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Trouble Engaging Stakeholders? Create Some FOMO

Sometimes stakeholders don’t realize the real value of what you’re providing. Facilitating entertaining sessions can make all the difference.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Alisa Harvey

I remember the first time I created a sense of FOMO around user research.

I had identified one ally in my organization—one product manager who was kind of into user research. I then pitched this person a project, and we ran with it.

About two weeks later, we were putting stickies up in a meeting room, music playing, some snacks we had picked up (okay, that I had used as bait to get more people to attend), and a few other colleagues walked by. Each had poked their head in, asking what we were doing.

I explained that I had run a research project for my ally, and we were analyzing the results. Luckily the research had gone well, and the team piped in about how helpful it had been.

I then delivered the report, and the team was thrilled. They spread the word about how the project had helped them move forward on something they had been stuck on for a while. Some metrics improved for them, and the team shared this news as well.

It wasn't long until other colleagues—those who didn't have a clue or find the value in user research—came to me with questions and requests. That was a defining moment in my career where I thought, "Maybe I can do this!"

Doing research alone sucks

I used to conduct a lot of research alone. In fact, my entire process was a lonely one. I went through recruitment, research sessions, and analysis on my own.

Although I got used to this, it never felt great. I wanted colleagues to be more involved in my research because it would be helpful (and because I wanted to be included). I often felt like the kid no one chose for dodgeball. I would go off, do work, return with a presentation, and cross my fingers someone would listen to the insights.

Of course, I tried to get stakeholders involved in listening to sessions and analyzing data. After a few years of disinterest, I decided to save my energy for doing the research rather than trying to convince people to be a part of it.

There were many times when I wished I had had someone to bounce ideas off or someone to check my biases. But ultimately, I got used to working independently.

I was startled and hugely excited when those stakeholders kept popping into the analysis session. It wasn't as if I had cracked some code. Instead, it seemed like people saw something exciting and couldn't help but want to get involved. The problem was that I didn't know how to replicate this phenomenon.

From that moment on, I started thinking about finding ways to work with others differently. Whenever I faced a problem with engaging stakeholders, I asked myself:

  1. How can I make this easier for myself and them?
  2. How can I make this fun for myself and them?

These two questions changed how I interacted with this particular struggle and dealt with many problems or situations as a researcher. I started asking myself those questions whenever I got stuck on a project, with a discussion guide, analysis, or creating a report.

I still use those two questions every day in my current business. Those two seemingly small questions have led me to great ideas, including my user research membership!

So, how do you use those questions when trying to involve unexcited colleagues in user research?

Instead of making huge assumptions about why colleagues weren't getting more involved in research, these sessions gave me concrete data. I asked people to be as (brutally) honest as possible, and most colleagues were.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier
Founder, UX Academy

How to make team involvement easier

As a user researcher, I am obsessed with the field. I have made it a massive part of my life. I think, eat, sleep, and breathe user research. It is one of the coolest and most fun jobs in the world. So, of course, user research is incredibly fun for me.

I love the creativity that comes with it. I love spending time chewing on a complex project or topic. I could listen to people talk about anything for hours, and organizing data into themes is my bliss.

However, not everyone feels the same way about user research. Besides attending and participating in user research, our colleagues have many things to do. It took me a while to understand this. One of the things that helped was getting to know my colleagues' roles better and all the things they were juggling.

Once I realized I was missing this critical part, I thought about how I could reduce the barriers and make it easier for colleagues to get involved. I stared at a blank screen for days, trying to develop ideas.

And then, it hit me. Whenever I wanted to understand how to reduce user pain points, I did user research. So, why shouldn't I do that with my colleagues?

I set up interviews with colleagues, such as product managers, developers, and designers, to understand their thoughts and feedback on getting involved with user research.

I asked them questions like:

  • Describe the most challenging part of getting involved in user research
  • Think back to the last time you were involved, and talk me through the top three pain points you encountered
  • Think back to the last time you were asked to join research, walk me through your top three reasons why you didn't join

Instead of making huge assumptions about why colleagues weren't getting more involved in research, these sessions gave me concrete data. I asked people to be as (brutally) honest as possible, and most colleagues were.

I synthesized the information and categorized the pain points, some of which included:

  1. Not understanding if and when user research would be valuable or relevant for a project
  2. Interviews clashing with unavoidable meetings
  3. Not understanding why it’s important to attend research sessions if they’ll get all the information in the report
  4. Concerned about the time commitment of being involved
  5. Couldn't attend a huge eight-hour workshop

As soon as I had this information, I could take action to reduce the friction and barriers for colleagues getting involved.

I immediately saw that I had to provide education on when UXR can help them (and how) and the value of attending research sessions. For this, I did a role reversal activity. I asked them to conduct usability tests on each other, quickly synthesize the results, and present them to me without me having any context.

Then, when they presented the results, I asked questions and generalized information, to which they responded, "But if you could have only seen it!"

When it came to them being concerned about the time commitment, I told them upfront how much time it would take for each project. I also gave them an option to be partially involved, which meant attending 75% of the research project. Often, once they attended one session, they were hooked.

And as for long workshops, I worked around my colleagues' time constraints and introduced debriefs. The best thing you can do is genuinely understand your stakeholders' barriers and do your best to reduce those in a personalized way.

How to make team involvement more fun

Again, I think research is the most fun thing ever (barring recruitment). But, from an outside perspective, it can feel like I am just adding work to someone's to-do list.

So, even though we have to do the work, I wanted to introduce more fun into the user research process. Here are some tactics I use:

✔ Shark Tank planning

When I get a research request, I create a research plan and hold a planning session. I make it into something like a Shark Tank episode during this party. I come into the room, pitching the research (using the percentage of equity as the percentage of time it would take stakeholders to be involved), and stakeholders have the chance to give me feedback. Together, we negotiate a plan that makes sense across the board.

✔ Music and food

During analysis, I often play fun music (if everyone is okay with it) and incorporate as many snacks as possible. There have been times when we've cracked open some beers during the analysis phases too. I ensured I plan breaks and bring fun activities to play, such as the aliens have landed, or brainstorming all the uses of a paperclip.

✔ Celebrations for wins

I share insights with my stakeholders a few different ways, but one thing I’ve tried differently is celebrating these insights as wins. So, instead of "more work to do," I posit them as fantastic opportunities and remind colleagues how these could positively impact their goals and metrics. I also celebrate when we finish part of the research process and move on to the next stage.

✔ Sharing in surprising ways

Reports can be fantastic, but there are other ways you can share research to support your report and have fun. For instance, sometimes I throw in usability bingo as a more engaging way to share usability testing results. I have also hosted many internal hackathons to inspire action.

✔ Prizes for most engaged stakeholders

At the end of each quarter, I invited the most engaged stakeholders to a party where we celebrated all the research and product wins. If a party isn't the vibe, you can give away prizes like coffee shop gift cards or vouchers to a favorite lunch spot. At one point, every stakeholder I worked with was at the quarterly party.

Think about ways to make the process more fun for yourself and use these as starting points to make it more fun for stakeholders. We spend a lot of time being serious about work and can easily forget that it is okay to have a good time (which also sparks creativity!).

Taking the time to bring more joy to user research can get more people excited and make them look forward to collaborating with you.

Interested in other articles like this? Check out...
  • The team at T-Mobile consistently needed robust insights on a tight timeline. See how they were able to shift from a reactive to a proactive research strategy, gather in-context mobile data quickly, and get their stakeholders more engaged with the data.

  • Cross-team collaboration is essential to ensuring user research becomes an org-wide priority. Learn how to build better working relationships with account management, product, sales, marketing, and executive teams with our collaboration playbook series.
  • We partnered with UX Research Leader, Andy Warr, to create a playbook breaking down how to establish a dynamic user research team and set it up for long-term success. Throughout the guide, he shares his experience building and scaling research teams at Airtable, Meta, and Google and offers actionable advice for organizing your own team.

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. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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