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When UX Research Begins, Become the Voice of Reason

by Tomer Sharon
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Getting the best possible results from user research requires thorough and reasoned communication at the onset from UX team leaders.

UX research begins when either a stakeholder asks for it or a researcher suggests it. When a stakeholder asks you to conduct a study, it is a good sign—the stakeholder realizes that answers to his or her questions lie with the people who will use the product or service.

UX research begins when either a stakeholder asks for it or a researcher suggests it. When a stakeholder asks you to conduct a study, it is a good sign—the stakeholder realizes that answers to his or her questions lie with the people who will use the product or service.

UX Research Requests (The Good)

  • “Can you help us prioritize the features we are developing?”
  • “We want to prevent usability issues. We have some sketches we drew on paper. Can we get user feedback on them?”
  • “We are going into a completely new market. Can you help us figure out what people in this market need and how they compare to users in markets we’re already in?”

UX Research Requests (The Bad)

  • Usability testing as a sales pitch: “Can you go to this prospective client and run a usability test with them? We want to show them we do this kind of stuff to make them want to buy from us.”
  • Integrating terminology from marketing research and usability: “We need a usability testing focus group.”
  • Picking the wrong methodology to answer a legitimate research question: “Can you ask a few of our users which features they use mostly?”

Turning Bad Requests Good

When you receive “bad” requests, it is a big red flag. It means you need to do a better job making sure stakeholders appreciate the value of research and understand how it works. Here are some ideas that can prevent “bad” UX research requests:

  • Always explain that research is helpful when trying to answer key questions about products and businesses.
  • Ask what decision the requested research is going to help make.
  • Delay any discussion about methodologies.
  • Ask why. Multiple times.
  • Identify and suggest better questions. Ask stakeholders if these questions better represent what they wish to learn.

No Requests

Sometimes you don’t get any research requests. I’ve found that in these instances I’m the one suggesting that a certain study should be done. I’m able to do this effectively because I constantly listen to my stakeholders without taking things personally. I don’t care if they don’t invite me to an important meeting once in a while. I proactively search for opportunities to make an impact with user experience research.

On the road to converting my understanding that a study is needed into an actual study, I sow seeds by constantly looking around, identifying who I should talk to, what to ask them, and how to listen.

We are in This Together

The way you communicate to your stakeholders when they first ask for a study has an enormous effect on the impact of the study. Yes, it really is that dramatic.

When you communicate, there’s the text that comes out of your mouth, documents, or emails. Then, in-person, there’s body language that (in most cases) unwillingly communicates what you really think and don’t want to say. And then there’s subtext, which includes things that are implied by what you say or do (or don’t say or do).

Your job is to control all of these communication channels so that you can communicate one message to your stakeholders: “I’m here to help us do a better job.” This message will convey that you know what you are doing and that you are a confident professional.

Setting Atmosphere and Expectations

Your communication affects the end result of the study because it determines the atmosphere your stakeholders will be working in with you and the expectations they will hold.

By atmosphere, I’m speaking to variables like these:

  • Does the team trust the researcher to bring useful results?
  • Is there mutual respect between stakeholders and the researcher?
  • Does the researcher think this study is right or that the request is legitimate?
  • Is everyone excited about the study or are there dark clouds hanging over it (maybe due to an unsupportive executive)?

As for expectations, I cannot stress enough the importance of setting them properly. Imagine what might happen if any one of the following things occurred during the course of a study:

  • Your product manager says he needed the results three weeks ago.
  • Engineers complain that study participants were not representative and that there were not enough of them.
  • The VP of sales was heard saying that user research does not give any added value. Salespeople, she says, could have provided similar insights about client needs.

Although you can’t prevent people from drawing these types of conclusions, you can minimize the chances of it happening if you make sure the right expectations for studies are clearly defined, understood, agreed upon, and met. Becoming the voice of reason means, among other things, that you make sure you set the right atmosphere and expectations.

How Else can You Become the Voice of Reason?

Being a professional means that you do not express your opinions about what needs to be done—at least not just yet. When you are trying to learn as much as you can about a possible user experience project, you want to ask good questions to make sure you have all the information you need to decide whether you are going to propose a research project and what this project is going to include.

One of the best examples I have for showing your stakeholders that you are the voice of reason relates directly to the words you use that indicate who owns the study. Imagine your product manager saying something like, “So, when do you think you can share a written plan for your study?” The instinct would be to answer their question, but that is the wrong response.

The language that you and your stakeholders use when communicating with one another is important. It’s not your study. It’s theirs and yours—it’s “our” study. Don’t let anyone, including yourself, refer to it as his or hers. It’s not about any one of you. It’s about what the study reveals and what the results show about how a product can be improved.

When a stakeholder says something like this to me, I immediately stop the discussion and very clearly explain that it is not my study, it’s ours. I do it with a smile, not aggressively. By using language to imply shared ownership, I communicate that this matter is important to everyone involved.

Conclusion

  1. Getting requests to conduct research is a good thing. Not getting any requests should concern you.
  2. Push back attempts to affect the methodology for the study before a plan is written. Matching a methodology to research questions takes some thought and it’s your job to make that connection, not your stakeholders’.
  3. The words you use determine the level of impact the study will have. Choose them wisely.
  4. Always try to identify real knowledge gaps your team or client has about users, their needs, and their experience.
  5. Set reasonable expectations with your stakeholders. Be honest and straightforward.

Happy research!

Image of Clouseau-esque dude courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorTomer Sharon

Tomer Sharon, Tomer is Head of User Experience at WeWork in New York City leading a team that designs work and living spaces, communities, and services around the world. Formerly a senior user experience researcher at Google Search, Tomer is the author of the book, “Validating Product Ideas through Lean User Research(2016) and author of, “It’s Our Research: Getting stakeholder buy-in for user experience research projects(2012). He founded and led The Israeli Chapter of the User Experience Professionals’ Association and has been preaching and teaching UX  at Google’s LaunchPad program, a bootcamp for early-stage startups around the world, in conferences, and at Treehouseand General Assembly. Tomer holds a master’s degree in Human Factors in Information Design from Bentley Universityin Waltham, MA. He is @tsharon on Twitter and Instagram.

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