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3 Ways to Do More Strategic Research at Your Organization
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3 Ways to Do More Strategic Research at Your Organization

3 Ways to Do More Strategic Research at Your Organization

Theertha Raj
June 13, 2024

Strategic Research is the Future: Part II

Read the first part of this series for a primer on why Strategic UX research is the future.

“In strategic research, you know the names of your users. You know what their experiences are. You've actually met them and sat there while they were struggling not just with your product, but with their life in general.”
- Jared Spool

Let's pick up where we left off last time - talking about why Jared Spool believes strategic UX research is the future.

Time for a quick recap. 

Tactical research is all about evaluating existing products and features. Will users understand this new feature? How can we improve what we've already built?

Strategic research takes a big step back. Instead of hyper-focusing on your product, you immerse yourself in your users' worlds. You observe their full experiences and day-to-day lives, not just their interactions with your product.

The goal? To identify unmet needs and frustrations that users may not even recognize themselves. That's where the really exciting opportunities lie.

Jared strongly believes making this strategic shift gives companies a massive competitive advantage. When you understand the reality of users' experiences across all touchpoints - not just when using your product - you can reframe problems from their perspective. Things look a lot different through their lens.

This outside-in approach allows you to develop solutions that seemingly come out of nowhere to revolutionize industries. We're talking true innovation that delights customers in ways competitors haven't imagined.

Let’s say that you’re convinced about the value of strategic research and ready to skip the next two sections. You might be thinking—how do I get my manager, their bosses and the C-suite to make the shift? How does one researcher convince an entire organization to shift their research priorities to 85% long-term, strategic research, and 15% tactical research?

In this article we’ll cover:

  1. A quick recap of the difference between tactical & strategic research
  2. How strategic research makes UXRs more valuable
  3. 3 approaches to help you do more strategic research at your organization

Strategic Research vs Tactical Research

So what exactly separates strategic research from the more traditional tactical approach? According to Jared, it boils down to 4 key dimensions.

1. Shifting focus from the product to the user’s experience

With tactical research, the spotlight is constantly on evaluating and optimizing the product itself. But strategic research pulls the camera back. Way back. The entire frame is your users' lives - from morning routines to major frustrations to moments of delight. Your product is just one small part of their overall experience.

2. Involving users from the start

In a tactical approach, users often don't enter the picture until well into a project. The stakeholders decide what to build first, then you validate that direction with users. Strategic research flips the script. You start by deeply understanding the users' experiences before you define requirements. Their perspectives and realities shape the roadmap from day one, not just react to it later.

3. Continuous user exposure, not one-off research projects

Speaking of roadmaps, strategic research isn't defined by start-and-stop projects with clear endings. There's no such thing as "we shipped that feature, so research is done!" Instead, it's an endless pursuit of accumulating more and more user expertise over time. Your team is constantly exposing themselves to new user realities, building on your collective knowledge base.

4. Building expertise on users, not just insights

Tactical research is all about generating insights and reports around specific usability issues or feature requests. But the end goal of strategic research? Transforming your entire organization into world-class experts on your users.

As Jared described it, the goal is to make everyone in your organization the world's foremost experts in who your users are, what they need, what makes one user different from another, the current experience of every user, and what the future experience could be. With that level of context, you can reframe challenges and guide strategy from a fundamentally different perspective than competitors locked into their products. That's where the unfair advantages emerge.

Strategic research makes UXRs more valuable

Right now, researchers are devoting a huge portion of our time to tactical studies - usability tests, design evaluations, feature validations. The question Jared poses is, is research being used to answer the most critical questions inside a company today?

Tactical research doesn’t meet that high bar.

For Research to be truly invaluable inside companies, it needs to be answering the most critical, high-stakes problems organizations are facing. 

While usability testing helps optimize product experiences, senior executives aren't lying awake at night agonizing over the discoverability of a button. They're worried about how to drive revenue growth next quarter, stay ahead of aggressive competitors, or expand into new markets and product lines.

Those big-picture strategic questions are worth millions, even billions of dollars to companies. Yet they simply cannot be answered through tactical usability studies alone. These are the gnarly challenges demanding a wholly different research approach.

Not only are these issues exponentially more valuable to businesses, but let's face it - they’re more interesting to work on.

All iconic products do strategic research

How do innovation trendsetters like Apple, Netflix, Google and Disney manage to stay so many steps ahead of the pack? Their secret weapon is taking the time to really, deeply understand the holistic experiences of their customers.

Apple has teams of researchers hanging out in its stores, closely studying the reality of what it's like for users to shop and get support there. Disney's executives regularly go be "guests" at their theme parks, soaking in the actual experience from every angle.  

These companies recognize that lifelong customer loyalty isn't just about having usable products - it's about delivering experiences that are more inspired and delightful than what anyone else offers. 

The mindset shift towards more strategic research

Making the transition from traditional tactical research to a heavier emphasis on strategic studies isn't as simple as flipping a switch. Here are 5 ‘mindset shifts’ you’ll need to start with.

1. Stop asking for permission

Too often, researchers wait for some higher-up VP or executive to grant "permission" to embark on strategic initiatives before we'll dive in. That's the wrong mindset.

As Jared puts it, needing permission to do research is like being a doctor and waiting for the hospital to approve you seeing patients. You are the expert in understanding users, you shouldn't need to ask anyone's permission to do that vital work.

To borrow from Nike, “Just do it”.

2. Don't wait for access

Similarly, you can't use the excuse of not having access to the right people, data, or information as a reason to delay strategic research. Most of what you need to get started is likely right in front of you already. We’ll elaborate on this later.

3. Embrace new methods

The techniques involved in strategic research look very different from the usability testing and benchmarks you're accustomed to. You'll need to spend more time observing users in their actual environments, listening to how they describe experiences in their own words, over a much longer period of time.

4. Anticipate politics 

Everything within organizations has a political dimension, and the shift toward more strategic research will likely expose some power dynamics. If you want research to play a more central, influential role in decision-making, be prepared to navigate some politicking.

5. Expect difficulties

None of this is easy - undertaking more strategic research while maintaining current tactical responsibilities will be extremely challenging. Teams may face skepticism, resource constraints, and failures along the way. But we have to embrace the difficulty of this important work.

The rewards of making this transition are immense- both for individual researchers looking to have maximum impact, as well as for organizations! It will take courage, patience, and determination. In Jared's experience, it's a transformation well worth fighting for.

How to do more strategic research at your organization

According to Jared, there are 3 ways to help implement more strategic research at your organization.

  1. Align research with the organization’s objectives
  2. Identify the costs of poor UX
  3. Ask stakeholders to predict research findings (this one’s fun!)

1. Align research with the organization’s objectives

The best way to ensure your strategic research efforts create massive value? Align yourself directly with the people making the most critical decisions for the organization. What are the key goals they’re working towards?

Senior executives don’t keep major company goals a secret - in fact, they're constantly broadcasting them, as their whole job is to rally people to achieve those outcomes. Whether it's expanding into new markets, increasing market share, or driving revenue growth, you can easily find out what their current critical objectives are.

Once you understand those targets, identify the key research questions that will inevitably come up as the company pursues them. For example, if expanding into the Brazilian market is a stated goal, questions like "Is our product truly suited for that market? What do Brazilians need that is different from our current customers?" will need to be answered.

From there, you can either run the strategic research studies yourself, or dig up existing data to thoroughly address those make-or-break questions before they even get asked. That's getting ahead of the curve!

With the right insights aligned to the organization's most important initiatives, you're primed to take your findings to a manager or the senior stakeholders charged with driving that particular outcome.

That may sound scary—there are often questions around access, getting insights to the right people in research.

But if your insights truly impact high-stakes decisions the company is making today, Jared says it’s easier to get your insights to decision-makers than you think.

His logic is simple and foolproof: Everyone wants to impress their boss. Give your work to the relevant manager you have access to. If your work will make them look good to their boss, they will automatically take it up the ladder. 

The path to amplifying the impact of strategic research lies in systematically anchoring it to the objectives at the very top of the organization. Otherwise, you risk toiling away on lower-level issues that won't fundamentally move the needle for the business.

2. Identify the costs of poor UX

Another powerful approach to building buy-in for strategic research? Quantifying the massive costs that organizations inevitably incur by neglecting it. 

Jared refers to a phenomenon called "experience rot” that plagues companies operating without ongoing user insights. Without deep user context, the knee-jerk reaction is just to keep piling on more and more features in an attempt to stay competitive or check boxes. As you create more complexity, the experience gets worse.

To compensate for clunky, hard-to-use offerings, organizations then have to invest in building out huge customer support teams and services to handhold users—essentially paying people to make up for poor UX.

Once you start looking, the costs created by decisions made without strategic research quickly become staggering. To build a compelling case, you can quantify and expose the toll it's taking on the organization.

How to calculate the costs of poor UX: An example

Let's say your company releases a new "automated bill pay" feature for your popular payment app. Without strategic research, the team assumed users would want that ease and convenience.

But they miss a crucial concern—many users actually prefer to review bills before paying to avoid errors. When the new functionality launches, panicked users flood the support lines, terrified about money being deducted automatically.  

Within days, your customer support team is swamped, working overtime to resolve a tidal wave of angry complaints and pleas to turn off the new "automated pay" feature. The costs rapidly escalate.

Here’s how you could calculate the cost of this mistake:

  • The average support agent is paid $50,000 per year, or about $192 per workday.
  • If they can normally handle 10 tickets per day, each ticket costs around $20 to resolve.
  • Pre-launch, the team fielded around 50 product issue tickets per day.  
  • Post-launch, let’s say that number spikes to 150 tickets per day - a 100 ticket increase.
  • At $20 per ticket, that's a sudden $2,000 per day increase in support costs.
  • Multiplied across a year, that's over $520,000 in extra overhead - enough to fund an entire new support team!

Quick note: You don't need to be precisely accurate down to the decimal. But if you can logically model out the financial impact using reasonable estimates and assumptions, you'll find a hungry audience interested in authorizing more preventative strategic work.

If you’re not sure where to find areas ripe for quantifying the costs of sparse user research, look no further than the people whose jobs revolve around minimizing overhead and inefficiencies. Think customer support team heads, or operations executives.

These teams are also often asked to "do more with less"—they have more support tickets but no budget for more support agents, for example. Leaders in these organizations are already under pressure—give them tangible evidence of what poor UX costs them, and the strategic alternatives that exist.

3. Ask stakeholders to predict research findings

The reality is that in many organizations, senior leaders simply aren't encouraged - or even allowed - to respond with "I don't know" when big questions arise. Admitting you don't have a clear answer is often perceived as a weakness at C-suite levels.

What this means is that senior leaders will often make up an answer if they don’t know it.

While frustrating, you can cleverly turn this organizational tendency to your advantage when it comes to buy-in for strategic research… by putting stakeholders' predictive abilities to the test.

Instead of presenting new user research findings to senior leaders, ask them to predict what those discoveries will uncover ahead of time. Have them explicitly spell out all the assumptions they're operating under about users' needs, behaviors, motivations, etc.

More often than not, Jared has found stakeholder hypotheses end up being substantially off-base from the actual research-backed reality. As he points out, "UX research is the science of the obvious." So much of what’s revealed seems like common sense in hindsight. But trying to forecast those "obvious" insights is incredibly difficult if you're not diligently studying users.

By having stakeholders commit to predictions upfront, you can demonstrate how commonly-held assumptions steer companies in the wrong strategic direction. Few are willing to concede how little they actually understand about user experiences until their wrongful guesses are exposed.

An example

Let's say a major movie streaming platform decides to launch co-viewing features to host virtual watch parties. The executive team is convinced their users will be most interested in collectively viewing the latest buzzworthy releases together with friends.

So they instruct the product team to prioritize co-watching for those new high-profile titles first, certain that's what will drive the most adoption and excitement. But what if researchers actually went out and talked to users?

They might discover that surprisingly, people aren't as jazzed about watching new releases communally as assumed. People are more enthusiastic about co-viewing older nostalgic favorites or notoriously bad B-movies - an entirely different use case than pristine new content.

Find your strategic allies

Of course, counteracting that "fake it til you make it" executive mindset is an uphill battle in many workplace cultures. Senior leaders who genuinely understand your customer needs are exceedingly rare.

If you find a leader who can correctly predict your customers needs, Jared says you better become their best friend. They understand something about your users that the rest of your organization needs to learn.

To sum it all up

That was a long lesson! Here are the 6 key take-aways on running more strategic research at your organization.

  1. Get in sync with the company's big goals and priorities. Figure out what major questions need answers to make those goals happen, and do research to provide those answers.
  2. Show how poor user experience is costing the company money. Things like too many support calls, bloated features no one uses, or products that are a mess. Calculate the real costs to make an impact.
  3. Ask the bosses to predict what users will say or do upfront. When the actual user research contradicts their guesses, it's an "aha!" moment proving why studying users matters.
  4. Don't wait around for special permissions or access. Start researching with whatever you've got. This type of work requires observing and listening to users way more than just usability tests.
  5. Understand that every company has office politics. But positioning research as mission-critical for achieving goals can help get buy-in.
  6. Most importantly, strategic research really is the future. Just listen to Jared here.
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