May 23, 2024

How to Develop a Risk Mitigation Strategy for Design Research

A group UX designers and researchers in an office space collaborating on a project together.


In the UX and Design industry, staying ahead is essential, and this includes identifying potential risks early on. Risks are inevitable across industries, teams, and projects, and while the risks themselves can be out of your control, you can always control how you respond to and plan for them. Understanding and acknowledging the potential risks in your project is crucial, but equally important is embracing them and devising proactive, strategic plans to mitigate their impact.

Today’s post is going to dive into:

  • The role of risk mitigation in design research projects.
  • Five common project risks in UX and design research.
  • How to develop a risk mitigation strategy for design research.

Let’s get started!


The Role of Risk Mitigation in Design Research Projects

When the word ‘risk’ is mentioned, it can often trigger a negative reaction. Risks are associated with uncertainty and vulnerability, which might cause even the most composed researchers to feel anxious or stressed. But in reality, risks are an integral part of what we do! Noticing and acknowledging project risks can be a valuable opportunity, a sign of due diligence, and proof of detailed-oriented thinking.

A project risk is any situation or issue that may arise during a project that impacts the project outcomes, business, timelines, budget, or team.

Risk mitigation is a strategic and proactive risk response in which a project team takes active steps to reduce the probability or impact of a risk on a project. Mitigating risks, or ‘nipping them in the bud’ as we say, reduces their probability, impact, and size to tolerable limits. Risk mitigation transforms a problem on the horizon into something you can respond to and manage.

So, why should one develop a risk mitigation strategy? As we know, project risks can sometimes be beyond our control. A well-thought-out risk mitigation strategy is crucial to ensure project goals and objectives are achievable!

Whether you’re a researcher with one year of experience or twenty, projects don’t always go as planned. Recruitment efforts might fall short, team members could change roles, stakeholders might be challenging to reach, and design reviews might be tough to organize. It’s crucial to acknowledge that not everything will proceed as planned, and that’s perfectly normal!

A risk mitigation strategy guarantees that there’s a clear and actionable plan in place. This strategic plan is also pivotal in fostering trust among stakeholders in any project. Identifying risks and formulating a plan demonstrates awareness, ownership, and responsibility, communicating preparedness and accountability. Most importantly, a risk mitigation strategy informs stakeholders of their roles and responsibilities should a risk materialize.

Five Common Project Risks in UX and Design Research

We chatted with the Outwitly Design and Research Team, and to help ease your mind about risks and risk mitigation, we have compiled a list of five typical risks you may encounter in a research project:

  1. Timeline and schedule fallback — Having a timeline and schedule shift is one of the most common risks you may face on a design research project. Delays can arise from various factors, such as the inclusion of additional tasks or deliverables at later stages, team member turnovers, staffing changes, or challenges in coordinating interviews or workshops.
  2. Delay in approvals — Along with timeline and schedule shifts, researchers can also face delays in having their work approved. This is especially common when working within healthcare and children’s spaces, particularly when seeking ethics clearance or when projects necessitate consent forms and legal review.
  3. Unable to receive feedback — Working with stakeholders such as managers, executives, or directors can be challenging. These very important key players have a lot on their plate, which can result in delayed approvals for things like recruitment surveys and interview protocols.
  4. Scope creep — Even after a project scope is defined, additional features and tasks may be introduced beyond the initially agreed-upon scope. This might involve incorporating a new interview and user group into the research process, potentially consuming a significant portion of pre-defined schedules and timelines.
  5. Political sensitivities — Sometimes, while collaborating on a project involving numerous stakeholders, you may face challenges and resistance during your research. The organizational climate of companies or organizations varies greatly, with some exhibiting greater resistance to change than others. Be mindful that your research may trigger internal ‘political landmines’ and that this is a risk within any industry.

How to Develop a Risk Mitigation Strategy in Design Research

Now that you understand the fundamentals of risk mitigation and have a few examples of common risks in the Design Research world, it’s time to develop your risk mitigation strategy. We’ll walk you through the essential components of a robust risk mitigation strategy, equipping you with the necessary techniques you can apply in your next project.

1. Identify Risks

The first step to building your risk mitigation strategy is to identify risks. Identifying your project’s risks can be tricky as each research project has unique objectives, timelines, and techniques. 

To pinpoint the risks unique to your project, ask yourself: What challenges might you or your team have with…

  • Research planning — Depending on the scale and scope of your project, will having stakeholders review the interview protocol be difficult and time-consuming? Can you anticipate any obstacles in your research process or in coding your results?
  • Recruiting participants — Do you have a preexisting baseline of participants to draw from, or are you looking for new participants who are unfamiliar with the process or company? Will you be able to recruit these individuals in a timely manner, or is your intended user group highly detailed and specific?
  • The project team and stakeholders — Who are the key players on the project, and are there any upcoming events or vacations you should account for? Remember that stakeholders may step away from the project for various reasons, such as vacations or personal commitments.
  • The research methods and goals — Sometimes, a research method can clash with a research goal and objective, posing a risk to the project. For example, if your research involves conducting interviews to develop a journey map, interviewees might forget their experiences if a considerable amount of time has passed since.
  • The project schedule — As we know, disruptions, delays, and schedule changes can happen at any time. Be sure to identify areas of concern within a timeline and anticipate aspects of the research process that may cause delays (like receiving approvals from stakeholders!)

Pro Tip: Only list and identify the risks of utmost concern and most likely to occur. Listing too many risks within your risk mitigation strategy could intimidate and scare stakeholders! We suggest selecting 3-5 risks for your project and developing mitigation steps for each.

Now that you have identified some project risks, it’s time for the second step: developing your risk mitigation strategy. Break out your pen and paper!

2. Create Your Strategy

A risk mitigation strategy has four elements: risk, criticality, likelihood, and mitigation steps. Let’s explore these four critical components in greater detail below. 

  • Risk — Simply describe the risk in a sentence or two! Ensure the risk is written clearly so anyone on the team can understand. 
    • For example, “unable to receive timely feedback from stakeholders on key milestones.” 
  • Criticality —This component of your risk mitigation strategy measures the severity of the risk. To quantify the impact of the risk, we suggest using a low, medium, and high scale. Classify the risk as ‘low’ criticality if you believe it will have minimal impact, ‘medium’ if it may affect the project without causing major disruptions, and ‘high’ if it will severely impact the project or stop the project entirely.
  • Likelihood — This component measures the probability of the risk occurring using the same low, medium, and high scale. Label the risk as ‘low’ likelihood if it’s not likely to happen, ‘medium’ if it’s somewhat possible, and ‘high’ if it’s very likely. Any risks labelled as medium or high likelihood should be communicated to stakeholders immediately. Informing stakeholders about highly probable risks will build trust and relationships, enabling them to prepare for and anticipate these occurrences.
    • For example, if you predict that recruiting users could cause the timeline to slip and labelled this risk as a ‘high’ likelihood,​​ proactively extend the project timeline to allow for additional recruiting time! That way, it’s no longer a project risk and has been planned for and accommodated at the onset.
  • Mitigation Steps — Last but certainly not least are the mitigation steps. In this section of your risk mitigation strategy, list a few bullet points on some of the actions you and the team can take to prevent or reduce the outcomes of each given risk. The number of steps per risk may vary, but ensure that steps are listed for any project member to follow (including yourself!)
    • For example, if one of your risks is delays in getting approvals, prioritize setting those items in motion at the onset of the project!

The final step is to implement your plan! Now, pass your plan on to stakeholders and other project members. 

When presenting your plan to stakeholders, clearly articulate and integrate your risk mitigation strategy. This will facilitate a team discussion, allowing members to offer feedback on the identified risks and their own ideas of criticality and likelihood levels. This is also the perfect opportunity to brainstorm new mitigation steps and strategies. New risks you may not have considered may come to light during the process! It’s also important to receive verbal confirmation that everyone involved understands the possible risks you have presented, their impact on the project, and the actions that should be taken if the risk occurs:

  1. Follow the steps in your mitigation strategy! The tips we provided above will be your guide.
  2. Develop an escalation strategy — If the risk happens, understand who your next point of contact is and how this process unfolds from one individual to another (think domino effect, not broken telephone). The escalation strategy will look very different depending on how many eyes are on the project.
  3. Communicate — Whenever you notice something is wrong, alert team members and stakeholders. Don’t be afraid to communicate. By proactively informing stakeholders, you effectively minimize the risk’s impact and preemptively mitigate any potential negative or surprising reactions. It’s always better to identify a warning rather than a current crisis!
  4. Don’t panic! — As passionate researchers and designers, we tend to spiral a bit when things start falling through the cracks. Take a breath, and remember you have prepared for this and have the strategies to work through it. You’ve got this!

In the world of design research, tackling risk mitigation is a must. While risks might stir up some nerves, they’re par for the course, offering opportunities for growth and flexing your problem-solving muscle. By recognizing, understanding, and tactically handling potential risks, teams can confidently navigate challenges, ensuring project success in the face of uncertainty.

Looking for more of an in-depth look at risk mitigation in design research? Head over to Outwitly Academy to explore our Flagship Course, Design Research Mastery!