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Research from the ground up

My current workplace is very new to the idea of user research. When I started in 2019, all my usual 'first three months' plans went straight out of the window. Imagine having no data and analytics. Imagine having no insights team. Imagine having no data scientists. Imagine having no research. The thought of making any kind of decision without research was completely alien to me. And just a tiny bit (a lot) FRIGHTENING!

A UX strategy requires, among other things, a clear qualitative and quantitative understanding of the current user experience along with a set of measurements to monitor progress and success. Putting this together seemed like an impossible challenge. I was most definitely reassessing my career move.

Spoiler alert ...I'm still at the same company. I didn't leave. Here's what I did:

Step 1: There's always data and insight somewhere

I began by becoming familiar with the company vision, mission and values. I learned about the portfolio of products - the USP of each product and the market needs (note: I'm not referring to user needs here). I wanted to be clear about the problems we were solving. I worked with the Marketing team to understand more about our competitors. They had created a series of 'battlecards' detailing where our products excelled and where our competitors did. Again, none of this was focussed on the end user, but it gave me an idea of who we were up against in RFP's (request for proposals). They were high level assets that didn't reveal nuanced product differentiations. I worked with the Sales team to see our win/loss analysis. I worked with the Product team to understand their visions and roadmaps. I worked with the Support team to review tickets raised by clients. I worked with Professional Services and Account Managers to first understand the delivery process and then understand what it was like to be an Aptitude client.

Step 2: Collate and analyse the findings

I pulled the research into a repository called Dovetail. This is qualitative data analysis software that facilitates the analysis and management of user research data. I wanted to bring everything together to prevent all this information staying in their silos. Anybody in the company should at any point be able to draw insight from previous research. To enable this a tool like Dovetail is necessary. It enables us to categorise and tag our research so that it's easier to bubble up insights and easy to share the right level of insight across the business. Some folks will want to wade through the weeds, others will want the highest level view. This tool gives us a good way of balancing those user needs.

Step 3: Create a user centric research strategy

I'd reached a point where I had learned a lot about the business, the products and the market needs we aimed to fulfil. What I didn't know was how the end users felt about our software. How they worked within it. Where they struggled. Where there was room for improvement.

I started by referring back to one of my favourite research diagrams from Nielsen Norman Group, and aded some thoughts.

After this I summarised my thoughts as follows:

Next I wanted to be sure we had the right spread of qualitative and quantitative, attitudinal and behavioural research methods in our toolbox, so I created a really simple matrix in Excel. This overview provides a good high level view to stakeholders interested in the research strategy and gives an idea of the breadth or research required. This in turn gives an impression of the resource required to undertake the work.

Step 4: Resourcing

Based on the excel sheet, I created some tasks in Jira under a new Epic titled 'Research'. I have often found resourcing discussions much easier when I can present a tangible workload. Seeing a backlog of sized tasks really gives a sense of the work ahead. I then submitted a business case for 2 User Researchers along with some tools to support the processes. Now we wait and hope...

Step 5: Educate, Enable and Operationalise

In the meantime I want a 'backup' plan. A plan that will both support the 2 new heads on the team, and also add value if the heads are not signed off. This plan is the operationalisation of research across the business. I want to make everyone a researcher.

This starts with education. If we can impress the value of research on everybody we'll find ambassadors across the business to spread the word. I held a couple of Lunch and Learn sessions sharing the basics of user research as a discipline and how it is vital to user centric design & product development. These gathered interest, but no traction. What did gather traction was actually a piece of work I shared separately to this initiative: I shared an end to end customer journey map - detailing the user experience from the moment a prospect discovered our company to the moment they built a relationship with client success. This map detailed all the pain points and opportunities across every department in the business. My peers were now really interested. I was no longer talking about research as an abstract concept, I was sharing information that touched everybody. It was suddenly clear how teams could support each other in making improvements. And the only way this was possible was by bringing all the research together into a big picture. I now had active ears! People wanted to know more.

As soon as I had gathered enough interest, I found my ambassadors. These folks now regularly share information gathered from their workstreams. That is pulled into my research repository to help paint an even fuller picture. Granted - it's not all user focussed, but it's very useful. To get a more user focused viewpoint, what I need is for my ambassadors to start asking the right questions of the users they interact with. I created a very lightweight page in Confluence to describe open and closed research questions, how to take notes, and how to observe body language. It's a wait and see game now for me to observe whether the information reaching me in future is more user focused. I'm also in the process of working with our Education and Enablement team to create a course in user research that will form part of the onboarding process. I'll save the details of this for another post.

Step 6: Keep on keeping on

It's extremely challenging to join a company that does not understand the value of research. I still have a VERY long way to go in educating the business and crafting a comprehensive research strategy that can be delivered. I've found ambassadors along the way who are willing to help me paint a picture of the current experience in the hope that we can design a more user-focused, useful and delightful experience in future. I still need resource. It's still a challenge. But as they say, Rome wasn't built in a day.

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