How leaders perceive user research: the difference between the enlightened and the unaware (Part 1)

The proverb “necessity is the mother of invention” could not have been more apt for these trying times. Individuals, groups, and organizations — everyone is trying to battle against the demon of a virus that has thrown spanner in the works. In India, teachers in the villages, tier 2 and 3 cities are coming up with innovative ways to continue their endeavour to teach. There are teachers who have pooled in money to pay to recharge the mobile phones of the students’ parents, and in smaller villages teachers are working with the gram pradhans (village heads) to arrange for loudspeakers for the entire village to keep children engaged in learning. All this because they care for the future of the children and empathize to adapt themselves with the changing times.

Cut to the product and service companies, more and more organizations are embracing user research to know their users better and design products and services that truly create meaningful experiences. It’s been reassuring to see that during these difficult times, organization leaders have come forward to execute user research; in fact, many have decided to invest in user research with greater rigour and involvement to understand the changing user-behaviours and make pivotal changes to their offerings accordingly.

Just the way, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating, similarly, the efficacy of user research does not lie in how long or succinct the report is but how well the leadership and the organization, in general, is positioned to approach and utilize what emerges from the discipline.

At UCC, as user researchers, we have experienced a spectrum of responses to how user research has been taken in organizations. We led several projects where we put our heart and soul into the research and created reports with deep insights backed by user behaviours, concerns, and their stories only for those reports to be sitting in some inconspicuous folder of the client’s team where most stakeholders do not even know how to access them! Several instances where the clients have claimed to be too busy to participate as observers during interactions with their real users or skipped scheduled debrief meetings/calls made us question the importance of that study for the client. Disjointed or siloed communication with some of the team members and lack of seamless transmission of information to the decision-makers often becomes one of the reasons leading to question the efficiency of user research and continuous investment in it. As a user researcher, you feel that the power of user research has been overlooked or not fathomed.

Treating user research as a mere check in the box does no good to any of the stakeholders involved leading to degrading the value of user research. As Anurag Asthana who is Vice President Business Development & Strategy -Tata Elxsi says, “if the partnership approach between the stakeholders and user research team is not there and it becomes transactional, then the project is over but the intent is never fully realized.”

On the other hand, we have had riveting experiences of partnering with research-motivated, research-forward organizations that truly believe and understand the value of user research. The doors to endless possibilities open up while working with such partners! These are the cases where one can map the user research outcomes to the final product/service delivered to the end-users. The research proves to be a potent combination of business value + user desirability all in one go.

Each experience compelled us to understand the “why” behind these exhibited behaviours. We wanted to know what drives the leaders and decision-makers to have a particular stand on user research. What differentiates a pro-user research leader from a skeptic?

Through our years of experience of breathing and living user research, we have distilled three primary types of leaders one can come across in the context of their stance on user research:

1. The believer

2. The open-minded

3. The incognizant

This is not necessarily a comprehensive assessment of the leadership personalities as my lens of assessment is the level of belief the leaders have in user research.

Through this three-part article, I want to illuminate upon the thought process of each type of leader, their approach and involvement (or the lack of it!) in user research, and their treatment of the outcomes of user research. After understanding the approach and attitude of each type of leader, leaders can self-assess against the three personalities and then (hopefully) introspect on how they can move up the bar if they aren’t there yet.

The believer

A believer is a leader who is pro user research. They have witnessed user research in action and know that it’s instrumental in aiding innovation and eventually has a positive impact on the bottom-line. They personally get involved in taking research-related decisions and dedicate budgets to ensure its continuity in their team/organization.

The attitude and approach of the believers reflect in these behaviours:

  1. No longer the need to prove the value of User Research

No longer the need to prove the value of User Research

The user research journey no longer becomes the “bird’s eye test” executed by Guru Dronacharya in Mahabharat where Arjun has to prove his worth to this teacher. With strong buy-in from the decision-makers of the various functions in an organization, user research becomes an intrinsic part and a binding factor in the workings of CX, Product, Marketing, Research, and eventually other teams too.

With leaders showing absolute belief in user research, the Design/Product teams do not have to fight it out to get sign-offs on the budgets to execute user research, nor do they have to be a party to politics trying to convince the leaders of the internal and external ROI of user research.

User Research with such leaders does not get limited to a one-off, discrete activity giving an excuse for the leaders to write it off. It becomes a part of the organization culture and in user-obsessed organizations, it becomes a lens through which they see and do everything. It gets deployed at various stages of thinking, developing, and after-sales journeys of a product.

Partner in the journey of designing better experiences

When user research is executed for the believers, they partner with you all through the journey. The immense sense of fulfilment for a user researcher is when the teams across various disciplines are involved with you throughout the user research journey — even before it begins.

The pandemic times brought a lot of ambiguity. Most organizations were unsure of how remote research can be conducted in India, the level of digital savviness and comfort of the Indian users with using the phone for remote moderated interviews, and whether the remote moderated study will even fetch the results that a F2F moderated study would.

In our recent user research study for one of the leading smartphone manufacturers, the research lead for India from another country and the India team were thoroughly immersed in the study even before the study began. They had the comfort and trust to consult us for ideas on the feasibility of remote research in India. The initial plan was to conduct an F2F moderated usability study.

UCC’s knowledge and preparation to conduct remote research and contingency planning coupled with the client’s involvement throughout the study ensured that the study was a huge success. Every member of the client’s team involved in the study attended user interviews even during 16-hr long days and debrief calls and made copious notes during the entire study. They made themselves available exclusively for the research and not to forget, performed their day-jobs after the study for that day was over. We felt like an extended team of the stakeholder in the true sense of the word. And, this was possible only because they believed in the power of user research.

Move insights to action

A user researcher attains nirvana when the insights presented in her report springs the leaders into action. When the leaders get to witness conversations with the users, their behaviours, their pain points, they empathize with the user. This empathy infused with the insights shared by the research team gives the leaders the confidence to fix what’s not working.

In our research for Asian Paints, when we had collaborated with The Turtle Story (TTS) a branding agency, who had the onus to create a Regional Colour Book for AP & Telangana, within a short span of time we could derive insights that flipped the longstanding, unquestioned assumptions. We ensured that we had regular debriefs with the design team to keep them in-tune with every new discovery we made. The beauty of these debriefs was that the TTS team felt that they had their eyes and ears on the ground and could incorporate the users’ needs, challenges and aspirations, and think of ways to address their pain points in the colour book.

On the other hand, the leaders at Asian Paints ensured that we executed a truly inclusive user research study by including all their internal stakeholders, including their regional sales leaders right from the start of the study. This ensured that they gained buy-in of all the stak eholders by the time the identified insights were actioned and all the grounds were covered leaving no room for sudden shocks or surprises or disagreements.

When the intention of conducting user research and clarity on what the research can do is crystal clear, leaders are prepared to think of how they want to consume the information they will derive during and after the research. The end result of the exercise is more fruitful and the research serves its true purpose. Such leaders are prepared to be challenged, willing to unlearn what they know, and take in new learnings from the field — an ideal approach towards user research. Once they accept the learnings from the field and not let the ego come in the way, that leap of faith creates something truly innovative pushing the game forward.

Comfortable with operating in ambiguity and willing to adapt with changes

Businesses continually want to know the pulse of the user, their needs, aspirations, motivations, pain points, and frustrations to provide elevated user experiences. COVID-19 has brought massive changes in the way the users behave and interact with products. Uncovering those changes, their impact on the organizations, and how these organizations can navigate through these changes is an arduous journey filled with a lot of ambiguity and complexity.

The believers do not reverse engineer user research to validate their already established thought processes.

If you come across a leader who says “let’s do a couple of focus group discussions to quickly validate what we have (already) arrived at, will implement…”, your alarm bells should start ringing loud and clear. The believers would clearly define (or let you define) what their problem is and arrive at the best possible way to gather information on how to solve it. This also means that they are willing to adapt to mid-research changes as many a time, you realize that an alternate approach is required to achieve the goals we set out for.

Our experience of working with Ripul (Utterwise AI Technologies, for their product Taka) and Aarogya Setu displayed this trait to the fore. The user research studies for both the clients were conducted when the pandemic led to one of the longest, harshest, and sudden lockdown in the country. Within a short span of time, we had to change our research approach adapting to circumstances beyond our control, and the leaders were extremely empathetic with us and trusted us to conduct the research our way.

Do not treat user research as an afterthought

The increase in the number of businesses who are conducting user research before they design products and not executing it only when things go south has been very encouraging. The believers use user research to understand their users thoroughly and then design using the wisdom gathered to enhance their chances of delivering fail-safe products. They are aware that user research can be conducted at any stage they are currently in.

At UCC, we have had the privilege of working with clients ranging from ones who start with the fundamental question on who their user is to who have sketchy ideas on a possible offering and all the way to the ones who have launched products.

When Anurag Asthana was the innovation head of Medtronic, he paved the way to induce the culture of user empathy and innovation across the organization. He ensured that observing users and investing time to know them better became a part of everyone’s role. This exercise led to user empathy resulting in design products that were truly relevant and added value to the users’ lives. Such was the impact of his focus on user-centricity that it became a strategic initiative in the organization and it became the lens to hire leaders and professionals across disciplines for their organization.

Talking about the advantages of applying user research in one’s organization, Anurag mentions that “continuous application of user research leads to product innovation, business model innovation and we can innovate to (positively) impact the larger society.” Expounding on the impact of innovation, he says that the impact should be realized because otherwise innovation has limited value. He adds saying “one of the core objectives of my work has been to bring affordable healthcare to the masses. We placed engineers in places like hospitals, AIIMS to sit there, work with the technicians, and understand their challenges, essentially immersing yourself in the situation in empathy-based studies.”

Emphasizing on the importance of continuity of exercising user research, Anurag mentions that “if people make it a part of their life, how they look at things — then the whole activity is like keeping a log of everything. You will observe certain things, you ask certain questions and you make a record of that so that the whole repository will keep bringing you ideas.”

The believers know that research is never really finished; it’s an ongoing process until it becomes a habit.

What can you as a user researcher do to keep the momentum going for the believers?

  • Spend time to understand the stakeholders, their needs, what’s keeping them up in the night, their expectations from the research, and the ideal outcomes they expect at the end of it. On the other hand, the believers should invest in ensuring there’s an open and transparent collaboration built with the user research team. Be vulnerable to share, discuss, and address your challenges.

As a user researcher, if you can live by these principles, the decision-makers will be your true partners, and they will not necessarily wait till you present the report to them, but start exploring ways to solve the challenges identified and plan what needs to be done even before that. This, I define, as one of the biggest success indicators for us.

In the next article, we will learn about open-minded leaders and what user researchers can do to move the needle and push these leaders towards becoming believers.

Shipra is the Founder & User Research Director at User Connect Consultancy.

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