Give Your Research Skills Away: Why Coaching Product Teams Won’t Put You Out of a Job

User researchers shouldn’t hesitate to share what we know — we have the skills, experience, and knowledge to lead the way

The era of customer obsession presents an interesting problem for user researchers. On one hand, product teams are hungry for more customer connection, so we’re seeing a high demand for our skills as more companies take a customer-led approach.

But the ratio of embedded researchers to product owners remains notoriously low in startups and large-scale companies alike. If all user research went through us, we’d be totally overwhelmed.

Teaching customer engagement and research skills to product teams is a solution that many companies are turning to. Depending on the model and the context, research training programs may be popular, controversial, or both. When we approach them strategically, these programs can produce valid research, as well as foster respect for the discipline and free up embedded researchers to do more high-level work.

Let’s get more valid research done

In my experience, no one pushes back on customer connection programs that focus on increasing direct interactions and empathy, even if the participants are novices. But once an activity is deemed “research” or is used to gather insights to drive key decisions, some researchers get a little nervous. Were the insights accurate? Will product teams think they have all the tools they need without us?

It makes sense to ask these questions. I myself have asked them. Luckily, I’ve seen and learned a lot in my 20+ years in research — which include overseeing research coaching for organizations like Windows and Edge at Microsoft.

Our comprehensive approach involves more than just offering trainings and resources. We provide a hypothesis-driven framework for integrating customer input, plus a dedicated coach who supports the entire process.

Having seen the results of this program, I believe it’s entirely feasible for those not in the user research discipline to gather accurate insights. Here are a few best practices that lead to more valid research:

  1. Research plans follow human-centered or hypothesis-driven design, and interactions with customers are framed in an open and unbiased way.
  2. Those engaging with customers have been trained in core foundational skill sets such as how to talk to customers without bias, active listening, problem framing, and sense-making.
  3. Researchers (or trained customer engagement coaches) consult from the planning stage all the way through to data analysis and reporting.
  4. Existing data and research are consulted, reviewed, and integrated early on.

It’s certainly possible for research performed by novices to do more harm than good. But we should remember that validity is about whether research is conducted in a reliable, deliberate, nonbiased way, not who does the research.

How coaching breaks down silos and benefits customers

At Microsoft Customer Insights and Research, our coaching program is building appreciation for the discipline and changing how we make products. Unlike similar programs that only facilitate evaluative research, we enable and encourage our stakeholders to interact with customers throughout the product cycle.

In our approach, we focus on two principles to guide us: building the right thing and building the thing right.

Participants can use our program to set up customer engagements in either phase, but we emphasize the early phases focused on building the right thing, since generative research is so critical to understanding customer needs and can lead to less wasted development work down the road.

One of the first things we noticed when we launched our program was that it seemed to be enhancing our stakeholders’ respect for user research. Far from thinking they no longer need us, they’ve started to understand the amount of time and resources involved in even narrowly focused studies as they learn research skills. When we teach our partners how to drive their own research, suddenly they’re behind the curtain, hearing feedback from its source and getting closer to customer needs.

In addition to the empathy that they build with customers through this process, they’re also building empathy with us, aligning the researcher-stakeholder relationship in a more cooperative direction.

The studies have also produced solid results. We’ve seen our product teams capture significant insights regarding online safety for kids, voice typing in creative contexts, and preferences around human-AI interaction, to name just a few. Our impact measurement shows that 92 percent of our initial studies resulted in changes that will steer our products toward meeting customer needs.

Training product partners frees up researchers to do more

As we scale this model, some of the day-to-day work of user research will be distributed, giving full-time researchers more time for more strategic, specialized work. For any who feel nervous about whether coaching other disciplines might threaten their job security or sense of professionalism, I would emphasize that there’s no shortage of this kind of work to be done.

As the embedded research experts on our teams, we can be looking out to industry or competitive trends, or curating our current insights into a durable body of knowledge. We can gain a deeper understanding of customer habits and behaviors over time through longitudinal work or conduct exploratory research to identify new opportunity areas.

So don’t hold back. Look forward to a future in which user research is no longer the voice of the customer but one of many customer voices — and give your research skills away. Our discipline may be changing and reinventing itself, but it’s not going to disappear.

Are you sharing research skills in your organization? Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @MicrosoftRI. Want to come work with us? We’re hiring!