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

Nancy Lincoln Perry
Apr 24 · 5 min read

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?

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. 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.
  2. Researchers (or trained customer engagement coaches) consult from the planning stage all the way through to data analysis and reporting.
  3. Existing data and research are consulted, reviewed, and integrated early on.

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 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.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Nancy Lincoln Perry

Written by

Principal User Research Manager, Microsoft Customer Insights + Research. Enabling Customer-Driven Decisions. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.