Day-to-day actions to position user research as a strategic partner
This article was written based on the story of a researcher at a Fintech startup.
Many companies struggle to reconcile business objectives with customer needs. It seems only natural for user research to play a role in easing this struggle by bridging the gap between user understanding and product strategy. However, user research is often reduced to late-stage evaluative studies. This position frustrates researchers seeking to drive larger impact, and limits an organisation’s approach towards customer centricity.
Here are three day-to-day actions user researchers can take to become a strategic partner.
1. Tie research goals with business objectives:
Impacting product strategy requires intentionally connecting the dots between research goals and business objectives. Of course, it is not that simple. In many organisations, user researchers are not involved in strategic conversations and are often asked to conduct studies without broader context. As a result, these studies don’t always line up with product vision or priorities, and findings may end up shelved and underutilised.
Before getting busy with planning, focus on understanding the nature of the request. A simple way to do this is to use our interview skills when talking to stakeholders to ‘research the research’. I personally find that framing the conversation around five questions works best:
- How did this research arise?
- What decisions need to be taken and what are their implications?
- Which business metrics do we expect to impact?
- Which teams or people will we share these results with?
- What do we already know and which data we have to support this?
These questions help me shift the conversation from discussing the approach and into clarifying the challenge at hand. Their answers equip me to frame the research around business objectives. Moving on and throughout the research process, I emphasise this by highlighting how the study ties to said objectives. For instance by adding an ‘Expected impact’ section to the research plan or explicitly reporting how specific insights and recommendations connect to a metric.
2. Establish a two-way collaboration with stakeholders:
We have heard it many times before: user research is most effective when stakeholders are involved. This doesn’t mean to simply invite them to a presentation where results are shared, or send them a link to the interview script before the sessions. Involving stakeholders entails creating spaces for them to participate and contribute in activities at all research stages. This yields meaningful results for the team and spreads research know-how in the organisation.
There is no one-size-fits-all template about how and when to involve stakeholders during research — although this post by Myddelton is a good source for guiding examples. Beyond the specific actions, I suggest to keep three things in mind when it comes to engaging stakeholders in research activities:
- Defining moments for involvement beforehand: when starting a study, identify and share when and how people can contribute. This way, expectations are aligned and people can plan research activities in their schedule. It also emphasises that everyone’s input is necessary for success. For instance, send a calendar invite ahead of time for a synthesis session together.
- Assigning them small tasks that require an active role: letting people take ownership of tasks signals a shared responsibility. What works best is to identify actions that don’t need additional work but ask for active participation. For instance, ask them to take notes or pictures during a session or lead the conversation when prioritising findings.
- Providing status updates regularly: sending a quick message to relevant stakeholders ensures alignment and keeps people motivated throughout the research. Define a cadence and format that works for everyone. In my organisation, it works to send a slack message about once per week or when there is a relevant milestone reached — like recruitment being completed or an unmoderated study going live.
On the other hand, collaboration is a two way street. Just as stakeholders should be involved in research, researchers should engage with the team’s activities. Constant interactions help us align priorities, understand decision making processes and learn each other’s language. Ultimately, mutual engagement evolves our role from an ad-hoc service provider to a solid partner throughout the product development process — from strategy, to implementation, to continuous improvement. I believe small day-to-day actions go a long way: ask to be invited to team stand-ups and demos, participate in design critiques or join data analytics share-outs.
3. Find allies across the organisation:
Evolving the role of user research within an organisation is not an easy task. It requires building a strong case and presenting a united front. As researchers we need to proactively find allies who can help us showcase the business impact of research and strengthen customer understanding to inform product strategy.
But how can we start building a case for strategic research when most requests don’t tackle these questions? A senior researcher shared with me how she approached this challenge. She started by identifying a willing partner — a product manager who was a strong advocate for user insights. They prioritised a small strategic project and used it as a first demonstration of the value of user research for strategic decision making. The project built credibility within the organisation triggering more requests of similar nature.
Other ‘customer focused’ roles like data analysts, market researchers and customer support make for great allies too. Using insights from different perspectives provides stronger customer understanding while reducing uncertainty for decision making. As researchers, we should strive to collaborate and leverage each other’s learnings.
Where I work we set up a series of workshops between User Research and Data analytics to strengthen this collaboration. In these sessions we focus on learning more about each other’s practice and how to work better together. On a daily basis, researchers can reach out to these allies when starting a project to gather their insights on the topic or identify questions that are best answered by uniting forces. Even better, suggest to conduct a study together to proactively tackle a strategic question!
Becoming a partner in shaping product strategy takes time and effort. To start tackling this challenge, we as researchers should intentionally place business objectives at the centre of every study. We can take small day to day actions by setting up spaces for stakeholders to contribute during user research as well as stepping out of our comfort zone to join their daily activities. Moreover, there is no need to embark on this mission alone; finding allies across the organisation helps to strengthen customer insights and build a solid case for a customer centric product strategy.
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