Using User Research — An Enterprise Software Love Story

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In my experience, it’s rare to have the opportunity to work for a technology company that boasts a dedicated user research team. This kind of research tends to be done by hook or by crook — a random analyst, product manager, or designer pitches in to cobble together some insights, and some UX Designers are generalist-y enough to have picked up some research tricks here and there. Sometimes other kinds of research, like marketing research, will be used as a proxy, and sometimes user research is ignored all together. So when a product person lands in the situation of collaborating with several talented user researchers, it feels like a goldmine.

But I’m a bit of an anomaly. I came to into my product management career via a background in UX Design. The other 25-some-odd product teammates that I joined at The Advisory Board were exclusively from engineering or business-focused backgrounds, having come up as BA’s or from a more business development-centric slant. They were unfamiliar with a disciplined practice of user research, as the vast majority of people are, even in tech, and even at an institution with the research pedigree of The Advisory Board.

There was a sense internally that user research was valuable. There was also a sense that this type of research could lead to product developments that were key differentiators for us in the market. It’s just that no one was fully confident about what to DO with the research, or how to use it to make product development decisions, or even what it was. This is an understandable conundrum — how are you supposed to know what to do with something when you’re not even sure what it is?

So the user research team and I sat down to figure out how to educate (specifically) product folks about the process of user research, and most importantly, how to apply it — it does minimal good to simply read the research report. What came out of our brainstorming was a plan to present on the how and the why of user research, as well as some guidance for practical application to product strategy that was immediately actionable. This presentation wasn’t meant to be comprehensive, simply a starting point for conversation. An open door for product folk to walk through without having to knock, and a little bit of goodwill through the shared language of data. Most UX-oriented professionals will tell you that a good chunk of their time is spent on evangelism and education, and the fruits of that labor can go far beyond just helping people understand what they do to earn their paychecks.

The outcome of this presentation was as worthwhile as the information presented. Product Managers who didn’t know how to use the research now had a friendly face where they could direct their questions. Some of them had felt too self-conscious to say that they didn’t know how to synthesis the research into their decision-making process, and some didn’t even realize that they could. Research doesn’t just magically translate into action. Also, showing them the sausage making had engendered both understanding and respect — the process was no longer just a black box that made funny noises and spit out a report every 3 months. It also allowed them to have the perspective to think about user research in the context of their other projects, and that facilitated a joint brainstorming process. The more you use something, the more valuable it becomes.

Facilitating this understanding is very important. Because if you don’t, what happens is a weird schism between product folk and user researchers; the rational vs. emotional split. Product people hear user researchers talking about users’ emotions and needs and tartly wonder how just talking to someone about their feelings could take 3 months. They become dismissive and eyes roll, and user researchers can begin to see product people as the trolls that control the bridge to Make-This-Product-Resonate land. A much better case scenario is to teach a person to fish, so that your Product Managers can be simultaneously practical, research-based, and empathic. User researchers empower Product Managers in that way, and the partnership is priceless, especially from a business perspective. That collaboration can bear the fruit that distinguishes you from all of your competitors.

I recommend that you read through the excellent presentation on Evangelizing the Business Value of User Research, crafted and presented by Vitorio Miliano. Although it was created with product people in mind, the information is valuable organization-wide, and goes a long way in drawing connections between what we learn and what we build.

Olivia Hayes