Why we must build relationships to create impact with user research

How relationships are essential for impactful user research. Read on for a short article reflecting on words by Erika Hall.
Change is rooted in relationships and evidence nurtures the process of change
Graphic by author

Relationships, change, and user research evidence

A pair of crows are sitting side by side on the mulberry tree outside our window. One of them is grooming the other, combing their feathers with his/her beak. This grooming strengthens the bond of the pair. And relationships are important to all living beings.
Talking about relationships, I want to reflect on Erika Hall‘s words today. Erika is the author of Just Enough Research and co-founder of Mule Design. I love the way she articulates ideas, she says,

‘I get asked “How do I use data to convince someone of a thing?” all the time.

And my answer is always, “Go back in time and build a relationship with that person before trying to change their mind.”

In the current moment, you can listen to their reasoning and ask questions.

Facts don’t change minds unless you already have a shared goal and standard of evidence, and even then, it’s iffy.’

My own experience with relationships, data, and changing minds

I can relate to this sentiment. Especially at the beginning of my career, for some of my teams, I would share the study findings, people would commend me on the work, and nothing would happen. I would wonder, “Why don’t they change, we know this from user research now!”
Fast forward a few years, I’d say the same thing and see people in the same team taking it seriously and prioritizing it.

The difference was that now we were in a relationship. We knew each other as people now, instead of just roles.
I understood their concerns, and they understood that we are all on the same side. Because of that, we could communicate better with each other.

Beyond relationships

Also, I saw that once a team has (started building) trust in user research, only relationships are not enough, processes, resources, and training become essential to build consistent research practices and structure then. Here were some things that explicitly changed in our communication or processes:

  • Before starting a study, I ask and agree about how the results will be used and if enough time and people are planned for follow-up on the results.
  • During the study, I usually involve the team members as note-takers or observers and would write the highlights for the user study with them. So, the results became “theirs” too.
  • Instead of saying everything is important, I pick my battles and negotiate on which issues are absolutely important to address. So the team knows that I am not just being stubborn on principle :D.
  • After every study, I conduct follow-up workshops with the people who would pick up the results to a) prioritize b) design workshop. (These were scheduled in advance).
  • I mention the main message of a study not just in the presentation but also in coffee corner conversations, with different team members on different occasions. Because it is a continuous thread rather than one specific moment of life-changing impact.

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