Words by Karen Eisenhauer, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz
Any researcher will tell you that stakeholders can make or break a project. Nothing feels better than having stakeholders who are engaged, attentive, and who understand the value that research brings to their practice. And nothing’s worse than a stakeholder who won’t give you the time of day.
Almost more than the research itself, the practice of keeping stakeholders engaged is one of the most important—and most challenging—elements of a successful project.
So, how’s it going? We partnered with Miro to find out.
dscout and Miro (one of our favorite collaboration tools!) teamed up to understand the current state of stakeholder engagement in the research industry. Our first step was to survey 112 professional researchers about their current stakeholder relationships. (Read more about the sample and methods below.)
From our survey, we discovered the highs and lows of stakeholder engagement and uncovered insights about what makes this particular aspect of a researcher’s job so challenging.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be unpacking those insights and giving you the tools you need to level up your stakeholder engagement game.
What is “engagement”, anyways?
Before diving all the way into the topic of stakeholder engagement, we wanted to define our terms. (We’re researchers, after all!) We asked our researchers what “engagement’ meant to them. What we found is that engagement comes at different levels, depending on who you ask.
Level 1: Value
60% of respondents
Stakeholders are engaged when they demonstrate desire for research projects, show interest when you present findings, and take action based on the results.
These behaviors show that my stakeholder fundamentally wants the researcher to be there, even if they can’t be more involved. For many researchers, that’s all it takes. Here's what a few respondents had to say about it:
“They care about the results and actively participate in discussions throughout the process, ([such as] reviewing research before launch, discussing results).”
“They're ‘married’ to the outcomes of the research; they are committed to acting based on what is learned from the research. It's not theatrical or checking a box.”
“Closest stakeholders are engaged when they participate in scoping the research and determining the goals, participate in the research, and ingest and have a set of takeaways at the end that influence their decision making.”
Level 2: Feedback and communication
49% of respondents
Stakeholders are engaged when they provide information and feedback promptly when called upon. They give approvals when they need to, communicate scope changes, and otherwise don’t bottleneck work.
“They ask questions, attend meetings, seem to understand what I'm doing and offer feedback.”
“They make informed comments and ask pointed questions about the research plan [and] attend live interview sessions.”
“They are responsive to updates and questions, attend key meetings and research sessions, and keep me up-to-date on how the research recommendations are being actioned.”
Level 3: Part of the process
56% of respondents
About half of researchers agreed that truly engaged stakeholders are actively a part of the research process. This goes beyond just giving approvals, or receiving deliverables. Engaged stakeholders…
- Participate in fielding and observe interviews (40%)
- Help plan the study and discuss best methods (28%)
- Help with data analysis (14%)
“They identify some of the overarching questions to answer, participate in the planning, observe, share notes, contribute to the debrief, provide feedback to the draft report, act on the findings, opportunities, recommendations, and have more questions.”
“They are closely following—or actively participating in—the research process, from kickoff and planning, to synthesis and reporting.”
The state of engagement today versus what’s ideal
How engaged are stakeholders today?
Researchers reported that stakeholders are, on average, moderately engaged with the research process. However, engagement levels do not stay the same across the research process—in fact, they vary quite widely depending on the stage of a project.
The highest levels of stakeholder engagement come during planning and sharing deliverables. In other words, the beginning and the end. These touch points are in line with a model of research where stakeholders request or assign projects, hand off the bulk of the process to the research team, and come back to collect the results.
These two touch points are also the stages that researchers reported feeling most confident in their stakeholder engagement skills.
During the rest of the project cycle, researchers on average reported much less engagement from their stakeholders, especially in in-the-weeds processes like recruitment and research design.
The only exception is a small jump in average engagement during the fielding phase. This reflects a standard engagement process in the research field, which is to bring key stakeholders along as observers during interviews or site visits so they can come in direct contact with the user.
Field observation is a tried-and-true method for engaging stakeholders. However, it’s often an isolated event in the middle of a project. Stakeholder collaboration does not extend to other parts of the research process.
What is ideal stakeholder engagement?
We asked researchers how engaged their stakeholders would be in an ideal project. The results show that, on average, there’s a pretty big difference between where our stakeholders are and where we wish they were.
Researchers generally wish their stakeholders were substantially more involved in the collection, analysis and synthesis phases of research than they currently are.
In planning and scoping, the reality of engagement is very close to ideal, reflecting the confidence that researchers tend to feel in this stage.
Designing and recruiting are both also close to the right levels of engagement for most practitioners. These are stages that feel “behind the scenes”—the purview of research and research operations, that require much input from outside parties.
From there, the gap begins to widen. Researchers generally wish their stakeholders were substantially more involved in the collection, analysis and synthesis phases of research than they currently are.
The stages of data analysis and creating deliverables are particularly stark. The majority of researchers report that their stakeholders aren’t involved in these processes at all (48% and 49% respectively). In the ideal scenario, they would at least be partially present in these stages.
In sum, we aren’t quite where we want to be. And, while we understand
how to start projects with stakeholders, engaging them throughout the
process is the more elusive goal.
What’s stopping us?
So, what’s making this job so hard? We asked researchers what they thought the major barriers were to stakeholder engagement, and we saw a few key themes emerge.
1. Stakeholders have no time
49% of researchers mentioned that limited time and bandwidth from their stakeholders was the biggest barrier to greater involvement.
Lack of time obviously has logistical implications. Getting all stakeholders in the same room at the same time to make key decisions can be a challenge, which makes even straightforward research processes stall out. Fielding is a particular challenge when it requires stakeholders to carve multiple hours out of their days to participate.
“TIME. People's schedules are always a mess and it takes so much pre-planning to get people in the room at the same time. If I can't get everyone together for a kickoff, the entire study can get delayed and it messes up everyone's timelines.”
But there are deeper challenges to lack of stakeholder time, as well. Research is deep, heady work. Stakeholders not only need physical time, but presence of mind as well, to think critically about research questions or truly digest the insights they’re given.
“They want to contribute to research questions, but [it] seems many struggle to find time to think critically and deeply about what they want to know.”
“No allocated time for digesting research insights.”
This problem is exacerbated by a misunderstanding of research processes. When stakeholders don’t fully grasp the scope of research or the work it requires of them, they are less likely to try and carve out the required time for their participation.
“Lack of time, lack of understanding, role confusion, not grasping the time [or] effort being involved takes, and then checking out.”
2. Stakeholders aren’t motivated
A deeper issue at play is that many researchers work with stakeholders who haven’t fully grasped the value of research for their role.
This can manifest in a variety of ways. One major issue is stakeholders requesting research late in the game, as a way of validating existing beliefs. This is a bigger problem of course, but also has implications for engagement specifically. Those who view research as a box to be checked, and see that there is a professional in charge of “checking the box”, will not understand why they would need to spend their time helping the person in the dedicated role “do their job.”
“Everyone has [a] different level of understanding or attitude about UXR and the role it plays. Some don't want to be involved or feel it's a lower priority because there's a dedicated person involved.”
“Lack of general understanding how and why research should be included or a very surface level understanding—’Research feeds us data, we need data to prove X’. Lack of proper product management mindset and poor scoping of product releases in general.”
Stakeholders can also become unengaged if they don’t see the value of a particular method. For example, if stakeholders are used to thinking of research as quantitative, getting them to listen to qualitative insights—let alone participate in the qualitative research process—is a struggle.
“They don’t understand when [or] if to engage with research, and they are very dismissive of study results of the sample size was small. Which is 90% of the time for the kind of research that is appropriate for their research questions.”
Time will never emerge if stakeholders don’t consider research a priority.
3. Stakeholders are misinformed
One uniquely challenging barrier to good stakeholder engagement is actually over engagement. This happens when stakeholders are enthusiastic about the research process, but overestimate their own knowledge or authority as a contributor.
In some cases, stakeholders can misunderstand what research can or can’t accomplish. Lack of understanding of the research process can cause stakeholders to ask for a huge output without fully grasping the cost of what they’re asking. While it’s great they have confidence in the research function, this overestimation can set teams up for disappointment and conflict and hurt the relationship to research in the long run.
“They want to cover too much ground in one research project, versus having focused learning objectives. They also don't know what to do with the research when it has been completed.”
“Misunderstanding of what research can and can’t answer, misunderstanding of research timelines leading to asking for research too late, stakeholders making product decisions without waiting for research to inform.”
Then there’s the folks who are excited to be in the research process with you—too excited. They have strong opinions on how the research should be run, from methods all the way down to question wording. And because they lack expertise and experience, their opinions are not always in line with research best practices.
“Stakeholders 'bullying' researchers to conduct research their way so stakeholders get the answers they want, and not considering research findings they don't agree with.”
“The political nature and conflicting agendas of many of the teams I work with, ‘over involvement’ of some stakeholders—not their job to design and moderate.”
“Honestly, it's hard to set boundaries sometimes with stakeholders. So bringing them in can lead to confusion around roles and responsibilities. And more importantly, [it] can sometimes lead to decisions being made on data haphazardly instead of waiting for synthesis.”
Researchers reported that these stakeholders are particularly difficult to keep engaged in a healthy way. Trying to keep the stakeholders’ enthusiasm, while maintaining research rigor and ethics, is a difficult balancing act.
“Engaging with difficult stakeholders is the most stressful part of my job.”
One thing seems clear: as a field, we’re not quite where we want to be when it comes to stakeholder engagement.
In an ideal world, most stakeholders would be foundationally engaged: they would desire research, want to understand and act on the results, and give researchers the time of day to provide thoughtful feedback where it was needed. But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.
Underpinning many of the obstacles is the issue of understanding the research process. Stakeholders who misunderstand what research is, and what it can do, can lead to many of the problems researchers reported:
- Overestimating or underestimating the power of a single project, especially if it’s qualitative
- Giving strong opinions out of line with best practices
- Not giving adequate time to digest insights
- Requesting research too late
- Not respecting research timelines
Most (if not all) of these problems come from misunderstanding, not malice. So, the best tool in our arsenal as researchers is to involve our stakeholders in the process as much as we can—especially the user-driven stages of fielding and data analysis.
Getting stakeholders into the research process builds a relationship directly between them and your customers, giving them more accountability and removing them as a middle man.
“Ultimately stakeholders need to internalize the research so they can make choices in their work that bring together the needs of people and the business. The more involvement they have, the more ownership they feel over me representing the users.”
Involving stakeholders in the process has an important added benefit of building empathy with you, the researcher. Involving them as close collaborators will give your stakeholders a glimpse into your day-to-day life, and hopefully show them both how valuable and how effortful research can be.
“I've found that when stakeholders can participate as observers or help with analysis, they have more of a supportive stance to what we do.”
This is an interesting puzzle for us researchers. Involving stakeholders in the research process is one of the best ways to foster relationships that produce basic, foundational engagement with research. But at the same time, it’s the most time-consuming and intensive form of engagement for a stakeholder, asking for much more than a simple kick-off call or feedback on a questionnaire.
Looking to the future
So, the million dollar question becomes: how do you foster and maintain healthy engagement in your research process? And how do you do it with stakeholders who present barriers, such as packed schedules or low motivation?
To answer this question, we partnered with Miro to interview experienced researchers who specialize in stakeholder engagement to share their experiences and advice for the rest of us. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing tips, tricks, and templates to help you maximize your stakeholders’ time and increase their level of engagement throughout your research practice.
In our next piece, we’ll share some high-level strategic advice for bringing stakeholders into your process. We’ll also share our experts’ advice on how to build empathy and set expectations within your teams, and how to build your presence and credibility both within the scope of your projects and in the broader context of your organization.
Appendix: About the Study
This study employed an online survey fielded via Google Forms. The survey was approximately 10 open-and close-ended questions inquiring about current experiences with stakeholder engagement.
The survey was shared via the People Nerds Newsletter, as well as our related social media channels and our Slack community. Data collection took place over roughly two weeks in October 2022. Participants were not compensated for their responses.
Which of the following most accurately describes your role?
Individual contributor (76.7%)
Freelancer / self-employed (5%)
Director / Senior Director (3.3%)
How many years of experience do you have?
>3 years (10.8%)
3-5 years (29.2%)
5-10 years (37.5%)
11-15 years (15.8%)
>20 years (10.8%)
What industry do you work in?
Computer Software (25%)
Finance, Banking, or accounting (12.5%)
Information Technology (10%)
>5%: Food and beverages, Government, Law or legal services, Leisure sports & tourism, Marketing, Real estate, Public services, Recruitment or HR, Retail, Sales, Transport or logistics, Entertainment, Education, Financial services, Telecommunications
Karen is a researcher at dscout. She has a master’s degree in linguistics and loves learning about how people communicate with each other. Her specialty is in gender representation in children’s media, and she’ll talk your ear off about Disney Princesses if given half the chance.