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Starting a UX Practice with Susan Rice
Home > Blog >
Starting a UX Practice with Susan Rice

Starting a UX Practice with Susan Rice

Satvik Soni
May 11, 2023

Susan Rice has built and expanded the UX practices of extremely successful companies. Workiva, Vistaprint, and Toast to name a few.

She has also been a guest lecturer on User Experience and Design Thinking for a tiny college called MIT. Who hasn’t?

I recently had the opportunity to pick her brain on how she built these UX teams. This article summarizes her ideas on building a meaningful UX practice from the ground up.

What to expect when starting a user research practice?

Due to the advocacy of early champions of UX, companies are more open to UX than ever.
Executives have read the blogs, heard of the case studies, and seen other companies espousing the benefits of UX work.
This is incredible news for anyone looking to build a new UX practice — your uphill battle for buy-in will be much easier than it would have been a decade ago.

Drawing from her own experience, Susan tells us that you can expect the organization to be willing to work on user experience. They will already expect UX to be valuable. One of your first tasks would be to help clarify these expectations.

Of course, this is not always the case.
If you’re unlucky or simply out of options, you might end up joining a company with little awareness of research prior to your joining. In such companies, the same advice applies — just expect your struggles to be exceptionally uphill.

Nizar Saqqar is building a UX practice at Snowflake. Here are his key insights!

Your work starts before you join the organization

Susan believes that the process of building a successful UX practice starts before you even join the organization. She uses the interview process to get a rough idea of that organization’s culture around user feedback.

No organization will be perfect, but some of them will have a culture that clearly doesn’t focus on user experience.
Susan’s advice would be to look for better options if possible.

💡 As your career grows, you will have more chances to follow this piece of advice. If you’re really early on in your career, you might not have the flexibility to assess an organization in this manner before joining them. Here’s how to navigate a UX career through varying degrees of UX maturity.

How to build a user research practice?

There is no playbook to fit every organization’s needs.
But, there are some guidelines you can keep in mind: 

Start with a listening tour of your organization.

The greatest mistake you can make is diving headfirst into actual research work without any context on how your organization works.

The first few weeks (Susan suggests a month) should be spent on a “listening tour” of your organization.
This involves talking to all your major stakeholders and learning about their problems, their expectations from research, and their general attitude towards your work.

Try to find some of these answers through your tour:

  • What are various teams trying to learn about the user?
  • What are teams looking to achieve?
  • Can they benefit from some studies that they aren’t yet aware of?
  • What will be some blockers to research that you should brace yourself for?
  • Who are some potential “champions” who will support your work from early on?

Once you have a basic lay of the land, you can proceed to the next step — undertaking your first few studies.

Solve a pre-existing need for research

Your listening tour should help you build a list of a few research requests from the organization.

After the tour ends, Susan recommends taking up a project based on the most important of these requests.

💡 Do not take up a brand new project that would require massive overhauls in the product. Prove yourself on the things that already exist first!

Prioritize UX requests.

Early research teams are often stretched too thin. This prevents them from getting any great work done. Susan’s advice is to avoid such a situation by focusing exclusively on high-priority, problems that the organization is already aware of. 

Say “Not now” often

If your team is stretched too thin, you will have to deflect some requests. Saying no to a research request is understandably tough. Instead of a strict “no”, you can use the easier “not now” response. Instead of rejecting a research request outright, put a pin on it and take it up once you get through the major ones.

Avoid peanut butter research

When teams fail to prioritize their work and say “no” when necessary, they end up doing what Susan referred to as peanut buttering user research — achieving mediocre results across several problems instead of achieving excellent results on a few of them.

Susan’s advice is to avoid peanut-buttering your research, even though it may look like a better way to make people aware of your work.
Instead, divert all your resources towards a few key projects to demonstrate how valuable great research work can be!

Once you are able to clearly demonstrate your value, it will be easier to convince your organization to let you take up more complex projects.
They will have an easier time deciding to hire more researchers as well, letting you bring up the research team to the size it needs to be. 

Armed with this buy-in, your team (now larger) would be free to tackle the tougher projects on your list.

Help your stakeholders build their trust in you

UX is a team sport (so says Jared Spool). Susan warns of the “ego-first mentality” that you might fall into while trying to build a research practice from the ground up. 

Instead, Susan’s advice is to be as collaborative as possible. Being authentic and seeking out collaborations with your stakeholders are prerequisites to earning their trust.

Early on in the process, start working on building those relationships with your stakeholders. This will of course let you build a more positive working environment around your practice, but it has the added benefit of earning you a lot of leeway. If someone supports your goals and gets how you plan to reach there, they won’t act as blockers, they’ll set more realistic deadlines, and they’ll be happy to collaborate with you when you need them to.

Work out any friction

It’s a given that you won’t have completely cordial relationships with every single stakeholder. Friction and disagreements should be expected parts of the process, but you shouldn’t let them come in the way of building a successful research practice.

Susan’s advice is to work out any interpersonal friction as quickly as possible. It is natural to pull away and decide not to engage with each other, but there is a healthier alternative.

💡 "The most healthy thing is actually to lean in and say, 'you know what, let's just have a coffee chat. Let's just not talk about work. Let's just try to get to know one another as human beings'. Because most likely there's going to be something that you're going to connect on."

Build a pro-research culture

In Susan’s experience, culture eats strategy for breakfast.

If your coworkers across different teams do not see user-centricity as the driver of all decisions, your glossy research strategy will fall flat.

Judging whether an organization has the potential for a pro-research culture was the very first step we discussed. Once you decide to join the organization, then, it falls on you to inculcate this culture that you know they’re capable of!

Quick tips on building a research culture at your organization:

Make your work understandable.

As Joe Natoli mentioned in our chat with him, the rest of your organization has very little context on what you are trying to accomplish.

You wouldn’t appreciate the work of your SEO specialist, for example, if you didn’t understand that their end goal is to drive more organic traffic.

Define your value proposition in an equally clear way and let the organization know how you plan to get there. You should also give them a crash course on what user research entails and what to expect from it.

Make your work accessible.

If you haven’t already, set up a repository for all your research work and teach your stakeholders how to use it.

If they are able to access your insights without having to go through the extra step of asking you, they will be more likely to look for them during their decision-making process.

Here’s a complete guide to repositories.

Host watch parties

Watch parties for UX research are incredible. The entire organization watching a user rage click three separate buttons? The stuff researchers dream of.

Your team should get to watch your user interviews and usability tests live. That would be the easiest way to earn their buy-in and ensure that they’re actually listening to the users!

A bonus here is that people can’t ignore a live stream, but they can and do ignore research reports.
Here’s an excellent Google Ventures guide to watch parties.

To sum things up:

  • Start with a listening tour. Learn as much as you can about your stakeholders, their problems, and their expectations.
  • Start by solving an important problem that stakeholders are already concerned about.
  • Do excellent work on key problems instead of spreading your team too thin. This will help you convince the organization to bring in more researchers to your team.
  • Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Build a culture that values user feedback and everything else will fall into place.

Thanks to Susan for her time! You can read more from her on her LinkedIn profile.

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