10 Practical Tips for Increasing the Impact of Your Research Insights

User experience (UX) researchers tasked with improving customer-facing products face many challenges on a daily basis—perhaps none more daunting than translating their research insights into positive change. This article presents 10 tips I have learned over the course of my career to help UX researchers increase the impact of their research insights in applied settings. These tips are intended primarily for in-house research teams, but they may apply to consultancies as well.

1. It’s a long-term relationship, not a speed date.

For research insights to impact a specific product, the researcher must establish a deep connection with the product team. What is the context that the team is operating within? What are their constraints, challenges, and deadlines? What are immediate goals, and what objectives are longer-term? How is success measured by their superiors? Given those circumstances, what can you do to help them without adding to their workload? Above all, you want your product team to perceive you as a benefit rather than a hindrance. This is not to say that you cannot critique their work, but never lose sight of the their ultimate goal: to create products in a timely fashion that will drive business metrics when launched.

For example, suppose your product team is racing to launch the product by a specific deadline, and you discover a problem with the product during testing. In such situations, you should not immediately advocate that the launch be delayed. Instead, think about the best way to raise the issue (and to whom you should raise it) and frame the issue in terms of potential courses of action. Can the team reallocate resources to keep the current launch schedule? Can the problem be corrected in the next dot release of the product? Is the problem serious enough to warrant pushing back the launch schedule? Over the course of working with your team, you will have many opportunities to demonstrate empathy for their challenges. Doing so will build trust and help you become an integral member of the team.

2. Serve ‘ready to bake’ bread.

The best way to ensure that action will be taken to address your research insights is for someone else to take ownership. Researchers often view it as their responsibility to make specific recommendations from their research, but what really matters is that the insights lead to clear potential solutions. The solution doesn’t need to come from the researcher herself.

Instead of a recommendation that does not offer any unique value—for example, “Users were confused by X. My recommendation is to fix X”—a better strategy is to offer specific recommendations when they are not obvious and when you have confidence that they will add unique value to thinking about the problem.

Better still is something else entirely: Offer “ready to bake” bread.

In other words, present the problem in a way that clearly lends itself to a specific solution and let a product team member connect the final dots so that they consider it their idea and take ownership over it. In cooking parlance, give them bread that is basically already made but needs only a few more minutes in the oven. So, instead of giving them raw dough (raw data) or fully-baked bread (a specific solution that you explicitly offered), give them ready to bake bread. People are more likely to follow-through on something when it is their idea and everyone implicitly ascribes ownership of the idea to them.

One way to do this is to frame key research insights as “How might we?” questions to spur discussion. Doing so can effectively portray the researcher as a facilitator of collaboration rather than someone who provides heavy-handed mandates for the team.

For example, suppose users in a research study exhibited difficulty navigating to specific types of offerings. Instead of recommending that the team “Implement more top navigation menu options,” you can instead ask  “How might we convey the breadth of our offerings and provide quick access to different product categories?”

3. Know the whole story before writing the first chapter.

Researchers should strive to present their research insights in a clear, compelling, and elegant way. Instead of proceeding straight from raw notes to a Powerpoint presentation, synthesize the data and create an outline summarizing the main ideas and how best to convey them. Presentations that skip the important synthesis step can seem disjointed or disorganized and can lead to audience fatigue or lack of clarity about the most important points.

These best practices are not limited only to qualitative research, such as user visits or usability studies; they apply to quantitative research, such as surveys, as well. Common practice when presenting survey-based research is to devote one slide to data relevant to each survey question and present detailed information such as charts, graphs, statistical significance across numerous comparisons, and so on. However, a better practice is to first create an outline that summarizes the top 3 or 5 or 10 key points that you wish to convey to your audience based on the survey data as a whole.

4. Don’t lose the forest for the trees.

As difficult as it may be, researchers need to resist the temptation to share every interesting finding from a study. When a researcher presents findings, he is telling a story and needs to be mindful of tangents that detract from the overall message. So if you want to convince the audience of a few key themes, ask yourself if each point you are making ties back to one of those themes. If not, then perhaps another forum would be more appropriate to share it.

I tell researchers that there is a continuum with impact on one end and exhaustiveness on the other, and different researchers operate at different points on the continuum. In my opinion, it is best to land on the side of impact.

If you have one hour to present important insights to senior stakeholders, it is more important that those stakeholders leave the room with the key points to act upon. It is less important that they understand every subtle nuance of the data or that other stakeholders can find such nuances a year from now. I call the one-hour presentation “The Golden Hour.” Once those stakeholders leave the room, you may get another opportunity to convey the key points, but you’ve lost your best opportunity to make a lasting impact.

5. Don’t crawl across the finish line.

After presenting insights, researchers typically send an email that shares the deliverable with the immediate product team as well as with the entire product organization. This may seem like a minor, perfunctory step, but it is a very important factor in determining what happens next.

An effective announcement conveys the key takeaways in a clear and concise manner and serves as a catalyst to action. Frame the email in the context of the team and the project (e.g., If their overall goal is to increase engagement, frame it in that light.)

Or, if the product lead reframed your research in a specific (helpful) way, build on that. Once, in my experience, a project manager concluded from a research project about improving the map view of search results that the research instead underscored the need to improve the list view of search results. I built off of that in the announcement, both because it was provocative but also because everyone else in the room heard the comment as well—and I agreed with it.

And don’t lose sight of the basics. Have a clear and compelling title for your email that draws the reader in. You want to get other people interested in your research who may not have attended the presentation. Ask yourself which email you’d be more likely to open: One with a subject line of “Posted: Redemption Research” vs. “The Life of a Groupon: Eliminating Barriers to Redemption and Increasing Engagement”?

6. The end is only the beginning.

The research presentation is really the beginning of the journey rather than the end. You want to make it easy for your team to track your insights and take action to address them.

I’ve always been amazed at how dependent product managers and engineers are on tracking tools. I recall a time when I said “The one thing you need to remember is to do X” … to which they replied, “Ok, well then submit a ticket for that.”

I thought to myself, “It’s only one issue,” but now I realize that PMs and engineers are constantly flooded with problems to fix and it can be difficult for them to separate small issues from big ones. They’re all bugs—just with different levels of priority and required effort.

I’ve found that a shared Google spreadsheet is an effective way to track such issues. Each issue or insight is given a row in the sheet and is assigned an owner who is responsible for the status of the issue and next steps. That said, work with whatever tools your team uses. The last thing most product managers and engineers want to do is learn how to use another tool.

Another important consideration is to ensure that you have a clear path forward right from the outset for ensuring your research has impact. Establish a plan with the product team before you conduct research that makes explicit how and when product improvements will be made based on the insights. You may find that product teams are enthusiastic about research, only to discover after completing the research that they had not thought about how they would act on the findings. Prior to kicking off the research, establish a timeframe for when you’ll present your findings, when changes will be made, and who will be responsible for making them.

7. Know your allies…and how to find new ones.

Your immediate product team is obviously your best bet for addressing the issues surfaced in your research. That said, product organizations typically have many interdependencies, so there are probably other product teams who have some stake in what happens to your product.

Reach out to those product teams to share your research and determine if your research can be reframed to be more directly relevant to them. For example, one team may be focused on new user acquisition whereas another team may be focused on increasing engagement. Some of your findings may apply to both goals, so reframing a few key points can open up new audiences (and doors) for your insights.

To make this possible, know the product leaders in your organization, who they are, what they do, and what their goals are. You may find that they value your research and might even be willing to evangelize it across the organization.

8. Don’t give them what they want.

Teams often don’t know what they need, so they may say they want you to conduct a specific research methodology or present the data in a specific way.

Rather than reactively giving them what they want, think about what they need. Echo back your interpretation of what they’re asking for or what they’re trying to accomplish. For example, “So what I’m hearing you say is that you want to investigate whether users understand how to filter search results and whether we’re offering the right set of filters. Is that correct?” This will enable you to focus on the right methodologies to get the answers they need.

While your initial resistance to carrying out their demands may create friction in the short-term, it will establish your credibility and influence with the team in the long-term.

9. It’s not about the VP.

A researcher working at another company once contacted me looking for advice. She had recently completed a research project but she was having difficulty getting the product team to take action. She asked me for any tips about how she could get the research in front of the vice president leading the product area. As she put it, “If we can just get it in front of the VP, things will happen.”

In most corporate environments, executives don’t want to hear about problems; they want choices. It is up to the researcher to convince the PM and cross-functional team of the issues at hand and lead the charge to create potential solutions. If there are alternative solutions that the team cannot agree on, then the VP can make that decision.

If the cross-functional team is not interested in working with you to create solutions, then you need to re-evaluate if the problem you are trying to solve warrants team resources relative to other team priorities and/or if you have clearly and convincingly presented the problem.

Does the team even agree that it is a problem? Have you leveraged other data sources to make a more convincing argument?

10. Be your brand.

Your work is your brand. You want audiences to know that when you conduct research it will be high quality, and that when you present, your presentations will be engaging. As one PM told me recently, “You put a lot of love into that presentation.” He wasn’t talking about fancy graphics or illustrations but rather that I had clearly given a lot of thought as to the important insights and how I should best present them so that they were clear, concise, and well-substantiated.

Of course, there are situations where you cannot make a masterpiece of a presentation, and you shouldn’t always try. But remember that your brand stays with you, even when you leave your current company.

Beyond the quality of your work, you want to be thought of as someone who helps product teams progress toward their goals. You are someone who is there to help the team succeed, not slow them down, and you’re mindful of the teams’ constraints, deadlines, and challenges. You’re not just there to point out problems but to create and drive solutions.

Conclusion

Turning research insights into positive action is a combination of what you do but also what you are able to empower others to do. Knowing your audience and bringing the right mindset to the table can go a long way to making an impact in your organization.

Method Mondays: Never Stop Learning

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Tell me and I forget; teach me and I may remember; involve me and I learn.”

At the SAP Design & Co-Innovation Center (DCC), we frequently organize the so-called “Method Mondays,” a regular one-hour meeting series in which the team members share, practice, and test different methods.

In this article, I would like to share the five methods with you that work best for us—they’re worth trying!

Brainstorming: The Walt Disney method

We love brainstorming—and the Walt Disney Method is a quite simple technique for everyone. It is based on a role play with three Walt Disney characters.  

According to Robert B. Dilts, “there were actually three different Walts: the dreamer, the realist, and the spoiler” (Ollie Johnstone and Frank Thomas: The Illusion of Life. Disney Animation, Disney Editions 1995, S. 379).

So who are the three characters?

The dreamer is a subjective and enthusiastic individual. His task is to think about the ideal way to answer the given challenge. The typical question for a dreamer is: “What can I do if everything is possible?”

The realist is the pragmatic and practical thinker who wants to realize the dreamer’s ideas. His leading question is: “How can I do it?”

The spoiler judges and provokes the ideas and gives positive feedback. He or she has to deal with the question “What can go wrong?”

In the role play you go through the different roles, either on your own or in a group. Always spend about 15 minutes in each role and do several iterations. The number of iterations is set by the level of detail you want to dig into each point. Ready, steady, go!

Empathy map

We are always looking for new methods. When we came across a new approach for clustering research results, we simulated a workshop situation in which the empathy map is used to cluster interview results based on what the interviewees have said and done, what they think and feel, as well as their pains and gains.

We found the empathy map a great tool since it is applicable to every business and provides valuable insights about what customers and partners actually want—and this knowledge is necessary for the success of your company.

It all begins with a large white poster and a character’s head with physical features. Divide the poster into five sections that portray what the character sees, hears, thinks, and feels as well, as the challenges the character faces, and ask the players of the game to change perspectives.

Fill the map with results from real research about the persona’s experiences. This helps players of the game identify with the persona and project themselves onto it. During the game, all players should write down their ideas about the targeted persona’s experiences on post-its and then stick them onto the respective section of the empathy map.

Once it is complete, analyze the results in a team and think of ways how to apply them to your service or product. For a more detailed description and the online game, have a look.

Belbin characters

Dr. Meredith Belbin found out that if groups work together, there is always a set of nine characters—and each of them is essential for getting the group successfully from start to finish.

However, this does not mean that you need nine different individuals in your team, because even you as a single person may not necessarily behave the same all the time…but you might have a tendency. Being able to identify the different characters in a project or the workplace and being able to adapt your own behavior to the strengths and weaknesses of your team can be a great advantage.

The nine roles can be divided into three orientations: act-oriented, subject-oriented, and communication-oriented. See a detailed description of the roles. 

To give the people participating in the exercise a surrounding to test or to reflect on the characters, we usually use the game “build a bridge.” For the task to be successful, form groups of 4 – 6 people and provide each of the groups with a big stack of paper, a filled half-liter bottle, and two tables or chairs as base for the bridge. The distance between those two can vary between 50 cm and 1 meter. Within 30 minutes, the bottle is supposed to be placed on the bridge for 20 seconds.

It is up to you if you distribute cards with the characteristics of each role at the beginning of the game—so that the people behave accordingly—or if you introduce the characters after the exercise. In both cases you end with a reflection on the people’s behaviors. Good luck and have fun!

Remember the future

We want to be better. The game “Remember the Future” is a very suitable method—and one of the easiest games—to better understand your customers’ definition of success and their understanding of how to achieve this aim. It centers on the question “What should your product do?” which is often trivially answered: “Your product should be better.”

However, there are actually unlimited possible and plausible futures to think of. To answer the question together with your customers, hand each of them a few pieces of paper, let them imagine they have been using the product continuously until some day in the future, and ask them to write down as much as possible about what your product will have done to make them happy over that time.

The results will change drastically depending on the wording of the question, so phrase it carefully. It’s quite unlikely that each customer will come up with the same imagination. The true sense and magic of the game is the discussion about how the customers actually perceive their future.

In the next step, comparing the current product development with the newfound perceptions of the future allows for improvement. For more details consult “Remember the Future. Understand Your Customers’ Definition of Success” in Luke Hohmann: Innovation Games. Creating Breakthrough Product Through Collaborative Play, Addison-Wesley 2007, 56-61.

A day in the life

We want to understand others better. As a combination of research and storytelling, the “day in the life” method is very valuable for user insights and in-depth understanding. The designer usually observes individuals through a typical workday and records their activities as well as hints to how they experience the settings.

However, as it is not always possible to conduct very deep field research, we use the “day in the life” method as an alternative in the workshops we hold at the SAP AppHaus. We let a customer describe his typical workday while the others take notes. Paying close attention to how people spend their time allows us to gather a realistic picture of the work settings.

In the next step, we cluster all the information we gathered about the daily routine—similar to the customer journey—and sort them in a timeline. Mapping a day in the life illustrates how time is assigned to different activities and facilitates identifying obvious or potential problems in every single step.

Afterwards, we brainstorm on how this exemplary daily sequence could be improved. “A day in the life,” based on the diary method, can be altered in every project. It may be repeated over several days to get a balanced perspective. Customers might also present a typical week or any relevant time span.

Why the methods work

In the course of time, the topic areas have developed:  We have not only tested creativity methods or tools, but also storytelling techniques, warm-ups, sketching, or psychology theories for group dynamics. Everything that might support us during our project work is highly welcome.

As our team from the Design & Co-Innovation Center at SAP is composed of members with a rich background in different disciplines of design, creativity, and psychology, we decided everybody could share their favorite working methods or new methods they would like to test. After each test, we sit together to discuss what we liked about the method, what we would change in the next attempt and for which scenarios we would best use the method.

It is a pleasure to have the freedom to pause the normal project work and spend time with the colleagues on those activities, supported by our management. It helps us to test and validate new methods, to make mistakes and learn from them. All of us grow with these experiences. And our knowledge is being enriched every time we meet.

User Research With Small Business Owners: Best Practices and Considerations

The majority of our work at Google has involved conducting user research with small business owners: the small guys that are typically defined by governmental organizations as having 100 or fewer employees, and that make up the majority of businesses worldwide.

Given the many hurdles small businesses face, designing tools and services to help them succeed has been an immensely rewarding experience. That said, the experience has brought a long list of challenges, including those that come with small business owners being constantly on-call and strapped for time; when it comes to user research, the common response from small business owners and employees is, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

To help you overcome common challenges we’ve faced, here are a few tips for conducting successful qualitative user research studies with small businesses.

Recruiting

Recruiting tip #1: Give yourself an extra week, and then some

It generally takes more time to recruit for research projects with small businesses than what’s typical for consumer studies. There are several reasons why this is the case.

Existing user research participant pools tend to be light on small business representation, meaning recruiting for your project may have to start completely from scratch. Also, it can take time to track down the appropriate person at a small business to talk to—are you trying to reach the owner, the accountant, customer service staff, or…?  

Finally, small businesses are accustomed to companies trying to sell them new offerings or get them to sign up for product pilots, and many have been scammed in signing up for “free” pilots or services that end up turning into a perpetual sales pitch. Because of this, the chances of a small business owner or employee saying “No!” to participating in your user research is especially high.

Recruiting tip #2: Make sure you’re crystal clear on what type of business you want to recruit

There’s quite a bit of variation in terms of business environment, priorities, strategies and other factors across different types of businesses. Accidentally overlooking important criteria could be detrimental to a study.

For example, do you want to talk to a certain type of business, such as professional service, service area, or brick-and-mortar? Does it matter if your study participants are from B2B vs. B2C companies? What about online vs. offline businesses? Additional points of consideration include number of employees, business goals (e.g., does the business want to grow?), and revenue.

If you’re not sure if you’ve overlooked important criteria, ask for feedback from product managers, marketing professionals, and other user researchers who may have relevant information. It can also be helpful to see how entities such as the Small Business Administration categorize business types.

Recruiting tip #3: Make sure you’re crystal clear on whom you want to interview

When conducting research with small business owners, it’s common to assume that the business owner is involved in most decisions, but that’s often not the case.

Is it actually the business owner you’re interested in speaking to? Or, do you need to talk to someone who’s responsible for a specific task, such as someone who managing online marketing decisions or handles the company’s financials? The larger the company, the higher the chances are of the company owner delegating responsibilities.

We typically ensure we’re speaking to the right type person by asking screening questions specific to roles and responsibilities (see examples at the end of this article).

Recruiting tip #4: Avoid hobbyists disguised as business owners

It’s common for hobbyists—for example, people who casually sell certain services or offerings for personal enjoyment—to sign up for user research involving small business owners. On the surface they pass many of the screening criteria, but in reality their motivations and behaviors are quite different from a full-time business owner or employee of a business. We typically screen out hobbyists via recruiting screening surveys by asking if potential study participants spend at least 30 hours per week in their role as business owner or employee of the business.

Recruiting tip #5: Recruit extra participants

When conducting research with consumers, we always recruit one extra participant in the event there is a no-show. When conducting research with small businesses, we’ll increase that number to two or more. Given how unpredictable the small business environment  can be, we’ve found that the chances of last-minute cancellations or no-shows is much higher with small business owners and employees than it is with consumers.

Incentives

Incentive tip #1: Provide incentives other than cash

While incentives are a nice gesture, cash or gift cards are not a huge motivator, as they aren’t viewed as a worthwhile tradeoff for inconveniences that come with stepping away from running a business in order to participate in an interview.

What is motivating is providing small business owners and their employees with information and tips on how to run the business successfully: things like offering free accounting software, coaching on social media best practices, and personal access to a member of the support team for assistance. Another approach is to offer 15 minutes after the interview for free coaching and/or advice on a topic that makes sense given the study focus.

The small business community is tightly knit, and small businesses are often invested in each other’s success. Because of this, another option is to frame the study as an opportunity to improve offerings for all small businesses.

Even better, small businesses owners and employees love the opportunity to share feedback on tools and services they routinely use to run their business. If the product you’re testing or exploring touches upon tools and services already in use, it can be motivating to frame user interviews as an opportunity to shape the future of the offering being reviewed.

Finally, consider offering small business owners and employees the opportunity to participate in an exclusive Trusted Testers community, which provides the option to share feedback, receive “insiders” information and tips, and interact with and learn from other small businesses. We’ve found this option can be especially motivating for engaging in user research.

Interviewing

Interview tip #1: Consider in-person interviews

It can be hard for small business owners and employees to take time away from the business to participate in research that might be conducted at your lab or office. Likewise, for remote interviews, small business owners and employees don’t always have convenient access to needed technology at their place of business.

For these reasons, we’ve found that small businesses are much more likely to participate in user research if interviews take place at their place of business. This way they can tend to the business during interviews if needed and don’t have to waste valuable time setting up technology to participate in the interviews.

Also, conducting in-person interviews provides context often needed to understand complicated processes and workflows that business owners and their employees face.

Interview tip #2: Be flexible with scheduling

We’re also always especially flexible with scheduling when conducting research with small business owners and employees. In addition to leaving extra time between interviews, we usually also leave an interview slot open in the event we have to move the schedule around suddenly. We’re also mindful of offering early morning or late evening interview times, especially if the verticals we’re focused are service oriented (restaurants, spas, etc); trying to conduct a field visit during peak hours can be really intrusive for these types of businesses.

Interview tip #3: Be prepared for last-minute changes

The world of small business owners and their employees can be unpredictable, which is why we always schedule extra, backup participants for research. We’ve run into countless situations where a research participant cancels an interview at the last second on account of unexpected business or emergencies.

It’s also common for small business owners or employees to request location changes at the last second. For example, one time I (Chelsey) was scheduled to interview a business owner at his home (which is where he ran the business). He called five minutes before the interview explaining he wanted to be respectful of his roommates and asking if we could meet elsewhere. Good thing I had scoped out the area before this happened and had a nearby coffee shop in mind where we could talk!

Interview tip #4: Emphasize participant expertise early

When interviewing small business owners and employees, it’s common for them to want to seize the opportunity to get insider information or training on whatever topic is being explored. When this happens at the start of an interview, the interviewer becomes the expert for the remainder of the conversation which can prevent an open, honest dialogue.

To establish the participant as the expert early on in the conversation, there are a few things we’ll typically do. For starters, we always state that the goal of the study is to learn from the participant.

Next, we’ll ask the participant to give a tour of the business (if a site visit) and to explain what the day-to-day looks like in running it. During the tour and/or day-to-day explanation, we’ll call out pieces of information that are new to us and ask a few follow-up questions. This strategy usually does the trick in placing the research participant in expert mode and researchers as the student.

Interview tip #5: Bring extra NDAs  

I (Chelsey) will never forget, in kicking off an interview with a business owner in India, when I unexpectedly discovered several family members waiting to enthusiastically participate in the conversation!

The reality is that running a small business—whether in India, the US, or elsewhere—is rarely a solo operation. Consequently, we’ve found it’s common for family, friends and employees to be asked by interviewees to join interviews. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, in many situations it’s a wonderful surprise that can lead a an engaging, insightful conversation.

Because of how frequent this scenario can be, we now always make sure to bring extra copies of NDAs.

Reporting

Reporting tip #1: Provide context

When socializing your findings to a product team, building empathy for the participants and their challenges is key. Reporting on consumer insights is relatively easy because most of us face similar challenges in our daily lives and we can easily identify with the participants. However, small business owners and employees face challenges that are less relatable.

Therefore, it’s important to create a narrative that includes the context of the merchant’s business and business practices. For example, what vertical do they work in? What does their day to day look like? How has their business evolved? What do they feel their customers’ needs are, and how does that in turn translate to their use of your product?

Additionally, keep in mind that your product won’t exist in a vacuum. Small business merchants are experimental, and are willing to try out numerous tools and services until they find one that meets most (usually not all) of their needs. Small business owners also value integration and may find creative ways to DIY integration that doesn’t already exist. It’s therefore not unusual that small business research may occasionally graze the edges of competitive analysis.

When crafting your report, create a story around the participants — what are their challenges and successes? How do they feel about their customers? How does (or could) your product fit into their business processes? Finally, video recordings and direct quotes are highly impactful and help emphasize the person behind the findings.

Reporting tip #2: Limit, but embrace, variation

Because small businesses are so varied in terms of vertical, structure, and practices, it takes a careful eye to draw unified or cohesive themes across what can sometimes seem like disparate participants.

Often in user research there is an impulse to sweep outliers under the rug. However, in small business research it can actually be helpful to call out and explain the outliers. They may represent an edge case that your team has an opportunity to address, or they might reveal something new about a vertical, business, or merchant type.  

Of course, as we mentioned earlier, it’s important to clearly define your intended participant group. Even with a clearly definition of who you want to talk to, you can expect to see a healthy amount of variation among your study participants.

Concluding thoughts

Small businesses have different pressures and motivations than consumers that are important to consider in setting up a successful user study with business owners and those who help run small businesses. To get the most out of your time and theirs, study up on what might relieve these pressures and speak to motivations, and adjust your recruiting, incentives, and interview techniques accordingly.

Sample screening questions

Which of the following best describes the business where you work? Please select one.

Food and dining (e.g., restaurant, bar, food truck, grocery store) 1
Retail and shopping (e.g., clothing boutique, online merchandise store) 2
Beauty and fitness (e.g., nail salon, gym, hair salon, spa) 3
Medical and health (e.g., doctor, dentist, massage therapist, counselor) 4
Travel and lodging (e.g., hotel, travel agency, taxi, gas station) 5
Consulting services (e.g., management consulting, business strategy) 6
Legal services (e.g., lawyer, paralegal, bail bondsman) 7
Home services and construction (e.g, contractor, HVAC, plumber, cleaning services) 8
Finance and banking (e.g., accounting, insurance, financial planner, investor, banker) 9
Education (e.g., tutoring, music lessons, public or private school, daycare, university) 10
Entertainment (e.g., movie theatre, sports venue, comedy club, bowling alley) 11
Art / design (e.g., art dealers, antique restoration, photographer) 13
Automotive services (e.g., auto repairs, car sales) 14
Marketing services (e.g., advertising, marketing, journalism, PR) 15
Other 16

Thinking about the next 12 months, which of the following are overall goals for the business you own or work for? Select all that apply.

Acquire new customers 1
Conduct more business with existing customers 2
Target specific customer segments 3
Improve operational efficiency/capabilities 4
Expand to more locations 5
Develop new products/services 6
Offer training or development for my employees 7
Invest in improvements to physical locations (e.g., new paint, interior remodeling, etc.) 8
Maintain current business performance 9
Acquire competitors 10
Other 11
None of the above 99

 

How does your business operate? Please select all that apply.

You have a physical business location that customers visit (e.g., store, salon, restaurant, hotel, doctor’s office etc.) 1
Your business serves customers at their locations (e.g., taxi driver, realtor, locksmith, wedding photographer, plumber) 2
Your customers can purchase products and services from any location, online or by phone 3
Other 4

Which of the following best describes your role in your business?

Owner 1
Employee 2
Other 3

Which of the following are you responsible for at the business you own or work for? Please

select all that apply.

Hiring employees 1
Managing employees 2
Business planning/Strategy 3
Marketing/Promotions 4
Finance/Accounting 5
Sales/Customer Service 6
Legal 7
IT 8
Other 9
None of the above   99

Which of the following best describes your current employment status? Please one.

Work full-time (30 or more hours per week) 1
Work part-time (fewer than 30 hours per week) 2
Not employed 4
Student 5
Retired 6

Unleash Your Visual Superpower!

From start-ups to banks, design has never been more central to business. Yet at conference after conference, I meet designers at firms talking about their struggle for influence. Why is that fabled “seat at the table” so hard to find, and how can designers get a chair?

A superhero, partially wireframed and partially illustrated.
Designers have the magical ability to visualize the future.

Designers yearn for a world where companies depend on their ideas but usually work in a world where design is just one voice. In-house designers often have to advocate for design priorities versus new features or technical change. Agency designers can create great visions that fail to be executed. Is design just a service, or can designers* lead?

*Meaning anyone who provides the vision for a product, whether it be in code, wireframes, comps, prototypes, or cocktail napkins.

Does a designer just make pictures?

In years of presentations working at an agency, I learned to sense the tension building before a design was revealed. At a certain point, clients stop listening to the strategy—they just want to get to the pictures.

But does that mean that designers should just make pictures and leave the strategy to others? No. No one wants to be a mere stylist, but it can be hard to lead when you feel typecast as a pixel pusher.

Communication is the core skill of a designer—every other ability depends on it.

The best designers transcend the gap between strategy and execution. They know that communication is the core skill of a designer: We don’t make the thing; we show how it should be made. But rather than seeing picture-making as a mere stepping stone toward strategy, we can use it as our “super power” to lead.

I have the good fortune to work with a talented illustrator. She uses the same tools I have, but when she touches them, drawings appear. It’s like a super power! That is the same impression people have of a good designer. But how do you lead with pictures and not simply push pixels? Let’s a closer look at unlocking the designer super power.

Pictures are power

Imagine getting two ideas for a new product. One person described the idea in an elevator pitch; another showed you a mock up. Which one would you listen to? Which seemed like they made more effort and had explored the idea further?

A good visualization gives the designer influence that goes beyond rank or title.  Pictures expand the collective imagination, making abstract ideas tangible and build-able.  

A junior designer I once worked with made a comp of a new dashboard idea in her spare time and emailed it out. It bounced around the organization and got taken up by the president as their future vision. Was it fully thought out? No. Did it instigate change? Definitely.  

Anyone can write bullet points; few can communicate what an experience will feel like.

Designers complain about executives meddling with designs, but seen another way, designers have access to leaders most other roles never get.  The only time a database admin gets executive attention is when the web site crashes. The best designers take advantage of the opportunity to engage in a strategic discussion.

Design itself is a product

Many groups in an organization have a thing that they “own” that gives them leverage in decisions. Developers own the code, business owns the proposition, yet design is considered a “service.” One opportunity for designers is to “own” the future, to use their unique skills to document and maintain the future state of the product.

We all sketch before we design, but too often the sketches go in a drawer when the project starts, often never to be seen again. What if designers were responsible for delivering the short term design documentation AND keeping the long-term vision alive?

“If a picture is worth 1,000 words, a prototype is worth 1,000 meetings.” —saying at Ideo

One team I’ve worked with helps bridge this gap on strategic projects by maintaining an “experience roadmap.” The roadmap is a collection of prototypes showing what each release will look like. The team also keeps the design vision up to date, updating it as they learn from customers. Agile teams can lose the long term direction by focusing on small sprints. These designers influence the strategy by showing how each release moves toward the ultimate vision.

A superhero supervises releases
An experience roadmap shows how a product can evolve—and whether it has weak points along the way.

Sort of like version control for something that doesn’t exist yet, the roadmap highlights the main “branch,” shows the variations explored, and documents the business and design decisions.

The roadmap doesn’t just benefit the project team or the designer. When you work at a large firm with many teams, communication is essential. As one business partner said, “I could spend all my time just keeping up with that everyone else is doing.” Creating design documents that solve problems for the whole team increases your influence.

Incubate ideas with visuals

I’ll let you in on a business secret: Most business plans are only sketches; even their creators aren’t half as confident as they want to be. They’d like to engage a designer, but many don’t think they can afford it. UX ideology can hurt also. Hearing that design means a “four step user-centered design process with a team of five people for six months” can convince people to skip design right when it is most helpful: the beginning.  

Working with half-baked ideas could be a nightmare project (I know several designers who have vowed to never work with start ups again), but it’s also an opportunity for designers to lead. The key is being willing to collaborate and get outside of our comfort zone.

“Designers can be solitary people who emerge from their work with the answers that will fix everything. Wrong.”  –Bradford Shellhammer

Designers all over complain about being brought in too late to a project. To break this conflict between early access and full process, our group developed a process to help executives visualize their ideas. Nicknamed “FutureMap,” it is creative session to document an idea in its earliest stage.

We gather a small group of partners to hash through the idea on whiteboards with a designer listening in and working live on the projector in the background. In a few hours, we have enough to communicate the idea and build excitement. We also build relationships. When the project is ready, you know that designer is going to have a seat at the table.

A superhero guides a meeting.
Live visualization sessions quickly get ideas out of people’s heads, show conflicting needs, and bring people together.

Always be closing

In the heat of a project, most designers focus on the product itself, but every product will have to be promoted and sold. Whether the customer is an individual consumer or an internal partner, your success depends on communicating what a product is and why someone should care.

Embracing marketing is a powerful way designers can lead product strategy. In the earliest stage, before any code is written, only designers can get customer feedback. Lean startups like to talk about minmum viable product as the smallest amount of effort to validate an assumption, but it is odd that they jump right into coding. The fastest way is almost always making pictures. Every designer already has the tools on their computer to answer product questions by engaging with the customer.

Even before you design the full product, design how you are going to communicate the value.

  • Use InDesign to make a brochure. Get feedback in a train station.
  • Use iMovie to make a fake TV ad. Get feedback online.
  • Use Dreamweaver to make a home page. Measure clicks on Google Analytics.

Some may feel that marketing is not part of user experience, but talking to real customers is the only way to get honest feedback. If you can’t sell a feature, maybe you shouldn’t build it. This has the potential to focus the product and save hundreds of hours of development. If you do it right, you will end helping to drive the product strategy.

A user researcher I work with became a leader when she demonstrated that you could usability test a value proposition. She made A/B variations of a marketing page, each with showing different features. Online testing  tools like Loop11 or usertesting.com make it easy to show a page to a couple hundred people and see who clicks the link. You can then follow up with questions on how well they understood the offer.

Making pictures helps us think

There is an old joke about politician logic:

  1. There is a problem. We must do something
  2. [X] is something
  3. Therefore, we must do [X]

Sadly, this isn’t limited to politicians. One of the less appreciated audiences of making pictures is the team itself. Any group of people working closely under pressure faces the invisible risk of tunnel vision or group think. Who hasn’t been surprised when a design idea, that seemed obviously right, stumps users in testing?

The best way to avoid it is to not have an idea. Have two ideas. Think of it as A/B testing throughout the design cycle. It’s one of the core ideas of our team’s UXD process; any concept phase must produce at least two options that can be tested.  We do this to make sure we fully develop each instead of compromising two ideas.  The most common conflict is between the expert user and the novice. Melding their needs is the best way to create bad design. Instead, design each and test. Who knows—maybe the experts enjoy the simplicity of the novice design!

There is a psychological angle to this. Many designers struggle when they see a specific design as “their baby.” Having multiple children, so to speak, helps us fall in love with problem, not the solution. This keeps us focused on leading the team toward the best solution and away from defending a flawed design.

Defeating “designer kryptonite”

There is one last aspect of your super power: You will lose it if you stop using it. I interviewed a smart candidate recently. He had great things to say about Scrum, meeting delivery deadlines, business metrics… but his visuals were no different than any business analyst. He had lost the creative spirit.

Designers on long-term projects risk exposure to “designer kryptonite”—the thousand tiny compromises due to politics, budget, legal, and our old friend “time to market.”

A superhero is threatened by kryptonite.
Designers need to refresh their powers, or lose them

Putting your creative self out there is draining. Design that inspires your company requires we reignite the creative passion from time to time. Conferences can help, but sometimes it is as simple as having a supportive event to remind us why we became designers in the first place.

Our team runs design challenges every few months. These are open entry design competitions where any designer can sketch a design without the usual requirements. Doing pure design in a social environment is great fun and produces great work. More than once, these radical visions inspired our partners to kick off a project and take it to market.

Lead by (visual) example

People usually think leadership means just telling everyone what to do, but a more effective style is servant leadership. By solving other people’s problems, by making them successful, you become a great leader. Like user centered design itself, designers have the ability to use their skills to help the people on their team.

Yes, this is more effort, but it is the kind of effort we got into design for. You don’t need to be bitten by a radioactive spider or come from another planet. What special powers do you have? How can you use them to help others and lead?

 

Illustrations by Laura Fish.

Mentoring as an Investment

Have you ever asked for an update on a project you’d invested a great deal of time and energy in, only to hear “they have completely redesigned it since then”?

I did, and it left me with this very empty feeling.

After some wallowing, I realized I needed to discover a new way to think about the way I work and what really matters in my consulting career. My answer: The mark of a truly good consultant is investing in people. Focusing on investing in people will ensure that your work will still continue to see results long after the application is redesigned, and that is change that matters in the long run.

In the following article, I will give three areas in which we can focus our efforts: mentoring, client education, and our own team members. I hope that the reflection will help us all be better consultants and make better investments.

Client mentoring as an investment

There are often opportunities for us to invest in “client side” people, but they might not be readily apparent. I will give two examples of this.

On a recent project, I was the designer paired with a recently-hired UX director, who was a little bewildered still by the new gig. When we talked, it became apparent that what he needed was someone to mentor him in an intentional way because he was overwhelmed and feeling lost.

I spent lunches with this gentleman talking about UX strategy, how my company had handled process definition, and I eventually worked on a project where I invited him to come do user research with me.

Now mind you, this mentoring was not the part of any statement of work. This was something I did because it was the right thing to do. It was an opportunity to make an investment much bigger than the project at hand—and to see someone blossom right before your eyes makes the time investment very much worthwhile.

By the end of the client engagement, he was extremely thankful to have had someone invest time in him, to point him in the right direction—which allowed him to lead the UX capability much better than he was before. It turned out to be the most satisfying work I had done in ages. Fortunately, both my company and the client were extremely appreciative of the time spent with their people.

A second example is on the implementation side. I was the interface developer for an intranet project, and the client had a talented UI person who had questions about the CMS and approach we were using. To complicate the situation, we came to the project after they fired another firm for an inability to deliver. This woman had been given poor advice by the previous vendor, and she naturally had lots of questions about how to do the implementation the right way. It is easy to become exhausted with external consultants, and I wanted to ensure that she and their team quickly came to trust us to deliver.

I set up bi-weekly meetings with her throughout the four month implementation. Before we even started development, she and I mapped out the scope of the work and talked about all kinds of details, down to and including minutia like CSS class names. The regular meetings gave her a chance to see and give input throughout the entire process.

Another advantage of this approach—beyond those that accrue through collaboration—was that there was no big knowledge handoff at the end. It was something that was built into the project from the beginning.

As companies become more lean, we can get a double benefit of increased collaboration and knowledge sharing: First, we spend far less time writing copious documentation because we have been sharing all along, and second, the solution has a much greater chance for long-term success due to our time spent investing in these individuals who take over after we leave.

Client education as an investment

We can also educate clients even if they are not themselves in the UX world. A big intranet project I worked on was scoped to be responsive, but it became very apparent in the beginning that the design that went into it was not done in the best way for my company to implement; it was not designed in a mobile-first fashion.

I had two options: Either I just let it go, do my work, and move on; or, I could take the time to reach out to the client and educate them. I knew that this project was already moving forward, but I could set up a foundation for this client’s future success.

One thing to gauge is whether the client is even interested in such a relationship. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, clients are only interested in timelines and not interested in spending lots of billable time learning or re-learning.

And I had to ask: What did I value? Was I only in it for the money, or could I help enact lasting change and provide real value?

This client was not himself a UX practitioner, and he was looking for someone to be the expert he could trust. Working with non-UX people is a challenge, because you have to sell them a bit harder on why doing things the right way is important, even when they do not understand the implications or appreciate the time necessary to do it the right way.

I pulled him aside in a couple of private meetings and talked about everything with him, from defining responsive design correctly, understanding mobile-first design, and even things like home page carousel use and abuse. In the end, it not only furthered our relationship, but it afforded me a high level of trust and rapport with the client.

This particular client was open to the discussion and was even excited about extending the relationship, but if you have a hesitant client, don’t give up on them. Show them the quantifiable benefits of this increased collaboration by pointing to your experience in the past, or that the time they spend with you learning will only pay dividends in the future.

Remember that even if things aren’t changeable in the short term, you can make investments in people for the next project and longer term.

Teams as an investment

There is one last, important group we can’t forget: our co-workers. These are the people that become like a family in ways our clients never will. Project after project, these are the people we are tasked to work with, and in some ways these are often the most strategic people to invest in but also sometimes the most difficult to do it with because we can so easily overlook them.

During my firm’s adoption of the CSS preprocessor SASS, my team was mostly junior people who were looking for leadership in all kinds of areas. This time, I was given the opportunity to help others use this powerful tool. I took the lead in understanding its implications and how to use it in our teams, and then I spent concentrated time with each member of the UX team to help them understand how to use the technology in both a programmatic and process way. Taking advantage of opportunities like these furthers your relationship with your team members and demonstrates to them that you care deeply about their professional development.

To this day, those team members reach out to me with questions and best practices due to the trust gained through leading in this way. It is amazing how doing this even on a detail like a CSS preprocessor can assist your team members greatly.

We all have different motivations for doing the work that we do, and I imagine that for most of us money—as good as money is—is not the primary factor. Instead, very talented people tend to thrive on being an expert, enacting change, and leading others. True leaders are not given an opportunity to lead—they find those opportunities. Leading inside your organization will make you as close to irreplaceable as you can get.