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4 Tips for Handling a Product Owner Who Is Nervous About UX Research

June 11, 2018

Have you ever worked with a product owner who has never collaborated with UX researchers before? Or a product owner who is fearful of or even hostile to your conducting research for his product? How do you educate a product owner on the value of UX research and reassure him or her that you’re not coming in to issue orders?

A product owner could feel threatened that a UX researcher—who might not know the ins and outs of the product that well—would be evaluating the product and recommending future actions, features, and strategies. As a UX researcher, empathy and communication are two of your most important tools—and working with a new product owner is a great opportunity to leverage them. It’s important to consider things from the product owner’s point of view and alleviate any concerns through clear communication.

For example, on one of my recent projects, I was asked to conduct research on a product’s future. Should the company invest in the product, just maintain it, or retire it? The product owner had never met me, and now I was going to determine the future of his product. I realized from the beginning that this research project could make the product owner quite nervous. It’s hard to sit on the sidelines while someone else is making big decisions about the future of your work. I recognized that for this project to succeed, I needed him to see me as a partner, not a threat. I needed to address his concerns head on, educate him on the value of UX research, and involve him throughout my research process.

1. Reassure the product owner that you’re a neutral party.

Ideally, as a UX researcher, you bring an outside, objective point of view to the project. You have fresh eyes and an open mind, which will help you conduct valuable, impartial research. You aren’t wedded to particular designs or solutions. You’re more focused on understanding the underlying problems and needs that the product must address. Reassure the product owner that you’re a truth finder. You don’t have a hidden or political agenda. You’re just here to discover users’ requirements and get their honest reactions.

Finally, remind the product owner that it’s better to make informed decisions than emotional ones. Conducting thorough research now will save a lot of time, money, and hard work down the line. It can be scary for a product owner to open up himself and his product to outside evaluation and critique, but in the end, it will help him work much more strategically and efficiently.

2. Be transparent and get the product owner involved in the research process.

Be up front and clearly communicate your research process to the product owner, providing a quick explanation of the purpose and value of UX research. By giving an overview of the general process to a product owner who has never experienced UX research before, you’ll reduce his anxiety about the unknown and make him more comfortable with the process and, ultimately, more receptive to the value of UX research. Work with the product owner collaboratively to determine the research goals and expected outcomes. Get his buy-in and confirmation up front so you know you’re focusing on the right things, and everyone is on the same page. Then the product owner won’t be able to dispute your methods or process later on if he doesn’t like the results.

Also, be sure to invite the product owner and other members of the product team to listen in on the research sessions—or, alternatively, offer to record the research sessions for later consumption. This can be incredibly powerful. They won’t have to take your word about what users are saying, but can hear their feedback firsthand. Offer to debrief the team after the first few sessions to get their early feelings and provide guidance and further explanations as necessary. What did they think? What were their initial reactions? What surprised them? Plus, your final insights and recommendations won’t come as such a surprise—or threat—if the team has already experienced the data-rich research sessions and discussed key themes with you ahead of time. Hopefully, they’ll come to the sessions with an open mind and the intention to learn.

You can guide the data analysis and recommend next steps, but the project will be infinitely more successful if the product owner personally knows what users are saying and understands the reasons behind your recommendations and next steps.

3. Make your research recommendations descriptive, not prescriptive.

As a UX researcher, your job is to help a product team understand the problem they are solving, while the team’s job is to generate solutions. The members of the product team have backgrounds and technical and product knowledge that you don’t have. Focus on generating data-driven insights and descriptive recommendations rather than prescriptive solutions.

For example, if your insight were that HR Practitioners need a way to quickly scan and sort through the barrage of daily communications, your recommendation might be that the team should focus on creating communications that are more scannable and sortable. You’ve specified the necessary outcome, but left the means of accomplishing it up to the product team. Let them take it from there and figure out how best to solve this problem. Of course, you can offer to help them test their ideas with users along the way.

4. Remind the product owner that your research is ultimately just one input of many in the decision-making process.

UX research can help inform product strategy and be a major source of innovation. However, it is rarely the sole decision driver. As much as UX researchers might love for their research to provide the key inputs, business decisions are complex and people rarely make them in isolation. Decision makers must also consider the larger business context, weighing technical requirements, resource allocations, broader business strategies, and competing priorities. Remind the product owner that your research findings provide additional information to help them make decisions, but won’t typically be the final word.

Conclusion

Product owners have a lot on their plates, but the last thing they want is someone coming in and telling them what to do. Alleviating their concerns and gaining their trust is all about how you present yourself as a UX researcher.

Assure the product owner that you’re there to help, not to push your own agenda. Be transparent about your research process and get the product owner and the rest of the product team involved early on. Finally, remind the product owner that your research will provide additional information that you hope will help them in making decisions, but will not be the sole factor in the decision-making process. 

UX Researcher at ADP

New York, New York, USA

Meghan WenzelAt ADP, Meghan conducts research across products and platforms. She focuses mainly on qualitative research, conducting a wide range of exploratory, concept testing, and usability research. She’s involved in ADP’s Come See for Yourself contextual-inquiry program, whose goal is to educate associates on the value of UX research and get them out into the field to talk to real users.  Read More

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