Strategic UX Research is The Next Big Thing

by Jared M. Spool

Strategic UX Research is how organizations connect their long-term direction and strategy to customers’ and users’ deepest needs. It’s been around for a while but only recently has caught the attention of top executives.

It’s a profound awakening to the total value that great user experiences bring to both the organization and the people it serves.

These organization leaders will work with a detailed, shared understanding of their customers’ and users’ experiences. They’ll use that understanding to set the business’s direction, determine where to invest, and focus the organization’s long-term and short-term directions on efforts that dramatically improve those experiences. Strategic UX research changes the relationship senior executives and stakeholders have with the people who benefit from the organization’s products and services.

Strategic UX Research is a force multiplier. Organizations get more done with the same number of people. It delivers superpowers to the senior executives, enabling their organization to be a visionary market leader because the entire team has a better picture of how their product improves people’s lives.

The benefits that Strategic UX Research delivers.

Every organization, independent of its industry or nature, can benefit from Strategic UX Research.

For example, for a financial services organization focusing on the trading floor, Strategic UX Research delivers senior executives and stakeholders a deep understanding of what daily life on the floor is like. They’d see how the most nuanced functionality dramatically changes the experience traders and their clients have. The benefits of that nuanced functionality would be things nobody would see if they didn’t have a deep understanding of trading floor life.

Or, for an education product company, their senior stakeholders and executives see how different classroom environments require different solution approaches. Instead of trying to force a one-size-fits-all product into the market (and meeting nobody’s actual needs), they’d understand how investing in an adaptable solution accommodates all varieties of educational environments and requirements, opening up considerable market opportunities.

A government organization uses its Strategic UX Research to bring home the experiences of the most marginalized individuals they serve. They can see a direct relationship between specific service enhancements and increased access to the benefits they deliver. This becomes the underlying rationale for new funding options, with detailed data demonstrating how better experiences improve people’s lives.

Every organization, big and small, benefits from Strategic UX Research. It delivers a human-centered approach, contributing to long-term success while providing immediate wins.

The trap of being too tactical.

There’s a saying in the UX world that the first phase of a project is to figure out Are we building the right thing? and the second phase is to figure out Are we building the thing right?

That second phase is where Tactical UX Research comes in. This is what the UX research teams conduct to make sure they’re building things right.

Tactical UX Research includes surveys to learn how people think about your products and services, interviews to understand what potential users and customers might want from the product, and usability testing to see if what’s been built will do the job. It’s all in the service of making sure that the product is built right.

Most teams spend the majority of their time conducting tactical UX research. They’re dedicating their efforts to ensuring every new feature and capability is the best. Yet, they feel they’re doing a mediocre job.

The problem is, when you only work tactically, you never feel like you’re making progress. The teams always doing tactical UX research are caught in a feature factory.

These teams rush to squeeze research in before the agile sprint is complete, then push out some basic recommendations. Yet, their product and development peers ignore those recommendations because there’s not enough time or resources to act on them. Then it’s time to repeat the process with the next batch of functionality coming off the assembly line. This inches each research team member towards burnout.

This is the trap of being too tactical.

Strategic UX Research ensures you’re solving the right problems.

Tactical UX Research is essential for preventing issues that make the product implementation better. These are issues that, if not addressed, will cause increased support calls or problems with product adoption. Those are necessary risks to avoid, for sure.

However, far more critical risks will affect the organization’s long-term success. Mitigating these risks is where Strategic UX Research comes in.

The questions about “building the right thing” or “building the thing right” aren’t phases. Instead, they are types of risk.

This becomes clearer when we adopt a perspective by Jen Cardello, Fidelity Investments’ Senior Vice President and Head of their Research and Insights efforts. Jen explained in her seminal presentation, Scaling User Research, that she looks at the building the right thing question as two strategic questions: Are we building the right solution? and Are we solving the right problem?

Strategic UX Research is what organizations use to answer Jen’s questions. These questions address the highest risks.

If the organization isn’t solving the highest-risk problems, the solutions don’t matter. And it certainly doesn’t matter if a solution for the wrong problem is built right.

This differs from Tactical UX Research, which doesn’t come into play until executives and senior stakeholders have already decided on the problem and solution they want their teams to execute. By then, it’s too late to change direction because they’ve already decided on their strategy.

Without Strategic UX Research, they make these decisions based on risky, low-quality, third-party sources.

Maybe the stakeholders heard about a trend at an industry conference without knowing how it benefits their customers or users.

Or they see a competitor add a new capability without understanding the problem that the new capability solves.

Or maybe a customer with deep pockets asks for a specific solution without a clear sense of whether this will improve or deteriorate the experience of other customers.

Deciding to go ahead with one of these is a risky bet. The less Strategic UX Research the organization’s stakeholders have at their fingertips, the more likely they’ll make poor decisions and costly mistakes.

When executives and senior stakeholders have the Strategic UX Research they need, they no longer need to make bets based on those third-party sources. Instead, the research efforts show the need for new capabilities and approaches long before these third-party sources do. And make it easy to disqualify ideas that will fail before investing any effort to try to make them work.

Strategic UX Research goes deep into experiences.

Tactical UX Research rarely affects more than the specific feature or product a development team is working on. The research results only describe immediate recommendations or changes that need to make the product just a tiny bit better. Rarely does Tactical UX Research build a better understanding of the users or what they need in the long term.

Strategic UX Research, conversely, is about attaining a deeper understanding of all the different users and their individual experiences. Everyone learns more about what makes an excellent experience for users and customers and where the experience could be better.

These experiences go beyond just using the organization’s products or services. It includes what happens leading up to their use, between uses, and after the person has interacted with the product. Strategic UX Research learns the entirety of the experiences people have.

Research teams orchestrate deep hanging-out sessions with customers and users. They collect observations and insights that show what a day in the life of users could be. They combine different experiences with the product or service across the user’s lifetime. They connect this all together to show a detailed journey.

The power of deep hanging out.

For the last year, one client has been doing just this. Their organization is a leading manufacturer of scientific instruments and software. The executive team was concerned the competition was catching up, so they put a new emphasis on innovation.

Yet, none of their textbook approaches to delivering innovative products worked for them. After a series of new products that didn’t meet expectations, they decided to employ Strategic UX Research to determine why.

They started by sending a cross-disciplinary team of researchers, product managers, and engineers to do some deep hanging out at several labs of important customers. The team spent a couple of days at each lab, observing the work of the lab technicians.

Within a few visits, the team noticed patterns emerging. While the individual instruments worked well, the technicians had trouble making them work together.

The equipment, designed in corporate silos, didn’t play well with other instruments. This was true whether it was a competitor’s instrument or their own.

Each instrument had a distinctive way of preparing samples, feeding those samples into the machine, setting up the analysis through the control panels, and capturing the results. These differences slowed the technicians down, created more errors and sample contamination opportunities, and required more source material to extract samples from.

Interestingly, few technicians ever complained to the research team or their sales representatives about the extra work and mistakes they made. The technicians had always worked this way and figured it was just how things should be.

The deep hanging-out team saw it differently. They saw each issue as an opportunity to deliver a substantially improved technician experience. They had no trouble imagining how the next generation of instruments could provide an integrated analysis experience, reduce the chance of preparation errors, and reduce the quantity of source material required.

The research team also spent significant time at each customer site visiting with the lab administrators. They learned how the lab was managed and what the administrators valued most.

Again, their deep hanging out revealed patterns. This time, the patterns were in what different lab administrators were concerned about. The high error rates and long analysis periods reduced the throughput of the labs, making it hard to produce results promptly. The large variability in processing time made it difficult to predict when the results would be ready.

When stakeholders put users’ needs at the center.

Upon returning to corporate headquarters, the team set out to replicate what they’d seen by creating a mock laboratory with a similar range of instruments. They invited executives and senior stakeholders to walk through what they’d seen, reenacting the observed experiences of the technicians. They even brought several customer technicians into their mock lab to demonstrate their typical work experiences.

This research led to the stakeholders realizing that there were tremendous opportunities to deliver a much-improved lab technician experience. This new experience would be faster, error-free, predictable, and substantially less costly to operate the lab.

The sales team agreed this new experience would be desirable to customers. And it would substantially beat their competitors.

In addition, the executives loved the idea of leading an industry standard for sample preparation that would make their machines more interoperable with everyone’s instruments, including their competitors. Their market leadership position makes them ideal for promoting and underwriting their competitors’ adoption of this standard, creating a reason for established labs to invest in upgrading to the next-generation equipment.

Finally, these opportunities convinced the instrument maker to strongly consider a significant change in their business model by moving from selling individual pieces of hardware to an incremental recurring revenue model to access new software features. This would allow lab administrators to pay for precisely what they needed in the lab, giving them substantially more cost-effective flexibility.

Strategic UX Research affects the entire organization.

The research results proved it was highly desirable to make significant changes in their products and how the organization delivered new services. The executives saw the need to eliminate the existing organizational structure because it created silos that prevented them from adopting their new approach. Instead, they’d require a different organizational structure to shift to better cross-instrument interoperability, common software architectures, interconnectivity, and business models.

What started with a Strategic UX Research effort led to a significant reorganization of the business units and the revenue model. The research affected practically every aspect of the business. It provided insight into innovations that would prove profitable for the next decade.

The executives of the scientific instrument manufacturer were now more knowledgeable about the daily experiences of lab technicians and administrators. This new knowledge would drive advances for years to come.

And more research would make the executives and senior stakeholders even more knowledgeable. Critical business decisions like pricing changes or what to build next would no longer be guesses. Instead, the executives would have a deep understanding of their users to point them in the right direction.

Tactical UX Research won’t influence the organization as a whole. At best, it makes incremental, minor improvements to a product or service. It takes Strategic UX Research to drive change at an organizational level.

Becoming the experts on the users’ experience.

The primary objective of a Strategic UX Research program is to make everyone at your organization the world’s foremost expert on who your users are and what their experiences are like. So why should anyone else know more about using your products and services than those working at your organization?

That expertise is almost impossible to gain one usability test or survey at a time. Instead, it needs deep research methods to learn the subtleties of your users’ daily experiences. Upgrading to these advanced research methods will take some effort.

For most organizations, that means shifting the focus and energy from Tactical UX Research methods to Strategic UX Research methods. Jen Cardello reported that when she arrived at Fidelity Investments, she found that 85% of the ongoing research was dedicated to Tactical UX Research.

Within a year, Jen shifted that to 85% Strategic UX Research work. The improvement in the organization’s agility was dramatically noticeable. Teams were now focused on ensuring they were solving the correct problems instead of perfecting “solutions” that weren’t helping users in any way.

Are you ready?

Many UX leaders we work with don’t realize their organization is struggling to try to work without a Strategic UX Research program in place. Instead, they’re so focused on keeping the treadmill going with their Tactical UX Research that they don’t realize it’s keeping their executives and senior stakeholders from seeing the value of great UX insights.

Strategic UX Research is the next big thing in UX leadership and how executives and senior stakeholders make their organization’s most significant decisions. Is your team ready for this shift? Have you started the transformation within your organization to build a deep, shared understanding of users and their experiences at the most senior levels?

The UX leaders starting this journey will see a complete shift in their organization’s agility. They’ll see a dramatic improvement in the organization’s products and services.

More importantly, those UX leaders will realize how executives and senior stakeholders will embrace becoming more human-centered. This transformation will reduce the risks of making the wrong decisions by focusing on the expertise they’ll gain when they have access to Strategic UX Research.

This is the opportunity the entire UX field has been waiting for. So let’s not let it pass us by.

Strategic Approaches to UX Research Intensive

The alternative to working with an “average user experience” is to have an in-depth understanding of who your users really are. That understanding comes when you up your research game and dive deep into your users’ experiences.

Look closely at our upcoming Strategic Approaches to UX Research intensive, June 3-7, to learn how your team can make this happen.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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