“Why Digital Transformation Needs User Experience Research”

How an in-house, dedicated and central UXR team can help large, legacy, service organizations evolve and win

As companies fight to stay relevant in an increasingly automated, personalized and digital world, they craft ambitious mission statements focused on customer experience.

“We give customers the most compelling shopping experience possible.”

“We provide the world’s best customer experience.”

“We delight our customer by relentlessly delivering platform and technology advancements that are essential to the way we live.”

For large, legacy, service organizations, the transition from selling great customer service to selling great customer experience requires more than ambition. These companies must realize that great technology products, or “seamless and omni-channel digital experiences”, are built by great technology companies.

I’m not alone in my assertion that every company is a technology company. Whether tech is the product — Apple, Dell, Cisco — or is a key enabler of the product — Facebook, Google, Amazon — makes little difference when it comes to the resources, processes, and priorities a firm needs to succeed. Erik P.M. Vermeulen identifies ‘intelligent platform companies’ as ones that are organized for innovation. He warns,

“…in the age of hyper-competitive global markets, every company needs to re-invent itself as an intelligent platform company.”

The real lesson from Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Google and other admired, intelligent platform companies, he says, is the following: if a firm wishes to build great technology products, it needs to think and act as if it were a technology company.

I’m not suggesting that “being a great technology company” or an admired, “intelligent platform company” is easy. And I’m certainly not suggesting I know, understand or could even articulate all of the necessary ingredients for greatness. But what I do know to be true is the following:

  • Customer experience teams should have coordinated, mature and rigorous processes for talking to actual customers.
  • Comprehensive data strategies should include not just behavioral data or analytics (the what) but user experience data (the why).
  • Organizations that want to win by creating relevant and engaging products that address real user needs, must be sure they actually understand what those needs are.

I don’t need to convince anyone of the importance of great user experience in competitive differentiation. User experiences often now span digital and physical touch-points requiring thoughtful experience design and user-centric product management. What does seem to need convincing however, is the need for firms evolving from customer service to customer experience to commit to being technology product led organizations. These firms must empower product teams — and the envisioning, design and development of products — to own and define customer experiences.

Firms that find themselves on this evolutionary path towards their digital futures can help empower their product teams, and execute on their ambitious customer-centric strategies, in part by developing in-house, dedicated, and central user experience research teams.

The organizational UXR maturity model above depicts “research maturity” as a sweet spot in which the organization develops such a team.

While incorporating UXR into product development does provide value to the organization in that its products will better address user needs, without centralizing and bringing the expertise in-house, there is both a limit to the strategic value added and eventually, a negative impact to the organization.

The model also depicts a scenario in which “everyone does research”. When everyone does research, with varying degrees of rigor and coordination, no one team is trusted with interpreting findings — so, unsurprisingly, they get interpreted differently. One manager’s perception of a customer interaction, interview or other research data, may be different than another manager’s perception (or leadership team member’s). Essentially, when “everyone does research”, the firm derives the strategic value equivalent of “no one does research”.

Please note: I’m not suggesting product managers shouldn’t talk to users. They should. And I’m not suggesting senior leaders and/or other members of the firm shouldn’t talk to users. They should.

However, if an organization has a deeply rooted, authentic culture of customer centricity and a strong technology product development discipline, of which user needs are a part, work streams can benefit from embedding UX researchers and/or empowering product managers to conduct user research.

If that firm is at the very beginning stages of its digital transformation, in which product managers are themselves evolving from business centric to user centric mindsets, a UXR team can act as a catalyst for the transformation.

Coordination

Contact Management Strategy: It’s important not to talk to the same users for every study so that findings aren’t biased. Talking to the same users, however, is also not respectful of their time. One of the most important things a UXR team will do is create and manage user panels. These user panels are made up of customers (internal and external, engaged and not engaged) who have opted in to participate in research — or “shaping the future”. Panel members are tagged with relevant behavioral, segmentation and when persona data.

Not only will this allow the firm to manage contact rules, it will allow the firm to continuously test hypotheses, validate product ideas, and inform roadmaps with actual customers.

Study Management Strategy: The UXR team will also provide a tracking mechanism to ensure the business doesn’t duplicate work by asking the same questions (repeating the same studies) rather than coordinating and prioritizing learnings. A firm with no dedicated team runs the risk of many teams asking many of the same questions to many of the same users. Not only does the business bias results and burden users, it duplicates work across teams.

Having a study management strategy enables the business to prioritize research efforts across work-streams and initiatives, codifying research objectives and gaining alignment on the “problem being solved”.

The research process has clearly defined phases — each of which is critical to ensuring effective and unbiased problem validation and findings.

Collaboration

Shared Learning: The last phase of the research process, the readout, is perhaps the most important. Without it, all prior work is meaningless.

Codifying research objectives and hypotheses, and then sharing findings with all relevant stakeholders, ensures learnings have maximum impact.

Everyone in the room, across work streams, is present for the readout and shares in the same understanding.

Many data strategies call for centralizing and standardizing analytics with the ultimate goal of better understanding customers. When a firm centralizes its analytics, it will have a more reliable view of what its customers are doing. But firms also needs to understand the why behind customer behavior. Understanding the why is what enables firms to build products that solve their customers’ problems and design experiences that truly improve their customers’ lives.

However, firms without UXR teams are likely vastly underdeveloped in addressing the why part of the equation. There are many methodologies and tools a UXR team can employ to better understand the firm’s users — contextual inquiry, 1:1 in-depth interviews, quantitative hypothesis testing, top task analyses, design sprints, remote usability testing, in-person usability testing, information architecture studies, card sorts and more.

At a time when firms are engaged in a battle for who will know the customer the best, desperate to engage users in long-term conversations rather than single transactions, the firm that will win this battle is the one that will employ these methods to inform their complex multi-channel, customer relationships.

Source of Truth: While centralizing data is certainly a step toward creating an authoritative source of truth, this worthy objective will be difficult to achieve unless the firm also centralizes its data team. Data is not insight. Data without insight is not useful. Data is meant to be interpreted. Different people, especially on different teams and with different motivations and goals can interpret data differently — and tell different stories. This is true of behavioral data and quantitative data (which may have different definitions) but even more so for qualitative data.

To achieve an authoritative source of truth and the ultimate goal of understanding customer motivations, a firm must combine not only currently disparate data, but combine currently disparate data roles and add currently underdeveloped data sources. By doing so, the firm will achieve “Integrated Insights”.

Expertise

Mixed Methodologies: Milan Mijatovic, an experienced UX researcher and my previous boss, uses the term “full-stack” UX researcher to describe a researcher who will bring not only knowledge of each phase of the research process — how to design, execute, analyze, synthesize and share research projects — but a toolkit of research programs and methodologies.

Choosing the right methodology for the right (validated) problem is critical to uncovering insights. Just as asking the wrong questions will get you the wrong answers 100% of the time, how you ask the questions (with which methodology) is just as important.

The more tools and methodologies a firm has to uncover insights, the more a firm can learn about what its users are really trying to accomplish with its products.

Unbiased Findings: Every new idea, whether it’s a business, product or feature is built on assumptions. Testing these assumptions is an important part of the customer-centric development process. But product managers, like mini-CEOs of their product business, have a tendency to sell their ideas, to convince users of their vision. Even when aware of their tendency towards bias, product managers are more likely to look for patterns that confirm rather than deny their hypotheses. I have certainly worked with product managers that operate as truth seekers — unbiased in their approach to problem validation and testing.

However, the vast majority of product managers in large, non-tech organizations, are either too new and inexperienced as tech product managers to avoid their bias or are extrinsically motivated not by truth seeking but by hitting release dates and achieving business goals to disrupt timelines and conventional wisdom by overturning long-held assumptions.

Problem Validation: Arguably the most important part of the product development cycle is problem validation.

When product managers and businesses have been trying to solve specific problems for years, allocating time, invested capital and energy, they are unlikely to trade solutions to those problems for entirely new problems to solve.

Furthermore, it takes training and experience to employ a “Jobs to Be Done” framework for understanding user needs. Having an unbiased UXR team can prove very helpful in such situations.

Time to Conduct Phased Research: Finally, because effective research must be thoughtfully designed, executed, synthesized and socialized, it takes time. There are distinct phases to every research project. I am lucky to have been part of an agile, “full-stack” research team that was able to field ~80 projects of varying scale, scope and methodology per year. Product managers, while balancing user needs with business goals and constraints in order to deliver products to market, simply should not have the time it takes to effectively design, execute, synthesize, and socialize research findings.

Innovation

In addition to the coordination, collaboration, and expertise that comes with developing an in-house UXR team, the added user data becomes fuel for insightful innovation. From Adam Bradenburger’s immensely provoking strategic framework, Strategy Needs Creativity, to Talking to Humans Giff Constanble’s assertion that, “The ideas are not in the room”, a firm gathers it must break habitual thought patters or outsmart its competition by thinking differently.

User experience research provides the “colorful blocks of various shapes and sizes”, with which a firm may build creative strategies. Maria Popova explains,

The more we consciously dwell on a problem that requires an innovative solution, the more likely we are to corner ourselves into the nooks of the familiar, entrenched in habitual patterns of thought that lead where they always have.

We can, however, optimize our minds for combinatorial creativity — by enriching our mental pool of resources with diverse, eclectic, cross-disciplinary pieces which to fuse together into new combinations. For creativity, after all, is a lot like LEGO — if we only have a few bricks of one shape, size, and color, what we build would end up dreadfully drab and uniform; but if we equip ourselves with a bag of colorful bricks of various shapes and sizes, the imaginative temples we build might appear to an onlooker to have been inspired by “a ray of grace,” yet we need only look to our bag of LEGOs to be reminded from whence they came.

New product innovations then are essentially manifestations of solutions to customer pain points. The firm that truly understands these pain points, and employs a flexible framework for solving problems rather building a fixed set of solutions, will be the firm that wins.

Culture

When a firm evolves from service to tech, from business-centric to user-centric, its product managers may feel the pain of trying to employ their user-centric mindsets in an organization that is not structured for user-centricity. While the firm activates its transformation agenda from the top down, there is likely a bottoms up transformation happening. Product managers, participating in digital product management trainings, are evolving from business centric mindsets — concerned with business goals, release dates, and output to user centric mindsets — concerned with problem validation, hypothesis formation and outcomes.

However, while PMs are being trained to validate problems, prototype MVP solutions, and test hypotheses, they lack the resources, time, structure, coordination and organizational buy-in necessary to truly employ a hypothesis-driven approach to problem solving.

Incorporating user research into the product development model, as most large, non-tech firms are beginning to do (if they haven’t already), is a step toward envisioning and building the best experiences. However, not only are there added benefits, as described above, there are pain points associated with not having a dedicated resource for this function.

Specifically, product managers mention struggling with a lack of coordination and process for user research and ideation, a lack of organizational buy-in for problem validation and discovery amidst a culture of jumping to solutions, a lack of expertise regarding tools and methodologies, a lack of time to conduct phased research, and a lack of ownership. I’ve interviewed product managers and have heard the following pain points:

  • “When you have an idea or solution — there is no process, time, or support to share with stakeholders/leaders.”
  • “How do we create an environment of patience in which everyone takes time to understand the problems fully?”
  • “Given team size, how do we ensure all areas of product management get adequate focus. Time to execute discovery/user feedback/interview?”
  • “We want to solution the same problem in different products creating a duplication of effort.”
  • “How do we engage stakeholders/end users in product disciplines (personas/interviews) as a BAU process?”
  • “How do we get access to customer data?”
  • “When we get customer data, who is analyzing and linking to priorities?”

One way in which the lack of organizational buy-in for problem validation can manifest itself by forcing the firm, and product managers, backwards from their evolution towards agile to waterfall as depicted below:

So, what do “Integrated Insights” look like in practice? The below is adapted from Jeff Gothelf’s integration of UX with agile and scrum here:

Please comment if you agree, disagree, have experience and/or opinions regarding building user experience best practices within large organizations!

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Marina Foglietta-Tereo

Written by

As a UX Researcher with an MBA in Strategy and Business Analytics, I enjoy combining my UX and analytical toolkits to solve business problems.

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