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How to Demonstrate the Impact and ROI of Your Research [Q&A]

dscout's VP of UX Julie Norvaisas sits down with Cash App's Elysa Stein, to discuss tying research insights to the bottom line.

Interview with Julie Norvaisas and Elysa Stein, Illustration by Thumy Phan

The topic of demonstrating impact is consistently at the top of the list of what UX and Research leaders want to talk about. The subtext of the conversation is experienced (by me at least) as existential—we seem to feel that if we don’t solve for this, we can’t succeed or even survive.

Over the years, Elysa and I have danced around and plunged headlong into the thorny topic of “Proving the ROI of UX.” At Co-Lab and in our recent webinar on this with Greg Marinelli and Dr. Nikki Smith, we discussed topics like positioning your team to be a key driver for business success and reporting the impact of your work.

Below, we dig deeper into how exactly you set up a structure for measuring and sharing impact—and specific things your team can do to make waves in your organization.

Julie: We collectively talk in the abstract about needing to “understand the language of business” and “tying our work to business outcomes.” What does that mean to you and your team?

Elysa: Years ago, it used to be primarily about storytelling and user empathy, in hopes that something would resonate with the team and they would feel motivated to do something about it. Basically it was, “Let me throw all this spaghetti on the wall in the form of video clips,” and when someone cited the story, I felt I hit gold and that my work was a success.

Empathy for the customer is still needed of course, but how might we do it in a way that is productive for driving business outcomes?

As I grew as a researcher/leader, I spent more time getting to know business metrics and focused more heavily on the top business priorities. I would take the time to read strategy and metrics documents and ask questions if I didn't understand. I’ve been able to hone in on what decisions we could influence at a point in time when the decisions are being made while my cross-functional partners are thinking about it.

As a UXR team at Cash App, we align at the beginning of a project with our partners on the main business outcome in our research project brief that we hope to drive.

The research goals and methods may evolve along the way, but then we make sure the insight is truly speaking to the business outcome at the end of the project. Then, the user stories are brief and back up the reasoning behind the outcomes and aren’t the only focus.

Do we risk anything by overcorrecting here?

It’s a balance, but, I don’t think so. As long as we maintain the quality of our work, go deeper into synthesis and prioritize the right questions for research—the ones that really matter to the business. Of course it depends on the project.

A project that is designed specifically for an outcome like driving engagement with a target audience will have more focus on rich stories, giving stakeholders an opportunity to build empathy and understanding.

A project intended to uncover why metrics are dropping in an onboarding funnel may more directly answer the reasons why, backed up by customer behavior examples as proof points.

Either way, in the findings deck, document or whatever format you choose, keeping the customer stories concise, engaging, and targeted so you don’t lose your audience’s attention is still crucial.

What are some specific things you and your team are doing to connect your work to the business and demonstrate the ROI of your work?

Organizationally, we have a unique thing going that I believe sets us up for success. My boss, Christine Kahm leads a full Customer Insights team as opposed to a UXR team. Organizational design is another topic many of us enjoy debating, but does contribute heavily to the span of influence our insights could have.

Under Christine, there’s UXR but also Market research, Analytics and UX Measurement, and Voice of the Customer (customer support operations/analytics). This empowers us to allocate resources quickly staying ahead of major decisions, inform the strategy and connect the dots across the organization. Together, we can triangulate and have a strong POV on the opportunity. One cohesive narrative is hard to ignore.

On previous teams I’ve been a part of, each research discipline (e.g. UXR and Market Research) reported to different parts of the business, Design and Marketing respectively. It was much more difficult to align research roadmaps and outcomes we wanted to influence. This left cross-functional partners to sort through data and do their own triangulation or for each type of researcher to compete for mindshare of their partners to have an impact.

I realize an organizational change of this size isn’t a reality for many teams, so let’s talk about just UXR.

First, when I share my team’s roadmaps, I list the projects with each of the top three business priorities it informs. We’ve also started to list the outcomes we hope to drive. This justifies why I’m not prioritizing other projects.

I have a tracking spreadsheet of the product experience issues we’re trying to drive forward to change and the outcomes. It’s easier to do for usability work so we’ve primarily started there. For foundational research we track it, but it’s more challenging to attribute.

We spend time as a team getting feedback and critiquing our project briefs at the beginning of the project and doing multiple rounds of “internal” UXR (and broader Insights team) feedback on our findings and narratives at the end of the project. This is to double-check the main research question is well-defined, the methodology is appropriate, and the target audience selected will drive the outcome we were aiming for.

After data collection, it's easy to forget about the brief. As projects go on, things change, but in synthesis, we revisit those outcomes and make sure we are consistent and our findings answer what they need to.

Another important aspect is holding your cross-functional partners accountable. I get anxious about putting people on the spot at the end of a share-out, so we plan ahead for it. I think we all know the importance of bringing your stakeholders along for the ride of the project to maintain buy-in.

So after data collection ends, it’s important to still stay close with partners to create the next steps/plan of action together. Maybe even skip a formal share out for more time and energy in a working session to help the team move forward. It’s so easy for researchers to move on to the next project, but the time dedicated to landing the insight is just as crucial.

Another thing I’m experimenting with is reducing time spent on “roadshows” of live research share outs for different teams. Focusing on working sessions with the key decision-makers helps us too. A doc with key insights to prompt discussion and debate is sometimes more appropriate.

Any tips for quick impact wins?

My secret weapon is usability. It can be very strategic and a quick way to demonstrate ROI for research. When I joined Cash, one of the top priorities was product quality. So creating a usability program helped address this.

I worked on a project with a talented researcher here, Sarah Skaggs, where she identified the top user flows across the app and we tested them to show the org how even our tried-and-true core functionality could be improved. More importantly, we told the story of how these small moments of friction add up to larger quality issues and inconsistency across an experience. We’re excited to see many of our recommendations implemented or in progress.

As a people manager, I have little time to do a full-on research study myself. But when a solid research question came up recently about how our customers do a particular financial activity today, I tossed it into a Dscout Express Mission. I was able to get a quick read on a specific topic, building my own confidence on the topic to fuel a healthy debate and the work informed a strategy review accordingly.

“My secret weapon is usability. It can be very strategic and a quick way to demonstrate ROI for research. When I joined Cash, one of the top priorities was product quality. So creating a usability program helped address this.”

Elysa Stein
User Experience Researcher, Cash App

Parting thoughts

With the tech industry evolving and the size and shapes of organizations changing, we need to stay relevant and have a direct impact on the business. There are many ways we can hone in our practice and process accordingly across team alignments, shareout strategies, and even secret weapon methods like usability. It’s more important than ever for us to get in the rooms where business-leading conversations are happening and make space for our research and users to be heard.

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Elysa Stein is a UX research leader with a design strategy background, currently leading a UXR team at Cash App after many years at LinkedIn. She’s passionate about understanding the 'why' behind human behavior, whether through her insights work, podcasts about murder, or observing her little humans at home. 

Julie’s work in Design and UX Research has spanned decades, as a consultant across industries, in-house as the Head of UX Research and Content Design for LinkedIn, and now as VP of User Experience at dscout. She has cultivated a practice that centers dignity and the complexity of the human experience in product development and leadership—and a belief that it’s okay to have a little fun along the way.

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