Foundations of atomic research

Tomer Sharon
4 min readMar 16, 2018
In James Cameron’s film, Avatar, “I see you” in Na’vi means “I love you” or “We are all one.” Does your company see its customers? Its employees?

User research is fundamentally changing. It had to. In a time when executives and other business leaders have trouble seeing people, can’t make a direct connection between their customers’ experience and business performance, and can’t get clear answers to questions such as, “What do we know about x?”, then things must take a different direction.

The currency for seeing people is changing from support tickets, NPS, and reports, to short-form, data-driven videos of customers that talk about and show their experience. When CEOs see a frustrated customer (read: there’s an action to be taken), delighted customer (read: don’t fix what’s not broken), or an unmet need (read: opportunity for innovation), they listen louder. Change is coming. It’s here to stay and it’s called Atomic Research. Here are the details.

What is Atomic Research?

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. The insight is backed by evidence in the form of a short video snippet (15–45 seconds) of a customer talking about or demonstrating the experience. A nugget is assigned with a series of tags that classify it and help in finding it later on. Tags may be procedural (date, time, source, research method, evidence media type), demographic (age, location), experience-oriented (magnitude, frequency, emotions), business-oriented (revenue range, business unit, product line), or service design-oriented (journey, act, scene, character, prop).

Why does it matter?

Atomic Research solves four serious problems and challenges many organizations face.

Bad memory: Information, knowledge, and wisdom employees gain throughout the years evaporate to the ether due to inconsistent documentation and weak (or non-existent) archiving tools. Researchers don’t include all their findings in their reports and even if they do, these reports collect dust on physical or digital shelves.

Lack of empathy: CEOs, executives, and other key leaders understand that the business will rise or fall depending on how much it makes its customers feel. While customers are real, businesses are abstract. It is hard, if not impossible, to expect all employees to have empathy with customers. This problem makes business leaders worry about their ability to innovate, feel paranoid about being disrupted, and lose sleep over customer abandonment. They feel they can’t “see where the puck is going and get there first.”

Meaningless work: Employee happiness (and retention) deteriorates as they realize they work on products, services, and features that nobody needs. People are generally happy working very hard on things that matter, and once they realize it isn’t so, they check out physically and quit their job or mentally by doing what they’re told and working 9 to 5.

No one source of truth for who is the customer: In many organizations there is no detailed agreement on how to group customers. Marketing works off of customer segments, sales teams use Salesforce accounts, Product groups define cohorts, and UX develops personas. There is no transparent distributed definition of who the user is. This lack of shared understanding creates inefficiencies and barriers toward innovation.

Key principles of Atomic Research

  • The new atomic unit of a research insight is a single-experience nugget.
  • A research insight includes hard evidence, coming directly from the customer. No more “He said, she said.”
  • The currency of impacting companies with research is a short video of a customer telling about or showing their experience.
  • Continuous research is key to having answers to all research questions at all times.
  • Customer videos are backed by Key Experience Indicators (KEIs).
  • Anyone in the organization can create a customer group relevant to their current interest and learn about its needs, pains, and delights.

What type of organizations can benefit the most from Atomic Research?

Atomic Research belongs in any organization that has customers, an audience, or constituents. It’s especially effective when the organization can be characterized by the following.

Many employees: Organizations with 10s, 100s, 1,000s, 10,000s or more employees, geographically distributed. Not: Techstars startups. More like: Walmart, IBM, Starbucks, USPS.

Many customers: Companies that have 1,000s to 1,000,000s of customers.
Not: Qualcomm. More like: Lyft, NFL, Central Park.

Multiple channels: The experience is manifested through a variety of channels including physical spaces, digital products, and human-to-human services. Not: Snapchat. More like: JFK airport, Disney, Mayo Clinic, and plenty more: hotels, banks, sports leagues, sports teams, pro-wrestling, stadiums and arenas, retail, healthcare, hospitality, clubs, airports, theme parks, transportation, airlines, museums, politicians, postal services, entertainers, utility companies.

I see you, Tomer. What now?

Show support by giving this article a round of applause 👏👏👏 We need it to have a lot of eyes on it to get people start thinking about Atomic Research and how they can make it happen in their organization.

Benjamin Gadbaw and I created the atomic research approach and Polaris product and framework.

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Tomer Sharon

Cofounder & CXO at anywell, author of Validating Product Ideas, It's Our Research, & Measuring User Happiness. Ex-Google, Ex-WeWork, Ex-Goldman Sachs. 2∞&→