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How to influence leaders and communicate the value of research

23 March 2021
Brian SwiftSean Bruce

Life as a researcher is frustrating. You understand the customer, and you care about solving problems, but buy-in from stakeholders and leadership is often difficult.

Picture this. You’re conducting a round of usability testing. Your team thinks it’s straightforward, though in reality, it isn’t. Your stakeholders want the results yesterday. But you can’t help but notice a similar user experience issue cropping up. It’s out of scope for this round of testing, so you decide to draw up a research plan to find out whether that niggling feeling in the back of your head is a real insight or just caffeine-related stress.

You raise the issue in your next meeting. A familiar glazed-eyed look fills the room. Somebody coughs. Everybody moves on.

Most researchers have experienced a similar scenario at some point in their career. Conveying the value of research to non-researchers, particularly the ones who control the purse strings, is often like banging your head against a brick wall (except at least a brick wall doesn't question whether UX is even a real thing). To get your message across, like with so many other things in life, communication is key.

Now you’re speaking my language

To get buy-in from senior leadership types, you have to think like one.

To gain an understanding of our mercurial leaders’ inner-most thoughts, we spoke with Brian Swift, who’s worked in senior product management roles at some of the world’s leading technology companies. Currently, we’re lucky to have him here as Head of Product at Dovetail.

“The primary thing I’ve experienced is that they aren’t always speaking the same language. Leadership doesn’t have full empathy for what research is doing,” Brian begins.

He cites a communication issue we hear about a lot: Researchers tend to frame their proposals in terms of delivering a better user experience to the customer, but executives tend to think of things on a time and resource investment level.

“Research wants time and budget to run a study. The promise back is that the usability of the feature will be better, or we’ll have a deeper understanding of our customer,” says Brian. “And while everyone in leadership wants those things; they want to build a better product, they want to understand their customer better; the calculus in their head is determining what the opportunity cost of this research is relative to other priorities.”

The way to make it work with the obstinate money managers who cut the cheques, according to Brian, is to understand how decisions are made in terms of risk and uncertainty.

Risky business

At Dovetail, we understand the value of research, but to an executive’s ear, research for research’s sake isn’t a compelling argument. Instead, ask leaders what their problems are, what metrics they want to move, and show how research can help.

“Research addresses uncertainties. Uncertainty is risk, and part of being an executive is determining how much and what kind of risk you want to incur,” states Brian. “As a researcher, understand whether it’s product risk, market risk, competitive risk—whatever it is—understand what worries those people. Understand what their problems are and frame everything you do in service of one, all, or some subset of those problems.”

Brian says that the best researchers he’s seen are the ones who know how to quantify uncertainty around a business area, address that uncertainty with a research proposal, and make it clear what the costs and benefits are of being uncertain versus being certain.

“Usually that’s expressed in revenue or adoption, or whatever metric that particular person cares about. Being able to speak in that language gives us more confidence that what we’re working on is going to be a success,” says Brian. “That’s the currency of an executive.”

“I think this is a really interesting area for us to explore”

Brian says statements like the above are often misconstrued. He acknowledges there’s nothing wrong with pursuing research out of interest, per se. But it’s always better to relate it directly to decision-making and ROI. While research can be fun for researchers, executives rarely share that enthusiasm.

If research appears disconnected from the business strategy, it won’t be easy to convince leadership of your recommendation. Clearly tie research to a product or company objective as part of the research’s thesis

“I would also avoid boiling the ocean,” says Brian. “Oftentimes the Pareto Principle applies: you can get 80 percent of the results needed with 20 percent of the research.”

To clarify, Brian isn’t arguing that validity is unimportant. Or that thoroughness isn’t essential to a researcher’s job. He’s providing his insight into an executive’s decision-making mindset. Unsurprisingly, executives value efficiency.

“Oftentimes you get a signal pretty quick, and you can trust that the research isn’t going to give you a definitive answer, but it’s going to give you an indicative one that you feel pretty confident in,” says Brian. “It’s the same as design and product management. You can get lost in the analysis paralysis of trying to find the perfect answer. If you do too much of that in research or design, it can become too costly. The perceived ROI gets way off because you’re taking too much time for whatever marginal benefit is received for each incremental hour or day is spent on it.”

Dos and Don’ts

When communicating the value of research to senior stakeholders and executives, the following list is a helpful guide for what to do and what to avoid:

  • DO use customer empathy as a driving way to tell your story. DON’T make it about your personal preferences. Make it about the customer.

  • DO express your methodology clearly and concisely, so it doesn’t feel like you’ve taken a biased approach.

  • DO poke fun at the product’s faults. “When someone does research, and they poke fun at the product a little, I actually like that. It makes the problem feel more tangible and can be humorous, even though it’s painful. It can lighten up the room and encourage people to solve the issue,” says Brian.

  • DO bring it back to the people you’re talking to and their thinking, and always express your ideas in natural human language. DON’T get lost in research jargon or the way in which your team discusses concepts.

  • DO use quantitative data as a guide if you have it. “If you have some quantitative analysis to provide that backs up your qualitative, I think it’s always good to have that expressed in a way that’s clear and easy to understand and adds in some additional validity to what the outcome of your research is.”

How to present your findings with impact

Your research Spidey-sense has gone off, and you’ve been given the go-ahead to pursue your hunch in the form of a new research project. Leadership is on board. Stakeholders eagerly await the fruits of your labor.

Once you’ve wrapped up the hours of interviews, the even longer process of analysis (unless you use Dovetail, of course, wink wink), now it’s time to put a bow on it and present your findings to the team.

You work your tuchus off and produce a 12-page PDF...that nobody will ever read.

No more boring PDFs

Why go to all the effort of being the research rockstar that you are if your awesome reports immediately become shelf-ware. The only thing gathering dust should be the awards you win for presenting research, which is a thing that doesn’t exist yet, but totally will once we learn to present with impact.

Brian says to get the attention of leadership, old formats need to make way for more dynamic emerging communication methods. As for PDFs, the issue, says Brian, is that there’s “a lot of text and people don’t have that much time, they can’t always sit down and read something like that.”

Though more visually appealing and generally more captivating than a PDF, slideshow presentations still require people to give you an hour of their day. They also rely on the presenter’s ability to hold the room’s attention—a difficult thing to do for those of us who aren’t gifted orators. So unless you’re Harper Lee and you can write best-selling PDFs, or you’re gifted with the charisma of Barack Obama, it could be a good idea to think of new ways to say, “Hey, here’s some research.”

For better or worse, these days we are conditioned to consume information visually. “Little video snippets are always best. They tend to help people digest small points and have it sink in.” says Brian. “I think a much better way to understand something is to hear your customers say it or to see someone interacting with your product and struggling to figure it out. Or even if it’s written, make it quick little one-liners and quotes of people constantly saying the same thing over and over again. It helps your audience realize that there’s a real problem—and it’s more compelling storytelling.”

“Also, learning about your customers shouldn’t happen once a week for an hour when everyone gets in a room,” says Brian. “How many times have you listened to a colleague make an interesting point during a slideshow presentation, and when you want to learn more, the next slide doesn’t cover it. If you could learn more about a topic simply by clicking on it, and all of a sudden, it’s like bingeing something on YouTube—that’s the goal. You can go deep on a topic and get consumed and soak up information quickly without having to find another document on some shared drive and confirm it’s the most up-to-date version. You want something that’s always live and connected, where you can easily traverse the information.”

The product team at SafetyCulture built a centralized research repository with Dovetail.

Learn how they did it

Keep the momentum going

Let’s face it. Getting buy-in from senior stakeholders and executives is more than just speaking the right language and having the right tools. It’s about building a culture around research; giving your organization confidence that customer knowledge will lead to better products and more growth. This takes time and effort. And it takes internal organizational change.

“It’s important that research doesn’t feel like a thing you go to and purchase, and then you get something back. You never think that way of engineering, right?” asks Brian.

“You constantly need to be investing in research. It’s a muscle that the organization needs to exercise,” he continues. “We’re talking about getting the initial buy-in, but after that, you need to very quickly show that research is not a cost center—to use the financial term for an executive. It’s an investment in the product and the company’s growth,” explains Brian.

“Then the conversations get beyond ‘does research matter?’ to a debate around the actual outcome and methodology of research. Then you’re talking about the decisions, and the assumption is that research will be there, and decisions cannot be made without it.

That’s the journey that you need to go on. Everything we’ve talked about is how you build up to that.”

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