How to Establish a UX Research Process
In this chapter, we share the best ways to get started with user research and expert advice on how to implement a research practice in your organization.
Understand how your organization works
One of the key steps to implementing a research practice in your organization is to understand how it currently operates. Spend time learning about your organizational culture, the different departments, and where the decision-making power lies. Learning about how decisions are currently being made will help grasp how research can provide value and play a significant role in your current company.
If people know and understand the value of research, then it’s easy to get buy-in for different research projects when the opportunities come up.
There are two things to specifically look at when learning about your organization:
1) Figure out how decisions are being made
Internal discussions with stakeholders will help you learn what are the needs of your organization, how you can contribute to the decisions being made, and successfully implement a research practice. You can do this by sitting down with stakeholders and asking questions such as:
- “How does your organization actually make decisions?”
- “What kind of decisions are different parts of the company allowed to make?”
- “What decisions live with the CEO or the design team, and what’s the basis that they need to use to make decisions?”
- “What kind of evidence do we need, and what types of data will build up enough evidence?”
2) Learn about people’s prior experience with research
Another key step towards getting started with research is learning about your team’s experience with research.
Christina Janzer, Senior Director of Research & Analytics at Slack says that this understanding will help you to recognize an opportunity when you see it, notice warning signs when they arise, and which stakeholders you should engage with.
This knowledge will also equip you with the information you need to successfully implement a research practice. If people know and understand the value of research, then it’s easier to get buy-in for different research projects when the opportunities come up.
Know what you’re trying to decide
UX research is all about answering a question or hypothesis you or your design team have. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building a research practice because each organization has its own objectives. Learning what kind of research to do, why, and how you should do it are important steps to establishing a research practice.
Some data is always better than none, but knowing when to collect it and what kind of data you need starts by understanding the objective. Behzod Sirjani, Founder of Yet Another Studio and former Head of Research & Analytics Operations at Slack, says that you should aim to do research whenever you want to increase your confidence in a decision:
“Research should always be oriented around a decision because knowing what you’re trying to decide is going to help you understand what you’re trying to look at – and how you’re actually going to do that research.”
As research is the foundation of user-centric design, it should be done during the entire product development process—as well as in the early stages. Depending on your goals, you can select the appropriate UX research method from diary studies to usability testing, however, the ability to conduct user research depends on your bandwidth, resources, as well as the maturity level of your organization. Starting with the goal and decision in mind will help guide your research efforts and the framework that fits the needs of the project.
Properly scope the research project
Gregg Bernstein, UX Researcher at Signal, starts a research project by setting objectives and asking questions to understand the scope of research. He explains:
“To properly scope research, you need to understand and balance long-term organizational goals against the impact of each project. For me, this means asking my research team, product manager, and organizational leadership questions to grasp the big picture, contextualizing where a given project fits in, and appropriately scoping research.”
Part of a researcher’s job is to choose the right research techniques for the project by understanding the information the team needs and which questions need answering. To do this right, a flexible approach to research is paramount. Gregg explains:
“Because my approach to research is grounded in flexibility, I don’t necessarily adhere to a framework so much as a devotion to providing information that helps everyone make better decisions, using whatever user research methods of gathering and sharing information that support that mission.”
Tanya Nativ, Design Researcher at Sketch, also echoes the sentiment that properly scoping and planning your research is essential:
“One of the processes that we set up early on was making sure that every project starts with research goals and assumptions. It is incredibly important to know why we are doing this research, and what we believe we already know about the user behavior.”
Get stakeholder buy-in
To get stakeholder buy-in for a user experience research project, you need to clearly explain how research impacts users and the product. Behzod Sirjani, Founder of Yet Another Studio, says that the best way to approach this is to discuss with stakeholders and help them understand why you need to do research in the first place.
“Your job as a researcher is not to have all the answers, but to help your company learn and make better decisions.”
Additionally, getting buy-in on research is about denoting the impact of the decision being made to stakeholders. Zoom in on the scope of the decision and clarify if it’s something that will affect you, your team, your user group, your design process, or the entire company.
For example, when introducing something new–say a “nice-to-have” feature–and you don’t expect a lot of people are going to use it, consider if this is going to negatively affect users and impact their experience. If not, then investing a lot into research at this stage is probably unnecessary.
However, if you’re making a large, irreversible decision that will affect the majority or all of your users, then you will probably need a high confidence level in the decision being made:
“With big decisions, you want more confidence that you’re doing the right thing. That’s when you should use research as a tool.”
Part of getting stakeholders to buy into the value of research is to get them involved in the research process, which is the next thing we’ll be looking into.
Engage the entire team in the UX research process
A big part of a researcher’s mission is to work collaboratively with their team and make research a company-wide discipline. This means including stakeholders in user interviews, documenting research findings in an accessible format, and making sure the product team has the information they need to make effective decisions.
“At Shopify, I’ve encouraged my product team to get involved in research by providing feedback on the plan, facilitating alignment workshops like assumption slams, inviting others to facilitate research sessions and take notes, and be part of the synthesis process.”
The best way to get other people involved in research is to introduce a company-wide culture that research and learning are a team sport. “Your role is to shepherd your team to understand that you’re not doing research to have all the answers but that you’re facilitating a way for everyone to learn so that you can all make the important decisions that address real user needs,” says Behzod Sirjani, Founder of Yet Another Studio.
“The more you make research a learning tool for everyone, the more you help people recognize its value and empower them to use it as a way to make informed decisions and work on the right solutions.”
One way to make research accessible across the organization is to invite stakeholders to user interviews and make sure you prepare them in advance, letting them know what will happen and what to pay attention to during the sessions. This is important because participating in research activities can help your team grasp the value of research more clearly.
“During my time at Facebook, we used to do customer immersion trips where I would interview the customer in front of 6-8 people from my team. I would give the customer an idea about some of the things we wanted to talk about, but I’d also spend time with the people on my team helping them understand how the interview will unfold and what to listen for during the session.”
There are different ways to involve your team in research. Here are some ideas:
- Share the research plan with your team and ensure that they’re excited about it
- Share the discussion guide and make sure that you’re asking the right questions
- While you’re actually conducting a session, have your team write down notes or provide feedback
- Have a discussion with your team to make sure you’re on the same page about all the things that they observe
- Make sure your team can see their own feedback in the research document after you synthesize the findings
The advantage of including your team in the UX research process is that when the time comes to discuss the findings and the next steps, everyone is on the same page:
“Since the team is involved in the process from the beginning and have already seen the more important research findings, the final results will not come as a surprise.”
Equally important, asking stakeholders to take notes and going over everything after the session is a good way to arrive at a final conclusion. “Co-analysis is a really good practice to extract great insights. We usually discuss all our insights internally right after the session,” she says.
Share your findings with your team
Conducting research is just one part of the equation, but just as important is sharing actionable insights with your team, making the data digestible, and telling a story with the results.
“Everyone should have access to information that helps them make better decisions. Information should take the path of least resistance and should go where people already are.”
Determining the most effective format and medium to share your research findings will depend on the preferred communication channels that your company already uses. For example, if your team is most receptive to in-person discussions, you can organize an all-hands presentation. If you have some great video footage, you can showcase that.
“It’s important to go over the final results after all your sessions, discuss the research outcome, and decide on what you’re going to implement.”
Sharing your work with different team members is also essential because everyone will benefit from understanding the issues users experience and help make informed decisions to improve them.
Avoiding research silos either through confusing information or closed feedback loops is an important step to getting the findings implemented and worked on. One way to do this is to create an organization-wide library that contains all the insights you’ve discovered.
For example, Behzod explains that during his tenure at Slack, a part of the researchers’ job was building knowledge for the company via one or two-page documents similar to Wikipedia articles that included links to different studies and data points, and then sharing them with the team.
Regardless of the department, people should be able to quickly access the documents and know the most important details about a research project at a glance.
“I encourage people to start the sharing process before the project starts. You want your team bought in about the fact that you’re doing this work because you want it to impact their decisions and so you need their voice represented in the plan–you want them participating all along the way.”
Melanie Buset, Senior UX Researcher at Shopify, mentions the importance of including the team in the process and encouraging them to ask questions and challenge your recommendations.
“You can direct certain recommendations to those who might be responsible for implementing them and open a dialogue to get their feedback. Similarly, when sharing your findings in a deck or report, you can tag specific people in the document and ask that they acknowledge your mention,” says Melanie.
Measure the effectiveness of research
“As researchers, we’re just as responsible for the outcomes of the products we work on like everyone else. So, remember to keep the conversation going after sharing the results and follow up to see how the team is progressing on implementation.”
Last but not least, a key part of advocating for research and its value is making sure that the findings you shared are implemented and actively worked on. That is, the research has been effective in making decision-making easier.
Here’s some questions to consider when measuring the effectiveness of research:
- “Will the insights produced still be valid in a year? What is their shelf life?”
- “How many team members have seen and reacted to them?”
- “Have the insights been retranslated into actual deliverables for new or updated features?”
- “Has this development solved a user’s pain point?”
More than that, the decisions made based on key findings should benefit your target audience or the team, and make things better for people. To do this, you have to define what “better” means by knowing who your users are and if your decision will have an irreversible impact. The research questions that can guide your assessment here are:
- “Are you doing the right things for your end users?”
- “Are you doing things that are in service of your business?”
Ultimately, the value of research comes down to building a successful product based on insight and new learnings, so it’s key to measure how the changes and decisions taken due to research perform over time.
“Research is truly successful when it helps you create and reinforce mechanisms of learning for the whole company.”
Connecting the dots
By championing the ethos of research and helping companies build intentional ways of learning across the organization, you ensure that research is a company-wide practice that everyone benefits from. Research is an organizational-wide activity that every team member should be involved in.