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Tech Startups Pivot Often. Keep Your UX Research Agile with These Tips

It's in the DNA of tech startups to pivot. How do you react when you're halfway through your UX research?

Words by Cori Widen, Visuals by Thumy Phan

My entire career in tech has been in the realm of startups—early-stage, not-so-early stage, B2B, B2C, you name it. There are lots of words and acronyms to distinguish between startups, but here is a word that is applicable across the spectrum: pivots.

Market shifts, new competitors, new user insights, slowed growth, and investor input are just a few of the reasons that startups tend to change plans fairly often when it comes to anything from product roadmaps to overall strategy.

If you’re doing research in a startup or any other organization that has a consistent need for pivots, you already know that it can be challenging. You may have found yourself in a situation where you can’t plan more than a few weeks ahead because changes are afoot—or maybe halfway through a research project, a pivot rendered the topic less relevant.

Learning how to do good research in an environment where strategy and priorities shift consistently has given me quite a few battle scars. But ultimately, I’m convinced that it’s possible. Below are some guiding principles to help you thrive in an ever changing organization.

1. Prioritize core target audience research

Though it’s not true in all cases, many companies and organizations shift their product positioning or feature set fairly often, while still maintaining a clear vision about their target audience. In companies like this, product visions may change regularly, but the group of people that they are creating solutions for stays constant.

For example, if your company provides marketing solutions for the automotive industry, they could shift from a social media management tool to a more robust paid advertising campaign management tool—but the end user is still within the realm of marketers in the automotive industry.

If your organization fits this description and you don’t have immediate clarity on how the strategy shift will land, a good rule of thumb is to prioritize core target audience research. Those insights are likely to be useful with or without significant product pivots.

Continuing with the above example, it will likely be useful to do research that further develops personas related to automotive marketing teams, or gets more nuanced information about general challenges and pain points for marketers in the industry.

In this case, not only will the core research stay relevant, but it’ll also be useful for the various cross-functional teams. Those teams will have to execute whatever strategic product changes arise, and need to make certain that they’re taking user knowledge into account as they orchestrate the shift.

2. Beware of the sunk cost fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is essentially a reluctance to change course because you’ve already invested heavily in what you’re doing currently. Though user research tends to have shorter timelines than, say, academic research, good research can still take time. Sometimes this means that in the midst of a project, management will decide that what you’re working on is no longer relevant. When that happens, it’s important to assess the situation in a detailed way.

This is a situation that I’ve encountered frequently and to be honest, I haven’t always made the right call. Over time, I’ve learned that the first question to ask myself is this: Is the scope of this research still going to lead to actionable insights for the stakeholders, even after the pivot? If the answer is genuinely yes, it can make sense to keep going.

But if the answer is likely no, it’s important not to fall for the sunk cost fallacy and change course—which can mean dropping the project altogether or redefining the scope significantly. This is a disorienting experience and weathering it successfully requires a real mindset shift.

When I’m in this situation, I remind myself that my job as a researcher is to provide timely and actionable insights and recommendations to stakeholders, and choosing what projects to shift or abandon is just as important as choosing which projects to work on in the first place.

Cori Widen
User Research Team Lead, Lightricks

3. Invest in stakeholder relationships systematically, so that you aren’t the last to know

While it’s not always true, I often find that frequent pivoting can lead to organizational confusion and communication hiccups. Teams are working around the clock to implement changes quickly. In a place like a startup that’s undergoing some kind of shift, making sure that all changes and their accompanying context are communicated well across the organization doesn’t always happen flawlessly.

As a researcher, this can really affect the timeliness of your work. If you’re the last to know, you may not be able to deliver insights and recommendations in time to properly equip your stakeholders with the user insights they need. One way to keep this from being a frequent occurrence is to invest in stakeholder relationships.

If you’re communicating regularly with key stakeholders, either formally in syncs or informally over coffee, you’re much more likely to get wind of potential changes in a timely way. That way, you can react accordingly with research when needed.

The main mindset shift that helped me was to regard it as my own responsibility to stay updated, rather than framing it as someone else’s job to keep me updated. Being proactive rather than principled, in this case, has really made a positive impact on my ability to stay informed.

4. Lean into being over-informed with Slack channels and email lists

The productivity gurus out there won’t like this, but I’m going to say it anyway: keep the flow of information from the various teams within your organization coming, and don’t think twice about adding yourself to a new Slack channel that you think could be useful.

Communication within teams tends to be faster and more robust than communication between teams. This means that if your product design team shares critical updates in a Slack channel amongst themselves, it’s worthwhile to be in that channel and get quick updates on changes or pivots that impact your research.

The way that I make this work for myself is twofold:

  1. I over-join and drop later if needed. If something might be useful, I sign up. If it ends up not being as relevant as I thought over time, I can always leave the channel or unsubscribe from the email list.
  2. I dedicate 20 minutes or so each morning to go through cross-functional channels and emails and search for signs of relevant micro or macro shifts that affect my team’s work. This helps with productivity concerns, because I avoid the distraction of checking and reading these updates throughout the day when I need to focus.

5. Be a step ahead: change is often in the air before it’s articulated internally

Once you’re in the habit of consuming cross-functional updates and continuously deepening your relationship with stakeholders, you’ll start to notice that pivots really don’t always come out of nowhere. You’ll notice things like a key stakeholder beginning to evangelize a new idea, or a certain KPI prioritized temporarily to meet revenue goals.

When you learn to recognize the signs of change before they’re actually implemented, you have an immense benefit. You can begin to do research that helps with decision making, or the initial execution of something new in the future. Even if what you’re hearing is too vague to design an entirely new research project, you could still add some additional scope to what you’re working on currently.

For example, at Lightricks, we create solutions for a lot of digital content creators around the world. For a while, I noticed that stakeholders were talking about helping our creators get meaningful brand collaborations as a monetization opportunity.

We were already knee-deep in a project that involved creator interviews on a different topic, but we were able to adjust our interview guides in time to start collecting insights about creators and brand collaborations. We then had some initial internal knowledge once the product and marketing teams got to work on this idea.

As a researcher, what feels like constant change can at first seem like a fatal barrier to doing quality, timely work. Over time, though, I’ve realized that research teams can be way more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for—if we’re proactive.

I’ve learned to enjoy the ride for the most part and reframe pivots as part of what makes my job dynamic and fun. Hopefully, these suggestions help you make that practical and mental leap as well.

Cori Widen leads the UX Research team at Lightricks. She had worked in the tech industry for 10 years in various product marketing roles before honing in on her passion for understanding the user and transitioning to research. Outside work, Cori is busy reading books of all kinds, hanging out with her husband and two kids, and traveling.

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