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Trouble with Stakeholder Buy-In? Include Them More in the Process

If you bring in stakeholders the right way, they'll be engaged, empowered, and ready to act on your findings. Our experts tell us how to achieve this goal without losing control or your stakeholders’ interest.

Words by Bo Liu, Visuals by Allison Corr

This article is the third installment exploring original research conducted by dscout and Miro. All participant responses have been anonymized. You can learn more about the methodology of the study here and read the second installment here.

Imagine this: You've busted your tail to design a quality research project that will deliver in a timely manner. Your initial research has already unearthed some brilliant nuggets of information. And then, everything goes sideways.

Have you experienced any of the following situations?

  • Some stakeholders only joined one or two user interviews and quickly made a conclusion based on what they saw. They don’t think they need the final report.
  • You finished the data collection and are about to start data analysis and reporting, but your stakeholders cannot wait and want to see the research findings as soon as possible.
  • You shared the research report with your team, but they disagree with the conclusions and push back your product recommendations.

You’re upset, frustrated, and thinking: “They do not understand the value of UX research.”

You’re not alone. As a researcher, I had exactly the same experience, and so did the research experts we interviewed in our Stakeholder Collaboration Study. While they talked about their challenges, they also shared with us their secret weapons.

One thing that our experts believe would make a huge difference–and they highly recommended UX researchers to try–is to bring stakeholders into your data synthesis process.

Why bring stakeholders into data synthesis?

"So we don't tell our stakeholders that 'your assumption is wrong', they will figure it out themselves when synthesizing the data together with you.”

As a meticulous researcher, doing data synthesis together with stakeholders may sound daunting or undermining. You may be thinking…

  • “Stakeholders cannot keep the rigor for research”
  • “It’s not their job”
  • “They might misinterpret the data”

Yes, that’s all correct, people can make mistakes or jump to conclusions with their confirmation bias. But if you guide them through the right process, they will learn the correct way from you, a trained researcher, and get better with practice.

Besides that, there are also several benefits for researchers:

✔ Stakeholders will be more convinced of the research findings

"So we don't tell our stakeholders that 'your assumption is wrong', they will figure it out themselves when synthesizing the data together with you.”

An ancient proverb says, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.” When the research findings are presented to our stakeholders, they might question how these conclusions were drawn out of the data, especially when their assumptions are being challenged. Or, they might find it hard to digest without all the context and nuances.

Bringing them into the data analysis process is crucial to building a shared understanding of how the conclusion and recommendations were made, aligning the languages to talk about the findings, and having the insights carved in their mind.

On the other hand, they will be more motivated to follow up on the insights, because (they think) they’re the ones that uncovered it—while actually, it’s the inception from their UX researcher ;).

✔ Don’t feel rushed to deliver the final report

When you ask stakeholders, “By when do you want to have the research findings?”, nine times out of 10 they would answer, “ASAP!”. Great work takes time, but in a fast-paced environment with tight deadlines and constant changes, your stakeholders do not want and cannot afford to wait.

If you involve them in data synthesis…

  • Share the main takeaways without losing the context and the nuances
  • Guide the interpretation of the data
  • Help your stakeholders decide on the next steps before delivering the research report

After the data synthesis, you can take your time writing the report and not feel rushed, because your stakeholders have already learned the research insights and are aligned on the follow-ups. The report then becomes a way for the project documentation and socializing with the broader teams.

✔ Get a chance to research the “users” of your research report

“Do some user research on your stakeholder…Use the user research tools you already have to figure out what it is that they need or want to ask some questions, you know, think deeply about the responses and what those needs are and how those can impact them."

Bringing your stakeholders into data synthesis is like running user testing for the prototype of your research report. It opens up a safe space to discuss and criticize the research findings.

You can use your ethnographic skill to observe how they talk about the insights, what excites them, what concerns them, what they don’t find relevant or useful, the language they’re using, etc.. Then with these observations from the “field”, you’re able to tailor the language and storyline of your report to make it resonate more with your audience.

Tips from experts in the field

“It reminds me of the time when I was teaching in academia. I know what I want my students to learn, but I don’t tell them, ‘Hey this is what you need to remember.’ Instead, I guide them through the process and let them feature it out themselves.”

You might think that bringing stakeholders into the data synthesis means making stakeholders do the work of data analysis for researchers, but that’s not the case. The role of UX researchers in the data synthesis session is comparable to a teacher who guides their students—the stakeholders—through a shared experience, and helps them learn the knowledge through the process.

✔ Pre-analyze the data

Just like a teacher preparing the class for the students, before doing the data synthesis with stakeholders, firstly you need to analyze the data yourself and come up with a few high-level conclusions and recommendations.

During this process, you will better understand…

  • How to categorize the data
  • What themes and patterns could be identified from the clusters
  • What actions your stakeholders should take
  • What questions remain to be answered

With this information, you’re going to design the data synthesis workshop and guide your stakeholders to discover these themes and patterns, make the same conclusion as you already planned, and take the actions that you’d recommend.

Note that the levels of preparation and granularity can vary depending on the type of project. For a usability study, you might want to simply look at the user groups and things to improve for the product. For foundational ethnographic studies with high stakes, more preparation is definitely needed.

A few groupings and categorizations that you might want to consider:

  • User profile: The demographic, behavioral, and attitudinal data of each participant
  • Positive and negative sentiment in customer feedback
  • The research questions

✔ Prepare an affinity mapping workshop

After you know what conclusions you want your stakeholders to draw out of the data, it’s time to design an interactive “study program” to help them get there and feel motivated to follow up on your research findings.

The format of a data synthesis session is often an affinity mapping workshop where you…

  1. Guide your stakeholders to cluster the notes from the fieldwork and group them into different categories that you pre-defined for them
  2. Discuss and summarize the main takeaways from the research
  3. Align on the actions in the following steps

A typical agenda of this workshop could look like this:

Step 1: Lead affinity mapping

Ask each team member to take ownership of one to three research participants. Cluster the session notes into categories that you have pre-defined for them, then let them take turns to share the insights of their participants.

To make it more fun and engaging, you could ask them to role-play their participant with a first-person narrative. While people present the user stories, researchers write down the key points for each category to prepare the summary session at the end.

Step 2: Align on the main findings

After stakeholders finish presenting, share the themes and main findings you’ve summarized. This is based on the user stories that each team member has shared (which, very likely, will be more or less the same as the findings from your pre-analysis).

As the facilitator (and the teacher), open up the discussion and encourage your team members to share what else they’d like to add or rephrase these main takeaways from the research. Pay attention to the vocabulary they’re using when discussing the research insights.

When you speak the business language in your research report, it’ll resonate with your stakeholders and make it sound more convincing. Sometimes you might want to gently pull them back and ensure people are aligned in the language to talk about the findings.

Step 3: Discuss the next steps

While your stakeholders feel excited about the insights they have uncovered from the data synthesis, it’s time to ensure they take action on the findings.

Depending on the team dynamics and the scope of research, you can have an open discussion with your team, or be proactive and propose what you’d recommend in the follow-ups. That could include possible design changes, your thoughts about the product strategy, research questions remaining to be answered, or a brainstorming session to generate more product ideas.

If you are running the workshop remotely, online whiteboard tools will come in handy! There are several Miro templates for inspiration:

✔ Sell the value and get commitment

“When I look back, I think I was too nice and soft when asking my stakeholders to ‘feel free to join the data synthesis session.’ I could’ve been more assertive and said, ‘This is very important and I’d like you to be there.’”

So you’ve got a great plan for data synthesis, but your team said they don’t have time? Or they accepted the invitation but didn’t show up because they have other priorities?

Before we blame our stakeholders for not being supportive to UX research, we also need to be aware that not many people have participated in a data synthesis session. They might think that’s just the job of researchers and don’t understand why it’s valuable to them.

The participation in data synthesis and the commitment from the team are something that should be discussed in advance at the project kickoff. This is when you explain the goal of the data synthesis, what they need to do during the session, the outcome, and the value for them. Ideally this includes examples and testimonials from people that have benefited from the data synthesis.

You don’t have to soften the tone and say, “Feel free to join.” Just make it clear to them that, “This is very important and I’d like you to be there to help us with some pivotal decision-making.”

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Bo is a mixed-methods researcher with a background in psychology and human-technology interaction. Currently, she is leading strategic research programs at Miro to shape the experience of visual collaboration in different workflows. She is a data nerd, foodie, wanderlust, and a proud mom of a fluffy ragdoll cat.

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