Sometimes an organization’s first researcher shows up and no one is doing any form of user research before their arrival. But more and more, I find that this doesn’t reflect the experience of most people who build a UXR practice from scratch.
In reality, a lot of us come in and build research practices in organizations where some form of research is already being done by people like product managers and designers.
When you value a democratic approach to UX, this makes your task more complex: does UXR have a role in what’s being done already? Should it be overhauled or changed in any way? How do we create an inclusive research environment while being certain that what’s being done is being done properly?
Start by gauging the landscape
When I began my role as the first researcher at Lightricks, I learned that the main research activities that had already been taking place were:
- Usability testing both by product managers and designers
- Surveys by both product and marketing teams
- Occasional interviewing, mainly categorized as “talking to users.”
I spent a significant amount of time talking with people who did this type of research, reviewing their work with their permission, and getting a sense of what was happening. Over the course of the last year since starting the UXR team, I’ve learned quite a lot from my successes and failures of trying to approach democratization that was—in essence—already decided before I began my role.
These are the primary lessons that I’ve learned, which I hope can give others in a similar position some actionable insights to work with.
Adjust your mindset
Regardless of quality, existing research is a good sign. I’ve talked with researchers who start off from a point of frustration when they realize that they have to somehow get a user research practice off the ground in an environment where what’s being done already isn’t according to best practices.
Maybe designers are doing usability tests that aren’t worded properly, or they’re making huge decisions based on a few user sessions rife with leading questions. As a researcher, it’s tempting to despair, but I found that it was relatively easy to reframe this into something positive.
One of the main struggles that researchers have when starting the practice from scratch is that it can be difficult to convince stakeholders that UXR is truly impactful. Stakeholders new to working with research question everything from our sample sizes to our methodology, and education is a part of the role.
But in any organization where stakeholders are already doing research, regardless of quality, you can deduce that they already at least partially understand the value of user insights in product development. This is a huge advantage and a great starting point.
Take the time to assess what’s happening
Just listen and observe. No one likes the new employee who, by their second day, is telling them what should be done differently and how. Though being liked isn’t your primary goal, respecting the work of others by understanding their goals and processes will ultimately be more effective in positioning yourself as a subject matter expert and relevant resource.
Overall, the best way to both improve the quality of the research being done is to lead from within by meeting your stakeholders where they are.
That includes action items like:
- Schedule meetings with everyone who’s doing any type of research and ask questions from a place of curiosity rather than judgment.
- Seek to understand what they do, why they do it, and how it’s been working for them.
- Review their documentation and anything else that they’re willing to share.
Once you’ve done that, you can make a list of what’s happening that is 1) functional and according to best practices, or 2) in need of improvement.
Offer your help and expertise
Once you’ve identified areas of improvement, take a two-pronged approach: offer your help either as an internal consultant—or to take research off someone’s to-do list.
After settling in at Lightricks, I understood that there are two types of product managers and designers who are doing research:
- Those who enjoy it and want to cultivate the skills necessary to do it well, and
- Those who were doing it out of necessity before there was a research team, but are happy to pass on this part of their to-do list.
It became obvious that coming up with a one-size-fits-all solution wasn’t really possible at this stage, unless I was willing to burn bridges with one of these groups. The enthusiastic researchers would resent our new team taking over, and the reluctant researchers wouldn’t want to sit through hours of training on a topic that wasn’t related to their professional passion.
I decided to offer our assistance in a way that met each stakeholder where they were at and in retrospect, this was a useful first step. I recommend asking enthusiastic stakeholders directly: Is there any part of the research process that you feel less confident in?
You can offer for your team to…
- Review their usability tests before they go out.
- Organize training sessions on topics that multiple stakeholders want to refine their skills in.
- Join all or part of their process as another stakeholder.
In my case, though only a few people took us up on the offer to begin with, I saw that the more we worked with them, the faster word spread that we were a good resource. Now, we’re in a place where the majority of people who do any kind of research are consulting with us on a regular basis. This means that there is ongoing dialogue and continuous learning, which are essential ingredients for research democratization.
For the stakeholders who are doing research reluctantly, offer to take over and include them as much as they’d like throughout the process. I found that some stakeholders really want to be a part of certain research activities, but don’t want to lead it. They’re interested in popping in to meet a user now and then, but they’re more than happy to let you execute the entire process and deliver key insights and recommendations.
This nuanced approach of meeting stakeholders where they are respects the work of others, helps build key stakeholder relationships, and allows you to begin to influence the quality and reliability of research at your organization.
Re-evaluate and brainstorm next steps
Once you’ve gotten to know your stakeholders and have begun to deliver your expertise and research, go back to your original list. How much of what you originally identified as needing improvement has indeed gotten better? What still needs work?
You’ll likely find that just by working alongside stakeholders in the way that works best for them, you’ve improved a lot more than you originally assumed—without actually implementing major, sweeping processes.
When you look at your new list of what still needs improvement, you’re in a different place as you brainstorm solutions on your team and with your organization’s leadership. You’ve built relationships, gained trust, and created awareness of best practices. Now, you can work with your product and design leadership teams to think about whether it’s time to implement more general policies.
In my own personal journey, this is exactly the point at which I find myself. Retrospectively, I’m thankful that I took the past year to focus on relationships, trust, providing help and resources when they’re wanted, and being a good listener.
Now, regardless of what we decide along with the management team, I’m in a much better position to brainstorm a solution that works for most stakeholders and serves the ultimate goal of advancing the integration of user insights into all aspects of product development.
Would I have democratized research from the get-go, or would I have taken a more centralized approach? I’m not sure. I’ve never developed a strong opinion about which extreme is better among the plethora of pros and cons. But for those of you who find yourself in a position where democratization is already happening, there is definitely a way to be intentional about the path forward.
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Cori Widen leads the UX Research team at Lightricks. She had worked in the tech industry for 10 years in various product marketing roles before honing in on her passion for understanding the user and transitioning to research. Outside work, Cori is busy reading books of all kinds, hanging out with her husband and two kids, and traveling.