When I sat down to talk to Austin Brown about building the User Research practice at PandaDoc, I did not think his journey would include conducting usability tests in front of half the company, or running upto 80 back-to-back user interviews in a matter of a week.
Building a research practice from the ground up for Austin was not unlike building a startup — it took daring, tenacity, and an ability to keep experimenting even when nothing seemed to work.
It all started with two people tasked with discovering unforeseen risks for a major upcoming product release. A new version of the core product was going live, much of the company had been working on it for 2 years, and Nathan Lippi & Austin Brown jumped in to discover where things could go wrong.
The product team thought they’d uncover little frustrations and improvements — the copy on a page was a bit confusing, or a button wasn’t prominent enough.
Little did they know, that after watching 30 users floundering through prototypes, Nathan & Austin weren’t just discovering small copy edits, they were discovering major usability flaws and product considerations that if known earlier, could have saved the company months of unnecessary development. They found users cursing in frustration while trying to use new features and confused about how to complete core product flows.
But even as they were uncovering feedback that called for major changes, our User Research crusaders weren’t getting the time of day from crucial stakeholders. They had opened up their usability testing sessions for one and all to walk in — but almost none showed up.
Faced with the uphill battle of getting stakeholders to come to user research sessions, Austin decided to go to them instead.
With no formal planning, no prior permissions, he marched up to the podium in the cafeteria of the company office, plugged in his laptop and started running a live usability test.
Everyone in the cafeteria, previously focused on eating their lunch, was now glued to the screen, watching a user react to the core product most of them were working on — no filter, no politics, just live user feedback.
That’s when the tide started to turn — people who had never heard of a usability test before now discovered what it was, and what they could learn from it. One of the engineering leads at the company enjoyed the session so much that he started showing up to every user interview Austin held, bringing with him a different member of his team every time.
Even though the team had created excitement at the prospect of user research, the work wasn’t done — they still needed stakeholders to give them actual projects to work on.
Luckily, a new Product Manager had just joined the team. Mike had come from a larger company and had already worked with User Research teams before — he knew the value they could bring him & saw them as a resource to make his life easier.
The team started shipping out projects for their First Believer — using these opportunities to show the impact of their work to the broader team. They cut videos of users struggling with the product so the team could see their emotional reactions live, and created tables that compiled the number of times an issue had come up across 10s of tests. Whatever it took to show the severity of the issues they were uncovering via user research.
Even as the team was starting to get buy-in on research, the trials and tribulations weren’t over.
As with many of us, Nathan & Austin struggled with one of the hardest nuts to crack — RECRUITMENT!
The team spent months testing different kinds of copy, reaching out to hundreds of users only to get a single call scheduled.
Sidebar: If you’re struggling with recruiting your users for interviews, here’s a resource to get your response rates up.
Eventually, Austin & Nathan decided to try giving their users an incentive — a small cash reward to encourage responses. The first time they ran the experiment, Austin paid out of pocket and didn’t put a cap on his calendar, thinking that he’d maybe get a couple more responses.
Lo and behold, the following week his entire calendar was blocked from bright and early 9am Monday morning to 5pm Friday evening with back-to-back usability tests. His prayers had been answered maybe a little too well (and thankfully, he was reimbursed for the incentives!).
Once trust was built and impact proven, the team got internal support to hire additional members to keep up with rapidly growing demand for research.
The User Research team grew from 2 to 6 members, and built long-standing relationships across the company.
Today, User Researchers are being embedded in every product squad so they can identify potential gaps where research can test hypotheses and validate solutions.
The team’s work backs crucial decisions at PandaDoc, from feature development to acquisitions of entire companies.
— Get creative when trying to evangelize user research
— Find an early believer & use projects you work on with them to prove the value of research to broader audiences (the more prominent the project, the better)
— Start with low hanging fruit — if no one is doing research, there will be plenty of easy wins. For Austin this was small usability changes that take seconds to fix, but have a huge impact on user experience.
— Prioritize whatever your team needs to win early on — if they need results quickly focus on rapid research (Austin ran research over 2 days sometimes to get his stakeholders the answers they needed), if they question your n run more sessions than you normally would