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Benefits of Partnering Closely with Your Product Owner

August 6, 2018

In UX research, your job is to understand, persuade, and influence. First, you need to talk to users to understand their behaviors and uncover their needs. Then, you need to convey your learnings to the product team in a persuasive, coherent way. Finally, you need to drive action within the product team, influencing the project and its priorities.

Establishing strong partnerships with both your product owner and your overall product team is the best way to increase the impact of your research. Involve the team throughout your research process—from defining the research goals to presenting the final readout—and everyone will get more out of the research. The product team learns how valuable well-designed, well-executed research can be, and you’ll conduct better informed, more relevant research. Having regular discussions with the product team helps you focus on the most valuable research goals, enabling you to refine your research plan to ensure maximum impact.

When you partner closely with your product owner, he or she can fill in any gaps in your product knowledge, help you analyze the data throughout the research process, and champion your insights. I’ll now explore each of these benefits of a close partnership with your product owner in greater depth.

Your Product Owner Helps Fill in Knowledge Gaps

At the beginning of a research project, meet with the product owner—and any other available members of the product team—to discuss what they want to get out of the research. Work together to establish the research goals and expected outcomes, making sure everyone is in agreement.

Once you kick off your research sessions, your product owner should ideally listen in or even sit in on your research. If he’s sitting in the same room with you, ask your product owner to listen quietly throughout each session and help take notes. During a session, participants often ask about technical capabilities or upcoming features, but you must deflect these questions and turn them back on participants to avoid biasing them. However, at the end of a session, it’s great to have the product owner circle back and answer any of their relevant questions. Then the research session becomes a win-win situation. You get the user feedback you need, and the participant gets greater insight into the product and roadmap.

Last year, two different product owners attended client conferences with me and sat in on my research. One product owner had listened in on remote research several times before. However, she found in-person research really valuable because she could take in the users’ rich facial expressions, tonal inflections, and body language—most of which gets lost over the phone. Seeing users’ distress and confusion up close made her want to iron out some usability issues as soon as possible. Plus, at the end of each session, she was able to explain the current technical capabilities to curious participants in greater depth and outline future features and timelines.

At a different client conference, the other product owner sat in on several of my research sessions. He listened intently and appreciated hearing users’ candid feedback. After their session, several participants wanted to learn more about the product. The product owner was able to connect them with information and training resources, set up a time to demo the product to prospective clients, and connect them with salespeople when appropriate.

Your Product Owner Helps You Process the Data

It’s great to have your product owner listen in on your user-research sessions and hear the rich user data first hand. It’s even better to be able to discuss the data and what you’re hearing with the product owner as you go. This helps you process the data faster and get deeper insights, while making your research more valuable by allowing you to iterate and adjust your approach in flight.

When you first start a new study, it’s hard to know what you don’t know, which is why it’s great to have your product owner involved. Once you’ve moderated a few sessions and have gotten your feet wet, the product owner can answer any questions that arise. Recently, I was conducting a study around the W-2 form. Among other things, we wanted to learn more about how people view or use fringe benefits. After moderating my first few sessions and probing users on this topic, I realized that I didn’t know much about fringe benefits. When I debriefed with the product owner after the second participant’s session, he explained fringe benefits as they pertained to the study. The research was much more meaningful once I’d wrapped my head around the topic a little more. Based on this discussion, I was able to craft more nuanced questions about fringe benefits for subsequent participants and collect the feedback we needed.

Regularly debriefing with the product owner also helps you revisit the study’s priorities and refocus your efforts if necessary. You can discuss emerging themes—both expected and unexpected—and determine which are worth probing more deeply with subsequent participants. Thus, your research can evolve to become maximally valuable.

You can also discuss any tasks or questions that aren’t going as planned and revise them. In one of my studies on Doc Cloud, a cloud-based, document-management platform, we wanted to learn how human-resources professionals view company policies in comparison to normal employee documents. I originally asked participants, “How would you expect company policies to be handled in comparison to regular employee documents?” However, my first two participants were somewhat confused by this question and gave very abstract answers. So the product owner and I decided to add this question: “How would you want company policies to be organized within Doc Cloud and ADP? Would you want a separate infrastructure for company policies versus employee documents? Why or why not?” Initially, we wanted to keep our questions broad so we’d get unbiased answers. But we found that adding these more concrete, better structured questions helped us to get the information and answers we needed.

In another study, I wanted participants to prioritize and rank their preferences for future product features. I tried a new ranking method, having them compare each feature to every other feature, but after the first few participants, I realized that it was taking way too long and users were becoming disengaged. So I discussed the task with the product owner in between sessions, and we decided we could remove or combine several features to make the task more manageable. The revisions worked well, making the remaining participants much more amenable to the prioritization task.

Your Product Owner Helps Turn Your Insights into Actions

If you collaborate with your product owner and product team throughout the entire research process, they will be highly engaged in your readout and fired up to find solutions to the issues you identify. Once they’ve seen and heard users’ delights and struggles personally, they’ll be more committed advocates for the user and more motivated to implement changes. Even the best research report is no match for first-hand experience. Once your team members have participated in UX research and understand the process, they’ll be more receptive to getting involved in research in the future.

There’s nothing worse than meticulously conducting research, then presenting your findings to a silent room of uninterested stakeholders. The most successful research projects are the ones with consistent, eager product-owner and product-team engagement and lively discussions during the research readout. At the readout, review your insights and recommendations with the team, then work collaboratively to determine concrete next steps and assign owners to actions. This ensures that your insights move from ideas to application.

Conclusion

As UX researchers, we need to discover and understand our users’ needs and persuade our stakeholders to care about their needs and take actions to address them. The most effective way I’ve found of doing this is to involve my stakeholders in the research, early and often.

Encouraging your product owner’s ongoing engagement ensures that your research focuses on the right things and has maximal impact. Your product owner can fill in your knowledge gaps, help you adapt your research plan on the fly, and turn your insights into actions. There is no substitute for direct experience. A product owner who is deeply involved in UX research gains a considerably more thorough understanding of users’ needs and can much more energetically drive the product team to take action and find solutions to users’ problems. 

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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