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Atomic Research and its Importance in User Research

User research has become much more vital. Organizations now realize how valuable research is to understanding behaviors and needs of users and taking those insights and making informed decisions to drive customer value and corporate growth. 

Research must be organized and managed in such a way that it can be used to its fullest potential.

There are two models for organizing and managing research. 

There is the traditional research approach, utilizing data solely stored in reports. It is very labor-intensive to pull insights from reports, let alone manage reports and the raw data used to create these reports. 

User behaviors and needs change quickly. The time it takes to locate insights could make the research trying to be done, irrelevant, very quickly. These artifacts tend to sit in one or more data silos in organizations, making it hard to access the data. This means leaders are missing out on valuable research they need to analyze to inform on key decisions.

Then, there is the atomic research approach. Atomic research is a more agile approach. Atomic research helps you build insights by creating searchable and sharable tagged raw data, backed by evidence. It saves time and resources so you don’t have to analyse lengthy reports.

What is Atomic Research?

Atomic research is all about breaking down data and insights into its most basic, or atomic, units. This atomic unit, usually stored in a research repository, consists of an observation, evidence to support the observation, and relevant tags to search for that information. It could be used as a standalone fact or be combined to create something bigger. 

It’s a way to manage research knowledge by organizing it into tagged, evidence-based information.

Atomic research enables researchers to:

-Easily store, organize, and classify research 

-Quickly access and share research and insights

-Determine patterns across many experiments and studies while being source-agnostic 

-Select the most effective research techniques and methodologies to use

-Break down existing data silos and prevent new ones from forming which enables leaders to make better decisions in quicker time

Atomic research originated from two different UX researchers.

Tomer Sharon defines atomic research in this way:

“Atomic Research is an approach to managing research knowledge that redefines the atomic unit of a research insight. Instead of reports, slide decks, and dashboards, the new atomic unit of a research insight is a nugget. A nugget is a tagged observation supported by evidence. It’s a single-experience insight about a customer’s experience. A nugget is assigned with a series of tags that classify it and help in finding it later on.” 

Daniel Pidcock views atomic research similarly when he says, “In short, Atomic Research is the concept of breaking knowledge down into its constituent parts…it gives us the opportunity to use facts from several experiments to support a single insight. Evidence from other sources continue to support that insight, bolster it, and enable it to remain as a truth. By holding insights as separate and independent of their sources means they can be constantly re-tested and allowed to live and die by the evidence.”

How the two approaches differ are in their components.

Key Components

Tomer’s approach breaks down research insights into an atomic unit called a nugget, a single-experience tagged and searchable observation backed by evidence. Nuggets are tagged so anyone in the organization can access information from different sources, analyze it, and use it.   

As a result, a centralized library of these atomic insights is created, for anyone to access and use. Because these atomic units span across many experiments, connections between them are made. This serves to strengthen and add more value to their use in research projects and informing on business decisions. To consistently add value to the library over time, continuous research is necessary.

Each nugget has three components:

-Observations – knowledge of what the researcher learned and its importance

-Evidence – any item such as text, video, audio, images, etc. that supports the observation.

-Tags – a taxonomy that captures information, including procedural information (date, time, source, research method, evidence media type, etc.), demographics (age, location, etc.), business-oriented (revenue, product line, etc.), experience (user’s emotional state, observation frequency, etc.), or service design information (journey, process, etc.), and classifies it so it is easily searchable.

An example of a user interview nugget is as follows:

Observation – cannot find online chat support with current website navigation.

Evidence – video clip of user saying: “I cannot find online chat. I looked at the home page, contact us, and other places, but I still couldn’t find it.”

Tags – #onlinechat #support #text

In his approach, Daniel breaks down knowledge parts into four components:

-Experiments “We learned this…” (where did we learn it?) 

-Facts “…and we found this…”    (what did we learn?)

-Insights “…which makes us think this…” (why do we think that is?)

-Recommendations “…so we’ll do this…” (what are our opportunities and how will we proceed?)

Atomic Research and its Importance 

Traditional user research is labor-intensive and not very agile.

Atomic research enables organizations to easily store and categorize research so that stakeholders across the organization can quickly access and share research and insights.  

Ease of use, flexibility, and agility are not the only benefits atomic research provides. 

Benefits of Atomic Research

The key benefits of atomic research include the following:

Mitigates bad memory

Atomic research helps ensure that existing, valuable information the organization has obtained is not lost. It takes the data that is buried in lengthy, inconsistent reports or ineffective archiving tools and improves data archiving capabilities. The result is an easily searchable and sharable database, which is continuously updated to keep organizational knowledge relevant. 

Creates a single source of truth

Because of how traditional research is set up, a team uses user data/research obtained for that team’s user research project and frames insights that benefits and is relevant for that team. The resulting data silo prevents other functional groups from accessing that research.

Atomic research removes personal bias. It breaks down and stores data in a more raw form, which is easily accessed by other functional groups. Thus, it creates a shared understanding of the user and customer across the organization, which results in greater customer empathy.

Teams can still set parameters they need for their projects. It allows for data to be structured and managed in a more open and flexible way. Thus, more collaboration results.

Atomic units span across multiple experiments. This makes it easier to form connections, and identify patterns and trends, and gaps in knowledge from multiple sources, thus adding to research continuously. And, this adds more strength and validation to research. As a result, leaders are more confident in the evidence-based decisions they make. This frees up time to conduct more impactful research work.

And, organizations can recycle and reuse prior research data and insights from several different experiments, which creates reusable, evergreen research. 

Alleviates time spent on lengthy research reports

In traditional research, data is presented and stored in the form of reports. However, there is data in these reports that is irrelevant. Thus, it takes significant time to read through the irrelevant information to get to the relevant information needed for the research.

Atomic Research stores raw data along with its evidence and classifies it with appropriate tags simplifying how to access and analyze the insight.  Thus, it quickly separates the relevant from the irrelevant research, thus reducing waste. Ultimately it provides structure and a taxonomy to help organizations manage their user research. 

It’s important to note that atomic research is not a replacement for traditional research reports. It should complement reports. This is why most research repositories include both. 

Reports are still important for the context behind insights. Data is tagged for future use. Tagging nuggets within each report not only builds a robust knowledge management system that is easily accessible and shareable among stakeholders across an organization, but it also creates connections between these old and new insights, based on many experiments, that increases in value over time, enabling an organization to make better decisions.

And it’s a tool for everyone in your organization to collaborate on.

Stakeholders can search for relevant data by tags, replacing the manual process of searching through lengthy reports. The data becomes more valuable. And, new nuggets are added to existing research on a continuous basis so all relevant research is being used effectively.

Including both atomic and traditional research in a research repository creates a knowledge ecosystem that continues to improve over time, which serves to help an organization deliver an improved user experience on a continuous basis.  


Existing tools such as spreadsheets and databases are good enablers for atomic research for smaller organizations. Stakeholders can collaborate on effective structure and management of these tools. 

Or, consider using mind-mapping tools such as Figma or Miro.

If teams find that they are outgrowing the usefulness of these tools, they can upgrade to specific atomic research tools that ensure scalability.

Larger organizations can use tools specific for atomic research. There are several tools on the market today that include: Maze, Lookback, Optimal Workshop, Glean.ly, and Ethnio.

How To Conduct Atomic Research

Daniel and his team created this impressive cheat sheet on Atomic Research.

An illustration of this is as follows: 

What’s the recipe for atomic research success?

Create an atomic research strategy.

Establish a cross-functional team and kick off the project. Develop a team charter to get everyone’s buy-in. Discuss strategy, structure development and management, and how to promote atomic research with other teams.

Create specific action plans for how research teams will collaborate together, how research teams will collaborate with non-research teams and how other non-research teams will work together. Ensure that you involve all appropriate teams in atomic research and show them the what’s, why’s, and how’s. This will entice them to use atomic research on a regular basis. Thus, they will advocate it to others. 

Establish an effective tag taxonomy.

Collaborate with your key stakeholders to create a tag taxonomy that works for you. Invest plenty of time here. It will alleviate stress going forward and add power to your research.

The taxonomy is the foundation of your research repository.

You can use from a number of different tags we discussed above. Be as flexible as possible.

Prepare to conduct your research.

First, work with stakeholders in how to plan for your user research project. Collaborate on the what (what is/are the goal(s) for the project), why (what is the purpose), who (who will you interview or survey), when (when will you conduct research), where (will you do conduct research onsite or elsewhere?), and how (how will you conduct your research, what qualitative and quantitative methods will you use, etc.). 

Conduct your research.

Conduct your research as you normally would. Include a few key stakeholders in the actual research where appropriate. Take turns asking questions, listening for sentiment and where to dive deeper with follow-up questions, and taking notes. 

Record single-experience observations.

Determine facts – no opinions – that are from one experience, backed by evidence. Examples include 8 out of 10 users found the resources page on the website difficult to navigate; or 75% of the users couldn’t find where to contact a live agent for help. Do not combine facts yet. 

Identify insights from observations.

Bring stakeholders together to compile and review facts to determine and prioritize insights. 

What do the observations mean? What do they suggest about a user’s experience? Combine facts to identify an insight. This will help to confirm or refute a hypothesis or existing insight. 

For instance, 75% of users can’t find where to contact a live agent for help because it isn’t prominently displayed, it’s located in hard-to-see print at the bottom of the page.

Determine Conclusions or Recommendations.

Discuss and prioritize conclusions and recommended next steps with stakeholders. 

What decisions will you make based on your insights? Where do you go from here? An example would be to place the “Contact a live agent now” button in a large, visible font in the upper right corner of all web pages. 

Record the nugget in your research repository.

Include the observation, the evidence that supports the observation, and relevant tags. This will enable you to access and share the nugget. 

Determine who will be responsible for recording the nugget in the research repository and notifying of nugget updates in the research repository.

Share insights and findings.

Share insights and findings with the organization, users, customers, and your social media audience. Make this fun, “insightful”, and memorable for them. How about a physical meetup or webinar to share insights? Sharing means caring. And it builds trust and call-to-action.

Improve your atomic research tool.

Collaborate with stakeholders on how to improve your atomic research. Ensure it evolves as you evolve.

Effective use of resources and agility is key to user research. Atomic research provides a powerful new approach to structuring and managing your user research for continuous learning. It enables teams to collaborate on information collection, analysis, and use resulting in shared understanding of customers, more impactful research, and better decisions. 

If you’re ready to get started with atomic research, Glean.ly has a lovely offer for our blog readers. Use code Duris100 for a one-year free license. Let us know what you think.

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