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These FAQs from Product Managers May Surprise You

Understanding your product managers is key to a successful research relationship. Read some of their burning questions.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Nicky Mazur

One of the most exciting meetings I have ever attended was with a group of product managers. My husband got into this group of about 10 product managers who met a few times a month to discuss all things product.

And, one day, he invited me.

He told me the product managers were interested in sitting down and chatting with a user researcher. They wanted to understand the role better, and why researchers did or said certain things.

Of course, I was nervous. I was a sample size of one trying to represent the greater industry, and was terrified I would say the wrong thing that would set these product managers off research for good.

Luckily, that wasn't the case. Instead, they had a bunch of questions they wanted to ask me to understand the role of user research better. I realized that they were researching me!

A revelatory meeting with product managers

Through the questions they asked, I learned so much important information on how they thought about certain concepts—and that many stakeholders want to work with user researchers.

This meeting was the beginning of my shift and mindset reframe around stakeholders. Instead of treating them like opponents or begging them to work with me, it was time to start treating them like users of a product, my research being the product.

No more assuming they knew exactly how and when to approach me, what I did, or how to speak with me! The questions were eye-opening, and my relationships with stakeholders are so much more positive and open with the changes I made.

Some of these questions hugely surprised me. For such a long time, I had assumed that answers to these questions were obvious because, well, they were evident to me!

I was biased. I know how vital and valuable user research is. I know when I want product managers to reach out to me, and how I want to work with them. I know how I want product managers to word research requests.

But did they know all of this? Did I make every step of how they engage with me clear? Did they know precisely when to engage with me and why they were engaging with me at that particular step of the product development phase?

I can tell you that I didn't take the time to explain this to my product managers for a large part of my career. As a result, I wasn't explicit about my role and how we could collaborate, which led to many misalignments, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings.

FAQs product managers have for us

✔ When do I reach out for help on user research?

This was the first question out of the box, and I was immediately shocked. The product managers understood usability testing was important and had a vague idea of when to reach out for that, but they weren't entirely sure when the best moment was.

Should they have something developed? Is just an idea enough to test? When should they reach out about discovery research if they aren't sure what they’re trying to understand yet? What if something in the product roadmap changes?

A lot of the group needed clarification on when the best time was to reach out for research. Since usability testing was the most common and easiest to understand, they usually waited for that moment.

✔ What are the different methods and questions you can answer?

The first question then sparked this next one. I talked about how we generally got research requests late, and how researchers could help beyond usability testing. I stressed how frustrating it could be to get a late request and feel like we were just "validating designs."

With that statement came this question. Product managers aren't sure about the other methods we can employ and the questions we can answer beyond the scope of usability testing.

I was talking through how we can send a survey to help prioritize an idea against others, and the product managers were stunned. They spoke about times when they wished they had known user research could have helped them with different questions in these different scenarios.

It was so interesting to see that it isn't always clear to stakeholders where user research shines, and the different questions we can answer with varying methods across the product development phases.

From that moment on, I created a "What can you expect from me" document that I shared with my colleagues, so they knew the full scope of my skills and role.

✔ What should I expect from a user researcher?

It took me a while to answer this one because I hadn't really thought about it. Setting clear expectations and boundaries is the foundation of a positive relationship. Knowing what to expect from another person makes it easier to understand how to interact best.

These product managers weren't sure exactly what a user researcher was there to do in the full scope of the role. Yes, they understood that a user researcher was there to help the company understand customers better, but they didn't realize what else user researchers could do.

I talked them through how I had helped marketing teams with content, facilitated ideation workshops, and helped create an internal playbook on how departments could optimize their internal processes.

From that moment on, I created a "What can you expect from me" document that I shared with my colleagues, so they knew the full scope of my skills and role.

✔ Does research have to take forever?

I laughed when this question came up and knew it would be on the list. When I started to answer this question, I found that it was related to expectations.

Many stakeholders weren't sure how long research was meant to take and, more importantly, why it had to take that long.

For years, I had told stakeholders that usability testing would take four weeks and that a complex generative research project would take eight weeks or more. Nowhere in my process did I take the time to tell them why. It was simply a rule without explanation, the worst type of rule (and hardest to adhere to).

When I explained why research took a certain amount of time, stakeholders better understood the constraints. Additionally, that conversation invited us to collaborate on ways we could lean down the study without endangering the quality. Instead of a fight, it was a productive conversation.

✔ How can we better collaborate with researchers?

Similar to the expectation question, this took me some time to answer. Of course, I had all the ways I wanted to collaborate more with product managers, but I had never thought of it from the flipside.

I had a similar realization again. Usually I presented my general process to stakeholders in a bigger meeting, but I hadn't talked through the whys of that process.

For instance, why do researchers need to get notified about projects earlier? I just asked stakeholders to please include me earlier in the discussion. Unfortunately, I never relayed why this was important and how this could help the team on a larger scale.

From there, I left that meeting and tried to create a more transparent and straightforward playbook highlighting how to collaborate, and why collaborating in specific ways was so efficient and helpful to the teams and organization.

We all contribute a specific expertise to an organization, and we can't be expected to know and do everything.

✔ Should a researcher know how to do both qualitative and quantitative research?

I was so happy to hear this question. I am a qualitative user researcher. While I can use quantitative techniques, such as surveys or product analytics, I get quickly out of depth when we dive deeper into quantitative data and statistical analysis.

When I talked through this perspective, the group wished that user researchers would come to them more often to ask questions about quantitative data. In addition, they wanted to share their knowledge so that we could better collaborate and get a holistic picture of users.

It’s essential to understand your specialty and your limits—and to be able to ask for help and support. What was great about this conversation was that I remembered that we all contribute a specific expertise to an organization, and we can't be expected to know and do everything.

What to do with these questions

First and foremost, I audited how I was currently working and saw where there could be misalignment.

Next, I highly encourage you to have open and honest conversations with your stakeholders, asking them what they need and how you can better collaborate. We can forge better relationships and connections by understanding and empathizing with our stakeholders.

If you struggle with these types of conversations because of conflict, try a technique I teach: I statement + collaboration invitation. The formula is, "I feel X emotions because of Y fact. How can we together make Z better?"

Instead of:

You never listen to my insights. Why don't you ever prioritize my work? Why are we even doing research?

Try:

I feel as though we aren't working on some important insights. How can we work together to tackle some of these insights and get them prioritized? How can I help support you better in this initiative?

Once you identify some FAQs of your product managers, brainstorm (with them!) how you can help better support them or optimize your process to bring clarity to these questions. It's a bit of work, but I promise they will appreciate you, and ultimately you will find your relationships and outcomes improving.

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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