How to include user research in early product development
According to our recent State of UX in the Enterprise survey, ‘including research within the product development process’ is now the #1 challenge faced by UX teams in 2019.
Since last year, securing budgets and resources have become less of an issue as executive buy-in has risen dramatically, but now the major concern is in the actual nitty-gritty of running research within an organization’s product development lifecycle.
Involving research as early as possible is integral to the success of a product, it allows user insight to guide the process before any heavy investment is made into the development of certain products or features. This should avoid any costly mistakes and ultimately save the company money, time and resources right from the discovery phase.
But how can you get research into this early stage?
We asked seven of the most respected and experienced senior research leaders for their recommendations on successfully integrating research with product development…
The roadmap should be defined by user research
Lucía Martin Garcia, Sr. UX Designer / Researcher | adjust.com
“I think this really ties in to standardizing the research process. Much of it goes hand-in-hand. I think a big part of standardization is about involving the UX discipline in product development at the same time as the other product stakeholders (product management, engineering…) and giving it the same importance.
For me it is crucial to be part of the roadmap creation when developing the UX strategy. When UX is pulled in after the roadmap is defined, the UX decisions are tied to whatever has already been decided will be worked on and you won’t have the chance to develop the best solution.
Also, I think the roadmap should be defined by research too. What research finds as the biggest pain points for the user should have an impact in prioritization. If not, how can you call your product user-centered?”
- Involve user research in development at the same time as the other product stakeholders – it needs to be of equal importance
- User research should define the product roadmap – otherwise the finished product won’t be truly user-centred
- The users’ biggest pain points should have an impact in prioritization
You won’t be involved if you don’t ask to be involved
Samantha Alaimo, Sr. UX Researcher | GrubHub
“I’ve had the best success with this by looking at product roadmaps and talking with product leadership to align on what areas they feel may be a blindspot. Typically, you may have to create or ask for these meetings if you are not being involved at this level. You will not be involved if you do not ask to be involved.
This is something that should evolve over time. It can be tough for a new team or small team, and as you are able to show impact, it will become easier to get that stakeholder buy-in you need. Getting a view on the product roadmap to see what the organization is thinking about for the future can be a really good strategy for proposing generative work.
Ask stakeholders about future projects and what kinds of questions they need answering before they start working on it as their main focus. Before your team becomes fully part of the process you need to wiggle your team in to the current process that is in place. You want to be seen as a helpful resource and always be encouraging and promoting how research can be used in current and future projects.”
- Talk with product leadership to align on blind spots early in the roadmap
- You may need to ask for these meetings if you’re not already involved
- As you show more impact, it will become easier to get stakeholder buy-in
- Ask stakeholders about future projects and what kinds of questions they need answering before they begin
- Be seen as a helpful resource – always promote how research can be used in current and future projects
For a free, in-depth guide to integrating user research within Agile Sprints, read our comprehensive e-book:
Gradually make yourself a vital part of the team
Almudena Caballero Díaz, Service and UX Designer | Infojobs (ePreselec)
One problem I’ve come across repeatedly is joining a team where there’s no tradition of UX and therefore doesn’t understand the value you bring to the table. It’s an important first barrier because no one will hear what you have to say if they don’t understand what your job is and if they think you don’t understand theirs.
What has worked best for me in these situations is not to try to force the adoption, but to introduce my UX contributions little by little to the already existing team dynamics: take advantage of the dailies to explain what I’m doing and why, involve developers to give their opinion in early stages of prototyping, help with testing and fixing bugs, make it routine to share feedback from users in a simple and fast way (just a compilation message by Slack every Friday, for instance), listen to what customer service people have to say, and do something about it.
In my opinion, the job of a UX specialist is not only to investigate in an aseptically scientific way, neither to give closed and “theoretically perfect” solutions. It is necessary to get yourself very involved with all those who participate in one way or another in the creation of a product, because only by unifying all those perceptions we will be able to understand how the internal gear of the product works, and that will be what will allow us to transmit in an appropriate way at the right time the needs of users.
If your team perceives research as something unrelated to their daily work, you won’t get them to listen to you. In order for them to perceive your results as something that applies to them and can contribute to them, they first have to perceive you as part of the team and for that you have to listen, be interested in the tasks of others and participate in team dynamics.
- If there is no understanding of UX, don’t force adoption
- Introduce UX contributions gradually over time – explain what you’re doing in daily stand-ups, invite developers to early user research and routinely share feedback
- Get involved with everyone who participates in the creation of a product – you need to be perceived as part of the team
Build the perception of value
Trae Winterton, Sr. UX Researcher | Workfront
“Everyone thinks that what they do is the most important job in the company. This isn’t wrong, in their first person experience of their life, they are investing more time into their job than anything else. It should be important to them.
Also, product teams have many different types of information coming in telling them how they should build their products. User research is just one of those information streams, it is important to know and understand the ‘competition’.
Once you acknowledge those two facts, it becomes much easier to get earlier investment from Product teams
you’ll work with as a researcher. No one wants their life to be harder. No one wants another person to debate. What people want is to achieve their goals and to look good doing it.
If you want to be involved in research earlier in the product development process, rather than just a checkpoint after something has been built, you must help them see the value you give them (them specifically) in achieving their goals. You want them to be excited you’re around. You want to be seen as a help. Build these beliefs about you.
One of the best ways I’ve done this is just to talk to people I’m not currently partnered with about the work they are doing. As they tell me what they are working on, I take a sincere interest and look for opportunities they could benefit from research.
When there is an appropriate time in the conversation I ask ‘Have you considered putting it in front of a customer early to see if they are able to do that job with a design prototype before you start the development work? You would know 3 months sooner if you’ll be able to hit that metric you’re really hoping to move.’
Very deliberately tell the team members what benefit they’ll individually gain because they will have better information earlier on. Don’t be timid, but don’t be arrogant. Be confidently humble in the power of user research. We are lucky as researchers because it’s never about us. We serve as proxy voices for the user. We get to say neutral in all discussions.
If you can build this reputation of self awareness, humility, and someone who adds value, you will have no push back when you offer to partner with someone early. The key part there being where you offer to partner with someone early. Go after those research opportunities like your job depends on it, because it just might.”
- Know the competition – understand all the information streams that product teams have coming in during development
- You must help Product see the value you give them specifically in achieving their goals
- Talk to people you’re not currently partnered with about their work – be sincere, ask if they’ve thought about user testing, and describe how you can help
- Be confident, but humble
User researchers help get everyone on the same page
Jeanette Clement, Head of User Research & Accessibility | BT
User research is most useful when it is fully integrated into the product design and development cycle. Teams should be continuously learning about the things their users can’t do as well as the things that they can.
Research is often brought in too late in the design cycle to run usability tests on already high-fidelity designs. If we only test whether things are ‘usable’, we will miss opportunities to actually solve problems for users. Research helps us to build things that are useful – not just usable.
Innovation comes from understanding and resolving the friction points that users experience whilst trying to achieve their goals in everyday life. In order to do this, teams need to understand users’ motivations and behaviours, their problems and how they navigate towards their goals.
Good design is providing excellent services that solve users’ problems. Using research to gather evidence of what those problems are reduces the risk of designing things that don’t work.
Let’s take a common scenario: a stakeholder has approached the product team with a solution and wants something built as soon as possible. A good exercise for a team member to run is a problem framing exercise. This is a 10-15 minute activity that helps everyone to reframe the request into a problem to be solved. It then becomes clear what the assumptions and hypotheses are, and provides a focus for exploratory research or at least a clear hypothesis to test.
In order to solve problems and realise opportunities, the whole team needs to be continuously involved in these activities. The exploratory research (what problems people have) and evaluative research (how well the product solves the problem) is richer from the whole team seeing firsthand the experience of users.
User researchers play an important role in getting a team on the same page. They help to steer, advise and support the product team to get closer to understanding their users.
This is done by running activities to define the area of focus or to generate research questions, ensuring that best practice is followed during research sessions, and conducting a collaborative analysis session with the whole team at the end.
This makes it easier for a team to have a shared understanding about what they have learnt, and easier to use these learnings when it comes to building good products for users.
- Don’t just test when the product is ‘usable’
- The whole team needs to be continuously involved in exploratory research and evaluative research
- Researchers should steer, advise and support the product team to get closer to understanding their users
Research for everyone
Abigail Temperley, UX Researcher | Santander UK
We’re working hard to build a culture of customer-centricity at Santander, where our decisions are shaped by user research and insights. With the support of our Research Manager at UserZoom, we’ve been training colleagues to conduct their own simple usability studies. This means our product teams can make more evidence-based design decisions, and ultimately create products and services that meet our customers’ needs.
As an added bonus, enabling other teams to run their own testing has created capacity within the user research team to explore more complex research questions. The quality of insights we’ve seen has also helped drive advocacy for usability testing across the teams we work with.
The fact that valuable results can be returned so quickly makes a compelling case for stakeholders to make time for research in their sprints. We’re proud of our progress to date with 10 budding researchers trained and ever more Santander products benefiting from early customer testing informing development.
- Democratize UX by training colleagues throughout the product team to run simple usability studies
- This will also give the research capacity to tackle more complex research questions
- Fast, valuable results make a compelling investment case for stakeholders
Invite Product Teams to your initial research sessions
Michael Mancuso, Director of UX, Digital Education | Wiley
While there are likely many ways to get a product team invested in UX research early, the best way I know is to invite them to initial research and the prototype testing session based on that initial research, so they can experience the entire arc of problem to solution.
At Knewton, we effectively socialized the research methods and results with all internal interested parties, which built real trust and a reliance on that validation we didn’t have before. Try it, and I’ll bet your team becomes addicted too.
- Invite product teams to initial user research sessions so they can experience the entire arc from problem to solution
- Socialize research methods and results with all interested parties to build real trust and validation
Help product teams understand the ‘why’
Jeff Chen, Sr. UX Researcher
What I’ve found works well is to guide product concept creation with exploratory research.
If it seems that the ‘Why’ behind creating a new product is not apparent, product teams can be persuaded to do some exploratory research to understand ‘Why’ a new product or feature might matter to the target audience.
Once a product concept is in place, it takes a lot longer to use UX research and design iteration to get a product to that right place.
- Use exploratory research to guide product concept creation
- This will help explain ‘why’ a new product or feature might matter to the target audience
- After the product concept is in place, it’s harder to integrate user research in development
Merge your extensive knowledge of the business with customer needs
Vanessa Chun, Susan Chuang, Sarah Caplan, and Paul Sheetz, UX Research Team | Esurance
Here are some quick fire solutions from the UX research team at Esurance:
💡 Drive innovation – You can do this by seeking out consumers’ experiences and finding new problems to solve.
Get ahead of the business. Learn how the business makes and lose money. What are its strengths and weaknesses? Core competencies? Who gets sh*t done? Partner with them. Become a strategic partner who “gets it”. Then, you will be better positioned to drive innovation. Merge that understanding with your knowledge of the customer needs and wants for maximal effect.
🤔 Support validated learning – Support your teammates’ validated learning and problem solving by asking and answering hard questions.
Foster more ideas being launched. Support ideas being put to the test with feedback loops intact from the customer. Practice evidence-based learning. Empower others to do the same. Learn by doing, and seek new questions to ask of your users as this happens. Ask yourself, how can we speed up the testing of new ideas? What can I do differently to help the business move faster? Am I standing in the way or revving the engines?
🏆 Champion change – Champion change by growing mild-to-wild ideas and testing them with real customers.
There will always be a majority of analytical, risk-averse thinkers in any large enterprise. That’s why the company is successful and profitable. However, that usually leaves a vacuum for creative thinking. Push others to develop new ideas. Explore mild ideas to build momentum, and wild ideas to challenge the status quo. Create platforms and use your UX research insights to do so. Push yourself to visualize early ideas. Be vulnerable
- Become a strategic partner who truly gets the business needs, then you’ll be better positioned to drive innovation
- Ask your teammates for their hardest questions they need answering, then… answer them!
- Encourage creativity throughout your team by challenging the status quo, while always testing and validating with real customers
Be proactive in championing and involving user research in the product process. If you aren’t in the right meetings, find out when they are happening and join.
If UX is new to the organization or not yet an integral part of the process, make an effort to review the current roadmap and see where you can fit in. Once you’ve started to prove the value of user research, push to be part of the team that creates that roadmap.
As the backbone of user-centric products, user research should be welcomed into the earliest aspects of product planning.
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Christopher is the Content Marketing Manager, which basically means the skipper of the good ship ‘UserZoom blog’. So far his requests for changing its name to the ‘USS-erzoom Blog’ have been rightfully denied. In his spare time, Christopher is a filmmaker and the editor of wayward pop culture site Methods Unsound. He used to be the deputy editor of Econsultancy, editor of Search Engine Watch, staff writer for ClickZ and features editor of CMO.com.