Despite the surge of user-centric design practices, there are so many user researchers who find themselves having to fight: for impact, for budgets, for new hires.

In other words, user research is not yet considered one of the pillars of great software development.

But here’s how to win the battle, with tips from the great research community:

  • Be a journalist: write good headlines and get people hooked (Nate Bolt)
  • Cross the aisle to really understand the other functions you’re working with and how they make decisions (Janet Go)
  • Don’t be idealistic. Recognize that there are tradeoffs (Janet Go)
  • Start an insurgency, and get people on your side (Jonathan DeFaveri)
  • Create empathy instead of reports (Nate Bolt)
  • Tailor the results for different audiences (Karina van Schaardenburg)
  • Go where the eyeballs are (Karina van Schaardenburg)

Explanation of each tip:

1. Be a good journalist

The first tip is from Nate Bolt, who runs ethn.io and was a UX Research Manager at Facebook:

It’s not enough to just do good research. You have to learn how to distill down a complicated subject into something that not only communicates what you’ve found, but makes it interesting.

And that’s something that researchers don’t always like to think about.

Karina van Schaardenburg, User Researcher at Opower, adds:

The most important findings aren’t always the most interesting. It’s easy to end up sharing the funniest or most unexpected stories, but that can end up reducing attention from what matters.

2. Cross the aisle

Janet Go is a UX Research Manager at Quora. She’s been sitting in on a lot of meetings with their machine learning team to learn more about how they work:

Once you’ve mastered the basics of conducting studies, you have to go straight into thinking about impact. For me, it’s is all about understanding the other disciplines that I work with.

I have to understand what a reasonable recommendation looks like for each team, or else our recommendations will be too hard to implement or just seem unrealistic.

I won’t start a “should researchers learn how to code?” discussion, but I think Janet makes a great point: the better your understanding of design, engineering, product management, etc, the more effective your research’s impact can be.

3. Don’t be idealistic

Which brings us to another of her recommendations:

You have to recognize the tradeoffs that’s involved in each decision. You can’t write a report and expect it all to be implemented right away. You have to realize that you being at the company makes it better for the users, even if all of what you recommend won’t end up becoming a reality.

Another way to frame it is having perseverance, and managing your own expectations. If the journey to having impact seems long, it may be because you’re not seeing the value you’re already providing.

4. Start an insurgency

Before his current job as UX Research Manager at Genius Sports, Jonathan DeFaveri worked as a government analyst, profiling foreign leaders. His approach to impact is “like running an insurgency”:

You have to find allies, win hearts and minds to your side. Find an executive sponsor who can help you cultivate your influence, recruit people into the research process who are open and curious — regardless of their job title. And publish your findings in as many ways as possible to make them really visible and difficult to ignore!

Tabanitha McDaniel, researcher at Lookback, agrees:

Posting work-in-progress and findings around our shared space invites conversations with my co-workers — even if they aren’t directly involved in a project — and helps with buy-in for big and small changes.

5. Create empathy instead of reports

Nate Bolt again:

At the end of the day, most research reports die a sad and lonely death. The most impactful thing you can do is build empathy for people that your team and stakeholders didn’t empathize with before.

Because then it becomes this living thing that will stay with people. Reports, on the other hand, they can’t advocate for users in meetings.

So how do you build that empathy?

I think what you guys are on to with Lookback is a big piece of it: if stakeholders are directly involved in the research and see real humans who are using their products, they’re much more likely to value the research.

Other than that, I don’t think there’s anything that’s effective.

6. Tailor the results for different audiences

If you are indeed doing reports, it’s important to find the format that works best for your stakeholders. Kacie Wise, another one of the researchers at Lookback, says:

Video is a what we do at Lookback. And, your audience may not respond to video – or video alone. They may be driven by a quote, or a quick highlight, or ‘time to complete’. How you share insights and get buy-in depends on the audience.

This is especially impactful as a company grows. Karina van Schaardenburg, who’s helped start UX research teams at Lyft, Twitter and Meetup, explains:

For strategic research, many groups likely care about the results. Find the wider audience as early as possible and keep them informed throughout so they’re excited to hear the results.

Rather than inviting to a single readout, it’s worthwhile to share the full findings with the immediate team and then create alternate versions for these other groups.

For one study I presented the same results six (!) times, each time with a slightly different set of slides, based on what I knew each audience cared most about.

7. Go where the eyeballs are

Karina:

Whether your team lives in JIRA, Notion or Google Drive, make sure your research research plans, findings and reports are shared where they’re most likely to be seen.

Don’t expect your reports in Slack or email newsletters to get much attention, unless your team is already in the habit of using those tools.

And that’s it, people!

UX design won their battle. We can too!

I am personally inspired by how the wider UX design / user-centric design movement has influenced the industry and now has a seat at the table.

That wasn’t always the case. Their big wins came from making things really visible: most people came to understand what software is capable of after being spoiled by really cool experiences by Apple, Amazon, Google, etc. This completely changed the game, and now everyone from startups to banks and airlines seem to have woken up and wants user-centric design.

So thanks to the UX design movement, we know change is possible. The research community can win the battle, too! There are a lot of great user researchers, agencies, software platforms, conferences and resources, and if we’re working together, we can help put user research into the spotlight where it belongs.

We’ll keep working on tools to make all of this easier, and share more tips on the blog going forward. Please tweet your best ideas for impact to @lookback.

Happy Researching! 🤓☝