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Practical User Research: Creating a Culture of Learning in Large Organizations

Enterprise companies are realizing that understanding customer needs and motivations is critical in today’s marketplace. Building and sustaining new user research programs to collect these insights can be a major struggle, however. Digital teams often feel thwarted by large organizations that are slow to change and have many competing priorities for financial investments.

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As a design consultant at Cantina, I’ve seen companies at wildly different stages of maturity related to how customer research impacts their digital work. Sometimes executives struggle to understand the value without quantifiable numbers. Other times engineering teams see customer research and usability testing as a threat to delivery dates.

While you can’t always tackle these issues directly, the great thing about large organizations is that they’re brimming with people, tools, and work practices forming an overall culture. By understanding and utilizing each of these organizational resources, digital teams can create an environment focused on learning from customers.

I did some work recently for a client I’ll call WorkTech, who had this same struggle aligning their digital projects with the needs of their customers. WorkTech was attempting to redesign their entire ecommerce experience with a lean budget and team. In a roughly six month engagement, two of us from Cantina were tasked with getting the project back on track with a user-centered design approach. We had to work fast and start bringing customer insights to bear while moving the project forward. Employing a pragmatic approach that looked at people, tools, and work practices with a fresh set of eyes helped us create an environment of user research that better aligned the redesign with the needs of WorkTech’s customers.

Get comfortable talking to People in different roles

Effective user research programs start and end with people. Recognizing relationships and the motivations held by everyone interacting with a product or service encourages goodwill and can unearth key connections and other, less tangible benefits. To create and sustain a culture of learning in your company, find a group of users to interview—get creative, if you have to—and enlist the support of teammates and stakeholders.

Begin by taking stock of anyone connected to your product. You won’t always find a true set of end users internally, but everyone can help raise awareness of the value of user research—and they can help your team sustain forward progress. Ask yourself the following questions to find allies and research resources:

  • What departments use your product indirectly, but have connections to people in the user roles you’re targeting?
  • Is there a project sponsor who can help sell the value of research and connect you to additional staff that can assist in some capacity?
  • Are there employees in other departments whose individual goals align with getting better feedback from users?
  • Are there departments within the organization (sales, customer service) who can offer connections to customers wanting to provide candid feedback?

Our WorkTech project didn’t have a formal research budget for recruiting users (or any other research task). What we did have going for us was a group of internal users who gave our team immediate access to an initial pool of research participants. The primary platform we were hired to help redesign was used by two groups: WorkTech employees and the customers they interacted with. Over time, our internal users were able to connect us with their external counterparts, amplifying the number of people offering feedback significantly.

Maximize the value of every interview

While interviewing external customers, we kept an eye on the long term success of our research program and concluded each session by asking participants:

  • If they’d be willing to join another session in the future (most were willing)
  • If they could share names of anyone else in their network (internal or external) they thought would have feedback to offer

During each conversation, we also identified distinct areas of expertise for each user. This allowed us to better target future usability testing sessions on specific pieces of functionality.

Using this approach, our pool of potential participants grew exponentially and we gained insight into the shared motivations of different user personas. Taking stock of such different groups of people using the platform also revealed opportunities that helped us prioritize different aspects of the overall redesign effort.

Find helpful Tools that are already available or free

Tools can’t create an effective user research program on their own, but they are hugely helpful during the actual execution of research. While some organizations have an appetite for purchasing dedicated “user research” platforms able to handle recruitment, scheduling, and session recordings, many others already have tools in place that bring value to the organization in different areas. If your budget is tiny (or nonexistent), you may be able to repurpose or extend the software and applications your company already uses in a way that can support talking to customers.

Consider the following:

  • Are there current tools available in the organization (perhaps in other groups) that could be adapted for research purposes?
  • Are users already familiar with any tools or workflows you can utilize during research activities?
  • If new tools for automating specific tasks are out of budget, can your team build up repeatable templates and processes manually?

We discovered early on at WorkTech that our internal user base had very similar toolsets because of company-wide technology purchases. Virtually all employees already had Cisco Webex installed and were familiar with remote conferencing and sharing their screen.

WorkTech offices and customers were spread across the continental United States, so it made sense for our sessions to be remote, moderated conversations via phone and teleconference. Using Webex allowed the internal users to focus on the actual interview, avoiding the friction they might have felt attempting to use new technology.

Leveraging pre-existing tools also meant we could expand our capabilities without incurring significant new costs. (The only other tool we introduced was a free InVision account, which allowed us to create simple prototypes of new UI concepts, conduct weekly usability tests, and document and share our findings quickly and easily.)

Document and define templates as you go

Many digital research tools are simply well-defined starting points—templates for the various types of communication and idea capture needed. If purchasing access to these automated tools is out of the question, using a little elbow grease can be equally effective over time.

At WorkTech, maintaining good documentation trails minimized the time spent creating new materials for each round of research and testing. For repeatable tasks like creating scripts and writing recruitment emails, we simply saved and organized each document as we created it. This allowed us to build a library of reusable templates over time. Even though it was a bit of a manual effort, this payoff increased with every additional round of usability testing.

Utilizing available tools eliminates another significant hurdle to getting started—time delays. In large organizations with tight purchase protocols, using repurposed and free tools can enable teams to get moving quickly. Filling in the remaining gaps with good documentation and repeatable templates covers a wide range of scenarios and doesn’t let finances act as a blocker when collecting insights from users. 

Take a fresh look at your company’s Work Practices

A culture of learning won’t be sustainable over the long term if the lessons learned from user research aren’t informing what is being built. Bringing research insights to bear on your product or site is where everything pays off, ensuring digital teams can focus on what delivers the highest value to customers.

Being successful here requires a keen understanding of the common processes your organization uses to get things accomplished. By being aware of an organization’s current work practices (not some utopian version), digital teams can align what they’ve learned with practices that help ensure solutions get shipped.

Dig into the work practices in your organization and identify ways to meet people where they are:

  • Are there centrally-located workspaces that can be used for posting insights and keeping research outcomes in front of the team?
  • Are there any regularly-scheduled meetings with diverse teams that would be an opportunity to present research findings?
  • Are there established sprint cycles or product management reviews you can align with research efforts?

The WorkTech team collaborating with us on the project already had weekly meetings on the calendar, with an open agenda for high priority items. Knowing it would be important to get buy-in from this group, we set up our research and usability sessions each week on Tuesdays. This allowed us to establish a cadence where every Tuesday we tested prototypes, and every Wednesday we presented findings at the WorkTech team meeting. As new questions or design concepts to validate came up, the team was able to document them, pause any further debates, and move on to other topics of discussion. Everyone knew testing was a weekly occurrence, and within a few weeks even the most skeptical developer started asking us to get customer feedback on specific features they were struggling with.

Schedule regular customer sessions even before you are “ready”

Committing to a cadence of regular weekly sessions also allowed us to separate scheduling from test prep tasks. We didn’t wait to schedule sessions only when we desperately needed feedback. Because the time was already set aside each Tuesday, we simply had to develop questions and tests for the highest priority topic at that point in time. If something wasn’t quite ready, the next set of sessions was only a week away.

Using these principles, we conducted 40+ sessions over the course of 12 weeks, gathering valuable insights from the two primary user groups. We were able to gather quantifiable data pointing to one design pattern over another, which minimized design debates and instilled confidence in the research program and the design. In addition to building relationships with users across the spectrum, the sessions helped us uncover several key interface issues that we were then able to design around.

Even more valuable than the interface issues were general uses cases that came to light, where the website experience was only one component in a large ecosystem of internal processes at customers’ organizations. These insights proved valuable for our redesign project, but also provided a deeper understanding of WorkTech’s customer base, helping to prove the value of research efforts to key stakeholders.

Knowing the schedules and team norms in your organization is critical for creating a user research program whose insights get integrated into the design and development process. The insights of a single set of sessions are important, but creating a culture surrounding user research is more valuable to the long term success of your product or site, as is a mindset of ongoing empathy toward users.

To help grow and sustain a culture of research, though, teams have to be able to prove the value in financial terms. Paul Boag said it elegantly in the third Smashing Magazine book: “Because cost is (often a) primary reason for not testing, money has to be part of your justification for testing.”

The long term success of your program will likely be tied to how well you can prove its ROI in business terms, even though the methods described here minimize the need to ask for money. In other words, translate the value of user research to terms any business person can understand. Find ways to quantify the work hours currently lost to feature debates and building un-validated features, and you’ll uncover business costs that can be eliminated.

User research doesn’t have to be a big dollar, corporate initiative. By paying attention to the people, tools, and work practices within an organization, your team can demonstrate the value of user research on the ground, which will open doors to additional resources in the future.

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