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7 Tips for Building a UX Research Team

October 22, 2018

I recently transitioned from working as part of a mature UX Research team at a large Fortune-500 company to building a UX Research practice from the ground up at a small, but rapidly growing startup. It’s now been about two months since I joined the company, and I’ve already made some real progress.

In this article, I’ll describe the goals that I’ve focused on accomplishing and what I’ve done so far that has worked well. If you’ve accepted a job as a UX Research team of one or are excited about an amazing opportunity to establish a UX Research practice, but you’re not entirely sure where to start, I hope the seven tips I’ll share here will help you get off to a good start.

1. Get the Tools You Need

To do a great job in your new role, make sure you have all the tools you need to succeed. You probably like some software and other tools that you’ve used before, but it can’t hurt to do a quick search of the available options before purchasing the tools you’ll use in your new role. The field of UX research is quickly changing and evolving, so new tools often appear on the market. You can compare various tools’ functionality and price points, then decide what would work well for your new role and budget.

I focused on acquiring Pendo, an analytics tool that helps researchers understand how users are engaging with a product. It lets you track drop-off points, identify high-value features, and see how usage may differ across user types. Since I’m the only researcher at my company, Pendo is invaluable in expanding my reach. Instead of my relying just on user interviews, Pendo illuminates key features, interactions, and painpoints and helps me to prioritize my research efforts to maximize my impact.

Other tools to consider include Validately, UserTesting, User Interviews, Survey Monkey, and Qualtrics. Of course, it’s up to you to decide which tools you do and do not need, while considering how they might fit into your budget. Getting your tools budget and purchasing in order can take a little time, so make sure you get the ball rolling early.

2. Understand Your Users

You need participants to conduct UX research, so you’ll need to figure out exactly who they should be. Will you conduct research with internal users, external users, or a mix of both? Are there different types of users? If so, how many? Who are your current, prospective, and future users?

Focus early on building out your user personas. They can foster a common understanding of your users and their language within your organization. Draw upon any previous research or persona work that other teams might have done, then conduct your own user interviews to better understand your users. What are their values, behaviors, attitudes, needs, limitations, and painpoints? What does their day look like? What products or features are they using? Once you create these personas, present them and share them widely within your organization. Encourage teams to keep your different users in mind and let them guide teams’ decision making and priorities.

3. Compile a Research-Participant Database

Next, partner with other teams to compile a list of research participants. Connect with the Sales, Marketing, and Customer Support teams and see how they can help. When meeting with these teams, introduce yourself, give them an overview of UX research, and show them how your research can benefit everyone involved. I’ve found it helpful to discuss concrete successes that have come out of my research in the past. I also created a one-page summary of how clients benefit from participating in research.

Account managers might be hesitant to hand over their carefully cultivated client contacts to you without knowing more about what your research sessions might entail. Be flexible and accommodating, and involve them in all your communications with clients, if necessary. Be sure to communicate your session criteria and goals clearly, describing how the research will ultimately provide value. Keep in mind that you may need to start small and work on gaining your coworkers’ trust. Listen in on a few of their calls with clients and tag along on some client visits, even if they’re marketing or sales focused. Just being present and having the opportunity to introduce yourself to clients can lay the foundation for a successful partnership.

Over time, UX research will ultimately prove its own value. Clients love to feel heard and to have a voice in product development and design. Product Management appreciates receiving high-quality feedback to guide product prioritization and decision making. Sales and account managers love having a great excuse to reach out to clients and strengthen their relationship with them.

4. Conduct an Exploratory, Internal Background Study

It often takes a few months to get fully up to speed on a new job. In this case, I needed to wrap my head around a completely new industry, a new suite of products, and a new set of users. To expedite this process, I conducted high-level interviews with members of key teams such as Sales, Product, Partner Services, and Marketing to get their thoughts on the company and the industry overall. I asked about their perceptions of the company, what the company is focusing on, how we fit into the industry, who our clients are, what’s working well, where we can improve, and where they think our future opportunities lie.

I found these interviews to be a great way of introducing myself and UX research in general, getting to know the various teams with which I’d be working closely, and gaining a much better, multifaceted understanding of the company and where we’re headed. Plus, I was able to learn about interesting trends, as well perceptions and painpoints across teams. I prepared a research report and, shared it internally, then worked with the relevant teams to address key issues.

5. Educate and Enable Others

Take advantage of every opportunity to teach others about UX research. If you’re a UX Research team of one, you’ll need all the help you can get. Explain the UX research process and its benefits. Get people in other disciplines involved in and excited about your research. Demonstrate steady progress and tout your successes widely.

I hosted a lunch-and-learn with our Engineering team to give them an introduction to UX research, describing what it is, why it’s important, and how they can work with me. I’ll also be hosting a company-wide talk to provide a similar overview of UX research and highlight what I’ve accomplished in my first few months, what I’ll focus on next, and how anyone can reach out to collaborate with me.

I’m building an internal site to house all of my research documentation and resources, including processes, best practices, notes, reports, and outcomes. Anyone in the company can view this site to see what I’ve been working on or peruse the research resources. I’ve included sample screeners, research plans, and research reports, as well as UX research best practices. By educating, involving, and enabling others, I can expand my reach and foster a more rigorous, analytical research culture.

6. Conduct Usability Testing on Key Products

I next focused on conducting usability-test sessions for our key products. How do the products work? Which products are people using? When and how frequently? How do the products interact, if at all? What is and isn’t working for users? What are their key bottlenecks and painpoints?

Running these sessions has given me a much better understanding of our products and how they all fit together. I asked users to walk me through their daily workflow, detailing what products they’re using and for what purposes. By chronicling the general user flows, I was able to see the larger context of the products’ usage rather than just seeing the individual tools being used in a vacuum. I was also able to identify key painpoints and bottlenecks in the flows, which I discussed with the product team to help determine next steps.

7. Work Collaboratively to Determine Future Priorities

Once I had conducted foundational user research, created personas and user journeys, and done some usability testing, I collated my findings and discussed them with the relevant stakeholders. Now that we better understood our users and how they’re interacting with our products, we can prioritize high-touch, high-impact areas on which to focus, thus ensuring we’re using our resources wisely.

Conclusion

To successfully build a UX Research practice, you need to spend time and energy up front to understand your industry, company, and its products. Focus on building relationships—both internally and externally—and educating others about the wide-ranging benefits of UX research. Share concrete examples of your past impact and be transparent about your goals, projects, and initiatives moving forward. Encourage others to get involved. Building your network and your rapport with other disciplines will help you to be more effective in your role. You’ll ultimately need to rely on collaborating with other teams to gain research buy-in and achieve shared ownership of product outcomes. 

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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