Life in the FAST Lane

The successes, challenges, and influence of Microsoft’s quick-turnaround user research team

Melissa DeCapua
Aug 7, 2018 · 4 min read
User researcher Melissa DeCapua (that’s me!) running a FAST study in the Microsoft usability labs.

FAST is a lot like that team every big company has. We conduct iterative user research studies for product teams, and we do it, well, fast.

Our team, part of the Microsoft Research + Insight organization, suffers from similar challenges as every team like this — delicately balancing quality with speed while also (somehow) scaling processes and knowledge. Despite these predictable yet unavoidable feats, we’ve created something unusually meaningful: a culture of ownership, experimentation, and inclusion as well as cross-product and cross-division customer impact.

This is what I’d like to share today — the story of the successes, challenges, and influence of the FAST team.

Scaling for impact

FAST provides quick-turnaround user research services, primarily usability testing and design reviews, on a three-week cadence for other teams across Microsoft. ​​​​​​​We bundle small research requests from across teams into a single study. In a two-hour lab session, for example, participants complete up to five smaller studies from five different teams and five different products.

By addressing small, specific research questions, we empower other researchers to focus on broader inquiries, which, in turn, enables the research discipline within a large organization to scale.

Likewise, our speed and regularity allow product teams to test with customers early and often, iterating until the design is ready for wide release.

FAST impacts products, people, and processes across Microsoft in several ways.

In 2017, our studies led to immense product impact, including the identification and correction of usability issues as well as major shifts in a product’s roadmap. Check out the infographic below for the full details.

We also ask teams to attend the lab session to observe participants. This fosters empathy, encouraging stakeholders to recognize their biases and question their assumptions. Impact like this facilitates a customer-obsessed company culture.

We have become an essential part of the development process at Microsoft because of our reputation for efficiency and effectiveness. Teams across the organization use FAST to investigate their hypotheses, identify unmet customer needs, test concepts and solutions, and evaluate features for usability issues.

This infographic shows how FAST affected products across Microsoft in 2017.

Feeding our appetite for experimentation

The FAST team exhibits a high-trust culture of continuous improvement, openness to experimentation, and focus on inclusion.

We strive to exemplify the principles of kaizen — each team member, both researcher and manager, possesses autonomy, ownership of the process, and responsibility for the quality. In addition to conducting research, team members partake in process refinement, team operations, and identifying our stakeholders’ unmet needs.

Our appetite for change and ongoing learning has led to a culture of experimentation. Other researchers come to FAST with unproven but innovative ideas, and we don’t hesitate to give them a shot.

Can we try testing with a less computer-savvy audience? Yes! What if we let stakeholders run the study themselves? Why not! Can we pilot new eye-tracking, physiological, and emotion-sensing devices? Let’s try!

Finally, we believe inclusive design should be integrated into every phase of development. We have an accessibility expert on the team, and we conduct accessibility cognitive walkthroughs on every prototype brought to us for testing. As a result, we’ve created (and continue to refine) best practices and new-hire training on accessible user interface design.

Balancing speed and efficiency

Conducting quick-turnaround user research is not without its challenges. How can we become more efficient while maintaining rigor, ensuring our findings are activated, preventing researcher burnout, and documenting our results in a meaningful way?

The FAST team is no magic bullet. While we can validly identify usability issues, we cannot effectively answer research questions like, “Which of our designs do customers prefer?” and “Will customers derive value from our product?” On the other hand, we recognize the need for quick responses to these other research questions, and — in true kaizen fashion — we are evolving our process to adapt to our stakeholders’ needs.

Our regular cadence and quick turnaround can be physically and emotionally exhausting for researchers. To address this, we’ve slowed our process to ensure adequate time to complete deliverables and we’ve added flex time to work on other projects.

Working with such a large number of stakeholders makes activating our insights challenging. Although we track our team’s impact, we rely heavily on other researchers to incorporate our findings into the product roadmap and ensure they are acted upon.

Why don’t we go even faster? We certainly could if we didn’t spend a week systematically documenting our results. Instead of sheer speed, however, we have chosen to focus on the quality of insight we produce. Documentation allows our team to build a body of knowledge, reduce redundant work, identify cross-study themes, and generate durable findings.

This higher-quality insight is something we can reuse and apply to future research questions, thus creating a timeless body of knowledge.

At Microsoft, the FAST team exemplifies a process that helps entire research organizations scale knowledge, build influence, and lead a culture of customer obsession.

Does your company have a team like FAST? Have you experienced similar successes and challenges, or would adding a similar team improve your processes? Tell me about it in the comments, or tweet @melissadecapua.

To stay in-the-know with what’s new at Microsoft Research + Insight, follow us on Twitter and Facebook. And if you are interested in becoming a user researcher at Microsoft, head over to careers.microsoft.com.

Microsoft Design

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

Melissa DeCapua

Written by

User Researcher at Microsoft Research + Insight. Investigating human behavior to build better experiences. Views my own.

Microsoft Design

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

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