Choosing the right user experience research partner is a significant decision. Watermark Consulting conducted an analysis of customer experience leaders and laggards that showed the stock performance of customer experience leaders outperformed the S&P 500 by 27% over a five-year period. Choosing the wrong research partner can truly impact the core success of your company.

We’ve been involved with hundreds of proposals and RFPs, so we know what qualifying questions are successful in separating the truly qualified from the attempting-to-appear-qualified. I’m providing them below to help you filter through your alternatives to figure out which research partner is best equipped to help you meet your user experience goals,  or provide support to explain to management why you selected your chosen partner. To help ensure that you decide on a research partner that has the specific expertise you need and is the best fit for your organization, I’m sharing a list of the nine essential questions you should ask any potential research partners.

Does your potential user experience research partner…

1. Have a core competency in research across channels and platforms (desktop web, smartphone, feature phone, tablet)?

Customers experience your brand through a variety of channels, so it’s important that your user research partner’s expertise reflects this. In some cases, particularly in the early stage of product development, your research questions may require exploratory research that isn’t confined to a particular platform or channel. Even if today’s research question may be specific to a single platform, your next question may not be — it’s more efficient to work with a partner who can answer any research question and build on a body of work with your products.

2. Have deep experience researching digital products and services in the context of their usage and reporting on behavioral observation?

It is critically important that the partner you hire have experience getting research insights from people while they are using your product or service. Getting high-quality user experience research insights frequently requires observing your target audience interact with your product, whether that’s in a lab setting or in the user’s natural environment (e.g., using a smartphone while commuting to work). Knowing which questions to ask, what tasks to require, and what behaviors to record is a unique expertise that is very distinct from most market research and takes years of experience to do well.

3. Deliver independent and objective third-party research of digital products?

You should completely trust that the partner you choose has no financial interest in the research method selected or the results of the study. For example, a firm that provides design services or proprietary research software, could have a conflict of interest regarding the research findings or the methodology recommended.

4. Have a team of research professionals trained in human-computer interaction, human factors, or cognitive sciences?

Although user experience research field is relatively young compared to market research, there are academic specializations that uniquely qualify practitioners. Ask your potential partner how many of the team members have advanced degrees in human-computer interaction, human factors, or cognitive sciences.

5. Assign a full team to your research project?

Schedules change and fire drills occur, but your product development plans shouldn’t wait for your research recommendations. Make sure that your user experience research partner has a bench that can accommodate any changes to your development plans or any emergencies that may impact their team. There should be a sufficient number of qualified researchers to jump in to handle the unexpected.

6. Offer the ability to recommend and deliver any user experience research methodology relevant to your business question?

There are many methods and techniques for getting insights about your customers’ interest in and interactions with your digital products — from ethnography to remote usability testing to behavioral website tracking surveys. Some business questions might require qualitative methods, others quantitative, and some might require both. It’s important to work with a partner who understands your business questions, is familiar with the digital product development cycle, and has expertise in the full array of methodologies to ensure that you get the right answers.

7. Have international user experience research experience?

Digital products are easily available to a global audience and many companies are finding an increasing percentage of revenues coming from international markets. Find out how much experience your potential research partner has across countries, continents, and languages.

8. Have a research team with a deep understanding of the digital product development cycle?

Knowing which research questions to answer and which approach to take to answer them requires familiarity with the digital product development cycle. Teams with experience working throughout the product development process can be trusted to do research on user wants and needs, concepts, information architecture, paper comps, prototypes, and launched products. Ask your potential research partner whether members of the team have done research throughout the digital product development cycle.

9. Deliver user experience research to leading companies and digital innovators?

User experience research partners who have worked with market leaders in the Fortune 500, across a broad range of industries, likely have already encountered and solved your user experience research questions. If they can be trusted by the biggest brands for their insights, you should feel confident that they will provide recommendations to ensure your user experience investments support your business objectives. Your partner should also have experience working with digital innovators, to ensure that they are connect to the latest technological advances, both as research topics and research tools. Be sure to ask your potential partner about the types of clients they have worked with, the range of industries, and the new technologies they have tested.

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Did we miss any key questions? Let us know how you find the right fit.