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The Three Facets of High-Impact User Research

Leaders share how they discover, prioritize, and sustain impactful UX research.

Doing impactful research is a generalization. In reality, what we mean by “doing impactful research” is composed of three facets:

  1. Discovering what kinds of research will have an impact
  2. Prioritizing that research
  3. Ensuring that those findings reach the people for whom it will be impactful 

As a result—and combined with rigorous methods and analysis—your work will be more efficient, relevant, and useful.

Here is how three research leaders from Asurion, Capital One, and Figma put these facets into action with their teams to create a measurably impactful research program.

This article is based on a panel from our user research event, YouX. Stream every session on-demand.

1. Discovering research that will have impact

The first step in creating an impactful research program is to identify what your stakeholders are working on and the questions, needs, pains, and unknowns beneath that work. Product launches, bug fixes, feature exploration…it all should roll up into wider business objectives. Mapping your research against those objectives is a critical first step—but you have to find those objectives first!

One way is through stakeholder interviews. Too often, UXRs think about their stakeholders and internal decision makers in a transactional way (e.g., “I give you this knowledge—use it.”). But impactful research is often based on a deeper relationship, one that acknowledges the unique needs and challenges of each party. Stakeholder interviews are one way to surface the drivers of pain and opportunity for our work.

When I joined Figma, one of the first things that I did was I was pretty bold: I set up a meeting with our VP of product. And I interviewed him. I interviewed him about types of reports and insights that he regularly references and goes back to. 
I was trying to understand the types of research that stick at this organization. What are the things that guide his strategy and form his thinking. That told me the kinds of work I should be pursuing from the start and has shaped my work here ever since. ~Vanessa Van Schyndel

Another, more indirect way of learning what’s valuable to the organization is to pay closer attention during all-hands, leadership talks, or even earnings calls (if you work for a public company). These are valuable moments when the company and its decision makers unpack what they’re prioritizing, why they’re prioritizing it, and what that means for the day-to-day work of teams. Learning the core metrics of success can help you better identify projects that will map against them: growth, churn, sessions, revenue, etc. 

By creating a research practice informed by the business’ own growth goals, you will be one giant step ahead in sharing learnings that help research those goals. Your work should be less siloed and more in tune with the focuses and energies of the wider company.

Our team would ask “Where is information stored?” at this company and “How does that information flow from team to team?” Knowing the key players within an organization—who really makes the decisions on things, for example—has always helped us be more strategic when selecting projects.
Don’t underestimate the power of playing dumb, too. Researchers are good at asking questions, so ask them! Ask about teams’ goals, their roadmap, and why it’s set up that way. If you ask in a way that says “I want to help and learn…” they’ll be more receptive. You’ll uncover what motivates them and how you can help. ~Tyler Medina

Asking questions is a superpower of user researchers. A thoughtful string of “Why is that?” or “How so?” can produce new insight for the person tasked with answering. If this is a critical partner or stakeholder internally, you might just help them uncover an “unknown-unknown” in their workflow—and a perfect opportunity for you to help with research. 

Here are some recommended questions to ask your stakeholders:

  1. What are you most worried about regarding [project/initiative]?
  2. What keeps you up at night about [product/initiative]?
  3. What do you wish you knew about how users [product/initiative]?
  4. What are you still not sure about related to [product/initiative]?

These sorts of questions focus on problems, but are directly tied to a product, project, or initiative. The opportunities you surface from these activities have a bright line to the business: you can reduce those fears or answer those questions. Doing this in a collaborative workshop creates a lasting artifact (like a jamboard) to reference when the project wraps.

Something we talk a lot about, but not something we practice enough, is stakeholder mapping. If you're working on a new project or initiative, you should be jotting down who might be influenced by or need your insights. Get a bunch of sticky notes out and braindump who is in which circles, who you can influence, and then who those people can influence.
Doing that intentionally—and proactively identifying the types, forums that you want your research to be in, the communications that you want to drive coming out of the research—can work wonders for your impact. ~Devin Harold

These tactics will certainly add to your (probably already growing) research to-do list. And although you can work on anything, you cannot work on everything, so prioritization and strategic project selection is the next phase of creating an impactful research program.

2. Focusing on and prioritizing high-impact research 

Don’t overemphasize the method

Too often UXRs over-index on “doing” specific kinds of research approaches and believe (falsely) that the method itself brings impact.

An exploratory or discovery project might stretch your methodological muscles, but will it help the business? If you can’t answer that question, then you shouldn’t expect much impact. 

Starting with what matters to the business does not mean less rigorous methods. In fact, it offers you a chance to showcase how methods can be best applied to critical questions. Your time is spent less on defending a method and more on using the best method for the question or problem you know—from interviews and research in step one—will help the business.

As an industry, we focus so much on methods that we want a safeguard versus those who wanna give away. We should be focusing on what creates impact, which means driving results. You're either increasing revenue or decreasing cost or impacting something that is monitored by the business. That's what matters.
The method matters a little less. Do not get caught up in the method and instead say, “Hey, this is a quick-turn usability test, but it's going straight to the CEO. So that's gonna elevate our team and the influence that we're driving.” What decisions are being driven by your work, regardless of the method used to create the insights. ~Devin Harold

This can also happen in reverse, where a stakeholder suggests a method that might not be the best fit for a research question or business opportunity. In those cases, it’s up to us as the experts to lead folks back to the core need: the problem, the insight, the learning that is the goal with the opportunity. 

After we have that, outlining what methods would best support that need—and unpacking the details around timing, outputs, and confidence—can help educate folks on why one path is better than another.

I always try to take it back to what someone wants to learn. When we’re fighting over methodology what we should be fighting about is the truth for the user or product. And that truth can probably be uncovered in a number of ways. Helping people understand consequences for timelines and budget implications goes a long way. Sometimes we might already have the insights on-hand in a repository! That’s why I try to keep partners focused on outcomes, not methods. ~Tyler Medina

Try a prioritization matrix

When faced with an overflowing plate of options across methods, a decision framework (and accompanying exercise) can be helpful. Such a framework asks stakeholders to plot their needs along two variables: risk and opportunity. 

Impactful research can be found across all quadrants, depending on the company and product goals. The benefit is the forcing mechanism that comes from seeing all potential projects plotted in this way. The team—when forced to decide on two or three projects—might pick a few less risky options that have larger opportunity values. With your remaining time (such as it is) you can choose one of the riskier options.

Using a prioritization matrix allows you to say “We actually already know a lot about that problem area.” It lets you generate a bunch of hypotheses, go do some AB testing and get a solution into the marketplace to see how customers react. There will be times when the risk and opportunity is higher, so we’ll want to be more careful in our method and approach. Overall, it helps focus the team’s mindset on what we’re working on and why. ~Devin Harold
An example of a UX research prioritization matrix.

Create and use an intake form

An intake form is another way to source research ideas from stakeholders. These are shorter surveys—usually 4-6 questions long—that can help you identify distraction projects from those that might really benefit from your expertise. In addition to learning how much stakeholders really know about how research can help them, a request system can make it easier to turn down projects in a non-face-threatening way (preserving the relationship).

Intake forms are a useful educational moment about when research is not needed. 

If a stakeholder cannot articulate what would happen without research, then the impact is not likely to be very high. Including an open-ended question like this gets them (and you) on a similar page. 

Importantly, an intake form should not serve a gatekeeping or exclusionary role. It’s more about record-keeping and documentation. Some teams use a table with requests in rows and offer comments on why a project may or may not be taken up immediately. Closing the loop is important—(briefly) describing your rationale helps educate and ensure transparency.

An intake form is also a great way to start a conversation with a stakeholder about the potentials of research. With their impression of the need and research’s role in-hand, you can ask a few follow up questions and more quickly diagnose the real opportunity. With this approach, the stakeholder is seeing how the time they took to complete the form will lead to a better research project—and better impact—down the line.

Here are some sample intake form questions:

  • What is the decision you need research for? [open-end]
  • How urgent would you rate this research need? [scale]
  • What products/features/initiatives will this inform [pick list]
  • What would happen if research were not undertaken? [open-end]
  • What is the deadline by which you need insights? [date box]
Strive for balance with your intake form. Too short and you might not receive enough quality data to make a decision. Too long and it just feels like you’re asking stakeholders to create an entire research plan, which should be your job. Create something that gives you enough information to make an early decision, but that sets up a follow-up conversation. ~Vanessa Van Schyndel

With projects that have the highest impact-potential selected, it’s time—after completion—to home in on the part that receives the most attention: tracking, documenting, and sustaining the actual impact of a project’s findings.

3. Demonstrating the impact of research projects

Don’t over rely on the deliverable

Even the most well-designed, interactive report is still just that—a (mostly) static document with quotes, media, stats, and (hopefully) some conclusions and recommendations. 

Impact happens when your learnings make their way into the minds of stakeholders. For that, you need activation, not just reporting.

This can take many forms, but the through-line should be engagement between the findings (not you) and the stakeholders who need them. A classic example is the “How might we?” statement, used to create an opening for ideation around how a research finding might be used. Other ways include separating the individual findings and asking stakeholders to ideate product solutions or next steps given them (a take on the “so what?” question).

Try appetizers instead of one main course

Stakeholders are busy. They might also work in more agile development structures such as two-week sprints. Ask yourself if a single, hour-plus workshop is the best way to get the decision-driving learnings from your research into their hands. 

A better approach might be to trickle out learnings in comms channels, via internal newsletters, or even more targeted readouts. Sharing one or two timely and relevant findings with recommendations goes much further than dropping a massive report via email and hoping folks find the truth of your work.

With snackable shares, teams can start integrating your findings right away and then, when you share out more, are already bought into the value. They’ll be hungrier (hah) for what you have to share and will be able to work against it (as opposed to being overwhelmed and doing nothing).

It's incumbent upon us to share out key takeaways throughout the process, to give our partners updates, but also to give them insights to start using for solutions earlier rather than later. We've seen product development move from waterfall to agile methods—why should UX research be any different? We should be able to trickle down insights as we're learning them and build interest in the final report. ~Tyler Medina

Package your results in a more impact-friendly format

The traditional report has its benefits. It is important to outline the approach, rationale, sample, and primary findings. For impact and activation, however, a report should have a few more elements that are too often neglected. Namely, the questions that were raised in the discovery and prioritization phases: what does this mean for our tool, what can we do today to apply these learnings, what do we have to put in place before improving, etc.

By incorporating the answers to these questions in your shareouts, you are contextualizing your findings in the language of your stakeholders: development and design time, roadmap shifts, sprints. Translating our expertise into stakeholder-ready packages shows that we understand the needs of the business. It also showcases our unique expertise to bring primary research know-how to its growth.

There are a slew of helpful frameworks for packaging your research findings to better resonate with stakeholders. Here are two: the seven-part IMPACTS method and a multi-level one based on three variables. Surely there are more. The point is that just as we often use frameworks for making sense of our raw data, we can (and should) use that technique for turning our insights into action and impact.

I think there’s a lot of pressure for one person to deliver this impactful speech and then hope that it resonates and that the team will leave inspired and educated and ready to create. It leaves a lot to chance.
What's more impactful for my team at Figma has been bringing partners into the research itself—bring your report into a shared space, where you share parts of it, and then you have a discussion and workshop the findings rather than just reading them out.
There are so many tools that help facilitate this. Stickies, emojis, stickers—they all help folks engage with the research in a better way. Folks learn not just from you but from one another. They see what research can do, how it can help them, and along the way you pick up what to focus on in your share outs and discussions with the wider company. That’s impact. ~Vanessa Van Schyndel

Expanding research “impact” to include discovery, prioritization, and activation offers a roadmap for UXRs that empowers them with skills they use everyday, like interviewing and session moderation. When we look at our stakeholders as participants and our organization as a research landscape, our work can deliver value for those who need it most.

More resources to create research impact

Ben Wiedmaier
Senior Content Marketing Manager
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