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Expert Advice on How to Build Resilient UX Research Teams

Vanessa Whatley has built user research teams at Twilio, Google, and Capital One. Learn how you can prove the value of research within large organizations.

7 mins read

Tell us if you’ve heard this one: “How do our UX research teams show ROI?”

Research Leader Vanessa Whatley has been in your shoes several times through her unconventional career. And she’s happy to help others learn how to navigate those tricky conversations.

As Twilio’s Head of Research – Data & Growth, Vanessa keeps her user research team motivated and successful even amidst economic uncertainty. Read on for her many practical tips on how to demonstrate the value of user research to your entire organization.

Change is the only constant

The technology industry continually undergoes rapid churn – 2021’s Great Resignation was followed by a period of accelerated hiring. Moving into 2022-23, mass layoffs have become commonplace, with several tech companies slashing jobs in a frantic cost-cutting environment.

Vanessa felt a sense of déjà vu when Twilio faced a round of layoffs. Having undergone several organization-wide reshuffles, she’s built up a tolerance for change. She warned that seismic changes at a company pose a realistic risk of remaining employees “checking out” mentally. “Once that happens, forget impact, strategic anything… you have a bigger problem,” she said.

As a leader, she emphasized the importance of change management. It’s impossible to prepare an organization for turbulence or make it recession-proof, but Vanessa says there’s one non-negotiable priority, no matter what:

The psychological well-being of your employees comes first.

Early doors, Vanessa maintained an open dialogue with her team, giving them the appropriate time and space needed to process the organizational change.

After a requisite ‘grieving’ period, it helps to quickly shift employee attention back to productive work. Vanessa calls this ‘realigning to importance’ — the act of going back to the drawing board to find important tasks to focus on. “Once there’s change, people need something new to anchor on. Try to get out of this limbo state as quickly as possible. Not that you’re thrusted back into work, but that you have something to do when you’re feeling ready to be productive again,” she said.

How much time and space do employees need after they’ve undergone a ‘mass mental check-out’?

Vanessa quoted a fan-favorite UX answer: it depends.

She whittled it down to two overriding factors:

  1. How radical is the reorganization? Did you land in an entirely different space or lose numbers?
  2. How deliberate is your high-level leadership? Did they communicate beforehand that a change is imminent? Or catch everyone off-guard?

These considerations determine the severity of the disruption — the less impactful, the shorter the time it takes for employees to bounce back.

Change then, is constant (see what we did there?). In the face of continual evolution and uncertainty, how do UX research teams make themselves resilient and indispensable to organizations?

The Impact of a Strategic UX Research Team

Identify areas where research can have the most impact. Vanessa knows where her expertise is required — research really shines when it can show people the way, if the path wasn’t clear enough before:

“I think the strong moments, (i.e.) where we should focus are moments of intervention or where there’s no clarity. Can we come in and provide structure or framework or a view of our users that really helps the team get that clarity and confidence that this is the right thing to do?” she said.

S&P Global’s Pawana Burlakoti is adamant that product teams must have validation from research before and during the course of a build.

Case in point, Vanessa recalled a time when she recommended that a product team block their launch, based on user feedback. The team went forward anyway.

They then evaluated the post-launch metrics and decided to ramp down the experiment because, as it turned out, Vanessa’s recommendation was correct. Just a small example of the course-correction capacity that research brings.

Let Your User Research Shine

Researchers are expected to communicate important findings to decision-makers. Sharing small and fast wins with peers early on in the relationship helps establish a rapport with them. Vanessa gave us a few tips on how to drive the impact of research home and make your work really stand out:


Confused what it stands for? Don’t take it from us. The best assistant to the regional manager at Dunder Mifflin can explain.

Vanessa has seen many junior researchers trying to share ALL their learnings in one sitting. Big mistake. This overwhelms an audience — it’s too much for them to absorb and extract any meaning from. “I’m a big fan of being very prescriptive and being precise with the number of points you’re trying to get across,” she said. Anchor presentations on two or three findings plus a final recommendation.

Go the Extra Mile

Too often has Vanessa seen research reports met with a “that’s super interesting.” End of story. According to her, the buck doesn’t stop there. “I don’t want to leave it at that. I want to show the paths forward,” she said. Go the extra mile — aside from extracting and presenting findings, part of a researcher’s remit is to influence what is happening within an organization. 

Measure your impact

To see their efforts bear fruit, researchers must track the impact of the work they do. Easier said than done, as company culture usually dictates whether metrics are tracked and monitored. Larger companies track more advanced user experience metrics such as satisfaction or ease-of-use ratings. Even in low maturity companies, simply measuring the revenue or the number of people using a feature goes a long way.

Chart your Journey

From a self-growth perspective, Vanessa encourages junior researchers to document their journey. She continually thinks about the narrative, “How did my being here change the trajectory of something and impact the product in a positive way?

Finally, be bold, trust your instincts and pick your battles wisely when communicating your findings to decision makers. Once you’ve established the impact that research can have, it’s time to move onto bigger things.

Change is the only… you get the idea.

The Shift to Strategic UX Research

As they find their feet, researchers initially occupy themselves with ad-hoc, tactical studies. Running a quick usability test or survey for a product during the latter stages of a build is a reactive study. LINQ’s Gina Rahn spoke to us about getting research done well in advance, shifting focus from reactive to more proactive studies.

Vanessa employs a similar thought at Twilio — promoting a shift from tactical tasks to more strategic UX research. The idea for researchers is to move away from conducting reactive studies to employing proactive research methods that inform higher-level, strategic goals.

To get ahead, a useful tool is a research roadmap. Closely tied to the product roadmap, a research roadmap outlines tactical research initiatives that tie in with overarching, strategic organizational goals. Ultimately, that’s the aim for research — not only to present findings and insights, but to influence decisions that have a meaningful impact on an organization.

Vanessa acknowledges that every company is at a different stage in terms of this shift. At Twilio (where user research is embedded into the culture), demand far outstrips the capacity of the research team. With limited resources, Vanessa must decide how her team spends their time.

To get everyone on her team on the same page, she cultivates a top-down mindset to research.

UX Research: A Top-Down Mindset

Vanessa outlined these questions to get started in viewing your research from a more strategic vantage point:

  1. Start with the highest level objective set for the company. “Do my insights satisfy the direction we’re trying to go in?”
  2. Move down a level. “Does our product roadmap get us to our goal?”
  3. Pinpoint the reasoning behind various initiatives before offering your assistance. “Do I understand the end goal of what this team is trying to achieve?”
  4. Context is everything — consider where changes will be made. “What is the scale of the impact? Can it move things in a meaningful way?”
  5. Map insights that you unearth to overarching metrics and pillars. Continually ask “Does that make sense?”
  6. Show everyone the way forward. “What are the next steps?”

A shift to strategic thinking doesn’t undermine the importance of tactical studies.

“There are moments where the tactical pieces are as, or if not even more critical,” Vanessa said.

Validating a launch or simply changing the call-to-action on a button can make the world of difference to a product’s usability. 

With this newfound strategic outlook, how does Vanessa tap into her peers’ existing knowledge to arrive at well-rounded insights and conclusions?

Involve Everyone in Research

Looking inward has been a constant theme among our guest speakers. Each expert drives home the importance of leveraging an organization’s existing internal knowledge.

To tap into these rich research repositories, Vanessa enthusiastically advocates conducting expert interviews within an organization.

“Interviewing your sales team and getting a synthesized, meta perspective on what they see from their day-to-day customer interactions — why wouldn’t you start there?” she said.

When quizzed about integrating market research (and other forms of user research) into her findings, Vanessa was unequivocal in her support. Market research brings out the broader context, offering a global view of internal and external environments. Adding this context can only be beneficial to understanding more about the user base. (Lou Rosenfeld also constantly alluded to the importance of seeing the big picture during a recent conversation.

Using a blanket approach, such as trying to excavate all the findings, can be time and resource intensive. Vanessa prefers a use-case-driven approach, where she seeks assistance from subject matter experts when the work dictates it. 

Building cross-functional relationships 

Consolidating different perspectives ultimately boils down to cultivating cross-functional relationships across an organization. At Twilio, meet-and-greets provide employees with an opportunity to give one another an overview of what they do, learn something new from their peers and harness that knowledge to move forward.

To illustrate her point, Vanessa references her research team’s close alliance with the product analytics or data science team. Together, they derive foundational quantitative metrics, backed up with UX data to tell the qualitative research side of the story as well.

“The most productive use of that time is finding that intersection where we both have meaningful data we could share with each other,” she said.

Building relationships across teams provides a unique global perspective, crucial to leveraging and sharing an organization’s full capabilities and knowledge. It creates a user-centric culture.

We feel strongly about developing user empathy. With her final nugget of advice, Vanessa expanded this concept into developing empathy for all stakeholders.

“Anchor yourself in understanding customers and stakeholders motives, intentions and what drives them. A lot of the time we come in with our own agenda rather than looking at the audience. Speak(ing) to them in a way that resonates with them is very impactful, in any relationship,” she said. 

Here are the highlights from our chat with Vanessa about how to build a resilient UX research team.

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