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How to Engage Stakeholders in Research for Better Outcomes

Having invested stakeholders can make or break all of your work. How do you cultivate great relationships for many projects to come? We conducted a study to find out.

Words by Karen Eisenhauer, Visuals by Allison Corr

A couple weeks ago, we shared our first findings from our People Nerds audience on the state of stakeholder engagement. In collaboration with Miro, we found that people really aren’t feeling their stakeholders are as engaged as they wish.

Many reported barriers to stakeholder engagement—undervaluing the research process, not enough prioritization and time, misunderstandings of best practices—all of which come from a lack of exposure to the research process.

But changing this situation is much easier said than done. There are many nuanced challenges to engaging stakeholders in a healthy, sustainable way.

Lack of stakeholder engagement means continuing misunderstanding of the value and process of user research.

For this next insulation, Miro and dscout teamed up to interview 10 experienced researchers (and a few stakeholders as well!) all about how stakeholder engagement can thrive within organizations.

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✔ Understand your stakeholders like you understand your participants

Many of our research experts lead with one key truth: engagement requires empathy.

Just like we seek a foundational understanding of our participants to build products that work for them, we must seek an understanding of our stakeholders to build processes that will provide them value.

Truthfully, we ask stakeholders for a lot. We’re demanding their time and bandwidth. We’re often asking them to sacrifice their ego, too—stakeholders must be willing to learn about a new process, and also potentially be challenged on deep-seated beliefs about the products they build. Convincing them to invest begins with the demonstration of value on their terms, not yours or your participants’.

“Aim to understand before trying to be understood. So the idea is not so much that they have to know why you do research, or what you think is important for research. I think for me, the goal is always to first say, ‘What is it that they need at the moment? What are their goals? Their constraints? What else is their plate?’ …Wrap your head around their perspective. And then sort of connect it to yours.”


"People approach you with their own background of knowledge. So if you're getting a project manager in accounting or something, you know, they're going to interact with you based on their prior experience and where they're coming from. So understanding…what their mental models are, it's helpful to know kind of where they're coming from.”


"One of the most important things a researcher can do in any environment, startup enterprise innovation consulting is understand who your stakeholders are, but also understand who their stakeholders are…Who are they accountable to? And what are they accountable for? Because having that under your belt and in your mind will help you position all of your insights, learnings, practices, questions that you're gonna ask the annoying things that you're gonna point out.”


The good news is that as researchers, we are trained in exactly this skill! Stakeholders are just another segment of humans, and we have an arsenal of tools specifically designed to understand needs and pitch value.

Here are a few things you can try to get to know your stakeholders better:

  • Research what workflow they use (e.g. Agile), and what the timeline expectations are
  • Do some digging to find out who your stakeholders’ stakeholders are, and what they value
  • Hold short interviews with recurring stakeholders to understand their day-to-day work and professional values and concerns
  • When research questions arise, use the five whys method to understand the motivations and concerns behind their requests
  • Make a mental map of the competing goals your stakeholders might have, and how they are aligned or misaligned with yours

“I like to ask a lot of questions, and I I feel sometimes like that comes off as maybe being a little bit annoying…[but] I will keep asking until I get to what is the heart of the matter, because that is rarely the same as to what the the professed reason for a project is. Getting that unspoken kind of purpose behind it out in the open is really helpful.”


This level of understanding will help you in the long run. It will help pitch your ideas in a way that resonates with your audience, and you can also arm them with tools they need to advocate on your behalf to the real decision makers.

Empathy begets empathy. The more you can understand your stakeholders and demonstrate that you are taking their values and constraints into consideration, the higher the likelihood that your stakeholders will do the same for you.

We found in our survey that a major barrier to good engagement is that non-researchers don’t always understand the rigor and effort that goes into good research.

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✔ Communicate expectations early and often

We found in our survey that a major barrier to good engagement is that non-researchers don’t always understand the rigor and effort that goes into good research. This in and of itself is an issue, since it can lead to skepticism of your insights—but it’s also a problem for engagement in the research process. Stakeholders can easily overcommit to being a part of your process without fully understanding what they’re getting into.

Having a clear onboarding and kickoff process to a project can help get ahead of this problem. A great onboarding will cover two sets of expectations:

What can they expect from you?

One basic expectation you can set early on is what you and your research can actually do for them. Some of this may be obvious to you as a researcher, but will be brand new information to someone outside the field.

For some stakeholders, this might mean expanding their understanding of what research can provide. They may have a very limited question, and using methods like the Five Whys, you might uncover larger, more foundational needs that you can address for them. For others, it may mean dialing back expectations and creating realistic parameters for output and timelines.

In either case, our experts agreed on crystallizing the goals and methods and introducing stakeholders to your process. Understanding what they’re getting out of it will also warm them to any asks you have for them later on.

"One of the common threads with client-relationship management is their knowledge about what we do. If they're not very knowledgeable about the process, they’re like, ‘Oh, why are you asking me about this? Why do you need more information? Don't you have enough information?’...I think the onboarding of a client in the beginning is very important so that they understand the process and see that we are going to make an impact."


What do you expect from them?

Once your stakeholders understand what they can expect to get from your process, it’s just as important to communicate what you need from them. High-level timelines can help with this, but it’s often not enough.

For example, you might say, “I would like you to sit in on interviews” or “help with data analysis.” You might know what that means (and the time it entails), but there is no guarantee that your stakeholder does! Even if they’ve done research before, every researcher’s style is a little different, and what you’re expecting might not be what your stakeholder is accustomed to.

Remember also that, while they’re busy, some of their engagement is necessary to deliver value to them. Don’t be afraid to flex a little and make it clear where they are needed. Even if they’re busy, this should be a priority.

“I'd like to be really clear about what it is I do and the kind of role I play on the project. I try to explain, ‘Here are my expectations of you.’ Listen to what their expectations are of me so we're clear on that. So open communication, especially at the beginning, be really clear on why we're doing what this project is, why we're doing it.”


“Something that I'm working on in general is just to be a bit more firm about, like, no. This is not optional. You have to have this meeting. And, you can't force people, but I think in the past, I was like, ‘Oh, it's okay. I understand you're really busy.’ And it's like, no. Actually, if we're gonna be working as a team—and if we're gonna do this well, cross functionally—you need to be here for this public conversation. And do trust that I'm not going to waste your time and invite you to things that you don't have to be at.”


As you ask for various levels of engagement, try to set your stakeholders up for success. Sometimes their reluctance might not be research skepticism, but fear. Stakeholders know that they’re bad at these new skills, and feel nervous that they’ll ruin your research. Gauge their confidence and knowledge and be ready to meet them where they’re at.

“When you're bringing someone into the fold, [make] sure you're setting them up for success. I feel like my [researcher] suggesting to me that I shadow some of the interviews before diving in myself was critical [for] me, not only being able to do it well, but also being confident…Preparing the person that's not involved with research to the best of your abilities is critical in helping them be successful.”


Expectation setting can be challenging up front, but it will save you frustration from both parties down the road. Mutually following through on expectations is also a great way to build trust and empathy between you and your collaborators, and ultimately grow relationships that will help you advocate for your research practice in your organization.

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✔ Stay present

Research can seem like a black box from the outside. This is a danger of the “hand-off approach” to the research process—once you walk away, stakeholders are left to wonder what you’re up to. This is dangerous for you. If they don’t grasp the entirety of the process, they could start to wonder if you really need all that time. You also delay getting them information that they need while you’re building reports.

Our experts recommend combatting this by making yourself constantly, passively visible in your research process whenever possible. Let folks know you’re around, even if they aren’t following closely.

Before 2020, some of our experts took this very literally—they made themselves and their analysis process physically present in prominent parts of the office.

“[I used to like] being very conspicuous, things like taking up a conference room and covering it with sticky notes, with the intention of making a huge mess. So that people are like, what [...] is going on in there, and they come ask you questions about it.”


In the digital era, however, you can’t just set up in the middle of your office floor plan. In a remote workspace, producing a similar effect means more active effort on the part of the researcher.

Our experts believed that you could replicate this sense of presence with high-volume, low-effort information about your process. This could be clips from the field, screenshots of what you’re doing, or even just quick updates or musings.

“I will make little video clips of a particular task that people are really struggling with. I will send that to that Slack channel…and I'll just be like, “This is a general sentiment.” …Then they're included in that process, the field work. They can get the answers to them for themselves without me having to create some fancy, shmancy PowerPoint.”


“You have to do a lot more communication outwards. One that I found myself relying on a lot, actually, is postcards from the field. Or in this case, now postcards from the process….I can make a little slide usually…Takes me like five minutes, right? And it gets people that little sneak peek of it. Sometimes if you do it right, you get more visibility than you would have gotten in an offline world."


These quick updates don’t need to be polished to be effective. In fact, it’s better if they aren’t. These lo-fi points of data help set them apart from polished findings, which makes it easier to caveat that your stakeholders shouldn’t draw too much meaning from them.

The lack of polish has another positive effect, as well. While you’re sharing data, sending these quick updates are also building rapport. They’re communicating a message of, “Hi, I’m here, and we’re on a research journey together.” Even if stakeholders can’t make every meeting, they can still feel like they’re on the back stage of research. They then have an opportunity to share victories and defeats together with you.

“I like when I can hear a quick conversation on how things went, a quick highlight or insight that was gleaned, kind of surfacing one of the key takeaways, or if there were things that didn’t go so well, what were the snafus that occurred? That’s part of that rapport—I can at least sympathize with them when things don’t go right.”

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✔ Play the long game

It can be really easy to get sucked into the success or failure of specific project cycles. Instead of getting trapped in that mindset, our experts offered a few approaches to reframe.

Zoom out

As professional researchers, we are not trying to conduct individual projects. We are trying to build a research practice. This goal transcends the project cycle, and so should our metrics of success. Stakeholder engagement is no exception. Our relationships don’t reset after individual projects—they build over time.

Cultivate allies

One way to play the long game is to be on the lookout for quality allies within your organization. Our experts defined allies as co-workers with natural curiosity for research, or those who proactively seek to collaborate with you. They may also be people you helped in a key moment, building a seed of camaraderie.

"I find [my practice] helped a lot by having champions. People who you're able to work with even in really small mundane or low impact ways, but that person then becomes your champion."


If you find folks like this in your organization, don’t let them go. Bring them as close to the research as possible, and take some extra time out of your day to educate them on your processes. With time, try bringing them ‘behind the scenes’ where you might not bring other stakeholders—research design, early stages of analysis, or moderating interviews, for example.

With time, these cross-functional allies like this can become a powerful and positive force for your team. They are in rooms that you aren’t. They can actively advocate for research at earlier stages in the development process. They can also act as a social force within their teams, encouraging other stakeholders to see the value in what you’re doing.

One designer we spoke to, for example, has been working closely with her research function and has become a champion in her own department:

“I do feel like sometimes you have to remind people, ‘Okay, this is a good place to include research, or really should have had research involved already.’ I think people forget to include research in the process even though they believe in it.”


Cultivating enthusiastic folks is not only satisfying (it’s nice to have co-workers who get you!) but it’s also a strategic way to sow advocacy for your practice throughout the organization.

Let skeptics come to you

Of course, not everyone’s a research enthusiast. Playing the long game means also understanding how to engage with more skeptical stakeholders: with patience and a light touch.

Skeptical stakeholders don’t always know what they’re missing out by not engaging with research. Asking them to put in the energy to be involved in your work is a leap of faith if the value hasn’t been proven to them.

Stakeholders who have the opportunity to discover their insights will remember findings better, feel more accountable for the research outcomes, and be more likely to come back ready and engaged again.

The problem is, if you try to prove value by forcing them into the process, it may backfire. This can start a cycle of low engagement and resentment: your stakeholders are dragged into a process they dislike, their lack of feedback and engagement produces mediocre results, they don’t listen, and research is cemented as low-value in their mind. Not great.

Instead, our experts suggest, try a lighter touch. Do quality work, build relationships where you’re already welcome, and don’t try too hard to intercede where you’re not. If your work is quality, those teams dragging their feet will eventually see on their own what they’re missing out. And when the time comes when they need you, be ready to step in and wow them.

One expert shared their experience on how waiting for an open invitation turned an entire team of skeptics into research champions:

"You cannot force the engagement…When [our stakeholders] launched [an under-researched product], we knew that was a bad idea, but we let them do it anyway because we couldn't stop them. And we didn't rub it in their face when they came back to us and said, ‘Hey, we wanna understand why it didn't work.’ …That aha moment led to incredibly deep trust for the research team. They brought us almost every question they had from that point forward because they knew we could help."


“I have been involved in several major research projects where we've put a lot of effort in and the proponent basically says, ‘Thanks, never mind,’ and then goes off and does whatever. Almost invariably given enough time, they will see the error of their ways and sometimes come back and say, ‘We made a mistake. We should have listened to you. We're gonna try again. Then this time, we'll consider research earlier on.’”

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✔ Let them have their “aha” moments

All the suggestions laid out so far will provide a solid foundation for your stakeholders to understand your work and be willing to engage in the process. Selling your process with empathy, laying out your expectations, staying present, and cultivating long-term relationships will also increase your chances of having willing participants in your process.

But your real ace in the hole is the ‘aha’ moment. That satisfying moment of new understanding is why I love research—it’s intoxicating! And giving stakeholders a taste of that satisfaction is one of the most powerful tools we have for increasing engagement.

Stakeholders who have the opportunity to discover their insights will remember findings better, feel more accountable for the research outcomes, and be more likely to come back ready and engaged again.

The tried and true method of getting stakeholders to an ‘aha’ moment is to bring them into the field. Seeing a user's interaction or emotion in real life can easily shift mindsets and create “sticky” insights with minimal effort on the part of the observer. That’s why it’s such a popular strategy.

However, our experts were major advocates of not only bringing stakeholders into the field, but also bringing them into the analysis process as well. The “aha” that analysis produces is more robust than watching interviews, and stops stakeholders from drawing fast conclusions based on the one or two sessions they could attend. Analysis also necessitates critical, deep engagement—something that observing an interview doesn’t necessarily require.

Unfortunately, bringing stakeholders into analysis is much easier said than done. In the next installment, we’ll dive deeper into the challenging (and rewarding!) task of bringing stakeholders into your analysis. We’ll get into the nitty-gritty logistics of prepping and planning, and give some tips on how to bring stakeholders into the fold—no matter their level of enthusiasm or experience.

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Karen is a researcher at dscout. She has a master’s degree in linguistics and loves learning about how people communicate with each other. Her specialty is in gender representation in children’s media, and she’ll talk your ear off about Disney Princesses if given half the chance.

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