How to Fail at Building an In-House User Research Practice

My notes from the talk How to Fail at Building an In-House UXR Practice by Stephanie Pratt at the UXinsight festival in April 2021.
Focus on a narrow set of stakeholders vs. widen what you do and who you educate, communicate, share and collaborate with
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In this post, I want to share my notes from the talk How to Fail at Building an In-House UXR Practice by Stephanie Pratt at the UXinsight festival in April 2021.

Stephanie talked candidly about how she failed at building a UXR practice as the first UX researcher at a company, which resulted in her having to leave the company. She then described her concrete learning from this failure and how it helped her succeed in her next role as a first UX research hire, where she built a successful research program from the ground up.

“I had failed. I had failed to show my value….value of user research…after reflection I started to understand the mini failures that led to this large failure.”

Mini-failures that led to a large failure 

For the first role, here are the mini-failures that Stephanie identified

  • Don’t identify the UX maturity of the organization
  • Build processes too early
  • Don’t build a research cadence
  • Only focus on a strategic effort
  • Don’t speak the business language
  • Only share research with immediate teams

For her next role, she took the time to ask questions and see if she was a match for the organization. And she broadened the type of research she was doing, and the stakeholders she was communicating with and built partnerships across the organization rather than being pigeon-holed into a certain type of research and tasks. Here are some details of her failures and the lessons she learned:

Identify the UX maturity of the organization

For her first role, she was excited to be hired so she didn’t take the time to judge the UX maturity of the organization which was more sales-driven vs. product-driven. For the next role, she looked at the maturity of the organization and if it aligned with what she was looking for. To judge the UX maturity, she would ask questions like:

  • What kind of research is being conducted today (is it being done, by whom, what type, to answer what questions?)
  • Who will she report to and who are the key stakeholders? Who initiated the creation of this role? What are their priorities? This gave her an idea of the challenges she might face after starting.
  • Other things she would pay attention to would be collaboration between teams, overarching design maturity, etc.

Build awareness before processes and speak the business language

For her first role, she was asked to build a research process and she started with building it without evangelizing research. But her stakeholders didn’t understand the value of user research or when best to reach out to her. Also, she wasn’t translating the findings to what it means for the business metrics of the company. So the process was ineffective.
The next time around,

  • She first focused on evangelizing and educating teams on user research. This included building partnerships and training teams on when to include her, how to conduct research (note-taking, framing questions), and design A/B testing experiments, etc.
  • Also, she related the research insights to the key business metrics for the organization. She combined conversion rates (a key metric for the organization), with the user testing results, and data analytics to show what was happening, why it could be happening, and how it could be affecting the key business metrics. This got her more buy-in from the stakeholders.

Build a research cadence and balance strategic and tactical efforts

For her first role, she was focused on strategic research, instead of doing different types of research for varied stakeholders and purposes. This resulted in not getting buy-in because she was not doing something immediately actionable for her stakeholders.
The next time around, she balanced the tactical and strategic needs. And conducted regular user tests to help the team address their burning questions. This helped her build trust and show the immediate value of research.

Share research widely and talk to different departments

For her first role, she presented to a narrow audience – immediate product teams and product managers, so the user research was not visible to the senior leadership. This led to her having to leave the organization because the value of user research was not seen or recognized.

The second time around,

  • She shared research findings widely and met with other departments like sales, customer support, engineering, marketing to understand what they were trying to learn.
  • She also hosted research happy hours where she would post research findings on the walls and invite people for wine and cheese after work or in the afternoon. This led her to have very impactful conversations because she could talk to different levels, including the CEO.
  • She created a shared searchable research repository and a research slack channel which would be updated every time she updated the research repository.

Stephanie ended the talk with a quote by Brene’ Brown,

“There is no innovation or creativity without failure. Period.” 

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