We stand with Ukraine and our team members from Ukraine.

The Community Of Over 578,000

Home ›› Customer Experience ›› How To Research So PMs Will Listen

How To Research So PMs Will Listen

by Lindsey Wallace
6 min read
Share this post on
Tweet
Share
Post
Share
Email
Print

Save

Building effective partnerships with PMs requires stepping outside of any frustration, ego, or resentment at being ignored, and building empathy. How to do that? Here is what we’re going to find out.

As a UX research leader, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make sure the research my team does is impactful and actionable. Researchers, even research leaders like myself, don’t get to be the “decider”. Product managers (PM) are the ones with the authority to set product roadmaps and requirements, and decide which features and fixes get prioritized. This means that we and our design partners spend a lot of our time trying to influence them to incorporate our findings and insights into their planning and strategy. Often to effect strategic change PMs are the most critical audiences for our research. They are also often the hardest to convince, and the source of many of our researcher frustrations and heartaches. This tension infuses every aspect of our practice, and if not managed effectively can lead to trauma, moral injury, and researcher burnout when researchers who view themselves as the voice of the user in the business are marginalized and ignored, not to mention that we lose the ability to effectively support human centered design or bring value to the business.

Building effective partnerships with PMs requires stepping outside of any frustration, ego, or resentment at being ignored, and building empathy. Basically, think of your PMs the way you think about the people you study and try to understand them. Since I started my practice of studying PMs, I’ve learned there are powerful structural forces that PMs are contending with in their role that are different than what researchers and designers deal with. PMs are often judged by their ability to deliver products on time and under budget. This can make them leery of ceding control over any aspect of the work. For many pms, working with research can present a big risk with very little upside.

Think about it from their perspective: They are often in close contact with customers, working with multiple “customer feedback” teams, deep experts on their product, and are working to deliver a product or feature that the customer and/or the business wants. They’ve often committed to it with a bare minimum of time and resources. The value of taking extra time to do design research, especially with someone who isn’t necessarily a product expert may very well seem unclear. Now imagine that person suggests changing the plan, or tries to convince you to change strategies or directions! You might not listen to them either, and moreover, engaging with them at all might send your anxiety through the roof, and the consequences of working with research may feel (and be) career limiting.

To build effective partnerships with PM, researchers need to apply our human-centered design lens internally, leading with empathy and compassion to build trust with product and overcome resistance and anxiety. Here are some practices, questions, and expectations that have worked well for me.

Practices:

  • Find out who PM looks to for information and insights about customers since there are often many sources (outlined HERE).
  • In your pre-work, identify who the real decider is and make sure you connect with them. I’ve spent months getting blocked on projects because although my PM partner was fully on board with the findings, their boss was not and continued to block any action. Learn to punch up.
  • Be curious about the business context: Some projects are done to appease investors or fix technical debt rather than create user value. Try to discern what’s actually motivating the work.
  • Understand that your role as a researcher comes with freedom to speak truth to power that your PM partners may not have. Use this effectively and strategically.

Questions to ask PM and stakeholders:

  • What problems are you hoping this research will solve for you?
  • What decisions are you hoping this project will inform?
  • What do you know already, how do you know it?
  • Have you worked with a researcher before?
  • If so, what went well about that and what went badly? How do you like to partner with researchers?
  • If not, is there anything about working with a researcher that makes you nervous? What are you hoping we’ll acheive?
  • If I need to disagree with you or raise a problem, how do you prefer I handle that? (In the moment even if we’re in a meeting, privately over dm during the meeting, 1–1 verbally after the meeting, over email/ dm after the meeting).
  • What kinds of evidence would you find compelling to inform this decision (eg. it’s really good to know if someone needs numbers to trust a finding before you spend a ton of time on a purely qualitative project, you need to know if they care about current vs. potential customers, etc).
  • Who asked for this research, who are you accountable to?
  • What kinds of evidence do they need to see?
  • How would you like to be involved in this project?
  • Every step of the way (planning/sit in on interviews/ co-synthesize, review deliverables)?
  • Minimally (show me the brief and the report before broader shareouts).
  • Not at all. (I just want the insights, thanks).
  • Is there any other context I should know about what success looks like for you?

Note: These questions are informative and meant to start discussion and bring you awareness of your PMs needs and preferences. You do not need to take the answers as instructions or orders.

Baseline expectation setting:

  • Level set: As researchers, we spend all our time deeply immersed in research and design practice and have a really clear view of what our job is. This awareness is often not shared by PM. I like to level-set by explaining my job to new partners. For example: “I’m an anthropologist, this means my expertise is in studying people to learn what they need from our tools and services. My goal is to work closely with you to identify what questions you have about our audience of focus, develop plans to answer them, and make sure everyone on the team has access to the highest quality information possible.”
  • Set guardrails based on your role: “since my job is to bring the best information possible to the team, I need to have control over how we do the research, because if I do research I can’t stand behind, I’m not doing my job. This might mean there are times when I push back on a request, or strongly advocate for doing things a different way. In these situations I will always explain why I’m suggesting something or pushing back.”
  • Ask for candid feedback and engagement: “I want to make sure I’m bringing information that’s useful for you. If I suggest a plan or approach and you have concerns about it, please raise them early so we can discuss them and problem-solve together.”
  • No surprises: “I will never present something outside of our core team or to your boss that you have not seen first and reviewed first. This doesn’t mean I’ll take all your feedback, and I can’t omit critical findings or bad news, but I will make sure you never feel ambushed. On the other hand, if I ask for your feedback and get nothing, I will take silence as approval and move forward.”

When researchers and PMs are in conflict or in separate silos, neither role gets the value of the other, but strong researcher-pm partnerships can be game-changing for extending the strategic impact and influence of both design and research. Researchers and PMs can be powerful allies, but it takes careful work and empathy to overcome organizational structures and the perceived and real risks of working together.

These are some basic practices, questions, and expectations that help me break through the structural challenges in the PM/ Researcher relationship to build strong partnerships for impactful research. Most of them also apply to working with anyone in your organization, and obviously they depend on organizational context as well. What tips and tricks have worked for you as a researcher? PMs, am I hitting the mark here? What else should researchers know to work with you effectively? What’s worked for you?

post authorLindsey Wallace

Lindsey Wallace, Design research leader spearheading enterprise research with an inclusive and ethnographic lens and a passion for shaping how organizations learn. Head of Research and Strategy at Cisco Cloud and Network Security.

Tweet
Share
Post
Share
Email
Print
Ideas In Brief
  • PMs are the most critical audiences for research, they are also often the hardest to convince, and the source of many of researchers’ frustrations and heartaches.
  • Building effective partnerships with PMs requires stepping outside of any frustration, ego, or resentment at being ignored, and building empathy.
  • The author shares:
    • Some practices of working with PMs
    • Questions to ask PMs and stakeholders
  • The baseline expectation setting:
    • Level set
    • Set guardrails based on your role
    • Ask for candid feedback and engagement
    • No surprises
  • When researchers and PMs are in conflict or in separate silos, neither role gets the value of the other, but strong researcher-pm partnerships can be game-changing for extending the strategic impact and influence of both design and research.

Related Articles

The project was to design a platform that educates and supports the wishes of those passing, as well as those who are left to mourn by using the design thinking process model.

YOU GOT THIS: An App Designed to Connect, Educate and Empower People Through Their Loss
  • The author designed a platform to educate and support the wishes of those passing, as well as those who are left to mourn.
  • The challenge was to understand the sensitive process of EOL (End of Life) Care and what individuals need.
  • The author’s idea was to create an app that would:
    • Perform daily check-ins
    • Provide resources
    • Provide tips
    • Connect people
  • The author’s approach to this challenge was based on the design thinking process model.
  • The author of this article unpacks the research process:
    • Qualitative analysis
    • Competitive analysis & industry standards
    • User interviews
    • Ideation
    • Prototyping
  • Key takeaways: 
    • Make MVP a key to staying focused
    • Keep iterating
Share:YOU GOT THIS: An App Designed to Connect, Educate and Empower People Through Their Loss
8 min read
YOU GOT THIS: An App Designed to Connect, Educate and Empower People Through Their Loss

An ultimate guide to conversational UX (CUX). Conversational UX principles.

Conversational Design
  • The author defines “conversational UX as a user experience that combines chat, voice or any other natural language-based technology to mimic a human conversation.”
  • The author looks at the following conversational UX Principles:
    •  Affordances
    • Signifiers
    • Feedback
  • Conversational user interface & principles:
    • Cooperative Principle (discover hidden intentions)
    • Turn-Taking (give users a space to interact)
    • Context-aware (in context / out of context)
  • While designing virtual assistants, the author suggests taking two things into consideration:
    1. How to set user expectations and educate users about what their assistants can do
    2. How to help these users
Share:Conversational Design
8 min read
Conversational Design

Co-design community offers opportunities to connect and exchange with others, using creative and participatory methods. Learn more about a new online network of practitioners wanting to learn more about participatory design that is open to people all over the world.

Why I’m Launching a Co-Design Community of Practice
  • The author shares her ideas and experiences that have inspired her to launch a co-design community of practice.
  • The article covers:
    • How CoDesignCo emerged
    • What difference this community aspires to create
    • The CoDesignCo offers opportunities to connect and exchange with others, using creative and participatory methods
Share:Why I’m Launching a Co-Design Community of Practice
5 min read
Why I’m launching a co-design community of practice

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Check our privacy policy and