How and why user research should be moved in-house
User research is a vital part of product design, but who is best to conduct this research and testing?
An external body who isn’t bogged down by your company politics but lacks business context? Or should it be in-house researchers and designers who may be biased towards your own solutions, but can champion the users’ voices day-in day-out?
This post explains why we should be conducting user research in-house and, should you be convinced, it also discusses how to plead your case to the rest of the business as well as highlighting some of the admin behind setting up the process.
Why is research outsourced in the first place?
There are numerous reasons for conducting user research and testing externally, for example via an agency. Firstly, setting up, financing and maintaining continuous in-house research is costly in terms of both time and money. Recruitment, scheduling, incentives, marketing and communications are just a few of the costs. Pair this with a design team of one or a lack of knowledge around just how useful user research can be, why wouldn’t you use an agency?
In addition, testing your own implementation, whether as a developer or designer is not considered best practice; and for good reason. You need a fresh pair of eyes on your own work to deliver a new perspective in order to spot things that have been missed.
When is outsourcing research a viable option?
If you’re a design team of one, conducting research or testing could offer you windows of opportunity to collaborate with other designers on your project. Just because the agency is leading the research does not mean you cannot or should not get involved. Of course, this depends on the agency. Some favour working client-side, while others favour getting on with it from a distance.
So choosing the type of agency you need, whether you want a close relationship or to maintain an unbiased opinion, is important. External people have freedom with their creativity when brainstorming research ideas or recommendations because they aren’t bogged down with business limitations.
Another reason to conduct research externally may be to prove the value of research in the first place. Showing your colleagues actual users can make a huge difference to this way of thinking.
As a quick win to showcase user research, agencies take care of all the admin and can provide a short-term project to produce quick, actionable user insights.
Even with recommendations you may not be able to use, because of a lack of business context, these user insights are the core purpose of research and testing. Their quotes showcase what living breathing users are thinking and saying whilst using your product or service.
These insights are what motivate colleagues and executives to pay attention to the actual user experience they’re providing.
Why should user research be conducted in-house?
However, empathy created second-hand from user quotes, reports and presentations does not last long. User research is about the journey as much as the end story. Sharing user quotes alongside designs or business decisions only get you so far.
To truly build empathy, you as the designer or the stakeholder, need to be faced with your own users to understand their stories and struggles. Your team also needs to be a part of the journey.
Being face-to-face with a user struggling to use a product or service alongside their life story of why they need or use your product in the first place, is much more enlightening. Partly because when in the room with that user struggling, there is nowhere to run. Conducting your own research in-house is more intimate and is more likely to stay with you and your team.
Moving research in-house means creating champions for the user’s voice in meetings. Researchers who work for the agency do not get to sit in meetings for your business like Sprint plannings to voice user insights. Sure, you can read what the agency yields from their research, but the more removed you are from the process, the less you’ll remember. How can you remember a user struggling with a feature when you did not see the user struggle? That memory is not yours.
As mentioned earlier, external designers and researchers aren’t as bogged down with business limitations. They don’t have the inside voices saying, “We could never do that feature because it was already rejected last year.” Although this unbiased opinion can be a double-edged sword. Depending on just how ‘creative’ external people are, you may end up with unrealistic, unfeasible and downright silly recommendations.
How to begin moving research in-house
To kick-off moving research in-house, consider conducting research externally as a quick way of highlighting the gaps the business has about its users. Using these insights as much as possible in design and business decisions showcases their value.
Present solutions, ideas and designs alongside insights from users as a means to reassure the business of the value of the solution but also to showcase the value of user research. Then highlight how more research leads to more insights and more value.
After highlighting knowledge gaps, work on building empathy between the business and users. Let’s be honest, the term ‘users’ is not empathetic and ‘customers’ is often used in the context of users that have money. So show the business that users are real people who experience emotions that underpin decisions made using your product or service.
Turn user insights into stories. Stories which involve the business. The twist being any impact that these insights have on the business. Say, a user didn’t understand how to change the colour of an item and the “Add to Basket” button remained disabled the entire time. The user could not purchase the item they wanted and the business lost out on a sale.
Users should be recruited in a way that they represent your wider audience, so these issues usually do not reflect one-off issues. Add quantitative data like A/B testing and analytics to the qualitative data and you have a story that is not just emotional, but shows true impact on the user and the business.
How to set-up in-house research
As for setting up user research, there are numerous resources and solutions to help with this.
First, you’re going to need users. You can liaise with marketing to discuss who you can talk with and how to talk with them. Why not set up a panel of loyal users who are your first point of call for early designs or ideas? Or you can use a solution that takes care of participant recruitment for you, and this can open up a larger pool of candidates from across the globe.
At the moment, conducting in-person testing isn’t a possibility, but remote testing is a viable alternative, and it will help to cut costs and help further in bringing user research in-house.
Next, set up a schedule for user research. It’s easy to have motivation when you’ve just done a round of research and all the insights are fresh in your mind, but if you’re not going to execute on it till half a year later, it will likely be out of date. Maintaining a regular schedule for research strengthens the reasons why user research was brought in-house in the first place.
Will you need research every week? Probably not, but research should be as regular as you need it. Will you know how regular research should be for you at first? No, but you can iterate on the schedule as you go along. But it is not a user experience if we do not talk to users.
Most importantly of all, user research needs to happen as part of our roles as designers. Whether that’s in-house or via an agency depends on your business, your situation or your limitations. But the core purpose of user research is to gain empathy.
Empathy is easier built when you are faced with people first hand, even if over video conference software. Those moments where a user mentioned they almost cried because your service failed them are going to have more of an impact on you and stay with you for longer.
Agencies have numerous benefits, they provide fresh eyes, they aren’t bogged down with business limitations. But the empathy is just not the same.
Championing users; becoming their voice of reason in meetings is stronger when it comes from designers and researchers who have rapport with the business and can share user stories in all the necessary meetings.
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Main image by @erdaest