Sort Yourself Out!



Image by congerdesign from Pixabay
“We don’t have enough information to make a decision!”

“Everything is so unclear!”

“We need more research, but we don’t know where to start.”

“Of course we have a research objective. In fact, we’ve got five or six of them.”

Often when we hear clients expressing these things, we work with them to discover that it isn’t a lack of information, but a lack of clarity about what they know, and don’t know, about the problem. If you’re dealing with this in your organization, and you have limited resources, the last thing you should do is invest in more research (yet). First, you’ve got to wade through the complexity and ambiguity and sort out exactly what you need. And a sorting activity is an excellent first step. Here’s how you can get started:

  1. Gather all the data, research, articles, information, and relevant people, that are connected in any way with the problem(s) you are trying to solve. (Things written about the product? Check. About the right customer group? Yes. Sales data? Uh-huh. Customer service logs. Absolutely. Articles from experts in the field? Yup. Vision boards or prototypes? Positively.) Divide up the work amongst the people, by volume. Don’t invest time in who knows more, who did the research, or who found the article. Just sort it, and divvy it up. Quickly. 
  2. Next, ask each person to go through whatever artefact they have (article? research report? dataset?) as rapidly as possible, and assign it a label, or a category that represents what it mainly can answer or illuminate. Don’t debate. Let each do their work on their own. Set a time limit. Max, a couple of hours. 
  3. Now, get together in a room and share the labels. You might hate sticky notes, but they are useful for this. Look at the box of tea in the photo. If you wanted a certain type of tea, could you find it in a messy drawer, randomly mixed together? Not easily. But here, whether you organize it by fruit tea, or herbal infusion, black tea, or by brand, it will be easier to see what you’ve got. Group them, if there are commonalities. As a group, identify patterns. Express what you have a lot of. Now, what’s missing? Why is that important to the problem you’re trying to solve? 
  4. List the missing things. Prioritize them. Ask, “What do all of these point to, collectively, as the concept we need the most, to move forward?” Then ask, “Which of these, if we don’t figure it out, could kill our business/product/project?” Now you’re on to something. 

Sorting exercises may seem simplistic, but there’s a reason these are one of the first things we teach to babies, and then to kids learning to read, and later, to people who are programming, filing, organizing, or creating an information architecture. They help us get to the gist of what we need to know, to make sense of the world. And they can help you do better research, more efficiently, and for less time and money. I’m sure of it.

My name is Megann Willson, and with my partner, Steve Willson, we run PANOPTIKA, where we help our clients see everything they need to know to find, understand, and keep customers. You can also find us on LinkedIn, on Twitter, or Facebook. If you’d like more news you can use to grow your business, subscribe to our weekly updates, and the occasional offer, using the link below.