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User Research x Executive Teams: Aligning on Company-Wide Initiatives

Establishing a regular share out cadence with leadership ensures that research is prioritized and impacts the entire organization.

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Thumy Phan

The first time I presented to a leadership team, I was so nervous I could barely speak.

My insights were ready in a polished deck. I had some jokes ready and video clips prepared to help them empathize with the users. I even had written a small script and bored my friends practicing in front of them. The meeting was an hour long, and I planned to talk through the insights for about forty-five minutes, leaving fifteen minutes for questions.

Albeit anxious, I was excited to present and thought my plan was foolproof. Then, about fifteen minutes into my presentation, my worst nightmare occurred. The CTO raised his hand to stop me and asked, "So, what are the key high-level themes we should focus on?"

I stopped in my verbal tracks and had no idea what to say. Yes, I had key themes, but I had interwoven them into a long and detailed presentation. It was at that moment I understood the important distinction between working with colleagues and leadership.

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Recognize their goals

The goals of leadership and executive teams vary wildly across products and organizations—there is no one-size-fits-all way to describe these goals.

Instead, we need to work as detectives to understand the goals of leadership and executive teams and do some user research. A good first step is asking them questions about the organization’s goals and initiatives.

Here are a few examples of the questions I ask:

  1. What is the company's strategic direction in the next six months, twelve months, and three years?
  2. What are the high-level company goals in the next year?
  3. Where would you like to see the company grow in the next year?
  4. What innovations could you imagine in the next one to three years?
  5. What would you like to see the teams accomplish in the next six months, twelve months, and three years?

Understand their history working with UXR

Regardless of the team, it is essential to understand their previous experience with user research or any biases they hold. The best way to learn this knowledge is by asking a lot of questions.

After I get to know each person's role, I like to set up separate meetings to discuss user research. In these meetings, I typically cover the following questions:

If I asked you to define user research, how would you explain it?

Through this question, you will understand any knowledge gaps or biases the person may have about user research. With this information, you can help inform or educate your colleagues.

Have you ever worked with a user researcher before? If yes, tell me about the experience.

By understanding how they have worked with user researchers in the past, you can uncover how you can best work together in the future.

How do you feel about user research?

This question can help you better understand their fears or anxieties surrounding user research, allowing you to brainstorm ways to counteract them.

Tell me what happened the last time you did user research.

By hearing about a previous project, you can gather colleagues' expectations, pain points, and needs when conducting research.

How could you imagine user research helping you?

With this information, you tie it all together and plant the seed for working together. The answer to this question can give you specific action items to get started on facilitating your relationship.

What questions could user research help you answer? What questions do you have about our users?

This information will get you closer to understanding the types of research questions and projects you could run to impact the strategic direction of the company

If you find the leadership and executive team unfamiliar with or have incorrect information about user research, an education session should be your next step. Build an accessible presentation and document on what user research means at that particular company.

Personalize the talk to the company's specific situation. Within this presentation/document, it's worth including:

  • An introduction to user research and what the user research process looks like at your company
  • What value user research brings to your company
  • What different methodologies you'll use, and the value of each method
  • General timelines for different types of studies
  • What teams can expect from you as a researcher

Identifying how to help one another

Getting buy-in from your leadership and executive teams can lead to unblocking and successful user research practices across the organization. I have also found, when you include these teams in your research practice, you can help shape the future and strategy of an organization.

Of course, this takes time, but continuously looping leadership and executive teams into research and talking to their goals will slowly allow you to become part of these conversations.

How can user research help leadership and executive teams?

There are a few ways I like to help leadership and executive teams:

  1. Updating them on any new user segments I have spoken to that look promising with regards to an increase in revenue or acquisition
  2. Revealing any research that touches on innovations they’ve mentioned in previous conversations or other potential innovative ideas that have surfaced in research sessions
  3. Sharing research results from strategic projects that align with the strategy discussed in the meeting I mentioned above
  4. Presenting key deliverables that help the organization understand users better, such as personas, journey maps, mental model diagrams, or service blueprints

How can leadership and executive teams help user researchers?

Leadership and executive teams can immensely help user researchers in a variety of ways.

Here are some ways these teams have helped me in the past:

  1. Discussing the strategic direction of the company so I can align strategic research with these topics
  2. Helping me to understand which customers to focus on to make the most impact
  3. Evangelizing user research to the rest of the organization and helping to cultivate a user-centric mindset
  4. Aligning teams on the importance of conducting user research and mandating ideas like "exposure hours" if stakeholders are not involved in user research (yes, it's happened!)
  5. Reviewing user research OKRs/goals to align them with the broader company strategy

Best studies to collaborate on

Generally speaking, you will not be directly working with and involving the leadership and executive teams.

However, here are some studies that most impact these teams:

  • One-on-one interviews: talking with the highest revenue-generating (or whatever your most important KPI is) users to give insights into their needs and pain points to improve the product experience
  • Service blueprints: ones that show what users are doing and where/how the company supports them (or doesn't!)
  • Surveys: designed to help validate common pain points and struggles that users have to show quantitative data that backs up qualitative data
  • Research projects that align with the strategic direction: ones that ask the big questions these teams have about users—this is why it is essential to speak with these teams to understand what questions they have!

How to share findings

As I mentioned above, there are very particular ways to engage with executive and leadership teams. It is often difficult to get these colleagues in the same room simultaneously, so it is essential to use their time effectively. Hint: it certainly isn't reading through an hour-long report.

Here is how I have learned to share with executive and leadership teams:

Quarterly research reviews

Every quarter I do a large share-out that highlights the key themes we uncovered in the past quarter. Generally, I invite executive and leadership teams to this meeting as optional, so they have a pulse on the quarter's research trends

Strategic project share-outs

Once I complete a research project that aligns with the company's strategic direction or answers a strategic research question, I set up a thirty-minute meeting with these teams.

During this meeting, I go over the top three key themes I found during the research project. I also create insights that directly answer any relevant strategic research questions and list them out in this way.

Once I share the insights, I discuss the recommended next steps for the appropriate teams, a timeline, and any blockers to the next steps.

Executive summaries in reports

Whenever I share a report, I ensure there is an executive summary. This summary highlights the top three insights I have found in the study with a short explanation and links to video or audio clips.

This summary should inform the executive and leadership teams of the most critical insights in five minutes and links to access any further data should they want to dive deeper.

Assumptions workshops

Assumption workshops are beneficial to run with critical stakeholders like leadership and executive teams. In these workshops, you learn what these colleagues assume about users and also about product teams.

I like to run this workshop when I begin at a company to see what these teams think they know about users’ needs, goals, and pain points. You can also squeeze in the other conversations mentioned above into this workshop.

Monthly research newsletter

I send a monthly research newsletter to the entire company to update them on any projects or key trends from research. I also share this with the executive and leadership teams, with an easy way to reach out to me with any questions.

Meeting regularity/syncing

I tend to meet quarterly with the leadership and executive teams to understand any changes to strategic direction, OKRs, or any questions that have come up. During this time, I also update them on any relevant changes to the product or progress on projects they might be interested in.

Regularly meeting with and looping in executive/leadership teams can genuinely help you forge a path to a mature user research organization. When you align with these teams, you can impact strategy on a whole new level, making user research integral to high-level decision-making.

Although it takes time to integrate with leadership and executive teams, it is gratifying to see them using your insights to make company-wide and innovative decisions.

Get realigned with key stakeholders across your org with the People Nerds Guide to Successful Cross-Team Collaboration

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Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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