Integrating User-Research Findings into Strategy

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A column by Janet M. Six
November 19, 2018

This month, the Ask UXmatters expert panel considers how best to make user research relevant to the company vision and integrate the learnings from research into product and corporate strategy. Key discussion points include making user research part of the product design and development lifecycle from the beginning of a project and establishing a clear connection between user research and product and corporate strategy.

Our experts also discuss the value of aligning on a shared vision and strategy that have user research at their foundation, our ability to influence corporate strategy, as well as the importance of getting out of our silos and involving key stakeholders throughout the user-research process to prevent their perceiving user research as a phase that is separate from the rest of product development. Finally, our experts describe how to become strategic and consider the benefits of having a C-level leader—or at least someone in a very senior position—oversee User Experience.

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In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed answers to this month’s edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Carol Barnum—Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm; author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set … Test!
  • Leo Frishberg—Senior Manager, User Experience, at Home Depot Quote Center; Principal, at Phase II
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Principal Consultant at Strategic UX; Publisher, Editor in Chief, and columnist at UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • David Kozatch—Principal at DIG
  • Cory Lebson—Principal Consultant at Lebsontech; Past President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA); author of The UX Careers Handbook
  • Jim Ross—Principal User Experience Architect at Infragistics; UXmatters columnist
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Jo Wong—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.

Q: How can we best integrate the findings of user research into a company’s product strategy, connecting our research findings to the company vision?—from a UXmatters Reader

“If you’ve already conducted user research, you can try to match the findings to your company’s product strategy and vision, but you may find that your findings don’t easily fit,” answers Jim.

“To fully integrate your user-research findings with your company’s vision, you must start working with that intent during the planning stage of a project. At the very beginning, when you’re planning your research goals and defining what you want to learn from the research, relate those goals to your company’s product strategy and vision. If you can see how both the high-level goals of the research and the questions you want the research to answer relate to the product strategy and company vision, you’ll be sure to gather research findings that relate to that strategy and vision.

“As you plan your detailed questions and decide what tasks to observe, consider carefully whether they can provide answers that fulfill your research goals. When you analyze the findings and prepare your research deliverable, think about how your learnings address your original goals for the research and whether you’ve answered the high-level questions that you wanted to answer regarding the product strategy and how to align with the company vision.”

Aligning on a Shared Vision and Strategy

“To align on a shared vision and strategy, the people on a team must first overcome any personal mental models or biases that would cause them to resist alignment and, thus, would be antithetical to achieving the desired vision and strategy,” responds Pabini. “Creative tension exists in the gap between the vision and the current reality. To resolve that tension and deliver optimal outcomes, it is necessary to bring reality and the vision into alignment by generating positive change. Alignment is essential for a team to truly function as a team and deliver exceptional outcomes.

“The findings of generative user research can be a great catalyst for change. They enable a team to deeply understand users, their tasks, and their needs. A team can leverage this knowledge to create a product strategy whose focus is on both meeting users’ needs and fulfilling the company’s vision. Aligning on satisfying users’ needs is a clear path to business success.

“Learnings from evaluative UX research inform the gap between the current reality and the product strategy and vision a team wants to achieve. Usability testing and expert reviews identify the shortcomings of the current product and provide direction on how to overcome them.

“Ideally, UX research should play an integral role in determining product strategy. Much of the value User Experience contributes to a company derives from leveraging strategic UX research.”

Dan and Jo recommend their UXmatters article “Being Human,” which describes how to better understand people as part of the design cycle.

Influencing Your Company’s Strategy

“This question seems to imply that user research is going on independently of product strategy and vision,” asserts Leo. “If that were the case, it would be difficult to bridge between them. However, isn’t it true that user research should always be in service of strategy and vision? Or, if the organization is in the very early stages of figuring out its vision or strategy, wouldn’t user research help inform those efforts?

“Perhaps my answer assumes you’re working for an organization that actually values user research as a source of input to strategy and vision. I do realize that’s not always the case. If your organization does not see the value of user research in setting strategy and vision, the best you can do is to help leaders to understand the value of user research. When we find ourselves in such circumstances, we’ll either have to communicate how our findings and insights contradict their strategy—which you must handle very carefully, but with an appropriate sense of urgency—or illuminate a path toward executing on the strategy.

“Or perhaps you’re working many organizational layers away from the people who formulate strategy and vision. In this case, you must get hold of whatever data leadership has been using to formulate their original strategy, then determine how best to either validate their strategy through user research or understand and communicate to those who have set the strategy how your research findings contradict the company’s strategic goals. In the latter case, confronting leadership with your findings may be challenging.

“In any event, assuming that I’ve intuited your situation based on your question, know that you are in good company. Most of us are working to connect the findings of our user research to data from other sources—including big-data analytics, hearsay and anecdotes from the field, HiPPO (Highest-Paid Person’s Opinions) beliefs and statements, and third-party studies. Just in the past six months, my team at The Home Depot has conducted user research to understand a new customer group and had to present results that did, in fact, contradict much of what our second-, third-, and fourth-level management had believed. To help these leaders overcome their disbelief in our results, we’ve built alliances with a broad set of stakeholders who, together with our team, can shift the company’s belief system.

“Simply put, before embarking on any user research endeavor, you must have a clear understanding of its connection to the organization’s strategy.”

Getting Out of Your Silo

“The best way to integrate the results of usability testing into a company’s product strategy is to integrate the product strategy into your planning process so the results from testing will inform the company’s vision,” replies Carol.

“The best way to do that is to engage the right stakeholders in your process, from planning, to testing, to results. Don’t plan your study in isolation. If the various disciplines that make up product teams are siloed at your company, get out of your silo to find and reach out to your stakeholders—the people who have a stake in the product strategy and company vision. If you are a consultant, broaden your contacts inside the company beyond the internal core team to include relevant stakeholders from other parts of the company.

“If the company does design sprints, get stakeholders to invite you to be part of this process, so you’ll be embedded on the team with the key decision makers as the project gets started. Knowing what matters to stakeholders gives you the ammunition you need to plan and implement UX research that speaks their language and provides support for the company’s product strategy. If you have ever experienced the frustration of seeing your research findings languish in some report that sits on a metaphorical shelf, unread and unloved, it may be because the company did not see your work as supporting the company’s vision. So make sure to engage your stakeholders and demonstrate the value that UX research brings to a project.”

Keeping Product Strategy Front and Center

“The most critical first step is to fully understand the company’s product strategy and vision before proposing any research efforts,” concurs Cory. “Once the company’s vision is clear and you know where the company and its products are headed, you can scope out your research in a way that will provide actionable data that stakeholders will want to receive and use.

“However, this won’t just happen automatically. UX researchers need to make the effort to involve critical stakeholders in their research as much as possible. From the beginning, when you propose and plan research, until you conduct the actual research, then, eventually, when you present the findings, make sure that there is optimal alignment between what stakeholders want to learn and where the research is heading.

“As researchers summarize their findings—whether in a meeting, through some quick bullet points, or in a more robust report—they should keep the product strategy front and center so they can be confident that they’ve framed the findings in a way that makes it clear how the team can improve the product and achieve ideal outcomes.”

Becoming Strategic

“Perceiving user research as being strategic is one of the biggest challenges companies face—especially companies who have yet to embrace the idea of hiring a Chief Experience Officer (CXO),” replies David. “UX projects tend to be product specific and tactical. UX researchers typically present their findings to an individual product team, so the learnings often do not get incorporated into the broader company vision.

“In lieu of hiring a Chief Experience Officer, I suggest doing the following:

  • At the very least, create a centralized place on the company’s intranet to house design artifacts and research findings from past UX projects. On the intranet:
    • Use metatagging and proper search rules so an employee who is embarking on a project with similar challenges can easily search for and find reports from past projects to gain insights for future planning.
    • Make the executive summaries of reports easily digestible, ensure that they are easy to scan, and facilitate learning by people who are unfamiliar with the project and user-interface details.
  • Twice a year, have an internal research team or outside vendor review all of the project reports that UX researchers have completed in the last six months, then present a summary of insights for future strategic planning.
  • If you can’t hire a Chief Experience Officer, designate a current senior leader to fill that role—for example, a CIO or VP, Product—then rotate this responsibility to other senior decision makers every two years or so. The benefits of doing this are twofold:

    1. It helps ensure that User Experience is part of top-down, strategic decision-making in the company.
    2. It engenders greater appreciation of User Experience and its strategic impact on product or service delivery across different departments and disciplines.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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