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July 28, 2022

How to Make User Research Essential to Strategic Planning

User researchers, consider this: “Everyone is a user.”

Everyone doesn’t stop at your end users. It includes everyone in your organization. It means stepping into the shoes of the people you work with to understand what’s important to them and what adds value. Thinking about your internal stakeholders is just as — if not more — essential to making research a strategic and valued part of the organization.

Here’s the challenge. You need to make an impact to get stakeholder buy-in, and prioritization is inevitably a problem. You’re probably familiar with this scenario: there’s an endless amount of research to tackle and resources are limited. That’s why user researchers need to focus on effectively and efficiently launching the most impactful tactical and strategic projects to achieve the ultimate “this place couldn’t run without you!” status.

You already know the positive impact your awesome work has on users and your company’s strategic vision (even if they haven’t connected the dots yet!), and you’re dreaming of how you could grow your team. But first, you need to build a business case that measures and communicates your impact.

Not sure where to start? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. User research leaders from Robinhood, Loom, and Opendoor joined Sprig and First Round Capital for the Demonstrating Research Impact webinar, and these UX and research experts broke down the process into three impact-focused steps: define, enable, and demonstrate. Watch the one hour webinar below and let’s dive in.

1. Define Impact: What does it mean for your organization?

Impact. It’s a broad term. Loom’s UX Research Lead Margie Mateo Villanueva offers two buckets to help break it down.

  • Business impact: How is research informing decisions and ultimately driving better outcomes for business and users?

  • Organizational impact: How is research moving you towards a human-centric organization? How is it building empathy by continuously anticipating needs, shaping narratives, and dispelling stereotypes and myths?

Helen Jing, UX researcher at Opendoor, describes business impact as the tactical side of research. It’s getting product managers on board so they’re inspired to launch a new product. “This might look like helping content designers, guiding concept development, moving your team towards or away a feature on a roadmap,” adds Evan Dawson, Senior UX Researcher at Robinhood.

But, organizational impact, that’s where the magic happens. It’s getting people talking about customers in a new way and changing the way they view users. It’s seeing research insights make their way into vision and planning docs. It’s the big picture shifts.

User research earns a voice in strategic planning when stakeholders feel this impact in their bones. Jing says, “Stakeholders need to believe and evangelize research even if a researcher isn’t in the room. This is how you influence organizational change.”

2. Enable Impact: How can you enable yourself to do this work?

Enabling impact first means enabling research. Reflecting on her early days at OpenDoor, Jing says, “There was a trust gap. Stakeholders didn’t know how to work with user researchers yet. Research was looped in after business strategy and product development timelines were defined.”

So, how’d she handle it? Jing spent time building trust with key stakeholders and business partners to learn about their needs and what they value. That led to a trusted working relationship and, eventually, room to take leaps of faith on research.

Whether you’re on Zoom all day or back in the office, trust is built through face time. Go to the meetings. Get to know why decisions are being made. Embed yourself in the company and learn what’s prioritized, who’s asking the questions, and what those questions are. Villanueva says, “I have a biweekly with the head of product marketing. Do the same thing with the customer support manager. Continuous conversations build relationships and help you identify ways to collaborate.”

Allison Dickin, User Researcher at Sprig, previously worked at Etsy, where she made inroads with a skeptical, quant-loving leadership team. “At Etsy, we had a dusty old NPS survey, and we used that as an opportunity to get numbers and shift the conversation.” Her team built metrics into the survey and gave leadership customer-focused numbers they could see move — and wanted to move (we’re back to business v. organizational impact!). That game plan gave research the strategic clout they needed.

Find the Balance Between Strategic and Tactical Research

It can be easy to get swept up with shiny strategic projects. But if you want to show impact, you also need quick wins. And for quick wins, you need tactical research.

Dawson says, “There are misconceptions about tactical research. That it’s lower level, very specific.” And, yes, it typically is answering a specific, smaller scale question. But that’s crucial to build something bigger. The tactical work sustains the momentum the user research team needs to provide useful, in-the-moment insights to content and product designers.

It’s quick, easy to understand, and tangible. Tactical work is a runway to credibility, progress, and trust — and it’s what opens up the gates to the strategic research on your wish list. You know, the work no one is specifically asking for… but you know will change the direction of the business.

But whether you’re tackling tactical or strategic research, Villanueva brings it back to priorities. “No matter which you’re doing, it needs to be intentional. What are the most meaningful questions that need to be answered now?”

Top 5 Expert-Recommended Tips for Enabling Research Impact

Set Expectations

Develop a clear research plan with a problem, solution, and learning goal, then identify cross-departmental stakeholders. Let others know exactly what to expect and deliver on it with data.

Treat Stakeholders as Users

Back to our very first sentence, treat stakeholders as users. Identify their needs and craft the roadmap together.

Build a Prioritization Grid

Build a prioritization grid based on the knowledge gap and risk to help the team stay focused and on track.

Find Your Advocates

Even if you’re new to the organization, there’s going to be someone who’s pumped for the new research hire. Find them. They’re the ones ready to work with you — and ready to vouch for you. “You can’t do everything, so focus on who will use your research, get some early wins, and that will help you make inroads with others,” says Dickin.

Get to Know the Decision Calendar

Every business has a strategic planning calendar. Is it yearly? Quarterly? Find out when these conversations are happening, the metrics that matter, and get yourself a seat at that table.

3. Demonstrate Impact: How do you measure and track it?

Here’s the thing about research impact. Metrics are a clear way to demonstrate impact to revenue-focused stakeholders across the organization. But you need to find the balance between presenting defined OKRs to your numbers-minded colleagues while storytelling with the latest user insights to those who prefer a more human-centric approach.

Part of that equation is making research insights easily accessible to your colleagues, as well as informing them of what’s in research, what’s been researched, and what’s coming down the pike.

  • Build a Tracking Plan with Measurable Outcomes: From day one, create a plan with the goals you plan to achieve. Create project briefs with specific research questions, OKRs, and metrics you can point to. Think about what’s going to change as a result. What decisions will be made? Whose work is affected? Connect your research directly to business outcomes and impact.

  • Track What You’re Doing: Build a directory in a platform like Notion where others can easily find research insights. If someone wants to know what research is doing, you have a straightforward, accessible place to send them.

  • Shout it From the Rooftops: It’s time to embrace self (team!) promotion. Create a Slack channel and regularly share new user research with your company. Offer to present the latest research insights at the next all hands meeting. Dawson said it best, “Research impact shouldn’t just live in your head.” Share it with your team and let them spread the news, too!

Demonstrating impact isn’t just one of these tactics. It’s all of them. Remember, impact means different things to different teams, and it’s your job to know where to meet them so they can do their part to help research gain a seat at the strategic planning table.

Sprig gives user researchers easy access to insights they need to demonstrate impact across their organization. In-context surveys and research capture specific, actionable feedback from your own users as they engage with your product, to answer tactical questions in just a few days. And Sprig has smart analysis that uses AI to group your open-text, voice, and video responses into themes for deeper insights without the heavy lift. This frees up your time to take on the strategic work that impacts company-level business outcomes and gets key stakeholders on board.

Plus, with unlimited seats, product, design, marketing, and more can view results and understand firsthand the importance of user research.

Are you ready to make an impact? Let's get started.

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