Splitting up user research work between “tactical” and “strategic” creates an artificial boundary that takes away from the potential impact of the work. In practice, tactical research is more powerful than we researchers give it credit for!
On the Spotify Insights team, we believe that researchers need strong communication skills in order to influence the direction of our products. That is why many of us here are experts in communicating our work in a simple and digestible way to our stakeholders. We make decks, send newsletters, organize share-outs and create the simplest, easiest to consume stories about the work to make sure it gets across to our team. However, over the years, working both in academia and the tech industry, I observed that many of us apply this simplification to how we talk about and think about our methods and ways of working. This simplification is evident when I hear researchers create a distinction between tactical and strategic research.
Tactical or Evaluative research is usually defined as insights that help us make decisions over a relatively small domain, in a relatively short time and is often conflated with evaluative research, fast and iterative work or usability work in the latter part of the product development. While Strategic or Foundational research is generally considered to be insights that help us make decisions over a large domain and that takes much longer to put into action.
This simplified division creates an artificial boundary that pigeonholes our discipline and creates incorrect assumptions among practitioners. A dichotomy of tactical vs strategic paints a misguided picture where tactical research could be seen as limited in scope and impact, easier to run or should be conducted by researchers in the early stages of their career, which in turn encourages researchers to go after foundational work that is believed to be more impactful.
But is that actually the case? Do tactical research methods really result in limited impact? Let’s clear out a few of these myths:
Myth 1: Tactical research can’t inform strategy
Researchers often see tactical research as a way to only provide limited short-term impact. The velocity of the work as well as the sometimes narrow focus create a belief that this type of work is only helpful for small user interface tweaks.
Busting the myth:
In our work at Spotify we often utilize tactical research to inform strategy. In one example, going into the development of a new product we had our business partners provide us with their understanding of the possible target audience. However, as we started running usability testing of the interface we realized that the audience is significantly different from our previous assumptions. Over multiple rounds of testing we refined our definition of the audience and came up with a new definition that helped create not only a better product but also a more focused approach to targeting and overall strategy for our business and marketing partners.
Myth 2: Tactical research is short-termed and not rigorous
The fact that tactical research is conducted in quick cadences means that we do not always make the time to be thoughtful about the insights that come out of it.
Busting the myth:
Although tactical research can be run and reported quickly, the results can often be gathered and explored further after the initial reporting has been done. Researchers at Spotify often combine the data that comes from multiple tactical research sessions as well as data science analysis to provide a holistic perspective and come up with strategic recommendations. What we see is that the magic of tactical research shows up when we pause, take a look at all the iterative data we’ve collected, and highlight them in a way that makes it easier to make strategic business decisions.
Myth 3: Senior researchers shouldn’t do tactical work
To be promoted to the next level you have to do more foundational research and less tactical work.
Busting the myth:
One of my favorite examples for this is a researcher I worked with back at my previous company. As a very senior researcher with over 20 years of experience in the industry, she led the research work on the launch of a new VR product. Over several months this researcher ran bi-weekly concept and usability testing as well as managed an insights community that was used to gather quick feedback about product changes. Her seniority and experience did not mean she was shying away from this work. Rather, it meant she understood that this was the best approach to get the right type of insights at the right stage of product development, and she used this to get a more holistic perspective of the direction the product should go in.
Myth 4: You can’t use tactical research for innovation work
Tactical research is primarily used to measure task performance of user interface changes.
Busting the myth:
My team at Spotify is focused on new product innovation, which requires us to quickly iterate as part of our ways of working. Earlier this year, we introduced a rolling research program that focuses on concept testing. Every couple of weeks we bring people in and test new ideas. These concept testing rounds not only helped the team focus and refine their vision but also generated new ideas that were based on the user feedback. Moreover, using Tactical research for innovation work often utilizes design assets to explore a space and possible approaches.
The Power of Tactical Research
As we can see, tactical research can be much more powerful than it is perceived. In many ways, Strategic research can be considered as “learning to build” vs. Tactical research that is focused on “building to learn”. Not only can it inform specific details of the product but when framed and set up accordingly it can also be foundational, strategic, and provide rigorous, deep articulations of needs and behaviors. Using lab sessions to test concepts as part of the innovation work can prove to be invaluable to not only help make the team move faster but also decide when and how to pivot from a certain direction.
Therefore, we should not think about these two approaches as opposites (tactical vs. strategic) but rather as complementary and operating in parallel. Meaning, as much as you can derive foundational insights from lab-based tactical research, you can also get specific evaluative feedback from more open-ended exploratory work.
Instead of working under this assumption of this false dichotomy, as user researchers, we should always embrace the method that is most impactful for the work and remember that tactical and strategic are forever intertwined.
Huge thanks to my fellow researchers who read, commented and contributed to my thinking on this topic: Julia, Camie, Sarah, Colette, Heli, Sara and Ashley.