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Create Long-Term UX Impact With Stronger Stakeholder Relationships

Cross-functional partnerships are pivotal for user researchers to retain and build influence. UX leaders share strategies for building them.

Few, if any, UX researchers work in a vacuum. As I explored in part one of my UXRconf 2024 recap, in order to effect real, demonstrable change, we need to couch our work within the larger company — and even the broader business — landscapes. But we cannot do this by sheer will alone—we need others: product and design yes, but also customer-facing teams like success and sales.

A short-term way to have long-term strategic, company-wide influence is through close relationships with colleagues. This includes peers, stakeholders, and leadership. How we start forging those connections was another theme across UXRConf’s presentations. 

The strategies shared by speakers fell into two categories: mindsets and tools.

“UX research is not a vending machine.”
~Marie Sbrocca, UX Research Leadership @ Google

Mindsets for creating partnerships

Kristen Guth, Lead Senior User Researcher at Snowflake, believes that a popular concept for making the case for more research is actually hurting our progress: maturity models. These (often expansive) frameworks attempt to demarcate stages of development against which research, design, and product teams can benchmark themselves.

The problem, according to Guth, is that these models don’t outline how UX professionals can start moving the organization through the stages. Nor do they ever admit the headcount imbalance between UX teams and their vast stakeholders. Moving through stages can take decades, which might account for why so few UXRs feel like they make company-wide progress.

Instead, we should focus on building trust with our partners by increasing their UX Perception, which Guth defines as a person’s desire and ability to successfully deliver user-centered products. When our partners have an advanced UX perception, they are more likely to believe that UX research can and should help them with their problems.

The stages of UX Perception (from least to most mature) are:

  • Unaware (“We don’t have user issues.”)
  • Uncertain (“We don’t know why we have user issues.”)
  • Aware (“There’s always going to be user issues?”)
  • External-Facing (“We should talk to actual users.”)
  • Practices (“Oh we always do our research.)
  • User-Goal Driven (“Are we empowering users?”)

By identifying what stage a key partner might be in, we can tailor our approach to building trust. Some partners may not be aware of UX research’s potential; others may believe it’s useful but only for some problems; still others may not feel confident to ask for help. 

Charting who you have moved along their UX Perception maturity is a great way to document your company-wide impact. Securing the trust of one partner has effects on other partners: stakeholders can advocate for UX research on your behalf, scaling its impact.

Building trust through UX Perception also helps weather storms: product changes, market fluctuations, or budget cuts. If partners believe in—and trust the value of—UX research to solve their problems, we have a better chance of weathering these inevitable storms.

To research or not research?
Google’s Maria Sbrocca shares the three questions she asks of stakeholders before committing to do any work:

1. What questions do we need to answer?
2. How will we use these research insights?
3. Do these insights have an expiration date?

Sbrocca says that if you don’t have time to even ask these of your stakeholder, then you might want to pause on research.

Tools for supporting partnerships

Other speakers focused on tools helping them bridge gaps between stakeholders and UX, weaving them into important processes, building trust along the way. Two stood out: mapping methods and AI. The first because of its history in design thinking; the second because of its ubiquity and hype for UX.

Mapping techniques serve as blueprints for UX alignment

Nicole Wright, Director of UX Research at HoneyBook, started as a UX team-of-one. Supporting her stakeholders as the company grew was all about efficiency. Wright built a habit of regularly reflecting on her processes, which helped her inventory how she was spending her limited time and checking that the activities she did pursue led to on-time insights.

Mapping activities offered her a chance to learn how stakeholders work: What their typical pain points were, how they processed (and sought) information, and the timelines they were typically beholden to. It also offered these stakeholders a front row seat into how a UX professional organizes information and identifies opportunities for optimization. 

Whether on stickies in person or remotely on a digital whiteboard, mapping helps drive alignment, identify collaboration projects, and ensure UX and stakeholder teams are speaking the same language. These maps become living documents that teams can refer to, increasing a UX team’s reach and socializing its benefits to more parts of an organization.

Wright shared two examples of maps she uses to increase cross-functional alignment:

  1. Insights: Asking teams what information is critical to their goals, where that information usually lives (or doesn’t), what teams might hold or own that information, and what risks exist if that information isn't delivered on-time.
  2. Processes: Stakeholder teams (design, product, engineering) outline their workflows from start to finish. This offered Wright a moment of empathy as she learned about her colleagues’ pain points, offering collaboration moments and research opportunities.

Here are Wright’s tips for creating effective, long-lasting maps for UX alignment:

  • Capture everything: Nothing is irrelevant. In fact, a small detail might be a major efficiency booster for another team. Allow time and space for unfurling.
  • Get perspective: Power should be “reset” going into any cross-functional mapping exercise, such that no one map is better than another.
  • Make room for conversation: Wright likes pre-written questions to start discussions, but always leaves space for helpful detours when the unexpected inevitably happens.
  • Build in flexibility: The goal is not to force everyone into a single process. The goal is to agree on baseline steps, checks, and workflows that ensure rigorous research.
  • Prepare for refinement: Because folks’ workflows change, prepare for your maps to change. Keep what’s relevant and critical for the collaboration while weaving in new data.
Try these free map templates: Journey || Affinity || Mind || Site

AI “agents” extend a UX team’s presence and reach

Researchers are using AI to support many aspects of their workflows. Christie McAllister, Director of Experience Research at Autodesk, has been working with her team to create a set of “AI agents,” trained on internal data to perform specific research-related tasks. Given the range of stakeholders her team supports, McAllister wanted a way to have someone on her team “in” every kickoff, even when they weren’t able to be.

Her solution? An AI agent trained on data from their research repository, which contains all of their current and past project information, including insights and recommendations. With it, stakeholder teams ask natural-language questions and the agent surfaces relevant projects. This makes things easier on stakeholders, who might not know the exact keywords or phrasing to input in the repository and so phrase questions like, “What do we know about [topic]?”

In this way, there’s a “mini researcher” embedded in hundreds of teams, ready to add clarity to problems, sharpen research opportunities, and build the habit of consulting UX research before any building or designing starts.

McAllister admits that this was time- and resource-intensive, but the results are a more research-minded, collaborative product and design organization, focused on building the right experiences. She thinks more teams should begin experimenting with how AI can help foster quick collaboration and not just how it can help us with our specific research work.

Stream the entire UXRConf event for free.

More resources on creating research partnerships

Ben Wiedmaier
Senior Content Marketing Manager
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