Why you need to conduct strategic UX research
23 January 2023
Many organizations are underutilizing the power of UX research by focusing on only evaluative methods.
In many organizations, UX researchers help designers and stakeholders make better decisions based on evidence rather than intuition. 
When hearing UX research, most people think of usability tests, surveys, and interviews. While these help organizations develop solutions to usability problems, UX research can do much more once it reaches higher levels of maturity in an organization.
By “higher levels of UX research maturity,” I mean reaching the level where you start doing strategic UX research activities. 
In this category, we’re thinking about customer journey and experience mapping, mental model diagramsservice blueprints, and card sorts. The one thing these activities have in common is that they all help better identify problems and customers’ mental models before you start designing solutions. That’s because they mostly happen in the problem space or the first “diamond” in the double-diamond model
These activities tend to be planned rather than reactive, which is why they are considered “strategic” (see more about the definition in this Nielsen Norman Group’s video). 
There are many approaches to consider when it comes to strategic UX research. The range goes from one strategic UX researcher in a small organization to a dedicated team for strategic research activities in larger corporations. 
It’s important to remember that whoever conducts this research should be free from working in the two-to-three-week sprint cadences typical of software development. Strategic research activities require a different pace and aren’t geared towards delivering features on apps and websites but towards identifying pain points and mental models that can later guide design direction. 
If you’re thinking of repurposing one or some of your existing UX research resources to let them focus on strategic UX research instead of evaluative research, here’s what you should know. 
The tradeoff between strategic and evaluative UX research is simple.
Strategic research takes longer than evaluative research. Still, it can yield insights across multiple squads and product lines that help with better decision-making at a higher level beyond quick UI fixes. 
Let’s dive into a few of the many reasons why it is important for any organization to invest in strategic UX research. 
Strategic UX research helps in times of uncertainty
“The only constant in life is change” - Heraclitus, ancient Greek philosopher (~ 500 BC).
The past few years have been filled with rapid and extreme changes and events, from the COVID-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, higher level of e-commerce adoption, remote/hybrid work, and unprecedented levels of inflation around the world, potentially leading to a recession in 2023
Strategic UX research can’t help you predict radical changes but can help better adjust your course of action while you’re thinking of designing for a future state. The main reason is that strategic UX research practitioners triangulate data from different sources, which can help better understand shifts in mental models and experiences. This helps you identify and understand the impact of various trends on your business.
Here are a few examples of how strategic UX researchers triangulate data from multiple sources to help businesses in uncertain times:
  1. Running customer journey mapping exercises after major world changes to assess the impact on your customers’ interactions with your products and services to reveal new pain points. For example, consider how trends like remote work or high levels of inflation affect customer behaviors 
  2. Card sort exercise and in-depth interviews to assess how mental models have evolved after some of the past years’ changes (e.g., buying things online, spending more time online, rising prices of housing, etc.). These activities show the potential impact of major events on your business. Mental model diagrams are a good way to represent these changes
  3. Cross-referencing live quantitative and qualitative data with secondary data sources (i.e., industry reports, competitive intelligence, etc.) to see if the trends observed reflect a larger industry-wide trend and how some of your competitors deal with it
  4. For a more proactive view on the future, your strategic UX research team can branch out into strategic foresight to actively observe how the changes they see now impact business in the longer run
There’s a wide range of options to choose from, but understanding the potential of strategic UX research to help deal with uncertain futures at the strategic level is one of the strongest arguments for building this capacity in-house. 
Strategic UX research helps UX and CX teams see better returns on their efforts
In his book Infonomics, Douglas Laney writes about situations where certain kinds of information can generate high ROI. Generally speaking, many apply to UX research activities, as well as quantitative/big data initiatives.
The first area and the most obvious one would be cost saving. Strategic UX research can help your organization understand main customer pain points and what they mean beyond pure numbers. 
Long wait times on the phone for your customer service representatives? Clutter of information on the website that prevents your customers from completing actions online? 
These are all common and costly situations for organizations. One of the places where these problems manifest is in live data or comments coming from a feedback stream. 
The reality behind the scenes and why it matters to your customers is something you can only uncover by doing strategic UX activities. Talking to customers and mapping trends based on qualitative data gives quantitative data useful context. 
I know many engineering-led organizations like big numbers, but they aren’t worth a lot on their own. The context from interviewing people (both customers and employees) allows you to understand the “why” beyond pain points, leading to solutions that support your customers and reduce costs. 
Service blueprints help you dig into your organization to understand areas causing customer friction. This provides a view of how to work around sources of customer pain by redesigning parts of your service.
The second way information can lead to better ROI is by discovering the potential for new revenue-generating business opportunities. Strategic UX research can definitely help here. 
Customer journey and experience maps are great ways to discover areas of the customer experience that can be improved by introducing new products and features that can solve particular problems. You can map this experience across multiple product lines, with a wide impact across a few teams.  
If you frame these products and features as new business opportunities, you start to see why such activities can lead to better ROI on UX design. 
The last area I’d like to talk about is better business decision-making. Sometimes you’d like to introduce new features into a website or app, but you’re unsure where or in what format to place the UI. This is an area where strategic UX research can help in the solution space rather than the problem space by rapid prototyping and testing potential new additions for desirability and not just usability. The Google Design Sprint method is fantastic for this and will get you making decisions within a week or two. 
Strategic UX research is agile, but requires a different cadence of work
In many engineering-led organizations, “agile” refers to two-to-three-week sprint cycles. This cadence can work well for evaluative research like short usability tests. However, this cadence doesn’t work well for larger, in-depth strategic UX research projects. For instance, read this article from the Nielsen Norman Group to learn how much time it takes to create a customer journey map. 
That still doesn’t mean strategic UX research isn’t agile! You have to remember that the cadence is different. I’d recommend taking one-to-two big questions per quarter and running two-to-three research activities to find evidence and insights that can help the organization plan design and business activities in the following quarter based on the roadmap of your product stakeholders. This way, your strategic UX research activities do not delay anyone’s work but can still be scoped and relevant when your team delivers the insights your stakeholders need to act upon. 
Make strategic UX research part of your practice
Many organizations still underutilize UX research by only focusing on the present and near-future evaluation of their UIs. According to the 2022 survey by User Interviews, interviews and usability tests are still the most common research methods among UX researchers, an indication most UX research activities are still at the basic level. 
Strategic UX research is where your organization can take a step back and answer bigger questions such as “Are we solving the right problem?” or “If our biggest competitor created feature X, does that mean that we absolutely must offer the same feature?”. 
Many organizations try to answer these questions by developing products and features and trying to see if people will use them. While this approach can work for certain situations, changing the approach and adopting strategic UX research can help to better identify the right problems to solve for your customers. It allows you to think broadly about your holistic design and business strategy and answer high-leverage questions. This, in turn, helps you see better returns on your entire UX design operations and keeps your operational budget safe in times of economic uncertainty.

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