failing to mention the most important or interesting elements of a story first: a mortal mistake that can cause the piece you worked so hard on to get scrolled past or go unnoticed.
The lead is often the hardest part to write. John McPhee, a New Yorker writer shared, “I’ve often heard writers say that if you have written your lead you have 90 percent of the story.”
Among the different kinds of leads:
- A summary lead: a factual recap of the main story. Read this example from an article in the History Channel website:
“On November 2, 2016, the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series championship since 1908, beating the Cleveland Indians, 8–7…”
- A creative lead: catchy and immersive, its main goal is to attract attention. This is typically used in feature stories and is all about building anticipation through storytelling principles. It might not share the main point right away, but it entices people to read more! Here’s an example from Bleacher Report covering the same event:
“Into the droughts fell the rain. Seventh game of the World Series, nine innings completed, the score 6–6 and, of course. This Fall Classic would not nearly be large enough to contain the 108 years the Chicago Cubs had gone since their last title and the 68 years for the Cleveland Indians. It couldn’t be. We should have seen this coming…”
I was always partial to the creative lead, and used it on my first-ever published feature story back in 2010.
“Don’t bury the lead” is a great lesson for research results or reports. Those summary slides or bullet points you are sharing should be ones you spend intentional time in. They should be targeted, impactful and poignant, inspiring your stakeholder’s attention to read more and/or encompassing the most vital finding. It shouldn’t be a laundry list of every single thing you found but instead an editorial summary of what matters most.
Always think: if someone were to only read this one slide or summary and ignore everything else, what should I be conveying to drive the most impact? How can I edit my writing to be punchy, engaging and insightful?
These are just some of the many lessons that have remained central to my work as a mixed methods researcher.
In essence, the most valuable insights come not from data alone, but from the conversations and observations that bring that data to life. It’s in the act of listening to people’s stories, observing their behavior, and taking into account the context of their experiences that we begin to challenge our assumptions and uncover new pathways forward guided by empathy.
By prioritizing the right questions and the most impactful insights, we can transform research into a force for meaningful change.
Which journalistic principles can you start applying in your work as a researcher this week?
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