How leaders see user research: the difference between the enlightened and the unaware (Part 3)

After the believer and the open-minded leaders, let’s meet the incognizant leader in context of their knowledge levels and outlook towards user research. There are leaders who do not take design strategy seriously. They usually leave it to the product lead and team to figure out the nuts and bolts (not giving them autonomy enough to innovate or look at problems differently) as the leaders themselves are busy obsessing over the bottom lines. On top of that, decision-making rests in the hands of a select few — who if are not avid learners, stay stuck with the traditional form of leadership.

This article talks about what an incognizant leader’s attitude looks like and how as user researchers, we can introduce them to this fascinating, immersive world of user research and shine the light on the value it can bring to their organization.

The incognizant

The incognizant leaders have no/extremely limited, accurate knowledge of user research. They feel that user research is a lot of fancy eyewash.

This is one of the most common reasons leaders think that user research is just a case of old wine in a new bottle. I’ve had several conversations with leaders who used the two terms interchangeably and thought that I could conduct market research for them. In one of my last projects, I met a research recruitment agency that claimed to be doing “qualitative research” by “analyzing” what the people in focus group discussions shared. They claimed to be delivering results for a-tenth of the fee that a typical user research agency would charge. Imagine my horror! Sadly, there would be many organizations out there who would pinch pennies and go to these agencies to get their research work done and think that they know their users deeply.

Often referred to as the creator bias, product leaders and creators feel that since they designed the products, they know their users and what they want. Therefore, they feel that talking to users is a wasteful exercise. Stories of product teams and research teams not having the most cordial relationship with each other are not new and almost everyone working in large enterprises would have experienced it firsthand.

Leaders also feel that their CX team is capable enough to know their users based on the exercises they do. Most of these leaders are not aware that user research is not about creating a set of 100 questions and spewing them on the users. It’s a carefully crafted approach involving observing, listening, understanding, connecting and synthesizing. It takes deep thinking to arrive at strategic insights that businesses can use.

This becomes one of the most common excuses for the incognizant leaders to believe that user research is a straitjacketed process that cannot adapt to the needs of the business. Yes, user research does take some time because discovering what people’s needs, aspirations, motivations, pain points; combining that knowledge gathered from multiple users; and in fact, even making the client distill what they want takes time.

In dozens of my conversations with potential clients when I have asked them to even articulate their problem statement, they have taken over a week to do just that. In many instances, I have asked them questions to uncover the problem and helped them articulate it. If just articulating a problem statement takes over a week, thinking that knowing your users deeply, uncovering unique insights and presenting them in a factual manner should not take time only seems lopsided.

Data-driven leaders find it extremely difficult to believe that speaking with a small number of users is an effective way to draw the outcomes they are looking for. In one of my presentations to a room fully packed with product managers and their team members, I was asked how speaking to “just 14 users was an apt representation of the next billion they intend to target”.

I had to explain the concept of quality over quantity, carefully and clearly defining the characteristics of the user segment interviewed, how user behaviours fit into certain patterns and those patterns become repetitive beyond a certain number and that talking to more users would only be a waste of time.

I end my list with the mother of all behaviours displayed by the incognizant! Sure, one user research project will not always completely shake the foundations of your organization, but user research will only be beneficial if it’s actively shared with all the stakeholders, and the decision-makers consume the information and act upon it. However, even small, continuous interventions will go a long way in knowing your users, failing faster, and creating experiences people love. Not to mention the losses a business incurs for creating bad products or products that fail instead of exercising user research at early stages where prototyping and testing could have given them the knowledge of what the users think.

What can you as a user researcher do to educate the incognizant?

  • Identify if there are any believers in the organization that you can tap into to build your case for user research. Get them to socialize user research and create awareness on user research for the other leaders.
  • Do a quick-and-dirty workshop filled with videos and case studies that covers the methodology of user research, its benefits and get the stakeholders to talk.
  • Quell the myths that user research is limited to one department of an organization.
  • Empathize with the leaders — changing one’s thought process takes time.
  • Spend time to understand what the stakeholders are looking for and design rapid user research if they are genuinely short of time.
  • Share live user stories to help the leaders understand that there is no replacement for knowing users.

In the end

Leaders are concerned about the bottom line, achieving their business goals and metrics, and keeping the ship sailing in the choppy waters. As a leader, if you fall into any of the three categories shared in this series, you have at least considered user research at some point in time — which for us user researchers is great news! :) Through this article, I hope we have managed to answer some of your questions, niggling thoughts, and helped you understand the world of user research better.

The future of user research is brighter than ever. Among the several lessons that this pandemic has taught us, it’s the lesson that the world will change any moment and with every change, your users’ behaviours will change too — something that’s capable of flipping your world upside down. Embedding user research to be a part of your organizational culture, strategy and etching it in the minds of your employees would be the ideal world I would like to live in. However, until we reach that stage, as a community of user researchers, let’s be empathetic towards what the leaders think, feel and the circumstances they operate in, and be their extended thinking partner to win their trust and help them learn more about user research.

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

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