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Conjure Up a User Research Strategy Your Team Actually Uses

A research team without a strategy and prioritization quickly falls into busywork. Here's how to target outcomes that make a difference.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Allison Corr

We often talk about how user research can influence a company's strategy, and how user research should align with an organization's goals and metrics.

To be impactful, we must align user research with the business and our teams. This means we look at the overarching strategy and goals of the company and ensure our projects are directly related.

We don't talk as frequently about having a user research strategy in place. It seems like user research is part of other strategies, but not its own.

However, it’s critical to build a strategy for our user research teams—even if we are a team of one. A strategy gives us direction and purpose, and helps us make transparent decisions on project priority or what we are doing next.

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What's the point of a user research strategy?

When I started as a user researcher, my strategy was to keep up with all the incoming requests and fit user research into the Agile box as best I could. As a result, I was reactive and often overwhelmed. I didn't know where research was going, and what I was trying to achieve at a holistic level.

It was a frustrating experience, especially when my manager asked me more critical questions about improving the user research practice and how I thought it might evolve. Unfortunately, I didn't have the answers because I was so busy reacting to what was happening at the organization.

I had been burned by running headlong into initiatives without being more thoughtful. So, I took the more mature (and sometimes painstakingly slow) approach, because I wanted to do this as well as possible.

I decided it was time to take a step back, and instead of trying to make user research a part of everyone else's strategy, I created a strategy for user research.

Every project and initiative should have a clear set of goals and outcomes. Creating a user research strategy was no different. Did I want to rush ahead and make something already? Yes, absolutely. I already had some ideas about what this strategy would include.

However, I had been burned by running headlong into initiatives without being more thoughtful. So, I took the more mature (and sometimes painstakingly slow) approach, because I wanted to do this as well as possible.

I had some ideas on what I wanted to accomplish with this strategy, but I had to remind myself that this strategy wasn't just for me. I was also creating this strategy for my colleagues and stakeholders. So why wouldn't I include them in the process?

I set out to do stakeholder interviews to gain clarity on what my stakeholders' expectations were of this strategy, and how it could help them through interviews and thought exercises.

In the end, the goals of the strategy included:

  • Being more proactive with user research
  • Identifying opportunities for learning through a research roadmap and backlog
  • Knowing what we were trying to accomplish as a user research team/department/function in the next three months, six months, and 12 months
  • Identifying the types of research that would be the most impactful for the organization and the research function
  • Clarity on the resources we needed to achieve the goals and missions we wanted to accomplish
  • How user research fits in with current processes and sharing the necessary process for user research that might not fit into the Agile box
  • Straightforward prioritization methods to ensure the most impactful work is getting done
  • A way to determine impact and measure the success of the team across time
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The components of a user research strategy

Once I had more precise goals and outcomes, I got to work on planning what this strategy would include. It took some time for me to brainstorm the different components because I had never worked on a strategy before.

I drew inspiration from other strategy documents I'd seen and from other departments. I also considered all the goals I wanted to achieve with this framework to create something holistic and all-encompassing.

Here is what I included in my user research strategy:

  • A mission for the research team/function and what it did for the organization, as well as how it ties into the company's mission
  • A vision for how we realize and actualize the mission
  • Goals for three, six, and 12 months. The shorter-term goals were broken down into OKRs and tied back to company or team goals
  • A roadmap and backlog to provide transparency about what research was working on and when
  • A clear prioritization process to determine what the most impactful projects would be, especially when competing for resources
  • A tracking method for measuring the impact of the team across different levels over time
  • A resource tracking sheet, which included budget, capacity, necessary tools, and any hiring decisions we needed to make

These components in my research strategy made me feel I could be more proactive and intentional with my work.

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Creating and practicing a user research strategy

Creating a user research strategy is only one piece of the puzzle. We also need to activate and practice it consistently. You only have to do some of the activities once and then revisit them every once in a while, but some require more upkeep.

Here is the process I go through when creating and activating a user research strategy.

✔ Define the mission

The mission is all about the value the team currently provides the organization, and what that team is at the core.

When defining a mission, I thought about the different levels of an organization that user research impacts:

  • Individuals
  • Teams
  • Cross-departmental
  • Organizational

I then brainstormed how research is valuable to that particular level. For example, user research can support designers in their choice of how to design something. Or, user research can help customer support teams focus on more important things than tickets about bugs.

I then synthesized this information as best I could into a concise mission: "To deliver high-quality insights and findings that help individuals and teams make more user-centric decisions, and to help ensure we are solving real problems while saving time and money for the organization."

✔ Create the vision

The vision breaks down the mission by understanding how we will actualize and achieve the above mission. In this step, I deconstruct the mission into smaller parts and ask, "How can I help achieve this part of the mission?"

So, for instance, the above mission has:

  • High-quality insights and findings
  • Teams making more user-centric decisions
  • Ensuring we solve real problems
  • Saving money and time for the organization

How, as a research function, can I tangibly impact those areas? So, for instance, helping teams make more user-centric decisions means:

  1. I need to know what teams are working on
  2. I need to align my research efforts with their work and expected outcomes
  3. I need to conduct research that informs whatever gaps in knowledge or questions they have

I need to meet with my teams regularly to align with their work. Again, I do this for each part of the mission until I have a vision with several parts that would help me achieve that particular mission.

✔ Break down goals

Next, I go into goals. While the mission and vision tend to last longer, goals are something that changes on a more regular basis. Since I like to be proactive, I push myself to develop goals for three, six, and 12 months. Of course, those 12-month goals have changed in the past because of the nature of fast-paced companies, but I still find the exercise valuable.

Whenever I approach three- or six-month goals, I use OKRs aligned with the teams I work with and the business. For this step, I have conversations with my teams and other stakeholders, asking questions like:

  • What are your goals for the next three to six months?
  • What are you hoping to achieve in the next three to six months?
  • What metrics are important to you in the next three to six months?

Once I have these conversations, I utilize the information to create OKRs for the research team. There are two types of goals I focus on:

  • External goals, which focus on product- or company-based goals. These goals primarily look at moving metrics, such as increasing acquisition, decreasing time on task, or understanding users on a larger scale.
  • Internal goals include optimizing the current user research practice by increasing stakeholder satisfaction, decreasing the time between research requests and research starting, and decreasing recruitment time.

I typically meet with stakeholders bi-weekly to ensure I am supporting them with their most relevant goals.

✔ Set up a research roadmap and backlog

Setting up a research roadmap and backlog allows you to ensure project transparency, track what kind of work you’re doing, and help you understand your capacity for upcoming work.

By aligning this roadmap and backlog to your mission/vision and the goals of the team and organization, you ensure you’re doing the most impactful work consistently.

Read all about creating a UXR roadmap and backlog here.

✔ Create a transparent prioritization process

In many roles, I was the only researcher covering multiple teams. I would get requests weekly (and sometimes daily). For a while, I tried to do all the research. I ran several sessions at once, occasionally confusing which test I was conducting. After a time, my manager pulled me aside, and we discussed how unsustainable my workload was.

He asked me a fundamental question that I continue to ask myself: "If you could only do the most impactful research, what would it be?"

That question was eye-opening.

I had no idea if I was picking and conducting the most impactful research for the organization. Since I was trying to fit in everything, I cut corners and focused less on the essential research. Finally, I realized I couldn't do every research project, and I had to start prioritizing the most impactful research across teams and the company.

Check out my nine-step approach to prioritization, plus an awesome template!

✔ Track impact over time

Tracking the impact of research over time can be difficult. For example, so many teams contribute to a product's or feature's success, so it can be challenging to understand how user research contributes to this.

I follow a model that looks at…

  • External impact, which looks at areas such as product metrics or strategic change for the product or organization.
  • Internal impact, which looks at your team and processes, and how they affect user research value and perception across the organization.

Every time user research impacts an individual, team, multiple departments, or organization, I write down the impact so we can track this over time to see what we are affecting and at what level.

✔ Make a resource sheet

The last thing I have for a research strategy is a resource sheet. This sheet includes the budget we have for tools, research incentives, hiring, and the team's capacity. This resource sheet helps me identify if things need to change in any way. For instance, if we take on too many requests, we might have to look into a tool to help us or hire another team member.


Creating a user research strategy at an organization takes time and effort, but is hugely rewarding. Not only can you understand exactly where you want to go and what steps you take to get there, but you can ensure you’re doing impactful work for teams and the organization.

When you do this type of impactful work, user research becomes more valuable at an organization, and you find your unique space and value proposition within a team. For me, there is no better feeling than that!

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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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