User research offers valuable opportunities for VIPs, product owners, managers, customer support representatives, marketers, designers, developers, and other team members to learn how users interact with products and services firsthand. Without users, you can’t properly be said to do “user” experience work: as we’ve said before UX – U = X (with the second “X” meaning, “don’t do it.”). With users, almost everything in a UX project improves, but only if the remaining stakeholders (besides the researchers themselves) know what was done.
Having an audience for your research is a wonderful opportunity for UX practitioners to gain allies and get buy-in for problems that need to be solved. Stakeholder participation in both research and design is best, because you can show the value of UX activities and get the whole team focused on the people you are trying to serve. Collaboration doesn’t reduce the need for UX expertise and guidance. Instead, involving stakeholders helps everyone appreciate the user-experience effort.
Collaborating on the User Experience Benefits Everyone
UX-research participation can remove obstacles to doing future research. It can build organizational support for UX activities by demonstrating their value. It can also show how user testing in the early stages of design can prevent integration and maintenance problems more efficiently. And when everyone understands research activities and results through direct participation, less time is needed to explain methods and results.
Participation in design and research projects can motivate stakeholders to fix the user interface or to modify the requirements to align better with customer and user needs. It will also encourage empathy for users, create group ownership for usability outcomes, and solve problems faster. You don’t need to argue when you can test. (In fact this one advantage can sometimes provide full cost-justification for a round of user testing: the cost of recruiting 5 users and having a UX researcher spend a day or two testing the main design options can be less than the cost of a big team spending endless meetings arguing over what to do.)
Teams create better design patterns and make better decisions when team members are immersed in user behavior and typical usability difficulties. User-interface designs improve when everyone understands how to prevent problems in the future.
Motivating Stakeholders to Participate in Research and Design
User research reduces the likelihood of building something that doesn’t meet user needs, but only when everyone knows what those are. Here are some ways to increase motivation to participate in user research:
- Evangelize UX research. Show how various UX-research methods can be used to reduce risk and align products with user expectations. Dispel the notion that you’re the graphic-design syrup on the top of the product stack or a time-consuming form of quality assurance. Point out that you’ll save work (and rework) for developers by helping as early as possible with research, design, and validation. Make sure everyone knows how deep user experience design needs to be and what you can accomplish. Explain UX concepts, terms, and capabilities by having UX practitioners discuss their skills, typical methods, and outcomes.
- Make time and space for collaboration. Schedule regular UX office hours and design clinics. Keep the chat channel open with your team so you can listen and share information. Invite everyone (regardless of their role) to use you as a resource for user-research insights and design solutions. Create a physical space for team members to interact with UX R&D staff and information.
- Educate everyone about the benefits of participation in UX research. Teach upper management about the benefits of stakeholder participation. Find a champion who can encourage other people with her own participation stories.
- Align your research goals with your stakeholders’ goals. Run strategy meetings with stakeholders to understand their goals and establish the best ways to measure success. Then set a design vision and UX strategy before development begins, so everyone understands how to ensure good usability for users. Later on, at the end of the project, give credit for successes to stakeholders. They are more likely to help projects that make them look good.
- Demonstrate utility with small pilot projects. Start with small, easy, yet vital opportunities, such as soliciting advice and concerns while sharing user insights and data.
- Make participation easy. Schedule key UX activities (such as customer-site visits, usability testing, and participatory design sessions) when stakeholders are available, and plan for that time in the development cycle. Personally invite each person and emphasize their importance to obtaining good outcomes.
- Create accessible user-testing deliverables that reflect your audience’s interests and technical understanding. Share UX research, process, and prototypes widely, in person if you can. Brown-bag lunches are a good way to build interest. Tell compelling stories, communicate risks, and show visual information everyone can understand quickly. Share data and insights as soon as you can with your immediate team, using a lightweight system, such as bullet lists and screenshots in a shared document. Annotate higher-fidelity prototypes and designs rather than writing a separate spec. Show interactions rather than talking about them. Summarize key insights and implications for larger audiences. Track UX issues and metrics in a visible location.
- Make UX deliverables useful for other processes within the organization. Create design patterns for reuse and make living style guides for issues that recur. Make usability test cases for QA that adhere to the main design principles. Use storymapping and project-management tools to integrate user tasks and UX tasks into developer tools, stories, and tasks. Generate needed user stories for the product backlog.
- Increase the visibility for UX-research and design artifacts, such as personas that change as insights deepen, user-journey maps, hi-fi prototypes, and user-task flows. Post these artifacts on walls in public locations. For remote team members, build a project room in a shared environment to display digital UX artifacts and data.
Getting Started with UX Collaboration
Involving stakeholders in gathering data is a good way to begin. It’s best to make the whole research effort into a team activity, however. Ideally everyone should be involved in planning the study, writing scenarios, creating participant profiles and screening questions, and in reviewing potential recruits for participation.
Start with a short study, such as two days of user sessions. Invite stakeholders to attend any of the sessions they can make time for. Encourage them to attend at least two sessions, so they will be less likely to take a single session at face value. Explain your research plan and method, to set expectations correctly. To prepare stakeholders for participating in user-research sessions, give them observer guidelines and explain how to take the most effective notes. After the study, circulate the top findings widely and publicly thank your collaborators for their valuable input.
Besides user testing, other UX group activities such as design-thinking exercises can create team ownership of the design vision and concept, through generating designs and critiquing them together. Schedule regular design reviews and group walkthroughs. Point out quality nuances that make a big difference, such as microinteractions, streamlined forms, and helpful messages. Show competitor products that do a better job at task flow, fit, and finish.
User experience outcomes improve when UX is a team activity. User research should be an essential part of design and testing processes in order to refine designs before development and to help everyone understand what needs more work. Collaborating in user research provides many points of view and motivates everyone to make products and services more usable.
Want to learn more about creating a great user experience through collaboration? Join us at the Nielsen Norman Group’s full-day Lean UX and Agile course or Engaging Stakeholders to Build Buy-In for more in-depth recommendations.