It was early days of assembling a research team. We were little more than a rag-tag band. Actually, it might have still just been two of us. That's where we started, a side-of-desk thing, self-initiated research project coordinated across organizational silos because we saw a need. Anyway, we were on a plane to somewhere to conduct a phase of field research, talking about research and the design team and the gaps that existed, kicking around ideas for how to bake human insights more deeply into the product development process.

The conversation turned to the ever-present tension of "DIY" versus "high quality," crappy versus scrappy, democratized access versus research rigor. Do we give our legos away or do we try to build a strong team that does it right? How could a tiny team scale design research in an organization that hungered for insights to feed data-driven decisions but often dismissed qualitative data as "anecdotes" and "user research" was often the last step on a pre-launch checklist?

As we talked about a designer-led, researcher-supported model and explored the tradeoffs that could entail, I remembered reading an article from NN/g that used an interesting metaphor to resolve those tensions.

Usability is like cooking: everybody needs the results, anybody can do it reasonably well with a bit of training, and yet it takes a master to produce a gourmet outcome.

It seemed like the cooking metaphor could be a great way to reframe the divide between "some research is better than none" and "no research is better than badly done." We also love food on the team, so that helped. We pushed the metaphor to the absurd to see what we could learn.

Macaroni and cheese made is a great example case for our metaphor abuse thought experiments. If insights are like mac and cheese, what could that teach us?

First, Restaurants everywhere love to serve fancy, delicious mac and cheese: truffle mac and cheese, mac and cheese with bacon and crème fraiche, Fried Mac and Cheese fritters (I could go on). But you can also buy it in a box, ready in 10 minutes (or less) at the grocery store.

Just like research, there's an enormous range of quality, cost, required effort, and availability.

If you'd never eaten mac and cheese, you might think it was just boiled noodles with Kraft Singles American Cheese Product slices melted on top. And that's certainly one way to do it, although you may try it and decide you hate mac and cheese. But then you'd miss out on all the incredible flavors professional chefs are producing. Without a developed palate or awareness of the options, it would be easy to misunderstand the nuance of how and why each is different. You might assume that mac and cheese is only fancy and expensive and miss out on the easy joy of boxed mac and cheese.

When planning research, knowing the possibilities is crucial

Each type of mac and cheese technically gets the job done — it'll feed whoever you serve it to. But there's other factors to consider when picking a style: some impress fussy kids, others delight fancy adults. Knowing the goals and how each option might or might not been those goals is key.

It's important to pick the right methods for the situation and goals.