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How stakeholder participation can make UX research more agile

Stakeholders working together
3 March 2021
Sean BruceLisa NguyenBrendan Jarvis

If you’ve been following Method in Madness, you’ll know we recently published an article by our Product Design Lead, Lucy Denton. Lucy outlined the importance and value of non-researchers engaging in research, as well as a few ways stakeholders should look to become more engaged in the research process.

We’re following up on this sentiment but from a researcher’s perspective.

We spoke with Brendan Jarvis, Managing Founder of The Space InBetween, “New Zealand’s only specialist UX Research practice and world-class UX lab.”

When he established The Space InBetween, one of Jarvis’s explicit intentions was to “help product and design leaders to change the culture of their organizations, open up the research process, and get to insights quickly.”

Jarvis not only has a vested interest to encourage more decision-makers to get involved in the research journey but a firm and earnest belief that it’s one of the most effective ways to drive real-world impact.

Get your stakeholders in the room

Leaders want researchers to have more input into product decision-making. The issue isn't a lack of appetite. There isn’t an executive on Earth who would say no to having a deeper understanding of their customers. It just comes down to the way research is conducted in so many organizations. Projects take place outside of the fast-paced cadence of sprint cycles, and often reports will be “thrown over the fence” far too late to have impact.

“It’s almost like research is a separate unit within the business,” says Jarvis. “There’re a lot of structural issues to overcome for organizations to unlock the potential of research for their products.”

“The UX lab isn’t going to solve all of that, but we can be a circuit breaker to illustrate the benefit of bringing different experts together at the same time and introducing more structure into the process,” he says. “Designers and engineers can see the researcher with the customer and have that immediacy of insight that comes from that.”

“There’s a huge benefit in discussing together what they saw in the moment, rather than waiting two weeks until someone puts a PowerPoint deck in their inbox and goes, ‘Here are the results from the research.’”

Tips for engaging stakeholders in the research process

”Most stakeholders I’ve come across, fortunately, have been quite keen to be involved in the research process,” says Jarvis, ”and it’s essential that they are. Many a research report has died before it has even been presented because the right people weren’t along for the journey.”

To ensure a successful effort in collaborating with stakeholders, Jarvis provides the following recommendations:

  1. Make a point of having a conversation (i.e. interview) with important stakeholders. Treat it with the same respect you would a user interview. Stakeholders are people too, and people like to be heard. Having a little empathy for them enables you to see how they see things, what’s important to them, and gives you a better chance they’ll support your findings.

  2. Invite stakeholders to attend research sessions and be clear about what you want them to do when they arrive. Stakeholders, especially senior ones, don’t have lots of time, and they don’t want to look like they don’t know what they should be doing. Be sure to have them participate in debriefs but be mindful of whether this might affect other people’s contributions.

  3. Good food and drinks are helpful, especially when observing. Research is hungry work! If you’re able to, celebrate the end of your study and invite your stakeholders. It’s a good opportunity to speak with them in a less formal session and build a stronger relationship for when the next study comes around.

The need for speed

Before founding The Space InBetween, true to his roots as a researcher, Jarvis went out and interviewed senior UX practitioners, product people, and CX professionals to try and understand why researchers were struggling to have impact on product decisions. Time and again, he says, when UX isn’t part of the core product team, the problem is a lack of immediacy.

In the long run, engaging your team and stakeholders in research doesn’t only drive empathy and empower them to take action on customer problems. Collaboration means moving together at a faster pace, speeding up the research process.

“There’s a time delay before you brief in the research; then it’s weeks later before you get the findings. Often that doesn’t fit with the expectations that the product manager or the designer or the engineers have placed upon them, in particular by Agile,” explains Jarvis.

“By the time you get the research, you might be three sprints down the track. And it’s almost too little too late,” he says. “So a lot of people were frustrated by that. And I know researchers were frustrated because that means they get the brief, do the work, come back and present the findings, and it would get ignored half of the time because people have moved on. There’s frustration on both sides, and that’s part of what we’re trying to solve.”

The benefits of engaging stakeholders in research

Besides forging stronger bonds between customers and product teams and motivating stakeholders to solve real customer problems, Jarvis outlines the benefits of collaborating on observational research with stakeholders:

  • It helps to build empathy for your users, taking them out of the abstract (i.e. ‘the user‘, or analytics data) and into reality. You get to see the pain you’re unnecessarily inflicting on them as much as the great things you’ve done.

  • It sparks conversations about what you can do to solve user problems that otherwise wouldn’t happen if everyone stayed in their own silos—either functional silo, or their own mini-silo within the team they’re working.

  • It should speed up decision-making and lead to less rejection of research findings, as people get to see firsthand how their users currently do things or what’s not working for them in your solution.

Admittedly, it isn’t that simple

There’s plenty of research on the concept of “exposure hours”; UX thought leader Jared Spool of UIE is a big advocate for the idea. Leisa Reichelt of Atlassian implemented exposure hours for her teams and even implemented increased exposure to customers as one of their OKRs for this year.

But not everyone has the benefit of working in an organization with those priorities. “People watching the sessions, attending interviews, actually spending time with the customers, it’s a hard ask because there’s a lot of time pressure, particularly in agile organizations,” acknowledges Jarvis. “Every hour you spend watching a customer using your product or being interviewed about your product is an hour you can’t spend either designing or developing.”

Also, research projects often take place outside of the pace of sprint cycles with good reason. Some research simply can’t be rushed. Longitudinal and foundational studies that deal with ongoing observations or big unknowns are some of the most worthwhile and high-impact work a researcher can do. Encouraging stakeholders to engage with or participate in research isn’t a cure-all but simply one tool in a kit of many to help rethink your research approach.

And it’s certainly worth thinking about if you’re contemplating having more impact in your organization. “If you’re not spending that time with your customers, even if it’s indirectly through observation, then how are you really getting a true sense of what the experience is like for the people that you’re supposedly making the product for?” asks Jarvis.

“A lot of organizations rely heavily on product analytics, hard data, and quantitative research. And there’s some security in that because numbers feel safer, but they’re not the full story.”

“There’s something very valuable that you’re missing as a team if you’re not seeing and understanding how people are using your product.”

For relatively little cost compared to the potentially significant impact, exposing your stakeholders to the research process could be one of the most straightforward ideas you could implement as a researcher looking to grow a research-rich, customer-driven culture.

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