8 Recommendations for Building a UX Research Program
Six months ago I was asked if I wanted to become fully embedded at a local startup to help it build out its user research program. The task was large and would require all my years as a researcher to accomplish successfully. Luckily, I had experience building out a research program at my previous job at Zappos so I eagerly raised my hand to be part of the opportunity.
The task was to help build out and develop research practices and procedures at a company that was starting to think about implementing a user research team and program. This would require new processes and procedures and someone with UX expertise to help smooth the transition. After four months of working at the startup, I have learned valuable lessons that I would love to share. Here are some of my recommendations on how to create a solid research practice within a new company.
Understand the company’s needs
First, Blink had conversations with the client’s team to learn more about its user research needs and request for assistance. We had learned that the UX design team was managing and running research studies, but this was straining resources. Larger user research efforts requested were constrained by bandwidth. Ultimately, a more formal user research program was going to be set up, but in the meantime, there was an opportunity for us to engage and positively impact the business through a four-month, multi-study research program.
- Understand needs and pain points in current processes.
- Learn about short-term and long-term goals to craft an appropriate research program.
- Define what would make the project a success.
Make connections quickly
One of the first things I did when I started this multi-study project was to identify my main point of contact. It was important to establish a relationship with the individual who could help me set and manage expectations with teams on the research schedule. This was particularly important once other teams started to see the value in the research and also wanted their features or products tested. These additional research requests had to be funneled through my main point of contact since she was most familiar with the company’s direction.
In many companies, especially startups, product strategy will continually evolve and change. It was important that I checked back with my point of contact to ensure I was up to date with the latest strategic direction and how that affected upcoming research studies. The research schedule that was defined at the beginning of the engagement was flexible to account for the changing pace of the startup environment.
- Get connected with the business decision makers early on. Talk with the person who is in charge of the product backlog and strategy to help define research goals and studies.
- Create a flexible research plan to account for shifts in direction.
Share the benefits of research
To help stimulate the discussions about the benefits of user research, it was important that I got familiar with all the organization’s teams. I was constantly introducing myself to new faces in the company. I told them about my role and short-term research project. I made connections with the project management, marketing, customer service, UX design, and development teams. I got to know what questions they had about their users or features.
Additionally, this was my opportunity to talk with those who were not too familiar with user research and answer any questions they had about what user research was and its benefits. Building and maintaining an insight-driven organization is an all-company undertaking. Research findings not only benefited the user experience design and product management teams I was tasked to work with, but it impacted the entire company. Keeping this in mind, I frequently shared insights with others who had interest in the results.
- Continually share research findings throughout the organization. Keep the research insights top of mind during introductions or casual conversations.
- Grab lunch or coffee with people you do not know and learn about their role within the company. Use it as an opportunity to discuss the benefits of user research.
Do research on their research
As a consultant placed into a company, I had a unique standpoint in that I was an unbiased third-party. I was not familiar or aware of the internal opinions about the company’s product or strategy. So naturally, I took an impartial role with recommendations on its product direction or internal processes. I came in with a neutral view on how things were run and was encouraged to critique how to improve processes or communications.
It was also important to learn about what research studies had already been done and what insights it had about its users or product. One exercise I found to be invaluable was interviewing stakeholders about what research deliverables or processes had worked well and what had not met expectations in the past. Through a few simple questions, I learned a ton about the current processes.
I also questioned if or how the client currently documents or share insights. Research is most effective when it is actionable and shared. Getting teams on the same page with how users understand and use a product is imperative for a well-defined strategy.
- Be bold with your suggestions for improving internal processes or documentation. Remember, you have an unbiased perspective to share.
Get integrated into their environment
It was also beneficial to be able to get access to Slack, the client’s internal messaging system. I was able to join relevant conversations and it all helped me to better understand its space and current questions about its users.
Luckily, my desk was situated right by the feature teams’ standups area and a large whiteboard where UX designers, PMs, and developers often congregated to brainstorm solutions. I was in the ideal location to answer any research questions or jump into conversations with insights learned from usability studies.
- Consider where your desk is and the impact it could have on the frequency and types of conversations you could have.
- Continue to question where you can embed yourself into existing processes to bring additional value.
Set expectations and implement a process
Since the UX designers were under-resourced and managed several projects, it was important that I communicated realistic expectations on when I needed the prototypes finalized for usability testing. I worked backwards from the testing date to allow time to get familiar with the prototype and write up a session guide with questions to ask. I also worked closely with the UX designers to ensure we were creating specific user flows that would help us answer our research questions.
I had to educate teams about the tradeoffs between delivery time and extent of reports. I could write up a topline report with video clips in a day but if more analysis was needed, I had to adjust the timeframes and set those expectations. For this particular client, it was important to get the findings out quickly for the UX design and development teams to start iterating and developing. I made sure to provide an executive summary and thorough recommendations in the topline reports for those who were unable to attend sessions and needed to catch up quickly on key findings.
- Communicate often with UX designers on what prototypes or artifacts are needed for usability testing.
- Set deadlines if needed to allow time to become well versed with the prototypes and write a session guide with pertinent questions.
Be transparent and accessible
Regardless of the feature being tested, I invited the larger product team to watch the usability sessions live. For those who were unable to attend the user research sessions, I shared a link to where all the video files lived shortly after sessions so they could watch or scrub to specific sections at their convenience.
Video clips served as a great way to disseminate information to team members who could not attend the sessions. The video clips needed to be easily accessed and also uploaded in a shared place for others to view. I did not want team members to jump through hoops to watch a video clip. Uploading the videos to Google Drive and linking to specific spots in the video was really efficient and effective.
- Get as many people observing the usability sessions as you can. Be sure to record and provide easy access to the videos post session.
- Disseminate the findings to the broader company to encourage discussion and critique.
No insights left behind
I become very invested in the company and wanted its teams to be set up for success after my multi-study project was complete. I had the opportunity to talk with many users over my project timeframe and gained a clear picture on their needs, wants, and frustrations. I needed to make sure the company had all this insight as well. My first step was to organize all the files I had generated and put them in an accessible location for everyone to view. All my session notes, session guides, recordings, and reports were organized and put into the company’s shared drive. This ensured that everyone at the company had access to the documents.
One of my last deliverables, which I’m hopeful will help them continue research discussions, was to create a set of user personas for the company. Personas documents users’ behaviors, perceptions, and motivations and help get teams and companies on the same page when it comes to identifying their users.
I created these lightweight personas from the series of interviews I had conducted during my engagement. Even though each study tested a specific feature, I asked general questions about the product so that I could analyze trends from all the interviews to feed into the personas. The personas also provided a great summarization of key findings and high-level themes from the past months of research. It could serve as inspiration for future research studies outlining the personas’ frustrations about the current product.
- Summarize and share insights from research studies often.
- Think of ways to document trends and recurring themes from multi-study projects. Synthesize themes in the form of personas to give teams a quick overview of how their users think and behave with their product.
Embrace the excitement
Over the course of four months I was humbled to see the excitement for user research grow throughout the company. The more the research was discussed and shared, the more I started to see and hear a shift in how teams thought about problems and solutions. At the end of the day, every conversation should keep the user front and center. Most importantly, remember to get teams involved early and often with user research to really make an impact company-wide. Keep asking questions and be inquisitive about your users, product, and company to expand on insights and improve processes.
If you have any tips or tricks from your experiences, we would love to hear from you!
When not asking lots of questions and observing how humans behave, you can find Katie capturing time-lapses of the city or telling colleagues about the upcoming Seattle Reign soccer games she’ll be attending.