hand with pen taking notes in meeting

Rigorous documentation: A research superpower

One sure — and often underestimated — way to increase the chances of research projects succeeding is rigorous, systematic documentation of research activities. This doesn’t mean slavishly following archiving conventions. Rather, it means documenting research activities according to conceptual schemas that arise from the main research aims. Ideally, these should be embedded in the design of the materials used for documentation.

When research activities get going, a lot is produced. If treated too casually, the mass of audio files, transcripts, flip-overs, photos, interview notes, post-its and feedback emails can quickly turn into a massive hairball that no-one can unpick.

Out of this ball of confusion grow real risks. If there is no accessible external memory of the most important responses, conclusions, milestones and insights, teams have no way of correcting the inaccurate memories that inevitably creep in, leading to misleading preliminary conclusions — and worse, a blurring of the original research themes and focus.

In the worst case, this can lead to weak, ineffective conclusions that aren’t actionable. And when results are challenged, the team cannot retrace its steps and show exactly how it arrived at them.

Tips to create transparent documentation

Here are a few best practices that have helped us lead research teams to successful results:

Decide a conceptually sound structure for the tools used to record the results of individual research activities. It should be flexible enough to accommodate anomaly, but simple enough to facilitate real-life use on location. For example, instead of simply transcribing interviews and having team members go through them and share notes, create a worksheet with a matrix of themed categories into which you can immediately organise participants’ remarks, so they can be compared more easily in relation to the research themes. Include an ‘extra’ category for observations and insights that don’t readily fit into any category.

Require all team members to consistently use the worksheets and other tools specially created for the purpose. It’s a matter of discretion how strict you are about this, but the more consistent, the better. Explain why this is important in the beginning, especially when collaborating with client teams whose regular work may not require this kind of rigour.

Document and share promptly after research sessions, while all impressions and thoughts are still fresh. That way, nothing gets lost, and the team has more time to review and process all the results equally well to prepare for interim analysis meetings. Document emerging insights from these meetings the same way.

Begin interim analysis with relevant excerpts from previous meetings and documentation. Refresh everyone’s memory about what’s been discussed and decided to date.

Last but not least: don’t trust memory and common sense alone! Review the documentation as often as possible to keep important points top-of-mind and ensure you’re not unconsciously re-shaping past results.

But isn’t the ‘best’ way to work different for everyone?

I often hear: “But people are different, and everyone has a different way of making notes and making sense of things. What works for one might not work for another.” Of course, you’ll need to sometimes accommodate individual differences. However, we’re more similar than different when it comes to fundamentals.

In our experience, it’s precisely a well-ordered, rigorous approach that anchors the team and creates common ground amid individual differences, enabling members to focus on the content of the research and progressively sharpen their intuition about what is and isn’t most important.

Project memory: recreating the results and the context

The documentation is your memory of the project, both during and long after it’s completed. Ask yourself: will someone who opens these folders and files years from now be able to reconstruct the context and clearly follow the process, in its various levels of detail? The transparently ordered project archive is one of the most valuable things we produce. It gives us access to years of cumulative, collective intelligence and expertise.

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