Building research influence in organizations is difficult, even for the most established research practices. But building research influence while you’re simultaneously trying to build a practice can be downright daunting.
This was the situation Dave Chen, Director of Consumer Insights at Flipp, faced when he first joined the organization in 2017. Back then, he was the first researcher—or as he calls it “patient zero.” So not only did he need to help lay the foundations for a solid practice, but he also needed to find out a way to democratize research knowledge while demonstrating its value.
This was the focus of his talk at UXR Conference 2021. In a session titled “Think Outside the Research Box,” Dave, alongside Flipp’s Senior Product Design Manager Tino Kapetaneas, talked about how researchers can win the hearts and minds of stakeholders by effectively showcasing the value of research.
We caught up with Dave recently to discuss his talk, his role at Flipp, and the mindset shifts needed to build an influential practice.
dscout: What did research look like at Flipp when you joined?
Dave Chen: There wasn’t really a research practice when I first joined Flipp. I always joke that I was “patient zero” as I was the first researcher Flipp hired. We had a very strong and robust analytics practice where we knew a lot of the “what” through user behavior, but we were missing the “how” and the “why.” I credit the growth and dedication of the consumer research department to the leadership team. They recognized there were knowledge gaps that we needed to close with research.
So fast forward 3.5 years later, I lead the Consumer Insights team to answer those “how” and “why” questions. My team encompasses three smaller teams. There’s the customer experience (CX) team to monitor all of the reactionary consumer feedback chatter channels like app store reviews and social media. We respond back to customer pain points and needs and help them troubleshoot. We will aggregate that feedback, turn it into insights for the product development team so that they can work on addressing these customer pain points by improving and innovating on our products.
Then I have two research teams. One focuses on more traditional market research and the other focuses on user experience research through qualitative research methodologies. These two teams manage an insights community of Flipp users to gather user-specific insights. We also do a lot of general population research work throughout the year to help drive thought leadership and arm the sales organization with, for example, compelling data points in their external conversations.
So there wasn’t very much of a research practice when you first joined.
No, not at the time. When I first joined, the leadership team was looking for someone who was experienced enough with all the different research tactics and methodologies, someone who could help the organization learn something that's new and incremental that they didn't know before. So when I first started, my time was split between trying to churn out as much research as possible to help the organization close the foundational knowledge gaps, while also focusing on doing the right things for the leadership team to prove value for a more robust research team and research practice at Flipp.
In the beginning, there was a lot of education around what research is and how it differs to analytics, engineering, and data science. This isn’t uncommon for tech start-ups, where people are more used to user behavioral data tracked by the app, usually in the tens of thousands, if not million, in terms of quantity.
In comparison, research is perceived as much softer. People have a different understanding of the confidence level attached to the research data. So there was a lot of education around the value of qualitative research, or even quantitative research with smaller samples. And around the value of developing user empathy through research data that can help empower the organization to make more informed decisions.
I focused on understanding key concerns from my internal stakeholders: What are the things that keep them up at night? What are the key questions they really want to see addressed?
Was it difficult to get buy-in initially?
A big challenge with insights, and research in general, is that the attribution to business results is very difficult to prove. That’s because insights work is very far removed from the final delivery of the product or the final execution of a marketing campaign. In between insights and final execution a lot of things could break down.
In the early days (and now), I focused on understanding key concerns from my internal stakeholders: What are the things that keep them up at night? What are the key questions they really want to see addressed? What knowledge gaps exist in the organization?
In addition, I focused on driving increased customer empathy, and making sure that everyone felt they had a better understanding of the shoppers, of the merchants, and of the market. It was about raising baseline understanding in the organization.
I can't really tell you how I can translate a persona to a $5 million increase in revenue. I'll never be able to do that. Not directly anyways. But what I can promise you is that if everyone is a little more informed about the shopper, it helps us make better business decisions.
That’s a large part of what you and Tino discussed at the UXR Conference. Why did you choose the topic you did?
What we're finding over time is, especially as with small organizations, is that it is difficult for researchers and product designers to build a successful research practice and to get buy-in from the organization. The focus of the talk was about cultivating credibility in your organization by leveraging skillsets researchers and designers already possess, allowing them to slowly build a successful research practice over time.
In addition to three overarching principles, we wanted to provide people with very specific examples and tactics they could start using in their day-to-day to get the wheels in motion. So, we tried to provide a little bit more tangibility to the principles and the theories.
I'd love to hear some examples of a few things that you might get into, tactic-wise, when it comes to building a research practice and expanding research influence.
The first one we talked about is forming alliances. It's an overused term, but to put it very simply, you've got to learn how to scratch someone else's back. That way when the time comes, they can help you achieve the things you want to achieve.
People have to recognize that you can't do all of the stuff you’d like to by yourself. You just can't. You have to be able to understand how to drive impact for someone else to prove the value of the research practice or the practice that you want to build. Then that person becomes your advocate later.
This is true for both business and personal levels. At the end of the day all stakeholders want to achieve some level of personal success, and that personal success should help the organization’s business success.
I think a common misconception is that politics is bad for organizations. You definitely don’t want to do that just for the sake of playing politics because that tends to be toxic. For me, it’s really about fostering meaningful collaboration and driving impact for each other. Like I said, if everyone is successful, that also makes the entire organization successful. Some examples we talked about in the talk is how Tino’s team and I formed an alliance early on, and how I formed a strong partnership with our Director of Product. These are common relationships to build in a product-led organization.
Then there are some of the lesser-known stakeholder organizations that research can help. For example, the sales organization. They are the team that is literally on the ground and going out to sell solutions. So how can we give them the right information, data, and insights to make them more successful? If they can bring additional revenue into our pipeline because research helped, then that is a very tangible way for me to be able to connect the dots and say, "Hey, look. Research worked!" To me, that’s a meaningful partnership that can help prove value for the research practice. Again, helping others ultimately helps you.
You have to be able to understand how to drive impact for someone else to prove the value of the research practice...Then that person becomes your advocate later.
It's a mindset shift as much as it is tactics. Rising tides raise all ships.
Right. The other thing we focused on in our talk was how researchers and designers should leverage their skill sets to their advantage. We have a very unique skill set: how to ask better questions and how to listen more actively than most. We know how to empathize with the speaker or the stakeholder that we're interacting with. We know how to collect large amounts of information effectively. And we know how to distill that information down to a more succinct format that you can use later on.
That skill set can be translated to other problems in the organization that people may not immediately think about, but helps increase your brand equity as a person and subsequently helps increase the visibility of your team.
For example, when working with the People team or the HR team, try to help them solve organizational problems. People don’t typically think about them as core stakeholder groups for research. But if you think about it, they're always doing surveys to gather feedback from the organization to answer questions, such as “How to do training better?” or “How can we design the right programs for our employees?”
I will offer to do analysis for them because my team has the data and analytics know-how that can help support their cause. This was a key tactic Tino and I talked about. Just offer to help. Lend your skills. It helps you and your team accumulate brand equity over time, and it helps your stakeholders get stuff done. It’s a win-win situation. Why not do it?
At the end of the day, we're really trying to teach people to think outside of the research box. Apply your skill set, where it can be useful in other parts of the organization.
What are some mistakes that you think researchers make when trying to grow influence?
There are a couple of common themes. The first one is about knowing your audience. A common mistake I see is that researchers themselves are numbers-people, but they also assume other people understand numbers and data. So this lack of understanding of your audience results in not being able to land the message you want to get across. I always tell my team that doing the research project is only half the battle. Getting the insights across and landing the message is just as important, if not more important.
The second most common mistake I see is that in meetings and discussions researchers don’t bring a point of view. A lot of times I find that the researchers are more often than not, the SMEs in the room. They know the insights like the back of their hands, but they fail to bring that level of confidence and competence to the discussion. You not only have to bring facts and numbers to the table, but you also need to point people in the right direction. Don’t let people guess. Get them to react. What I'll often coach my team on is, you don’t always have to be right, but you have to bring a point of view.
Transparently, this is a mistake I've made in the past. When you bring something in front of an audience, especially the leadership team, remember that they have so many things going on. They don't want to have to do your job and make the decisions for you.
Often people just want to be told what your opinions are and what the thing is you are trying to tell them, so that they can react to it. They don't want to think for you, and they don't want to make that decision for you. I often find that people have more respect for you if you bring a point of view to the table and be able to back that up with facts and data.
What I'll often coach my team on is, you don’t always have to be right, but you have to bring a point of view.
It’s like when talking to or researching any user for a new product.
Right. This is the same approach we take with research. You never ask a user, “What are some of those things you want us to do?” Instead, you show them the prototypes. These are some of the ideas you put in front of people to get them to react. Often, we design for extreme solutions to solicit a reaction. Again, this is a tactic we talked about in our talk (“Say something unpopular but true”).
This is stuff we already do as researchers. Use that skill and translate it into your functional day-to-day job. It's just a slightly different point of view that you have to apply, but it is, at the end of the day, the same skills you already have.
Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.