How to introduce better research practices

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“What could you do if you don't agree with your boss on their approach to research? For example, during the discovery phase, they decide to use surveys as a qualitative research method to gauge insights from Sales Engineers (whom they believe can speak for the users because they have to deal with users and troubleshoot for users all the time). I think methods could be appropriated to suit a situation, but they decided to not run a round of actual qualitative research to learn about the problem space because the "surveys" suffice the situation. Also, I do agree to their claim that SEs know a lot about our products, I am reserved on relying on them to feed us the stories/use cases from users, because, they are not the users and what they said could be biased. Thanks!”

- Anonymous

Hi Anonymous,

Great question. “You are not your user” is perhaps the simplest and most compelling argument for conducting any kind of UX research. But often even that isn’t enough!

While your Sales Engineers may know a lot about pain points and common issues your customers encounter, they only hear one side of the story. What motivates your customers to use your products or services? What are their goals and motivations? What are some of their most common frustrations? What workarounds do they have? If you could do one thing to make their work easier for them, what would it be?

If you’re relying on Sales Engineers to feed through user insights for your discovery phase research, it’s like you’re missing out on the richness and detail that qualitative research provides.

But hey — here at Optimal Workshop, we take advantage of our customer support channels as a great source of insight too. There are many things to be learnt from users asking questions and requesting features. However this information is only complementary to the wider picture. It can help you identify problems you’d like to solve, and research avenues you’d like to follow, but it’s never going to give you the depth of information you require to make truly informed decisions.

Is bad research better than no research?

The fact that your boss is interested in research to begin with is a good starting point. Even if this research is approached through a questionable, somewhat biased and minimal-effort methodology. The research is in the building, and this is half the battle won.

The real question is: How do you compel them to try new research avenues, when they’re stuck in their old ways?

The hardest part of UX research often isn’t the research itself. It’s the time spent negotiating, communicating value, being an advocate for your users and ensuring business goals are being aligned with what your users are saying. Working in UX means you often have to wear more hats than practicable in any given day, and educate others on why it’s important to your business.

So let’s bring it back to these unfortunate surveys…

Introducing new research approaches, one method at a time

Surveys are a pretty appealing research method. They’re easy to set-up, cheap, and by getting a large enough sample, you can argue that your group is representative of your entire customer base. They also eliminate the need for face-to-face interaction with your customers, which can be intimidating when done infrequently. Unfortunately this also makes surveys susceptible to satisficing, and they are often used in place of methods more suited to the questions you are trying to answer. Surveys can be dangerous, and this article by Erika Hall can tell you why.

Do these surveys give your boss the insights they are really after? Unlikely. When relying on input from your Sales Engineers, it’s likely that your exploratory research is riddled with biases, personal opinions and general misinterpretations of what your customers really need.

At times like these, you need to help your organization acknowledge the limitations of survey research. One way you may want to bring your boss’s attention to the issue, is by tying these limitations into measurable impacts this may be having on the business. When upper management is concerned, shedding light on the impacts that poor research methodology may have on important business decisions is likely to open them up to suggestions on how things can be improved.

This is where it’s time to put on your educator hat.

As a starting point, consider ways in which you can show how the responses provided by your Sales Engineers may differ from those of your users. Running the original survey with your customers may be enough to show the differences in responses between each of these groups.

If you’re still dealing with a lot of resistance, opt for an approach focused on showing, rather than telling. Consider running several interviews with your customers to complement existing surveys. This can help you communicate the value regular interviews can bring, and it shouldn’t take long for your team to realize that by doing so, you can generate insights far beyond what your Sales Engineers having been feeding through until now.

The undercover notetaker

Often the best way to communicate the importance of reaching out directly to your customers is to give a skeptic a first hand experience. With clear research objectives in mind, bringing your boss to a user interview or two is likely to leave a lasting impression. Give them the role of a notetaker to bring them even closer to the research (and encourage them to actively listen too!). This is a great way to get buy-in from those who are not usually on the research frontline.

And a final few words on changing people’s minds…

*Puts psychologist hat on*

People are often afraid to try new things. Our set ways of doing things easily become second nature, and habits are very hard to break. The same applies to the work we do. The longer a process has existed in an organization, the harder it becomes to change.

Unfortunately, if you don’t take matters into your own hands, it’s likely no one else will. Building a culture where learning from your customers is seen as a valuable asset takes time. The only way to go about it is to get out there, and start showing the business what can be gained from this new approach.

While uptake may be slow to begin with, don’t give up. Once your boss sees what information they’ve been missing all this time, it’ll be very hard to argue with the benefits of reaching out to your customers directly versus getting indirect feedback from other members of staff.

Published on Sep 29, 2016
Ania Mastalerz
  • Ania Mastalerz
  • Ania is a user researcher at Optimal Workshop. When she's not researching the researchers, she's shredding on Mt. Ruapehu and eating healthy snacks.

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