Creating Strategic Impact for Leadership Through Multidisciplinary Research
I lead the Strategic Research team for Spotify’s Advertising Business Unit. After several years of seeing the benefits of doing mixed methods User Research in partnership with Data Science, I built this multidisciplinary insights team designed to provide data-informed directions for product and business executives. By triangulating 5 insights disciplines, our team delivers actionable insights that impact our 1–5 year goals and strategies for leadership.
This article explores our journey of building this unique team that generates actionable insights that shape our organization’s vision and strategy.
At Spotify, multidisciplinary research is the norm. Our Product Insights team brings User Researchers and Data Scientists together on the same team, enabling qualitative and quantitative insights to inform product, design, and tech decisions. This partnership is valuable because we can simultaneously triangulate complementary methods to deeply understand our users as well as every nuance of the “what” (behavioral data trends) and “why” (mental models, use cases, and motivations of an individual) of behavior.
But, since User Researchers and Data Scientists were embedded within product teams, one challenge we faced was that it was hard to carve out time for future-facing research questions. The majority of work centered on immediate product questions, mainly in understanding the current state of the product so that insights could fuel the next iteration.
This challenge led us to ponder: what comes next in our insights evolution? How can our team provide proactive insights to leadership to guide the organization’s future direction?
For us, the answer was to build a team of 5 insights disciplines that work together to conduct Strategic Research. This article will explore the three components of building this team:
- Definition: Creating a One-Stop Insights Shop for Product & Business Leadership
- Craft: Adding Insights Disciplines for Holistic Insights & Maximum Impact
- Impact: Creating a Strategic Research Flywheel Effect
Definition: Creating a One-Stop Insights Shop for Product & Business Leadership
While our Data Science + User Research partnership produced tons of valuable research within product teams, the few longer-term, strategic research projects we were able to tackle each year caught the most attention from leadership.
Strategic Research means insights work that impacts our five-year strategy whether by:
- Defining Strategy: understanding new opportunities for the product and business a year or more beyond where we are today based on the needs of our users.
- Enabling Strategy: creating data-informed roadmaps for product and business teams to achieve their 1–5 year goals in an efficient and effective way.
These projects helped to set a clear, accurate vision for our 2021–2025 goals and a specific plan for how to achieve them.
We began to realize that this work was too impactful to be relegated to spare time projects. We needed a team solely dedicated to strategic research. This research team, centralized in the Advertising Business Unit, became a key resource for product and business leaders to answer all of their questions about our future opportunities, direction, and strategy in a data-informed way.
Strategic Research gave leadership the data-informed direction they craved. Instead of basing future goals on hypotheses, we could base them on insights. Additionally, this work gave insights an important role in strategy discussions. Research and data became a core component of setting direction rather than an afterthought or a tool to validate. Our team helped to shape strategy including writing annual OKRs and set out multi-year roadmaps for how to achieve our goals.
For us, the answer was to build a team of 5 insights disciplines that work together to conduct Strategic Research.
Craft: Adding Insights Disciplines for Holistic Insights & Maximum Impact
In addition to centralizing the team, we saw clear benefits in adding a few other insights disciplines to become the one-stop-insights-shop for our leaders’ questions about future goals and opportunities.
A multidisciplinary team was the only way to truly conduct strategic research and generate impact at this scale for two reasons:
- One discipline alone cannot identify all of the components of a new opportunity — such as whether it meets users’ needs or if it is a large enough opportunity size. It is in understanding that new space from multiple, complementary insights perspectives that we truly understand it in enough detail — including the product and business components — to assess whether or not to pursue a new direction. Combining User Research and Data Science taught us this lesson, but we needed to take it to the next level to continue answering product and business questions for the entire organization.
- The research must be planned, executed, and packaged in a cohesive way, which is easiest to accomplish if the ICs function as a team. If it is not done in a collaborative way from the start, the team runs the risk of unexplainable discrepancies in data points or even conflicting recommendations. Many teams across the industry face this problem because their insights disciplines are housed in separate, siloed parts of the company. This organizational structure can prevent this type of collaborative work either because the different teams do not share the same priorities or because it can be hard to find the time for cross-team collaboration. Either way, separate teams of insights disciplines can limit the ability to do Strategic Research and have influence on leadership and strategy.
In order to best serve leadership and answer their strategy questions, User Research and Data Science joined forces with 3 additional insights disciplines: Behavioral Science, Analytics Engineering, and Data Visualization. Together, this supercharged mix of 5 insights disciplines enabled us to answer more questions because each brought a different insights strength to the table:
- Data Science explores behavioral data trends across all of our users.
- User Research illuminates the needs, use cases, mental models, and motivations of each user.
- Behavioral Science harnesses the foundational insights from User Research and Data Science to test theory-driven interventions that nudge behavior.
- Data Viz creates key product and business metric dashboards for leadership and identifies anomalies in behavioral data trends through team “Insights Safaris”.
- Analytics Engineering enables quick and accurate behavioral data exploration through clean, long-lasting, analysis friendly datasets.
One discipline alone cannot identify all of the components of a new opportunity. In partnering with complementary insights disciplines, we are able to generate more comprehensive and actionable insights that drive our strategy forward. Here are two examples of how we collaborate to make each of our projects more comprehensive:
- US+DS+BeSci: a typical concern with foundational research is that there is a long gap between insights and action. We’ve been able to overcome that pitfall by including Behavioral Science experiments in our foundational work. As a result, we turn a key hypothesis from the foundational insights into an experiment, which can prove the causality, opportunity size, and impact of acting on that hypothesis. This approach creates instant, actionable impact and clear direction for the team. Since the hypothesis and experiment are both evidence-backed, there is higher confidence in the direction for the team and therefore a more direct path to the rollout.
- UR+DS+AE: from foundational User Research and Data Science, we’ve created segments of users based on qualitative, quantitative, attitudinal, and behavioral data. These segments are descriptive to stakeholders but can often fall short of being useful if we cannot identify them in our data, limiting the ability to include these segments in other analyses. However, in partnering with Analytics Engineering, we were able to build a dataset that enables easy and quick identification of the segments in our data. These datasets make insights more accessible to other insights teams and enable longevity in our research.
Every Strategic Research project also includes at least one embedded User Researcher or Data Scientist and a stakeholder, who bring domain specific context and data to the project. This approach gives us built in buy-in with the product teams, as this embedded insights person can continue to champion this research and drive forward the recommended next steps within that team after the project ends.
Impact: Creating a Strategic Research Flywheel Effect
After two years of running this centralized team, we’ve identified three key components of doing successful Strategic Research:
1) Understand your executive leadership’s open questions and identify gaps in the current strategy to define the right projects. The more we knew about leadership’s open questions, worries, and biggest risks, the more we could craft our research projects to address these concerns. In doing so, we were set up to help them understand the path forward more concretely and in an insights-driven way. We’ve found it helpful to have discussions with leads and managers to better understand their perspective in addition to diligently reading through strategy documents to figure out what is data-informed and what is based in a hypothesis or assumption.
2) Multidisciplinary Research, including disciplines beyond User Research and Data Science, generates comprehensive answers. Every insights discipline and method has its strengths & weaknesses, but in combining complementary disciplines, we harness the strengths of each and counteract the weaknesses. This approach enables us to generate more holistic and comprehensive answers to those big, scary questions. For us, that is the supercharged mix of five insights disciplines on the same team to drive strategic impact.
3) Creating product and business impact from research to ensure research had influence across the entire organization. Typically User Research sits in the product organization, limiting its impact to product, design and engineering decisions. However, users are at the center of our whole company, not just the product. Users interact with a product, and that interaction generates a business outcome. We often forget that important link between product interactions and business outcomes. Our research must drive impact on both the product and business teams. By bringing the business stakeholders into our research and having the insights skills to provide that perspective, the research can impact the whole organization’s strategy, rather than just the product half.
When combined, these 3 components create a flywheel effect. The more we defined the right projects, tackled them with a multidisciplinary team, and created product and business impact, the more influence our research had, creating new opportunities to tackle leadership’s big, scary open questions. This process repeats over and over, continuing to provide value to leadership by advancing their thinking in a data-informed way.
After doing a few projects to answer leaders’ key questions, we also started to do more proactive Strategic Research. We had gathered a lot of foundational knowledge about our users and, as a result, we started noticing new potential opportunities that were not yet top of mind for leads. We had earned enough trust to build projects around these new opportunities in addition to responding to leaders’ questions. Now, we do a mix of both proactive and reactive Strategic Research to fuel our Business Unit strategy.
Setting Up Your Strategic Research Team & Flywheel
This has been our journey of creating our Strategic Research team. How can you create your own path to doing more strategic research in your organization?
Though every company has different organizational structures and resourcing, we think there is value in finding a way to create space to do strategic research through rigorous, multidisciplinary research. Here are some ideas to think about:
- Identify an important strategic research question in your org by understanding leads’ open questions and risks, while also reading strategy docs to understand gaps in what needs to be data-informed.
- Create a multidisciplinary workstream to tackle a project that will have strategy defining or strategy enabling impact for your org. Partner complementary insights disciplines to generate holistic insights, even if that means putting together a temporary project team (made up of ICs from other teams or even working with contractors or vendors) for a few weeks.
- Find product and business impact from the research by connecting your findings to the product interactions and revenue systems. Also, take time to map your findings to users, their interactions with the product and the resulting business outcomes to create wider impact from the research.
In addition to creating more impact on the Business Unit strategy and enabling data-informed decision making for leadership, this type of strategic and multidisciplinary research has deepened the curiosity and insights skill sets for all of us. Everyone on our team has had the chance to work with other insights disciplines and learn more about how they operate. We’ve had fun learning new skills from each other that make us all better and more well-rounded insights practitioners ourselves.
We hope this article inspires and empowers you and your team to drive strategic impact through multidisciplinary research.
Senior User Researcher