It can be exhausting to explain UXR’s value to stakeholders. And once they’re onboard, it can be hard to pitch new methodologies (even when they’re better fits for your project).
Once, in a previous role, I hit a wall. For the first six months, things had been going well. I’d produced insights necessary to move the product forward. I’d conducted research that mapped well to our biggest priorities: fixing major UX issues and bugs, and increasing innovative thinking within teams.
And I engendered a lot of trust from my internal stakeholders by pitching the most widely accepted methodologies: usability testing (which is quick, easy, and leads to tangible results), and generative research (which produces common deliverables like personas, customer journey maps, empathy maps, etc).
Then a different problem came across my desk. I’d realized users had struggled with the overall flow of our application. And the team wanted to redesign our complicated platform completely.
It was exciting—but daunting. Often, these projects call for methodologies that my stakeholders just weren’t familiar with.
Ultimately, the best way to approach this redesign was not through generative research but with a combination of card sorting, mental models, and some co-design sessions.
Unfortunately, these changes were met with...well, little enthusiasm.
"Nope. No. Too risky. Too much time. Not enough budget. No."
The chorus of "no's" ended in a crescendo. I went back to the drawing board.
I knew I had to convince them, or this project would be a failure. I set up a master plan I now use regularly to win over skeptical stakeholders.
The 3-step method
My foolproof plan consists of a mix of stakeholder user research, therapy, and luck.
Although they are not “skip-up-the-stairs-easy” steps, they’re efficient and worthwhile:
- Understand why stakeholders are pushing back on these methodologies. What is the root behind the no?
- Uncover the business goals and metrics they want to achieve for this particular project.
- Create a research plan that both mitigates their worries and shows how research can positively impact the metrics they care about.
Step 1: Understand why there’s pushback
Imagine I’m a new user researcher at Dog City, a fictional company catering to dog owners’ needs. We have an app and website that caters to anything and everything a dog owner could want to know about—from adoption all the way to end-of-life care.
I have just received a project about completely redesigning our app. Although we made improvements to the UX, it isn't keeping users satisfied.
To fix this, I want to start by conducting different types of user research, aside from usability testing and generative research.
I go to the stakeholders to pitch my idea of combining card sorting, mental models, and co-design activities. I am immediately met with "no's" across the board.
Instead of getting angry and giving up, I dig deeper into the reason behind the resistance towards my idea.
Why are they opposed to this change? What are my stakeholders afraid of? How can I address their fears?
Drawing upon these questions, I have a conversation with the stakeholders that goes something like this:
Me: Why do you feel like these methods are not the best idea for this project?
Them: We’re unfamiliar with these methodologies and are concerned about the time, effort, and money it would take to run this study. You are talking about three different methods, as opposed to using ones we know have worked in the past. It is a bit worrying when it comes to the timing, as this is an important project.
Me: Okay, what is your ideal timeline for this project? And the budget for user research?
Them: We want the redesign to be completed in about six weeks total. We don't have too much of an idea for budget yet, especially for user research. What you have been doing for the other research projects is fine.
Me: So, about 15 Amazon gift cards of $50.00 each, similar to the other studies, would make sense?
Them: Yes. What you did before was fine. That is what we mean. We don't see what is wrong with the methodologies we have already used—or why we can't continue doing more of those for this particular project. They are tried and true. They led to excellent outcomes.
Me: What could be some ideal outcomes of user research on this project?
Them: Well, we would completely understand how to restructure the website and how users expect to see the content laid out. Also, we would know what content they need and when they need it. Additionally, we want to improve the overall design of the app to make it more pleasing and easy to use.
I take note of what they say during this conversation and the pain points I uncover. They’re going to be crucial for the next step.
Instead of getting angry and giving up, I dig deeper into the reason behind the resistance towards my idea. Why are they opposed to this change? What are my stakeholders afraid of? How can I address their fears?
Step 2: Uncover the business goals and metrics
Once this conversation is finished, my next mission is to understand what the business goals are for this particular project. This is a relatively easy step. I ask several stakeholders the same questions I would for any research project:
- What are the business metrics we are trying to hit for this project?
- What are the KPIs?
- What are the success metrics we are measuring?
For this particular example, the metrics we will focus on are the number of new (quality) users, the number of app downloads, and the retention rate.
Step 3: Create a research plan
With this knowledge, I know I have to present a fast, budget-friendly option that will have an impact on acquisition and retention rates. I also understand that I have to quell stakeholder fears about new methodologies.
I then take a look at the overall platform and perform a “mini” heuristic evaluation. I look into the previous research we have done and highlight the overarching pain points we have found with the user experience.
Finally, I look into Google Analytics for the following:
- To see where users are abandoning the app, or seem to spend a lot of time
- To access the number of downloads across the previous six months
- To find the current retention rate for the last six months
With this information, I create a user research project plan that lists out the different methodologies, and the purpose each will serve. These purposes all link up to the goals and ideal outcomes the stakeholders told me themselves.
I set a precise timeline for the entire research project, alongside a budget. I then strip that down to a minimal viable research plan, which is the leanest a research project can get while still achieving the objectives.
In this case, an MVR plan would consist of the following recommendations:
- 10 overall interviews with current users
- 10 sessions combining card sorting and co-designing
- Purpose of each methodology:
- Card sorting: to understand how to restructure the website and how users expect to see the content laid out
- Co-designing: to understand what content they need and when they need it, as well as a design easy for them to use
- Timeline of two weeks for the research portion
You may notice I used the stakeholder's language verbatim when explaining the purpose of each methodology. This is an important psychological tactic. When your stakeholders sees their wants and fears addressed in their own words, they’ll be much more amenable to your suggestions.
In this project, I would aim for 10 total participants, but be satisfied with 8, if we find it is necessary to trim amid the study. This plan pacifies the stakeholder's apprehensions and, generally, leads to them changing their minds.
Step 4: (Bonus) Repeat!
Rinse and repeat until people are banging down your door (or hovering over you, in the more common open-office layout) with unique user research project requests.
I use the stakeholder’s language verbatim when explaining the purpose of each methodology. This is an important psychological tactic. When your stakeholders sees their wants and fears addressed in their own words, they’ll be much more amenable to your suggestions.
Some different methods to try
Below are some different methods you might want to leverage in your next research project. They’ll help you go beyond the typical tactics to gain deep insights you might not have been able to otherwise.
Card sorting is one of the most potent information architecture research tools and is extremely fun to facilitate. This method illustrates the way users group, sort, and label content in their heads. Card sorting helps when designing IA, workflows, navigation, and site maps. It is a "low-tech" research option (some index cards and sharpies work wonders) with a very tangible output.
A mental model is a person's intuitive understanding of how something should function. They're formed based on experience with everyday situations. The outcome is a diagram, which helps product improvement in two ways. First, you achieve a better understanding of how your current offerings either support or hinder users. Second, mental models help ensure moves forward in a user-centered way.
This method can go a few different ways. The most common usage of co-design is bringing together internal stakeholders and team members to discuss a problem and brainstorm different ideas and solutions. This can be an enjoyable exercise to engage stakeholders during the research/design process and to inspire creativity. There is always more than one solution.
Test the waters
It is easy to fall back on repeating the same methods, especially when they are practical, and stakeholders trust the insights. However, there is so much more to user research than in-depth interviewing and usability testing. Not only will you get better results for your studies, but you will save yourself from becoming a research robot.
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.
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