How to Evolve Your Organization's UX Research Practice From The Bottom Up

This post shares specific tactics user experience researchers in beginner, intermediate, and advanced companies have used to evolve their company's user research practice from the bottom up.

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This post provides a map for user experience researchers to facilitate the transition from a retrospective research practice to a proactive one from the bottom up.

For this post, I talked with a dozen user experience researchers to understand the best practices for embedding user research throughout their organization. The best practices below operate under the assumption that no one in your organization can add a minute to their work; we can only optimize the time we already have. The post walks through tactics for user experience research practices at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced stages.

For Beginner UX Research Practices

Symptoms of beginner research practices: One or two user experience professionals do everything. The line between UI and UX is blurry, and, in some cases, UX research lives under the design organization. User research is almost always retrospective and always seems to be needed "yesterday." One user researcher told me that his organization started as a beginner. He said, "I was hired by the product team who recognized that they needed a UX research function, but they didn't totally know why."

The objective for UX researchers in beginner UX research practices: Educate the product organization on proactive user research value.

Tactics for UX researchers in beginner UX research practices: UX researchers inside beginner UX research practices are like Stretch Armstrong. They are muscular, but by the time the organization has pulled them in five directions at once, their muscles look a lot more like Gumby's than Hulk Hogan's. I uncovered six tactics that UX researchers have used to make headway from the bottom upward in organizations that need a nudge or two to bulk up their user research practice.

1. Get product team-members to observe user research in action.

The solution that worked for nearly every user researcher was getting someone to experience a user research session, even if it's retrospective. In the beginning, getting a CSM or engineer to sit in on one of these sessions may be insurmountable, so start with product team members. Product managers are some of the busiest people in the entire organization, so a tactic one user researcher said he had success with was making it as easy as possible for them to join. He shares the link for every session and asks that the product team member Slack-chat any questions she has during the session. Another user researcher said that she invites the relevant product team members to every session regardless of their calendar availability - she found that they eventually started moving their calendar blocks to sit in on half of these. If an asynchronous observation is required, one user researcher told me that it was simple to splice together key clips from qualitative research he conducted via Dscout's video tools.

2. Use coworkers as a sample for user research that you are already conducting.

Most UX researchers in underfunded practices do this today. In addition to getting quick insights, doing these sessions with internal employees helps answer the question, "what would you say you do here?" Close the loop when you complete the study by sharing with each coworker you interviewed how you used her insight to improve a product. One user researcher I spoke with said that he found sales engineers to be a perfect sample because they can act as end-users, and building a relationship with the SEs helps him better understand what the end is saying.

3. Brainwash new hires on the product team.

The saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. It turns out that isn't exactly true, as proven by the luckiest researchers of all time working for the University of Vienna's Clever Dog Lab (aka the "good boy" lab). That said, it indeed takes about twice as much effort to train old dogs as it does puppies. Okay, your coworkers are not K9s, but the point is that it's going to take significantly more time to change current coworkers' habits than it will be to instill new habits in new hires. One user researcher told me that she sets up meetings with new product team hires and lays out what she can do to help them be successful - highlighting proactive user research tactics.

4. Borrow time in existing meetings to educate the difference between UI and UX and retrospective vs. proactive research.

If a product team has a regular meeting, ask to present some user research methodologies. This presentation should clearly define the difference and use cases for proactive vs. retrospective user research. One user researcher said he had success pointing out timelines associated with each tactic he presented. For example, "what can be done in one week, in one month, if we had two months." The renowned user researcher, Steve Portigal, uses this same tactic when less mature organizations hire him. If user research is under the design organization, this is the perfect time to cross the divide.

5. Solicit feedback from CSMs to build a foundational relationship.

I bet I can categorize your user research practice as a beginner, intermediate, or advanced by asking about your relationship with customer success managers (CSMs). Almost every user researcher I spoke with brought up the UX researcher-CSM relationship. I suspect that the connection to user research maturity is more of a correlation than causation. Still, a healthy relationship is necessary because CSMs tend to treat their customers' time as the precious commodity that it is and, if all goes well, you're going to be asking the CSM for more of their customers' time. Before we can hammer CSMs for contacts, we need to build a baseline relationship. By asking CSMs for their customer's feedback, you 1. get more insight into the problems and concerns that your customers have today, and 2. begin a relationship with CSMs so that they can see you as a problem-solver rather than a renewal risk.

6. Set up a simple repo for user research with non-research folks in mind.

Numerous user researchers told me, "most outside the user research function just want to know the highlights." There are tools like, Dovetail, and EnjoyHQ that are specifically made for handling and sharing user research, but while your team is small, stick your research in the internal tool that your organization uses already to communicate. For example, one user researcher's organization does a lot of communication via Coda, so he built a space in Coda for user research. Gitlab's user research repo started on Google Docs. I recognize that your minutes as an understaffed us research practice are precious, so be comfortable with an MVP approach for this repo - you can iterate or buy a fancy solution later.

For intermediate UX research practices:

Symptoms of intermediate research practices: UX research is separate from design. The product team understands and advocates for proactive user research. Teams outside product and design (content, engineering, etc.) can't immediately articulate what a user researcher does or why they should care. About three-quarters of user research is retroactive. It's still a pain to get users for user research.

The objective for UX researchers in intermediate UX research practices: Get to a point where almost nothing gets built without customer discovery first, stakeholders eagerly await user research findings but do not rush the process, and coworkers from outside the product org start to reach out to you for help, unprompted.

Tactics for UX researchers in intermediate UX research practices: UX researchers inside intermediate firms have the product team's full support. But, when you step outside the product organization, it isn't clear to other functions what, as one user research put it, "the people with sticky notes" are doing. Below are five tactics that user researchers can do to evangelize user research to the most prominent user research skeptics: engineers who believe that it will slow down development and customer success managers (CSMs) who calculate your engagement with their customers as a risk rather than an enrichment opportunity.

1. Get engineers and customer success team members to observe user research in action.

If you take nothing else away from this post, I want you to take away that the most successful tool you can use to prove user research's value is to have coworkers observe what you do. It tends to be more straightforward to convince customer success managers to observe user research interactions since they inherently value the opportunity to further understand their customers. Engineering, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. One user researcher said that he was casually chatting with a software engineer who said, "honestly, I build software, but I don't give a shit how they use it." Flash forward, and that engineer watches a user struggle with a malfunctioning component in a live usability session. Before the session was over, he squashed the bug and earned a deeper understanding of how end-users experience his output.

2. Elevate research readouts to cross-functional, collaborative, decision-making meetings.

Beth Devine, UX Research Lead for Stack Overflow, shares research as part of a roundtable (dubbed the "Research Roundtable" - inspired by the inspired by King Arthur's "Knights of the Round Table" legend). Devine's Research Roundtable meetings include six leaders from product, design, and engineering. Instead of treating these meetings as a lecture, Devine focuses on using the time to facilitate how the organization can act upon the findings. A couple of user researchers told me they had success using Miro's software to collaborate to share and act upon user research findings digitally.

3. Use Lunch 'n Learns and Masterclasses to show what user research does.

Lunch 'n Learns, masterclasses, "meet the founders," whatever you call them, most companies have a time where employees across functions meet. One user researcher told me that their research practice started their own "Lunch 'n Learns," where they shared what they do and what they are learning with the broader organization. They have had to add an extra 15 minutes for questions because they consistently ran overtime answering questions from the engaged audience of 150 people from across the organization. Another UX researcher mentioned that they host listening sessions where the product team, a customer success person, a sales executive, and an engineering manager come together to share and reflect on the feedback they hear from their touchpoints.

4. Train product managers to do some user research.

I talked to a few user researchers who echoed the sentiment that "my job is to make my job obsolete." They see themselves more as teachers, librarians, and user research facilitators rather than a siloed function. One user researcher told me, "I spend a lot of time teaching product managers how to do what I do because the team is so small. I just can't do it all." Another user researcher said that they've set up such efficient systems that, in some cases, it's more efficient for a product manager to recruit users and conduct their own user research for bite-sized retrospective projects than it would be to engage the user research team - which is more focused on discovery research.

5. Create an efficient system for recruiting for research.

Agile engineering fears anything that might slow them down, and successful CSMs have a hawkeye on anything that might remind their customers of your product's flaws. As a result, recruiting users needs to thread the needle to be both fast and tactful. The most advanced user research practices have built efficient methods to pull their recruiting list and personalize reach out based on customer data from tools such as Looker and Amplitude. Even in the most mature practices, user researchers stressed that establishing trust with CSM was essential. Even when there was a strong user research-CSM relationship and UX researchers could pull their list of potential users, they wished they had set up a field for "UX do not contact" in their CRM/customer data warehouse before they learned it the hard way.

6. Iterate your user research repo solution with product managers as the user profile.

I heard from multiple user researchers that documenting and retrieving past user research is a painful experience. Start with understanding the systems that product managers in your org use to make decisions today and embed a user research repo solution within that flow. For example, one user researcher told me that product managers in their organization use Aha to plan the product roadmap, so they built their repo into Aha.

For advanced UX research practices:

Symptoms of advanced research practices: Your products lead the market. Almost everything gets built with customer discovery and user stories first. You can fill a study quickly, and people from around the organization can tell you about customer pain-points.

The objective for UX researchers in advanced UX research practices: User researchers stop doing user research. They spend their time training others to do user research and iterating technological and human systems to enable efficiencies and discovery.

Tactics for UX researchers in advanced UX research practices: Bear with me; this is about to get a bit "handwavy." The thought of user researchers not doing user research is startling. But, if an advanced user research practice can build efficient systems to collect, analyze, and share user research, then the hump that "product managers are too busy" flattens. If you pair efficient systems with skilled UX research instructors in the organization, product managers can keep their finger on the pulse of what customers are doing, how they are doing it, and what they will need next. Below are three tactics that UX researchers in advanced research practices can use to create an elite user-research-enabled organization.

1. Implement, evangelize, and connect a customer feedback management platform to an advanced user research repo.

Customer Feedback Management (CFM) vendors like Forrester's FeedbackNow, InMoment, Medallia, and Qualtrics build technology that centralizes structured and unstructured customer feedback from digital and physical touchpoints. Most CFM vendors have realized that a lot of the best customer feedback comes from frontline workers; in other words, CSMs and account executives now have a place to share their customers' feedback. Pair a CFM with an advanced user research repo, and you've got a powerhouse user research platform. The biggest challenge with CFMs and research repos is keeping them up-to-date; fortunately, as a user research evangelist in an advanced user research practice, your full-time job is to share the importance of why we do this and how to get the flywheel whirring.

2. Schedule non-users to come in every month, no matter if you have something planned or not.

Most researchers I spoke with talked about how they talk to current users, but few brought up their process of regularly talking to non-users. One UX researcher I spoke with said that when he was in a well-funded fintech startup, they would have users come in for user research monthly. "Sometimes, it would be the day before, and we wouldn't have anything planned. We would have to scramble to put something together, but in the end, it was always worth it."

3. Serve user research deliverables in multiple mediums.

There is no standard way that everyone consumes user research. Some want to watch the video from an entire study while they wait for their bus, some prefer the audio so that they can listen on their drive into work, and others want to read the transcripts. Most like a polished blurb of the finding; others want to see the dirty details. With human guidance, tech can slice and dice the same research to feed a "headless" user research distribution platform.

Authored by:
Mike Chirokas