I've noticed three different types of stakeholders emerge when you bring up the topic of user research:
- Skeptical Sam
- Casual Curtis
- Excited Eliza
All three of these “stakeholder personas” have their pros and cons, and I've developed some best practices for how to approach each of them. Here's my best advice for working with stakeholders that are different degrees of invested—and how to adjust their expectations of what UXR can and can't do.
Skeptical Sam is just as his name implies: completely uncertain about user research. He doesn’t really believe in user research because he holds on a few myths about the practice:
- Qualitative data isn’t as reliable or legitimate as quantitative data, and can’t be trusted
- Customers, themselves, don’t know what they need OR we already know what customers need
- Only talking to seven people won’t give you enough information to make a well-informed decision
- It takes an incredibly long time to conduct research
- The results can’t be trusted because people don’t know how to articulate what they want or need
It isn’t that Sam is completely terrible, or wrong, in his concerns about user research. Sometimes research can take a long time and sometimes we can be wrong.
The problem with Sam is, that he can really get in the way. He can be so opposed to user research that he doesn’t bring you into projects or refuses to take part in them.
Curtis simply allows you to do the job you are set out to do: researching customers.
Curtis is my favorite stakeholder to work with.
He is willing to sit down to understand user research but isn’t expecting it to do magic tricks. He will approach a researcher with projects, although it may take some time to get him used to the research timeline and is willing to listen to the recommendations.
He doesn’t usually have too many preconceived notions of user research, on the positive or negative side. He goes with the flow and learns about user research as it comes.
Why is a Casual Curtis so great to work with? They allow you to start from scratch.
You don’t have to fight to convey the value of UXR or to explain its limits. You don’t have to struggle to prove its value or mitigate crazy expectations.
Curtis simply allows you to do the job you are set out to do: researching customers.
In fact, Curtis may even take part in some user research sessions and listen to the participants in real-time.
With some education and patience, Curtis turns into one of your best friends on the team. He will let you do your job. He understands that you are, ultimately, helping him do his job better.
Eliza is a tough one.
When I first started user research, I loved Eliza. She was all for user research and completely believed in the value it could bring.
It felt like she had done half my job for me. I didn’t have to convince her that user research was worth the time and effort. I was free to do my job and prove how positive user research could be to a team. I was really happy to have someone on my side.
This was until I realized that excitement could shoot me in the foot. All at once, every single feature tweak had to be user-tested, and every question spurred a user research project.
I was so busy dealing with Eliza’s requests, I barely had time for anyone else. And then came the disappointment when user research went against a hypothesis or was unclear.
I remember running a test for an Excited Eliza that returned a 50/50 split in usability of a certain filter. Eliza was heavily disappointed at user research and its lack of decisive results. Thus, she was disappointed in me. What started with enthusiasm ended in Eliza not believing in user research anymore, and the end to all of those collaborative projects.
With these three personas in mind, what can we do when we are met with them? I want to focus on Sam and Eliza for this article, as they tend to be much more common in our world, and more difficult to handle. We have to treat them as our audience and cater to what they care about, and what they need. They are, after all, also our users. They will, hopefully, use our research to make better decisions. So, what can we do?
What researchers can do to win over Skeptical Sam
Sam is skeptical and doesn’t truly understand what user research is.
Whenever I am faced with this type of stakeholder, I know starting with education is key. I won’t get him on my side without at least attempting to tell him about the benefits of user research.
I sit down and go over the following ways research can benefit our organization, using examples from either the current company, or a past role I had. User research can help us:
- To build an empathetic, user-focused company that aligns the product and business strategy with the core needs and goals of users
- To understand how people perform tasks and achieve their goals in order to design an effective and pleasurable UX
- To create a shorter development time upfront, with a clear vision of what you are trying to build
- To avoid costly fixes of development problems later down the road, after time and money have been invested in the “less-than-ideal” solution
- To allow different teams to work collaboratively, ensuring a cohesive user experience across the entire product/service
- To solve differences in opinion surrounding, “What should we do now?” by replacing it with the phrases, “Let’s test it” or “Let’s see what the research showed us”
- To design and build something people will actually use, something that really solves a relevant problem that people are having
- To enable ourselves to track the ROI of UX—noting where our ideas and iterations are working, and where we need to improve
With Sam, it isn’t just about education. You could lecture all you want, and he may absorb some of it, especially if you bring up case studies, but he needs to be shown.
For him, it is all about proving the value of user research with the least amount of effort, which is a concept I call Minimum Viable Research (MVR). I use the MVR to show:
- Research can be done in an efficient and effective combination
- Short, actionable recommendations are possible (instead of longer qualitative reports)
- You can use quantitative data (time on task, task success) during usability tests
- Participants might not be able to articulate what they want, but they can show you what isn’t currently working
- We can benchmark the current product versus the new versions to show improvement via qualitative data (increased satisfaction, increased usability scores, moving closer to pre-defined success metrics)
Sam takes time but, if you conduct enough small tests that move the product forward in a positive way, he will start to warm up to the idea of user research. The key here is going quickly with prototype testing and iterations that improve the experience little-by-little. After some time, Sam may turn into Curtis.
How researchers can adjust the expectations of Excited Eliza
Eliza is quite a double-edged sword, and you have to tread carefully.
The biggest problem I see with Eliza is her overconfidence in the fact that user research can, and will, solve all of the problems, or answer all the questions, the team could have. To her, we need to communicate that user research is not a magical unicorn that sings rainbow-colored insights.
As soon as I realize I am working with an Eliza, I make sure to sit her down and go what user research cannot do. UXR is not meant to:
- Be an exact science. There are two humans in a room together, talking about what is difficult. There will be biases, confusions, and incorrectly assumed insights.
- Give us concrete answers. It gives us an understanding of our users so we can make informed decisions.
- Say, for certain, that users will purchase/use/love something
- Be statistically significant. We are usually talking to 7-10 participants for usability tests, and around 15 for a generative study. This is not statistically significant because qualitative data is words, not numbers.
- Be correct 100% of the time. User research might bring you in the wrong direction, or a researcher might incorrectly interpret the results. This doesn’t happen often, but it is a risk we take with qualitative data.
- Efficiently test minutia. We don’t need to test every single change or small component on a website. User research isn’t meant to find which button placement users prefer, but rather the holistic usability of a product
Oftentimes, I get the best results when I sit down with Eliza earlier rather than later. I am better able to reset her expectations by rooting them more closely to reality.
I would love user research to be the magic answer for everything, but it simply cannot be. If Eliza understands what user research cannot (and should not) be used for, it is easier to avoid disappointment when it fails to meet impossible hopes and wishes.
Stakeholders of all shapes and sizes can be difficult to work with, and working with them is a struggle researchers face daily. I believe we need to readjust our expectations of research from both extremes.
Because even as researchers, we can be Sams or Elizas. We can become overly optimistic and overconfident, but can also throw our hands up in the air and think this is just isn't worth it. From time to time, we all need to be a little more like Curtis.
Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.