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Contribute Meaningfully: The Power of a Research Strategy

Chris Geison walks us through the distinctions between “strategic research” and “research strategy” to unpack how the latter is the key to improving team bandwidth and securing a seat at the table.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Research, in an effort to increase its visibility, importance, and credibility, has often turned to "strategy," describing it as the missing piece. Chris Geison thinks that we've been mis-defining and mis-framing the question, confusing "strategic research" with "research strategy."

Research strategy is what we as a field, a practice, a discipline, critically need. People Nerds sat down with Chris to discuss the impacts of strategy on the front-line work and how, with a strategy, the field can begin to progress and have the impact it ought to and what we've been getting "wrong" about our focus on "strategy."

Before we dive into the interview, Chris firstly wanted to say:

“The most important voices in user research are women of color — and that’s not a coincidence. People like Vivianne Castillo, Alba Villamil, Sarah Fathallah, Crystal Yan. They are the ones calling us to our higher purpose, as humans and as a profession. I’m talking about research strategy because I think that’s something I can contribute to the conversation, but if people haven’t read your interviews with these women, they should.”

dscout: Like many user researchers, your career did not start out in UX space. Could you talk about how your experience in marketing and behavioral health has shaped the work you do as a UXR broadly?

Chris: Yeah, this is basically my third career. First marketing, then behavioral health, now UX research. It was the combination of the kind of strategic thinking that came with marketing and from behavioral health, my fascination with people and how weird and wonderful we are that led me to UX research.

I never really liked marketing per se, but I enjoyed market strategy with its combination of creative and critical thinking, the work of distilling something complex into something simple and compelling. With counseling, I was intrigued by how, as humans, our intentions don’t always align with our behaviors and how we can identify interventions to help to better align those intentions and actions. UX research has been a perfect synthesis of what I enjoyed about those two areas: the strategy in marketing and the human psychology in the mental health field both find purchase in UX research.

Getting into research strategy, when did the strategy questions start forming in your head enough to start writing and thinking about them?

It wasn’t until I came to Workday and had a title that said “Research Strategist” with a job description that said “strategic research” that I began to try and figure out what exactly that meant.

The job description was doing foundational research to demonstrate the value of strategic research for product decisions. Once I got the lay of the land here, it became clear to me that there was actually an opportunity to identify processes, tools, and approaches that would help researchers across the organization do more strategic work. With this title, I wasn’t attached to any specific product or any team or anything. I had the leeway that allowed me to ask, “What should this be?”

Would you mind pulling apart "strategic research" and "research strategy?" What makes that distinction so important?

Strategic research is research that informs product decisions that have strategic value. Whereas, research strategy is about ensuring that we are doing the right research. We talk a lot in this field about how to do research, but not enough about what research should be done.

For strategic research, I am using tools like diary studies, contextual inquiries, and in-depth interviews. With research strategy, the tools that I'm using are more like prioritization frameworks, research roadmaps, impact metrics–things of that nature.

When it comes to research strategy we’re asking: What are we going to do? When are we going to do it? Where are there opportunities for democratizing some of this research? Are there situations where we should say no? And for all of the above, why?

Researchers have a really hard time saying no. But it is important to remember that you’re saying no because you’re saying yes to something else; you have to have a reason, and research strategy defines that reason.

You can’t just say, “I don’t want to do that research, it’s not interesting.” I fell into that trap as well, where I was like, “I don't want to do evaluative work, I want to do research that’s strategically important.” But usability testing is strategically important! If your product doesn't work, people can't use it. It doesn't matter how great the solution is if it doesn't work. So that has strategic value. There can be a ton of reasons why usability testing or evaluative methods are strategically valuable research. There's a place for both and both are important.

I believe people want to do work that matters. In the absence of a strategy that defines what matters and helps researchers feel like they’re contributing to something bigger than themselves, researchers retreat into doing work they find personally meaningful because it addresses their intellectual curiosity. I suspect a lot of us would be perfectly happy to do “tactical” research if we understood how it plugged into the big picture. I’d personally be psyched to do mostly evaluative work if it was a choice between evaluating big releases, working with a team that made use of my work, as opposed to doing generative work for a team that ignored me.

Can you describe what a team (or even an organization) with a research strategy would look like?

I would say a team with a research strategy is contributing meaningfully to the mission of their organization and the organization that their organization reports to and so on, working all the way up to the top.

They're also prioritizing effectively, allocating resources effectively, and they're not wasting money on projects they shouldn't do. Nor are they wasting researchers’ time on research that won't get used. They are not responsive, they're proactive—so they are not just fielding research requests, but they are actually contributing to conversations. All this is happening up the hierarchy.

All the things you’re talking about are the things that would go into and can facilitate getting a seat at the table. You’re grounding the work that you do in things that many other people at the company are concerned about. How does this compare to research leadership?

Typically what I call research strategy gets bucketed as either “research leadership,” “scaling research,” or “stakeholder management.” I think that misses the mark. I don't even care if we call it "research strategy," I just want it called a thing, so then everybody who's talking about this can talk about it in the same terms.

It isn’t that I don’t think this should be a leadership issue–it should. But a lot of leaders are concerned with things like headcount and the kind of stakeholder conversations that are happening at the executive level. They’re expecting managers to do more of the prioritization work and to work more closely with the product, design, and engineering teams. Then for that to trickle down so there’s clarity from the individual researcher to the team leader, to the director, and so on.

There is certainly an opportunity for research strategy to happen at the executive level, but calling it leadership can leave out consultants and managers who often don’t see themselves influencing those conversations about org structure, democratization, etc. It also leaves out individual contributors who have an opportunity to bring all the various things they could be working on to their managers. It opens the space for questions like, "Here are all the different things I could be working on, but here's why I think I should work on this." Moving toward conversations about what best leverages expertise instead of what's most urgent.

Researchers have a really hard time saying no. But it is important to remember that you’re saying no because you’re saying yes to something else; you have to have a reason, and research strategy defines that reason.

Chris Geison

How might this framing of research strategy implicate bringing new folks to the research table, to democratize a research practice?

Too often the discussion around democratization focuses on skills, not enough on the strategic value of the research.

Deploying a research strategy might mean that some questions or problems, because of their importance to the business, are usually handled by a researcher, even if they could be democratized based on skills. For example, say you're kicking off a UX metrics program where you need a baseline and you want to make sure that things are done a certain way, or because you’re launching a hugely significant release for the company. They've [the company] invested millions of dollars potentially in launching this thing. Sure, that's important–you probably want an expert on that.

But again, you'd look to your strategy to inform that decision. Democratization certainly can play a role, but the strategy of a team informs those decisions.

And how might democratization also mean looping more folks involved in the process, not just the "doing" of the work?

How research strategy works with others throughout the organization is simply better engagement with stakeholders. Democratization isn’t the only way to do that; it’s not the best way to do that. Though it does get their attention when you say, “We’re not able to do your research, but we’ll help you do it!” Research strategy puts us on more of an equal footing with those stakeholders so that we are not fielding requests, but contributing meaningfully. Then stakeholders can see that research has a point of view and opinions that should be a part of product roadmap conversations. From there, we can align a research roadmap.

I often point out, if you ask a marketing person for their marketing strategy, a sales person for their sales strategy, an IT person their IT strategy, you can be pretty sure they’re going to have one. Why not research? How can we expect other functions in the organization to want to work with us if we’re not operating on the same level?

What are some of the ways that folks can be thinking about research strategy at the smaller level?

At my company currently, researchers are on design teams and they report to design managers. We don’t have a centralized research organization. So research strategy has to operate more from a bottom-up approach than a top-down approach.

It’s so important for the researcher to be able to have prioritization conversations. The whole idea behind research strategy came up because I’m an IC and I brought a prioritization framework to my manager to help us align around what I should be working on. There were a bunch of really interesting opportunities and because I was new to the role, I felt like. ‘This project feels like it's really important, but I'm being asked to do this project. Let's have a conversation about this stuff so we’re on the same page.’ So I think ICs absolutely should be using that prioritization framework in conversations with their managers. Ideally that would then roll up to the manager level so managers are using it in conversations with their managers.

You mentioned in your presentation that every strategy contains a mission statement. For many UXers, that mission statement is simply that we do whatever is politically expedient. But now as UXers are permeating through different organizations, it feels like we might want to consider a mission statement or strategy. Can you talk about what makes for a good mission statement?

You have a strategy, either by design or by default, and our default strategy is urgency and political expediency. We can do better than that.

I think if I hadn’t spent a lot of time volunteering with nonprofits I might view mission statements as random values created by execs posted up on the wall. In the nonprofit world, their main purpose is not to make money. They have to clearly communicate why they exist and their mission statement is the foundation of that. I see nonprofits as the best guidance for coming up with mission statements.

To get more specific on a good mission statement, a good mission statement is like the strategy at an atomic level. It’s the clearest distillation of what you do, who you do it for, and how you do it. Ideally, you’d also work in what makes you different. What's the relevant differentiation that you bring to the work? It's not a vision statement, which describes a future state; it's grounded in the present practices of the team

What are some next steps for UXRs out there to start creating their research strategy?

My plug would be to go to and sign up, there’s a nice and very engaged little community in there. I’ve worked in a few different settings but everyone’s organizational structure is different, so I’m eager to learn from other people who work in different structures who are trying different things. A lot of us are trying to figure out how to have an impact and how to get a seat at the table. Let’s all just talk to each other and share notes and try what other people have done that works for them. I can't wait to see all the different perspectives that are going to come to bear.

We are a really immature field–that's a gift and a curse. There are huge opportunities for us to shape things and there are huge opportunities to learn from other fields that are more mature. We have so far to grow as a field in proving our worth and earning the influence that we absolutely deserve.

Framing and identifying good questions is something that researchers do well, and the business needs that. I know some great researchers who spend a fair amount of time not doing user research, but doing things like facilitating executive workshops or playing an active role in strategic conversations. Because we have experience in framing issues, identifying good questions and follow-up questions, active listening, making sure that we actually understand everything that's going on. Collecting that qualitative data and then distilling it into something that is intelligible and compelling. A lot of researchers I know are doing work that isn't just research because our skills are so transferable.

Because of this, it makes sense for us to have more influence in the organization. I see opportunities for us to influence decision making beyond just the value that our research provides. But to do that we need to earn our way into those conversations.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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