Posted by Sylvia Bargellini on May 13, 2020 8:15:00 AM

How do you design research that’s going to have the biggest impact? As UX researchers, it’s our job to provide impactful insights and findings about our users that are going to help our stakeholders make measurable change. But let’s face it, sometimes it can be tricky to understand stakeholders’ needs, their big picture goals, and how the research will impact product development, especially when you’re working with multiple product teams with various needs and perspectives.

Stakeholders are constantly getting information from a variety of sources and sometimes these sources conflict. A skilled researcher serves as a conduit across all stakeholders by hearing their concerns and questions, wading through countless data sources and inputs, understanding the greater context, thinking holistically about the study goals, and turning these various ideas into great impactful research. However, I have found limited literature on exactly how to achieve this. The purpose of this article is to inspire you with some tips and tricks on how to produce quality research that meets the needs of all your stakeholders, using research skills you already have.

As many of us know, to design research that meets your various stakeholders' needs, it's imperative to “ask the right research questions” and “be crystal clear on your research goals.” To attain the most impactful and valuable research goals before running a single research session, I recommend following these three steps:

  1. Observe and listen to your stakeholders

  2. Set expectations to make the stakeholders feel comfortable and confident 

  3. Analyze and curate the stakeholder’s stated needs (the findings) into goals (the recommendations)


Observe and listen

Per Jakob Nielsen’s “First Rule of Usability,” researchers should train themselves not only to listen but also to observe, as participants do not always say what they want or understand what they need. We’ve all experienced a participant saying one thing and doing the opposite. Often, their reasoning behind an action isn’t clear until you ask them the 5 whys, a technique used to explore the causality underlying a particular problem. When working with stakeholders to ascertain detailed research goals, you can use similar techniques to understand the “why” behind a study.

I find it’s helpful to take a step back to spend research planning meetings observing and actively listening to your stakeholders to realize the right research objectives. Actively listen to stakeholders questions and concerns, and the order in which they are sharing information to help determine the best holistic approach to get them the insights they need. Try to observe their tone of voice and body language to dive even deeper. You should also use this time to prompt stakeholders to share more details about the context behind the research goals, similar to the 5 whys technique mentioned above.

Combining active listening and observation in this way will really help you, the researcher, pick up on how your stakeholders view the product, what they’re excited or nervous about, how they visualize the product and research priorities, and even the wider organizational context that could affect a study or how findings are shared. If you feel you’re not getting all stakeholders' opinions organically in the meeting setting, connect with them individually to make sure you’ve collected all your stakeholders needs and not just the loudest ones. All of this information will give you a much clearer picture for when you start designing your study.

Using this holistic method you’ll have more of an opportunity to discover ways to answer multiple questions in a creative way or suggest a different methodology depending on the why behind these questions. As an added benefit, these approaches ensure your stakeholders feel confident that you understand their needs and will collect the best findings that give each of your stakeholders the ability to make informed decisions.

Set expectations

Setting expectations at the start of a study, as well as throughout, can help you and your stakeholders set the team, the research, and the product up for success. Organize your time with your stakeholders similarly to how you proceed with a participant in an interview: 

  • Introduction to make participants feel comfortable and confident
  • Prepare a general guide/path to be sure the right information is gathered
  • Ask probing questions to make sure the conversation is on the right path; and 
  • Spend time to wrap-up to allow the participant to add additional information 

These four steps can be mirrored with your stakeholders to make them feel confident that you, the researcher, can accomplish what they need, from the beginning to the end of a project.

The introduction

Your planning meetings with stakeholders is your time to clearly understand their research needs, ascertain how this research will impact the team, company, and users, and ask who’s involved from the broader team. If you discover there are other stakeholders who might benefit from this research, work to involve them with the study too and make sure their needs are met as well.

I was once asked to test a prototype by a project PM. I ran the study and when the research was completed, a stakeholder from another part of the organization saw the report and was frustrated that they weren’t consulted prior to the study. It turns out the design we tested wasn’t the most recent, unbeknownst to me, and that stakeholder felt study findings were invalid and unusable.

Laying out the path ahead

In your early meetings, clearly lay out what’s going to happen throughout the research, such as the research timeline, meeting times/dates, and deliverables to make sure it aligns with your stakeholders’ needs. This is also a place to communicate when and how you can be flexible as project needs change or develop throughout the process.

Probing questions

Although it’s best to ask probing questions as early in the process as you can, continue asking your probing questions in all stakeholder communication throughout the research. Ask if they have any questions, if they feel like we’re on track to answer their research questions, how they feel things are progressing, etc. These probing questions will help you better understand any concepts that may lack specificity or clarity to keep you on track and maintain stakeholders’ confidence that the research is being completed in the way they need and expect.

Wrap-up

Always wrap up all stakeholder communication confirming what was discussed and what next steps are, in both verbal and written formats if possible. It is also important to do this when the research is completed to make sure you have successfully met the research goals and helped your stakeholders make informed and impactful decisions. If they are happy with your work, they are more likely to ask for your help with research in the future, rather than forgoing research altogether. Ultimately, this all boils back down to your job of advocating for your users and ensuring you’re meeting their needs in every stage of product development.

These checkpoints throughout the process will help you set the proper expectations around your research and give you the necessary critical information to follow through on these goals and create impactful findings.

Analyze and curate

As researchers complete a study, we never hand our raw research notes to the stakeholders and expect them to do the hard work to pull out the awesome findings! Our goal is to help stakeholders make quick and informed decisions by analyzing the data and curating it into a well crafted report that shares the actionable insights the stakeholders could take to make informed decisions to move a product forward.

The same goes when finalizing the goals, planning, and questions for a study. Think of it as if you’re reporting back to the stakeholders the top key findings. Ask yourself, ‘what are my stakeholders’ top 1-3 goals for this project based on all the communication you’ve had with them so far?’ Consider if any of what you’re hearing from stakeholders overlaps or conflicts. Can you synthesize some of their needs and questions into bigger more holistic topics?

Your research goals and questions might be ever changing as you learn more throughout the research process. Craft more general and holistic research goals so you have more flexibility with how you test during sessions. To do this, I recommend your research goals, just like any report findings, should be based on the people and not focused on the product or prototype.

One study I worked on had over 25 prototypes and a stakeholder that was very focused on the design details of the prototypes. The high level study priorities were unclear, which made it difficult for me as the researcher to clarify goals. By guiding stakeholder discussions into understanding the “typical” product use cases, I was able to focus research questions on the use cases instead of the prototypes and design details. In the end, the sessions and findings were much more holistic, because they encompassed when people would want/use one design over the other while still answering the stakeholders’ questions about perceptions of design details.

Examples of stakeholder questions and how I would think about them holistically.

Example Request:

Example Holistic Goals: 

Define what color this button should be.

Understand how participants perceive different colors during each use case to aid in the decision of button color.

Which of these designs should we move forward with?

Understand users’ mental models and needs at the time of interacting with these designs to understand what elements are helpful to them.

How big should this font size be and what should the copy be?

What information is important and what hierarchy of that information would be most useful for a user at each moment of product interaction?

What are users' privacy concerns around this concept or copy?

What are users' perceptions around this concept and do they have any concerns around privacy? If they do, what are these concerns and what would assuage them?

What do users see as the value of this prototype/product?

How do users currently satisfy needs around x experience and how do they envision this product to fit into their current process?

How much will users pay for this product?

What experiences with this product will users find most valuable to meet or exceed their current pain points?

 

Analyzing and curating the project information your stakeholders shared with you will be invaluable when working to create detailed, holistic and flexible research goals that the whole team is excited about. Also, if this curation can be accomplished before the study, the researcher’s job of analyzing and curating the study’s findings will be even easier with these clearer research goals. Ultimately, the researcher can more quickly and confidently share actionable findings with the stakeholders to help inform their decision-making.

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Setting research goals is not easy — on top of good collaboration, you need strong communication, clear expectation setting, and expert curation. With these skills, you’ll be able to successfully gather the right questions, goals, perspectives, and needs of all your stakeholders, synthesize them into clearer goals, and ensure you’re creating more impactful and useful research across the organization. I’ve learned these tips over time and I’m sharing them in hopes that you can skip some of the pitfalls to define the best research goals that are actionable and impactful for your stakeholders.

Looking for more resources on designing effective research and making an impact?

Once you've set the right research goals, it's time to run your study. Check out 7 Observation Room Strategies to Help Your Product Teams Hear Your Users to learn how to engage stakeholders in the backroom and ensure your findings make an impression.

How do you show the business impact and results of your design within your organization? Learn more in Choose the Right UX Metrics to Show Business Impact by AnswerLab Senior UX Researcher, Kristin Zibell. 

Topics: Research