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These are the business metrics every user researcher should know

Header illustration on the power of research
11 March 2021
Nikki Anderson

I distinctly remember one meeting. I was with a few product managers, sitting around an open table. We had been laughing, joking, and talking about the company’s upcoming Halloween party. As soon as the meeting started, all of the fun stopped. In this meeting, I planned to convince (beg, really) my colleagues to incorporate user research into their process. 

My slideshow was ready to go, and I ran through my rehearsed pitch. I talked about the value of understanding customers and why user-centricity is so essential to an organization. If we understand our customers, we know what to fix, what to build, and how to build it. I couldn’t have stressed this enough. I ended with a big smile and heard nothing but crickets. Someone cleared their throat, and I closed my eyes to take a deep breath.”

The same question rang out: “We understand that talking to users is essential, but how will it help us. It is great to understand better what to develop, but we can do that in a few different ways. How will user research help us?”

In that meeting, I realized it isn’t about begging, convincing, or talking about how awesome user research is. Admittedly it took me a few years, but I learned it is about showing the impact user research can have on colleagues and the organization. Yes, user research leads to more user-centricity and empathy, but how can it help stakeholders achieve their goals? How can user research positively impact the organization’s goals?

We have to measure and demonstrate how user research is successful and the return on investment (ROI) user research can bring to an organization. 

But how do we do that?

Ways to measure the impact of user research across your team and organization

As researchers, we need to speak the language of our colleagues. When we talk about abstract ideas, such as empathy or user-centricity, we can cause our audience’s eyes to glaze over. The most impactful words you can say directly relate to your colleagues’ goals. To speak to their goals, you have first to understand them.

Product managers sit in between tech and business, and many of their goals include improving the business through increased revenue and decreased bugs. 

Luckily, there is an overlap between what product managers want and what we want; we just think about it slightly differently. Product managers want users to sign-up, make their way through a product, and come back to generate revenue. User researchers want users to sign-up, make their way through a product, and come back because they are satisfied with the experience. When you dig into the similarities, you can see the potential to speak with your colleagues through overlapping goals.

I genuinely believe we can properly align and collaborate when we speak to each other’s goals. As soon as I realized this overlap, I started to think more like a product manager. Instead of begging people to do user research, I spoke about which metrics user research could positively impact.

Business metrics

Product managers have a strong pulse on business metrics, and, as researchers, it is essential that we do as well. When I start working with teams, I ask them the crucial metrics they track, and I get to work understanding how user research could positively impact those metrics. 

In a recent role, I worked very closely with the acquisition and retention team. During the initial meetings with product managers, I asked for a list of important metrics and on which pages/screens they were tracking those metrics. They listed off conversion rate, click-thru rate, session length, download rate, and others. I took those metrics and created research questions:

  • Conversion rate research question: Determine the usability of a check-out flow 

  • Click-thru rate research question: Understand how successful people are in signing up for a newsletter or Understand how successful people are in clicking through a flow

  • Session length research question: Assess the quality of information on a particular page

  • Download rate research question: Identify the value a product brings to users  

From then, I pitched the importance of user research from a business and user standpoint, which got a lot more interest and attention from colleagues. I went from, “We have to do usability testing to see if users understand the flow” to “Let’s do usability testing to assess the flow and uncover any problems that might impact conversion or click-thru rate.” My meetings quickly became much more efficient and effective once I spoke the same language as my colleagues. 

Now, I always include relevant metrics in my research plans (check out a template here). At the beginning of each project, we define the appropriate metrics to track, such as conversion rate. We then look into the current numbers, run the study, and make any changes based on the research results. After we make the changes, we monitor the metric to see any impact. 

Over time, you can tangibly measure the impact user research has had on a business level and prove the ROI of user research across an organization. 

How to measure the internal success of user research

Success does not only mean looking outwardly but also at your user research practice’s internal mechanics. There are many great ways to track the impact of user research across an organization. By looking into these metrics, you can understand how effective your current user research practice is and spot improvement areas.

As soon as I set up a research practice, I make sure to track the following quarterly:

  • Number of usability tests run. The number of usability tests run over a certain period can show increased user research maturity in an organization. This metric can also indicate if you are over-capacity or focus too much on usability instead of a balance of evaluative and generative work. 

  • Amount of time to research. The amount of time from an idea to study is a great metric to track because it gives you an idea of how long it takes research to get started. Ideally, there is a short amount of time between an idea and research beginning. Tracking the time can point out areas you could streamline (e.g., creating email recruitment templates). 

  • Number of research requests. I always use the number of research requests to help determine the user research maturity of an organization. If there are few requests, people may not know how and when to utilize research. Similar to usability tests, it can also show when you are over-capacity. 

  • Number of usability issues fixed. This is my favorite metric to track internally. Yes, it is excellent if we are running research, but how much gets actioned? This metric shows you the number of usability issues fixed in a given amount of time (e.g., three or six months) and can indicate that research is successful.

  • Number of generative sessions run. Like tracking usability tests, the number of generative research sessions run indicates a higher user research maturity since you are looking into a product or service’s holistic experience. When colleagues are interested in generative research, there is an appetite for real change and innovation. By combining this metric with usability testing, you can balance the number of generative and evaluative sessions.

  • Number of features from user research on the roadmap. This metric maps nicely with the number of generative research sessions run. If the product/tech team uses insights from research to create a roadmap, user research is influencing the company strategy. 

As soon as I can, I start measuring these metrics, both business and internal, to understand the longer-term impact user research has on an organization. With time, you can answer those tough questions about whether your work and insights improve the product and organization. Plus, you can forge wonderfully collaborative relationships with your teams and show the power of user research. 

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