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All Aboard: How to get stakeholder support for enterprise user research and testing

We posted an article recently by one of our designers, Fiona Chung, which discussed the need for modifying user research and testing methods when working in the enterprise context and how to make those adjustments. Since most of our client work is with major organizations, she shared some of the lessons we have learned about how to adapt our tried and true techniques to suit the parameters of the enterprise space.

The complexity of enterprise work is matched only by the delicacy it often requires in execution — it simultaneously demands that we be even more vocal advocates for our users than we usually are, but also requires a deft and subtle hand in bringing user needs to stakeholders. Being vigilant about how we conduct our research, therefore, is paramount.

But before we can even get to the stage where we’re actively engaging with enterprise users and uncovering their pain points and needs, we need to get support from stakeholders on the necessity of conducting thorough user research and ongoing user tests.

Sometimes that’s a snap: the client understands the complexity and delicacy of the situation and is eager to uncover the problems that will help guide the solutions. Sometimes, however, it’s not.

It’s those other times we’re going to look at today, taking a step back to examine first of all, why it’s so important to conduct research — especially in the enterprise space — and secondly, how to get support for those activities from stakeholders.

Why Research & Testing Matter To Enterprise

It doesn’t matter whether you’re building a consumer application or an enterprise product, your core job as a designer remains the same: advocate for the user. And to help do this, you probably rely heavily on user research and tests. But in an enterprise environment, conducting the user research becomes even more crucial — and often more complicated.

In a Nielsen Norman Group piece, Jakob Nielsen wrote that “At the enterprise level in particular, you must observe in-context behavior to determine how to fit the design to the organization’s needs.”

That sentiment is echoed by our lead User Researcher here at Myplanet, Cara Tsang.

“It’s never a bad idea to user test,” says Cara, “but I think in particular, with enterprise applications, it’s really important because we really don’t have insight into how a lot of these people work.”

The realities of a complicated and multi-layered workplace — like those found in the enterprise context — make uncovering that complexity a top concern when engaging with enterprise clients. And the best way to do that is through research.

“An enterprise context can be a very big context, and a multi-departmental context,” says Nathalie Crosbie, Associate Director of Design at Myplanet. “There are often layers of involvement or layers of stakeholders that are broader than those that you would encounter in a smaller or non-enterprise environment. Doing research allows you to see the product design and development through the lens of all of those different departments and stakeholder types.”

And unlike with consumer applications, where the outcomes and impacts aim along a fairly predictable trajectory (drive sales, increase engagement, etc), enterprise applications have a broad spectrum of concerns to factor in. “At [the enterprise] level, the focus is on how the system impacts the company over time, including issues in administration, installation, and maintenance,” says Nielsen.

Because the impacts of an enterprise application can be much greater, the margin for error is much smaller, which makes user research and testing even more essential.

To get to the core of the user needs and truly understand the applicable uses for what’s being built, you need to know the specifics as the user experiences them. And that’s the key point to drive home to skeptical enterprise stakeholders.

The difference between working with and without user research and testing is monumental. As Cara says, “It’s kind of just like flinging something against the wall and hoping it’ll work, versus actually knowing why the person is doing it, how they’re doing it, and the desired outcome of it.”

Given the budget typically involved in enterprise work, the cost of just flinging something against the wall without properly validating it first can be enormous — understanding the full context of the problem is crucial to creating a worthwhile solution.

Ultimately, everyone has the same goal: build something that’s functional and useful, easy and enjoyable. In essence, build the right thing. Reaching that goal, however, requires alignment that goes beyond a shared end-goal. The team — clients, designers and developers, and any other stakeholders involved in the process — need to be aligned throughout the process of creation.

As any creative team can tell you, however, that’s easier said than done. So how do you get stakeholders on board?

How To Get Support For User Research & Testing

Having worked closely with our enterprise partners and clients, we’ve become familiar with some of the pitfalls faced in that space. Navigating it can be tough, and there are certain problems that seem to crop up more often than others. Being ready for them will go a long way to gaining the support you need to do effective research.

Problem 1: “We already know what we need”

One of the most commonly faced issues in dealing with enterprise projects is clients (or even design teams) thinking they have the right solution already. Often there are pre-existing products they’re trying to build on or update, which can further support the “the solution is known, we just need to improve on it” belief.

“Sometimes people come in thinking they know already what they need, and sometimes they do know already, but they don’t know how to articulate things,” says Nathalie. “Our role as experts in research and testing is knowing how to ask questions to pull out information in a way that can become useful for design and development, and knowing how to ask those questions in a neutral, non-leading way that avoids ‘tainting’ the research results.”

When the solution seems obvious, investing in additional research can seem unnecessary and wasteful to stakeholders. Your job is to help your clients see the impact that greater understanding of your users can bring. One way you can help bring about that understanding is by walking them through previous instances where research made a big difference.

“Case studies can really help, I think,” says Cara, “if you can draw from past experience by saying ‘Look at these insights that were real and that we couldn’t have gathered without the research’, that can be beneficial.”

Showing your clients tangible results instead of merely telling them you think it could make a difference will go a long way to securing their buy-in. And bringing in additional support, such as studies and examples by industry-leading experts, will further move you towards your goal.

Problem 2: “We don’t need more than 2 or 3 users to test”

When your client has approved a bare minimum of research or testing, it can seem even harder than if there’s no support at all. If the investment is there but not enough to make real impact, you could have a real battle trying to gain insights and show results from the work.

To help overcome this obstacle, Cara recommends having stakeholders sit in on the process.

“If you only have budget for two or three interviews, and you can actually get the decision makers to observe the findings, or the process, they can really get on board.” Having them observe the process allows for opportunities for them to see the pain-points up close.

As Cara notes “If someone sees an interview once, and one person makes a mistake, they may find it easy to say ‘Well, that guy’s an idiot’. The second person makes the same mistake and they think ‘Well, maybe just a coincidence’. But by the time the third person makes it, it’s ‘Ok, there’s something here’.” Bearing witness to that first-hand can demonstrate that actively engaging with users offers benefits that second-hand research simply cannot.

Problem 3: “We can’t waste time and money on not building the solution”

For many clients new to the process, user research and testing can seem like a lot of time and money to spend on something that has no tangible outcome for their needs. A dozen user interviews does not produce a solution their staff or customers can interact with, after all.

But as Nielsen points out, the enterprise application being built will be implemented across departments and have a lasting impact over time. Making sure from the outset that what’s being created is the right thing is more than just a detail.

That’s why to get support when budgets are constrained — and when are they not? — it can be important to highlight the savings that come from doing the early-stage research and subsequent testing.

For example, if you were building an enterprise tool to be sold on to major retail companies around the world, understanding what is and isn’t working ahead of time could mean the difference between the application’s success and its failure.

“Testing with the right people — with the most influential or most impactful — is really important. In an enterprise context, customers like that can be really big money, so the value of testing a product before launch can have huge, huge impact,” notes Nathalie.

To help highlight the monetary value of regular testing, explain to your stakeholders how overlooked errors can lead to user drop-off because of frustration, loss of faith in the product or service (and ultimately, the brand) because of broken expectations, and increased costs in the long-run because of fixes or changes that have to be implemented down the line.

Similarly, outlining the impact well-executed user research can have on making sure you’re building the right thing in the first place is essential. By knowing what is needed and wanted, you can avoid mistakes before they happen — something your clients will definitely want to do.

Much of this is true when working with consumer apps, but within the enterprise space, there are so many potential touch-points and types of user, that this becomes even more critical. As Nielsen notes: “[F]or enterprise usability, we need to study the people who run the organization and who know the pain points at levels above an individual contributor’s job.”

Problem 4: “We can’t risk the exposure”

One of the most common issues we must address with our enterprise clients is privacy. Whether dealing with sensitive information — like personal health or financial accounts — or simply not wanting their proprietary data to leak, privacy is a major concern in big business environments.

Fortunately, as good user researchers and testers, you already know and implement the solutions to this regularly.

This will be an issue throughout the process. In her article a few weeks ago, Fiona highlighted the importance of offering reassurances to the users participating in research and testing, noting that “a level of discretion had to be maintained that allowed the critical insights to come to the surface”.

Offering reassurances early-on about the confidentiality of the process will be important to all parties involved. No business partner will want their information to leak or their clients to be at risk, but for a multinational organization with tens of thousands of employees, the ramifications of a breach of security can be devastating. Taking precautions isn’t just lip service, it’s a necessity.

Concrete solutions like anonymous testing, scrubbing proprietary information from comps and mock-ups, not recording interviews, and using tools for sharing updates with stakeholders that require higher levels of security (i.e. not accessible via the web) are all ways to ensure your clients get the privacy they need without compromising your ability to conduct meaningful and effective research and testing.

Going the extra mile to ensure your clients and their users are protected won’t just cover your hide, it’ll enable you to conduct research and testing. And in our experience, as often as not, the challenges of added security concerns demand sharper, more insightful, and ultimately better quality methods of researching and testing. Your work will likely be better for having had to face those constraints.

Selling the idea of thorough user research and testing can sometimes feel like an uphill battle — especially in an environment with layers and layers of approval, budget constraints at every turn, and complexity that can make your head spin to even contemplate. But there is no question as to the long-term value of having genuine insights into how your end-users act, think, and feel when faced with a problem and when using the solutions you create. Take the time to get your stakeholders on-board and soon enough you’ll be basking in the glow of a well-executed, well-received solution.

Written by: Leigh Bryant

What are your sure-fire solutions for getting stakeholders on board? Share your tips in the comments or come tell us in person when you work with us every day. Apply now!