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Advocating with impact

People Nerds share four strategies for getting results with human insight

Words by Jaymie Wahlen, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Earlier this fall we sat down with a group of researchers for a frank conversation about the roadblocks and challenges that most often stand in the way of making their work successful. We heard about the struggles and solutions related to researching “the right way.” But one frustration that was voiced over and over: even if their work produced rigorous data and new insights, researchers still felt limited in their ability to make an impact because of limitations within their organization. The insights were there, they just weren't being applied.

So what does it take to ensure that your research takes root and makes an impact? What steps can researchers take to increase the chances their work is leveraged and inspires change and new ways of thinking? Here's what we heard about the most common roadblocks to research impact and the tried and tested strategies used to facilitate research that leads to positive, strategic change.

Strategy: Think bigger picture

One way researchers are broadening research impact is by focusing on higher level company goals, instead of pushing for incremental improvements. Often, this means taking an initial step back to look at how teams are structured. Try to enable connections between researchers embedded in different product teams so knowledge isn’t siloed. And, if possible, democratize the research process within your organization so non-research team members can even tackle bite-size projects independently. Ultimately, these smaller shifts can help free up team members to think more like senior-level researchers, and dedicate time to more high level efforts, helping decipher the bigger picture questions.

“It's so important to resist short-term thinking. When teams are time strapped it's tempting to focus on incremental feature improvements that keep things moving forward, instead of taking a step back and thinking about projects broadly. One way to combat this is to engage the broader team in quarterly and annual planning exercises. All partners (design, product, engineering, sales, marketing etc.) can share their perspectives and concerns. Decision makers can articulate their priorities and all parties are welcome to question and discuss." 
— Alisa  Weinstein, Staff Researcher at LinkedIn

“While there's a lot of hunger and interest in user insights in our organization, there's not always a clear understanding of how to apply insights to idea generation or how to carry the thread of a key insight through the product development process. The result is that we focus on the what and the how, but often lose sight of the why or we lose the opportunity to leverage a differentiated perspective on what the why is.” 
— Alyson Madrigan, Director of User Research at SoFi

“Two of my colleagues at LinkedIn, Kassie Chaney and Donna Driscoll, developed a program called  the Research Bento, which enables designers to conduct their own bite-sized concept testing studies with guidance and just the right amount of rigor. It has allowed us to scale our UER team and enabled our teams to focus more on complex and strategic work. The Bento ‘kit’ includes training on conducting interviews, a list of appropriate participants, consulting on the interview guide, access to one of our Labs for the study, and feedback on their findings. What’s really fun is that now it’s become a verb, as in, 'I’m planning to Bento this design.' We've now 'bentoed' over 40 products. The program has resulted in user-centered insights, infused a human-centered approach and ingrained research best-practices more deeply throughout the company. And, it’s also really fostered an appreciation for our Research practice, as Designers fully experience the demands of what we do."
— Julie Norvaisis, Director of User Experience Research at LinkedIn

Strategy: Embed researchers in the existing process

Embedding researchers directly within other teams has its advantages. Often the closer connection with the rest of the product or project team allows researchers unique insight into the questions and issues that might arise. It lets them get ahead of the decision making process, and tackle the right projects at the right time. As Judd Antin notes, it lets research lead the design process, instead of the other way around. If researchers can see what's coming down the road, they're much less likely to be stuck wasting their efforts just to "check the box." They can align their efforts with real opportunities for change.

“It’s a common challenge across organizations for research to be involved early enough to impact a product or a feature in a foundational manner. At Fitbit, this can be particularly true when it comes to designing and building hardware — since we have strict deadlines to meet and it’s more difficult to make changes late in the game. In the past, by the time the UX team got involved, things were already defined and a lot of decisions had already been made. However, by establishing relationships across the company, getting more involved with our strategic planning processes, and working more closely with industrial design and engineering, we’re able to pull some of those foundational questions out of the development process to make sure we're informing the product direction from the start.”
— Brennan Browne, Head of UX Research at Fitbit

“It’s not fair to rely on cross-functional partners, no matter how research-minded they are, to know when and how research should be involved. Every one of those partners needs a direct research point of contact, a trusted partner who is there from beginning to end, proactively contributing as the voice of the user.”
— Judd Antin, Director of User Research at AirBnb (via "Behind the Scenes"used with permission)

Strategy: Increase stakeholder engagement

A good rule of thumb: involving stakeholders more deeply in the research process will only increase their understanding of its value and the insights generated. (And their desire to make sure those insights are implemented.) Researchers have found a few different ways to engage stakeholders early on, from socializing findings with storytelling and immersive experiences, to breaking down findings and jettisoning the research report entirely

“When it comes to activating customer insights, HOW you engage the rest of your stakeholders is almost as important as the insights themselves. We always try to bring stakeholders along on the research journey and keep them as engaged as possible. For example, if we do ethnographies, we always invite stakeholders to attend. When stakeholders realize they are an integral part of the process, they bring a different energy to the research. It becomes stickier, more engaging and that much more rewarding.”
— Mindy Sher, UX Research Manager at Jet

“We need to be more collaborative in our research, and that comes from both sides. That means getting designers and stakeholders to come to sessions and getting them involved in the process. But it also means meeting stakeholders halfway, and an openness to changing how we facilitate research in the first place. During interviews, make it a point to ask stakeholders if they want to jump in or offer comments, and encourage them to ask their own questions. In the end, it will lead to a lot more stakeholder buy in."
— Gina Knox, User Researcher at Intuit 

Strategy: Take your seat at the table

If you can, advocate with company leadership to give research an equal seat at the proverbial table, and for management structures to reflect the value that research brings to company success. That means, whenever possible, celebrate the insights and contributions researchers are making across teams, and tell those stories internally as well as externally. That reinforces the value of the team’s work and emphasizes those successes the same way a product team would emphasize a successful launch.

"To build great products we need to give research equal stakes in the process. In an ideal world, you have a VP of Product, VP of Design and a VP of Research. It gives research a seat at the table, the voice of the customer is represented, and ultimately, it leads to building better products."
— Autumn Schultz, Design Research Lead at ShopRunner

"Being able to influence product through usability testing is the traditional route to quantifying impact. But being completely embedded in the project program and roadmap is an even more effective way. Being present at team meetings and during informal conversations allows you to remind people of the design changes that have happened as a result of research, and how integral it is to the process. Otherwise, people tend to forget that some changes weren't just their ideas, but actually a direct result of the research process."
— Ana Roji, Lead Design Researcher at Nokia

Jaymie Wahlen is the VP of Customer Success at dscout, where she works to make dscout the most customer-centric company on the block. When she’s not leading dscout’s team of Research Advisors, you can find Jaymie spinning a pottery wheel, or seeking out the world’s best street food.

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