As a leader of user experience and design thinking, Gina Rahn is no stranger to organizational change.
She spends her days adding efficiency to the UI and UX teams and standardizing user research processes across her whole company.
She sat down with Marvin how she’s driven organizational change even as her company constantly evolved.
- How to create a UX research roadmap
- The benefits of user research
- Navigating internal silos and politics with design thinking
- How to communicate and educate stakeholders
Read on for practical tips on how you too can build a culture of UX research and design thinking.
Design Thinking Approach: Create a UX Research Roadmap
To organize and chart her progress, Gina leans on a handy tool called a UX research roadmap (sound familiar?).
Research roadmaps document timelines and details about research projects and communicate how these initiatives are linked to business goals. They’re closely linked to product roadmaps – ideally a research roadmap should be ahead of its product counterpart. This enables product and design teams to make informed, well-researched decisions before they begin work. Easier said than done.
Gina inherited a significant design challenge when she joined LINQ, a K-12 technology company that has grown largely through acquisitions. Gina had to rethink the UX processes and learn to work with new employees and clients from different backgrounds and team cultures.
“Research was more of an afterthought,” she said. “When I first started, we were getting requests and they needed something within a day, two or three days, these fast turnaround times.”
In short, research was reactive to the needs of various teams.
The Benefits of UX Research
Over time, Gina had to educate her peers about the benefits of research. This constant communication has led her to a stage where research is put first, and peers approach her ahead of time. They have a deeper understanding of what the research team does and how it can help them. Consequently, research at LINQ is now a more proactive initiative.
“The big inroads we’ve been able to make is getting ahead of our product and development teams on research,” she said. “If a product initiative is slated for development in Q3, research and design want to be on it in Q1 or Q2. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us to be ahead.”
Gina also observed the need for a formalized research process — to make sure all designs were well informed and aimed at solving the right problem. Partnering with the product team, they’ve restructured LINQ – a User Intelligence team now handles quantitative research in Pendo, while a dedicated researcher assists all product lines with qualitative research, setting them up with best practices and templates to guide teams.
A Culture of User Research and Design Thinking
Gina encourages peers to conduct their own user research. “That’s the goal — for everybody to be empowered to do research. Have a team that owns best practices and methodologies and can advise product and design so that we’re all following the same patterns and we can collect that data and share it,” she said.
She shared an example of how lean economic times can inspire creative solutions to conduct research. Owing to the lack of resources available, Gina suggested using employees across the organization as means to extract more customer insights.
“They have to make these contact points anyway, so they may as well get some data for us while they’re at it,” she said. Arming employees with the right tools and crafting better questions is essential so that each team benefits from constructive feedback. Employees can then upload their videos and make them accessible to all.
“People will just upload their recordings even if they don’t know how to use Marvin. We can go back later and parse that out, put notes in, tag it and make use of that recording. Basically, that’s another free research interview,” Gina said.
Design Thinking Helps Navigate Organizational Culture Shifts
“Since I joined, the direction was to become a product-led vs. sales-led organization,” Gina said. “We should all be talking to customers.”
Inserting this type of UX thinking into the process has been challenging. Smaller, newly acquired companies have a handful of customers that they would move mountains for. If a customer makes a request, they’d ordinarily execute without giving it a second thought.
“It’s a hard shift because we can’t do what they say. We have to go through the right process, and it’s been a painful shift for a lot of people,” she said. It’s helpful to take a step back, talk to more users and find out how it affects them. “As you start building it as a best practice, it starts to become expected. You want to get them hooked on it.”
Not everyone will be on-board with research from day one. “The only way to overcome that is to continuously provide value through your research,” Gina said. She outlined the two most common pushback she’s encountered while dealing with research skeptics, and offered advice on how to convince them otherwise:
- Stakeholder: “It takes too much time.“
- Solution: Find time to do something small – hop on a call or send out a quick survey. Something is better than nothing.
- Stakeholder: “What’s the point? I know our users and what they are going to say.“
- Solution: Document the stakeholder’s assumptions (they’ll insist these are facts). Validate or reject these assumptions by conducting a quick test.
This way, “You’re not fighting this fight, you’re just bringing data to the table, and it speaks for itself,” Gina said. If they’re wrong about something, you’ve disproved their assumptions. If they’re right, you have the data that backs their assumption up. Win-win.
Design Thinking Can Unlock Internal Knowledge & Research
“When I got to LINQ, there wasn’t a whole lot of research going on. (It was) either very informal or maybe none at all,” Gina recalled.
Before concentrating research efforts outside LINQ, Gina encourages her peers to look inward.
“As a company of acquisition, we have so much knowledge inside our own internal structure that we’re yet to uncover,” she said. The challenge is unearthing these insights from employees who have moved over — in smaller companies’ people tend to wear a lot of different hats. “Research was happening; it just wasn’t in a structured environment.”
To understand more about new employees and the research they’ve conducted before, just ask! Give them a problem, and have them walk you through their rationale or methods. These informal interviews serve as an introduction and reveal deeper insights that they’ve picked up over time.
“Your co-workers become your users, and you’ve got to talk to them and understand their backgrounds and histories. You find so much knowledge out there that you can utilize,” Gina said.
With customers of newly acquired companies, it’s more challenging to establish relationships. Employees of acquired companies are gatekeepers to customers. They can put researchers in touch with the right people to give them a better understanding of their users.
“They’ve known them for years and years. Salesforce isn’t going to tell you that,” Gina said. Simply getting a warm introduction from a colleague can put you on the right path to improve your product.
Use Design Thinking Approaches to Expand the Reach of User Research
“We want all our departments to be aware of the work we’re doing because they all have different touch points with different customers,” Gina said.
How does she educate her peers and communicate the value of research to them?
Under her supervision, her team puts together a quarterly newsletter to broadcast across the organization. Populated with video clips and highlights from Marvin, Gina provided an example of the kind of insights they like to share:
“We did a study on a new product and features we were thinking about — here’s what our users had to say. They can click it and watch a Marvin link — people love that because they can see firsthand what (users) are saying. It’s not our interpretation. That gives us a lot of goodwill and excitement across the organization.”
The newsletters include new designs that may not appear in the product roadmap for another quarter or two. But they help generate buzz and gather ideas and suggestions, leveraging the company’s existing internal knowledge.
Gina spoke of her goal of having a self-serve research repository to make research highlights browsable: “We don’t want to overwhelm people – not (have) necessarily every interview, but key insights and findings.”
“Marvin has been critical for us. It makes it really easy because we can just pull those clips together and share it with the board. They want bite-sized information — the quick wins and they want to hear it directly from the customer,” she said.
Design Thinking Makes It Easier to Communicate & Educate
“There’s never an excuse not to talk to your users — dig in there and get the information you need,” Gina said.
Communication and education are central to fostering a culture of research no matter how your organization changes. She reiterated the need to tap into the companies’ internal knowledge bank:
“Making connections with your internal stakeholders is key. Talk to them like you would your users. Find out what they need.”
To showcase your insights, educate peers about the power of research, and ensure it becomes ingrained in the company culture.
“Make what your team is learning very visible (we use the newsletter). Making that a practice where people start to expect to learn what users have said before they start work. Get people to expect your research and understand how (it) can help them in their jobs.”