User research needs to be cross-departmental.
And by that I don’t just mean working with designers, or product, or tech teams.
As a researcher, when you extend your skill sets to as many people as possible, you do two things:
- Help others. This fosters collaboration and innovation that might not otherwise happen.
- Evangelize user research. Your company learns how the value of user research extends far beyond product improvement or market positioning.
Working across departments allows you to pave the way for user research to take a more strategic role in your company’s goals.
And the more embedded user research is in a company's culture, the more effective you can be at your job.
Here are some of the different departments I make an effort to routinely work with:
- Customer support
- Account management
- Data science
- Business intelligence
It isn’t always comfortable breaking into other departments as a user researcher. You have to strike a balance between not seeming too imposing and selling your valuable skills.
How to start working cross-departmentally
It isn't always comfortable breaking into other departments as a user researcher. You have to strike a balance between not seeming too imposing and selling your valuable skills.
But after years of working across departments—from customer support, to sales, to legal, to business intelligence—I’ve broken down the process in two steps.
Step 1: Ask broad questions
When I first start working cross-departmentally, I sit down with internal stakeholders from every team I hope to collaborate with. If the organizations are big, I sit down with the heads or managers in the department.
In a way, the first user research project I take on for any company pertains to understanding these internal stakeholders—learning about their needs, challenges, goals, and frustrations.
I start first with a standard list of questions, and an explanation of why I ask them:
- What is your definition of user research? This sets me up to the knowledge gaps or misunderstandings of user research.
- Have you ever worked with a user researcher before? If yes, tell me about the experience. This gives me more context around how they view and have experienced user research in the past.
- How do you feel about user research? This helps me better understand their fears, and brainstorm ways I can counteract them.
- Tell me what happened the last time you did user research. This gives me context for what expectations stakeholders may have.
From there, I explain the basics of user research. I include how I have worked with that particular department in the past, and give high-level information on methodologies and processes—especially if that group has no or minimal experience with user research.
This gives them context to how I conduct/think of user research and allows us to enter the next, more active phase.
Step 2: Ask more focused questions
In this stage, I ask the following, more pointed, questions:
- Do you have any projects you think user research could benefit from? Here, we start generating ideas on how I could integrate into the team.
- What is your ideal timeline and approach for this project? Here, we ways to insert user research into their timeline.
- What are the most significant barriers to conducting user research on this project? Here, we begin to understand how to best fit research into their workflow, so it overcomes these specific barriers.
- If we could manage to do any user research on this project, what would it be? Here, we open the conversation up to discover what they think user research might mean for this project.
- What could be some ideal outcomes of user research on this project? Here, we highlight the potential positive outcomes of user research.
This can be done in two separate meetings. If I know the teams are familiar with the value of user research and techniques, I’ll ask all the questions at once because I can skip the presentation portion.
The answers to these questions give me insight into how I can use my abilities to help the department. Knowing the needs they have, the resources at their disposal, and their existing perspectives and biases is instrumental to integrating user research into current processes.
With the knowledge from these conversations, you should be able to pinpoint areas where you can help teams. Below I break down how I worked with the most common departments in the past.
Working with marketing is incredibly fun. They don’t necessarily have a direct line to the customer but are continually looking for ways to better engage with users.
Breaking down the departments
Customer support / Account management
Customer support is the first department I go to when I start working at a new company. The employees in customer support have an incredible amount of information about users.
Account managers are another invaluable resource, especially when working at a B2B company. Similar to customer support, they are a viewport into the user's needs, frustrations, and pain points.
I interact with account management and customer support similarly.
What I learn from customer support/account management:
- The major pain points from users
- The different types of customers they generally interact with
- Insight via customer calls, emails or chats, that help me cross-validate trends from qualitative sessions
- A general profile of a typical day-to-day of a user
- What users need to complete their goals on our platform
How I help customer support/account management:
- Pushing their most common issues forward to product teams
- Keeping them in the loop with the product roadmap
- Card sorting sessions with users on how to structure help pages or other content pages with which users are consistently interacting
Working with marketing is incredibly fun. They don't necessarily have a direct line to the customer but are continually looking for ways to better engage with users.
What I learn from marketing:
- How users are interacting with the brand
- What users think of the brand (and how to change the perception if it is negative)
- When users are interacting with a brand outside of the platform, which can lead to innovation
- Potential validation of user behavior from qualitative interviews
- A lay-of-the-competitive-landscape for our product or service
How I help marketing:
- User personas can help the marketing team better target users
- Card sorting sessions with users on how to structure website content based on what would be of interest to users
- What users would find interesting within a blog or newsletter content
For me, data scientists are like wizards. They magically take data, creating compelling charts of patterns and trends.
What I learn from data science:
- How users are interacting with a platform, at a large scale
- A validation of qualitative trends I have found through large amounts of quantitative data—a user researcher's dream
- How to turn my qualitative-based personas into archetypes, by adding in the massive amounts of quantitative data
- Trends from data can indicate a place to dig deeper into my qualitative research sessions
How I help data science:
- Provide context through qualitative data, which gives the data science team direction into what data to look into
- Understanding the 'why' behind patterns of actions in the data through qualitative work
Although people mostly think about quantitative data validating qualitative, I think it can go both ways. I help the team better understand if something is worth digging into
I interface with the sales team in a completely different manner. With sales, I partake in less information-gathering activities. Instead, I teach sales employees to act as mini user researchers during sales calls.
What I learn from sales:
- Through listening to sales calls, I understand the potential client's needs, expectations, and pain points
- Which different types of customers reach out to us
How I help sales:
- Teaching them to dig deeper into needs can help with sales strategy
- Creating buyer personas, which we can better pitch to potential customers in a way that resonates with them
One of my biggest regrets when I started in my newest role was delaying to meet with legal. Being the only user researcher at the company, I found myself in charge of all of "research ops"—recruiting, consent, tools, privacy, etc.
When I'd first come onboard to this new position in Germany, I'd heard of GDPR but hadn't seriously taken it into account. I had plenty of templates I could use again for consent forms and recruitment. However, I soon learned that my research processes weren't as aligned with GDPR rules.
As privacy law continues to change and evolve, it will continue to effect our research process. That means it's essential to meet with the legal team often, to align on touch points with users.
We pave the way
One of the reasons being a user researcher is so fun is seeing the broad impact your work can have.
As researchers, we can wear as many hats and juggle as much as we desire. We can bring user research to the next level and embed it into the strategy.
We pave the way for user research as an essential role at companies, beyond the product team.
Nikki Anderson is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 8 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Explore her research courses here or read more of her work on Medium.