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How to Help Your Stakeholders Better Connect with Users

Instead of trying to teach empathy, go further with these three engagement tactics. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Allison Corr

I wish I could teach empathy. Actually, I wish I could transfer all of my empathy from my brain to my stakeholders to feel that sense of deep empathy for our users.

However, user researchers don't have that magical power. And, despite trying, you can't actually teach empathy—at least, not the empathy needed to be motivated to change and build products/features for users. There is a spectrum of empathy composed of different levels of understanding and willingness to engage with someone.

Generally, empathy and compassion are almost impossible to teach someone. As a human, you need to have a desire to feel empathy and compassion for others. User researchers usually have this desire and propensity for empathy and compassion. It is our job to connect with and understand our users deeply.

However, what happens when it isn't your job? I know we say product managers need to empathize with our users, but...well, it isn't their job. I say this because they have a lot of other tasks and responsibilities that weigh on them.

I know this because I live with and am engaged to a product manager who is simultaneously fond of user research. However, he doesn't always have the capacity to empathize with and deeply understand users in the way I do.

Instead of forcing stakeholders to empathize by being present at or running every research session or giving them hours of work to understand users, should we teach them other ways of connecting? As many personas as we create and training sessions for usability testing we run, is this really spreading empathy?

Alternatively, let's encourage and teach stakeholders to better connect with users.

How to strengthen stakeholders' connection with users

We love connecting with our users and most of us strive to do this at least once a week. When I was running research, it would be weird for me not to have at least 1-2 research sessions per week. If I wasn't actively running research, I was finding other ways to connect to users.

Ultimately, it is our job to connect with users and spread that connection throughout an organization. However, this isn't an easy task. While we know the importance of listening to our users, it isn't always at the top of our stakeholders' to-do lists. In addition to empathizing with users, stakeholders have a long list of tasks and responsibilities to accomplish on a day-to-day basis.

It is the equivalent of asking user researchers to run estimation or planning meetings with developers. T-shirt size, anyone? Running those meetings would get deprioritized among our normal user research tasks—as empathizing with users does for stakeholders.

Here are some ways I have tried to strengthen stakeholders connection with users:

Foster a sense of curiosity

While empathy is challenging to teach, curiosity is an innate human emotion and much easier to play on. By fostering a sense of curiosity in stakeholders, they will more naturally want to engage with and understand users. How do you pique their curiosity?

  1. User research galleries. User research galleries consist of different deliverables and stories of participants derived from user research. These are much easier to run in person, as you allow people to wander around a room filled with different user research outputs and give them pens and post-its to comment or leave thoughts. You can also do this remotely! Create a virtual gallery board with a map showing them which order to consume the information and include breaks!
  2. Ideation sessions. There is honestly nothing better than an ideation session! These sessions promote feelings of curiosity and creativity. During this time, you take a problem or pain point users are having, and you dream up all the different ways the team could solve the problem. Having a concrete start- and end-point gives stakeholders a framework on how to solve something that matters. Once they start seeing the benefits from ideation sessions, they become more curious about other problems or pain points they could solve. Learn how to run a successful ideation session!
  3. Video clips/user reels. Watching videos rivets people. It is the number one way to build connections with others. If you play reels and highlights of users struggling with particular features or flows, stakeholders will pay attention. They become more curious as to why this is happening and how they can solve the problem. Play these clips to stakeholders during a presentation and then dive into an ideation session with them!

Relate to their work

Nothing gets people more excited about participating in something than seeing direct value and benefit. If stakeholders can understand how user research and connecting with users relate to and positively impacts their work, they will pay more attention.

  1. Create team-based research newsletters. I used to write overarching research summaries across the many teams I looked after. Some stakeholders took to this information, but, for others, it just seemed like it got buried amongst their other work. Then I tried to write team-specific research newsletters. I parsed the research summaries and collected the information I gathered over the past month for a particular team. After sending over the newsletter, my inbox filled with more queries and excitement over the next steps.
  2. Give pointed recommendations and action items. As researchers, there is a fine line between recommendations and telling people what to do. We aren't always skilled in design, UI, and engineering, so we might not know how or what to suggest. One tip I recommend is to give clear and specific recommendations to teams. This doesn't mean saying, "move the button to the left and color it red.' Instead, "the user struggled with the placement of the button, and this should be reconsidered" or "the user was unable to find the Call to Action, and we should make this easier to notice and find."
  3. Go to them with what they know. Product managers are usually looking at quantitative data, such as product usage analytics. Appeal to them by talking about analytics that aligns with issues you've seen in research sessions. For example, if there are drop-off rates at a particular point in a check-out funnel, and you've noticed users struggling in the flow during sessions, show the stakeholders these specific clips.

Help them communicate with users

Suppose your stakeholders are interested in sitting in on or participating in user research; great news! There are ways you can empower them to speak to users properly, so they feel confident and comfortable in this role.

  1. Teach open-ended question techniques. By teaching stakeholders how to ask open-ended questions, you give them tools to better communicate with users and even think about the problem-space. I teach all of my stakeholders my TEDW technique when speaking with users. I also encourage them to think about problems in an open-ended way instead of jumping straight to the solution space.
  2. Create opportunities for them to communicate with users. Allow and encourage stakeholders to come to user research sessions. First-hand, it is invaluable to see how users respond to questions or interact with prototypes/live products. If they aren't able to come to sessions, open other ways to communicate with users - through email or through sending them forums that show how people are thinking about a certain topic.
  3. If appropriate, let them lead. It's difficult to be curious if you are passive and don't have any control. If they have the skills (and desire) to lead a research session, allow them to take over and run the session.

Start engaging

Sending out reports and deliverables for stakeholders to digest on their own can be a recipe for disaster unless you have very interested and engaged stakeholders. Instead of expecting stakeholders to review and develop empathy for a persona, take some extra steps to encourage and empower them to connect.

  • Hold engagement workshops where you present the personas and do some role-playing exercises. Sometimes we can be too serious at work, so take this time to be creative! Assign personas to people and ask them to act out how that persona would face a problem or task. It takes some time to warm people up, but everyone always leaves smiling and more informed.
  • Make your deliverables more interactive for your stakeholders. Always have video reels (when possible) for people to review the most common problems users face. Consider creating dynamic deliverables such as a "choose your own adventure."
  • Ask stakeholders how they would like to be engaged! Although this can seem obvious, I didn't think to do this at first. I went to Google to look up ways to engage with stakeholders instead of asking them. The best way you can find out how people learn and empathize is by asking them.

It can be a challenge to get people interested in something that may fall as a side project or a "less important" item on their to-do list, but it isn't impossible. Treat your stakeholders like your users, and you will find ways to engage with them and help them connect with users in less conventional way.

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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