Making an impact with user research

Tomer Sharon
May 10 · 9 min read

For a user research professional, one of the hardest things to measure is how much stakeholders and clients have bought into user research. There is no clear, quantifiable answer to this question. Nevertheless, there are several signs that indicate stakeholder engagement, uptake, and buy-in. Let us identify some of these signs.

Think about the reasons people and organizations decide to conduct research with users. Why are they doing it? Why are they making the effort? The number one reason organizations do user research is because they want to learn about what their customers want and make the changes necessary to satisfy their customers’ needs. When stakeholders act on the findings of research, you can clearly point to the positive effect that the research is having on the organization, its products, and its customers. All you need to do is pay attention and be aware.

The number one reason organizations do user research is because they want to learn about what their customers want and make the changes necessary to satisfy their customers’ needs.

Research gets consumed

A great indication of the uptake of research is that stakeholders follow your research recommendations — especially the most important ones.

A great indication of the uptake of user research is that stakeholders follow research recommendations — especially the most important ones. For example, research consumption occurs when a problem that you discovered during a research activity gets solved as a result. If stakeholders choose to fix only problems that are easy to solve, that’s one thing. A better indication of consumption is when they fix the big problems that you identified during your research.

When a product team makes significant changes to a product’s design following research, that’s a great sign of research consumption.
Another sign of the consumption of research — which though less meaningful, is still favorable — is when salespeople use the fact research is even being done as part of their sales pitch with prospective customers. It is a positive indication that stakeholders perceive research as a unique selling proposition.

If people are touting research to tell customers what a good job the company is doing on user experience, when, in reality, stakeholders aren’t following your research recommendations, that stinks. In such cases, these stakeholders see research as a way of duping customers. If this happens to you a lot, I suggest that you consider whether your best recourse is to fight or flee, as I described here.

Budget gets allocated for more research

Stakeholders or clients who have experienced and benefited from UX research allocate more funding for research.

Typically, success means that stakeholders or clients who have experienced and benefited from research allocate more funding for research. This is a great sign when it comes from people, teams, and organizations with whom you have worked before — and even more so when it comes from people who are new to research. The latter means that word about research is spreading, which is definitely a good sign.

Findings have long-lasting usefulness

Generative UX research … usually have goals such as identifying user needs or discovering who users are. Chances are good that the findings from such studies will remain valid and true for long periods of time.

Because of the nature of generative research, study results have a long shelf life. These studies usually have goals such as identifying user needs or discovering who users are. Chances are good that the findings from such studies will remain valid and true for long periods of time. When I reflect on generative studies that I have conducted in the past, I see that they have had shelf lives of at least a few years. The reason for this is that such findings emerge from types of research that relate more to human behavior and human nature, which tend not to change very often.

I remember a study that I conducted a few years ago, whose goal was to identify who the users of a product the company wanted to develop would be and what their needs were. Findings from this study lasted and were still in use more than two years after we completed the study because the basic needs of users in that domain had not changed and probably would not change dramatically in the future.

When stakeholders use and consume study results for a long time after you’ve completed a study, that is a good indicator of impact and success. When this does not happen, this might mean that something has gone wrong with planning, collaboration, or communication. But it might just as likely mean stakeholders have internalized your study findings so completely that they now think what they learned from your research was something they had always known.

Trust becomes established

There are two clear signs that you’ve earned stakeholders’ trust.

One of the most frustrating things that can happen to a researcher is realizing that stakeholders do not trust his or her work. However, it is probably pretty rare for stakeholders to tell researchers to their face that they don’t trust their findings. On the other hand, one of the most encouraging things a researcher can experience is when they know they’ve established trust with stakeholders.

In companies where people frequently move on to other positions, you may face having to establish trust all over again with new stakeholders. There are two clear signs that you’ve earned stakeholders’ trust. It is important for me to emphasize that the absence of these signs does not mean your stakeholders do not trust you. It might, but there is not a single sign of trust. The two signs:

  1. Researchers get invited to important discussions. When people want to hear what you have to say, it is usually a good sign that you’ve established trust. When you get a seat at the table where stakeholders are making important decisions, that’s a great sign. I realize that researchers rarely get invited to this table. But — and this is a big but — more and more companies now realize that they need to make the table bigger to include UX people.
  2. Teams want to work with researchers. When research is having an impact, people talk with each other about it. It is not uncommon to see new projects arriving at the doorsteps of researchers who have made an impact. This could start with an email message or a hallway conversation — or show up as a formal request for additional research staff members — whether resource allocation is temporary or permanent.

Skeptical stakeholders become believers

One of the best moments a researcher can experience is knowing a stakeholder gets the value of research. There’s that spark in their eyes that tells you they believe. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does — especially when those stakeholders are senior decision makers or executives — they can move mountains for you and for a UX practice in your organization.

A business changes its strategic direction

When big things happen because someone has made a decision based on user research, that’s a huge indicator of success.

The following signs might tell you that a business is changing its strategic direction because of user research:

  1. A business makes strategic decisions based on research findings. A business may seek strategic partners, make acquisitions, forge mergers, or define new target audiences based on user research. When big things happen because someone has made a decision based on user research, that’s a huge indicator of success.
  2. Product teams reshape their roadmaps. When product teams make decisions — such as developing significant new features, investing in more research, or stopping the launch of a flawed product — based on research, you can say that research has made its mark.
  3. Recommendations from research findings inspire new products. Sometimes user research points to new product development opportunities. While a single study would not prompt stakeholders to decide to develop a new product, a user research program in combination with market research and collaboration with people in other disciplines in an organization can make this happen.

Staffing changes

When managers decide to dedicate teams’ or individuals’ time to acting on user research, that’s a huge success.

Two positive signs that research is making an impact relate to staffing:

  1. Product teams allocate engineering resources to act upon the recommendations from research findings. When managers decide to dedicate teams’ or individuals’ time to acting on research, that’s a huge success. Because of research findings, stakeholders may allocate people to fix bugs, solve design issues, implement improved designs, develop new features, and even work on new products. I’ve referred specifically to engineers because they can actually make changes to products. When more designers, product managers, and researchers get allocated to solving problems identified in user research , that is really awesome, but engineers make things happen.
  2. Job descriptions emphasize UX skills. I’m a great believer in specialization. I think people should know a lot about one thing and a little about many things. But when my team is hiring a product manager and I see a job requirement like the following appearing at the top of the job description, it warms my heart: “Fight for the user. As a product manager, you drive the team to achieve excellence in usability, look and feel, and fit and finish.” This means your team’s leadership appreciates what design has to offer and is actively trying to hire people whose minds are open to design in general and, more specifically, to research.

There are requests for training in user research

An important sign that research is getting traction is when stakeholders repeatedly make requests to go through some kind of training that would help them become better at doing quick research studies.

My experience with such training requests shows stakeholders usually want to learn the following:

  • How to interpret the results of research?
  • How to do a better job of interviewing users?
  • How to better phrase survey questions?
  • How to run quick usability tests?

Researchers gain recognition

An organization’s commending or giving an award to a researcher — either individually or as part of a team — is a sign of a mature organization that understands the importance of user research and the contribution it can make to strategic operations and product development. You know those “hey-we-launched-X-thank-you-everyone” email messages that name all the people who were involved in a certain effort? When researchers get recognized in such messages, there’s good reason to celebrate. It means people see researchers as integral parts of their teams.

Takeaways

If you’re conducting research to drive change, you must develop reliable ways of determining whether the desired changes are occurring. Here are five key takeaways on how to increase your awareness of the impact your research is having:

  • If you’re conducting user research to drive change, you must develop reliable ways of determining whether the desired changes are occurring.
  • Pay attention to how your stakeholders consume research findings.
  • Track the allocation of funds to and sponsorship of further research. This is a very clear indicator of the success of research.
  • Notice stakeholders’ seeking your opinions. If stakeholders care about what you have to say, it’s a good sign that you’ve earned their trust.
  • Track the impact of research. When people get assigned to make changes that stem from research, that’s a great positive sign that research will make an impact.

Now that you’re aware of some signs that user research is making a difference, how can you improve the chances that stakeholders will perceive your research as having an impact? If you plan your research activities based on conversations with your stakeholders, if you collaborate with stakeholders throughout the research process, and if you communicate research findings well, you are on the right track.

Tomer Sharon is author of Validating Product Ideas Through Lean User Research and It’s Our Research: Getting stakeholder buy-in for user experience research projects. Sign-up for Tomer’s Lean User Research newsletter to get access to more resources on the topic. The newsletter will appear in your inbox no more than once a month.

Tomer Sharon

Written by

Head of User Research & Metrics at Goldman Sachs, Author of Validating Product Ideas and It's Our Research, Ex-Google, Ex-WeWork, WWE fanboy. 2∞&→

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