The Role of User Research in Your Company Culture

A culture of research is instrumental in developing customer empathy. And everyone in your org is responsible for understanding the users.

3 mins read

Companies have always invested heavily in research to better understand their customers — and that investment continues to climb every year. The market research industry generated $76.4 billion in global revenue in 2021, a 100% increase since 2008. 

From conceptualizing a product or service to its launch and beyond, research is involved at every step. When designing products for customers, product teams ask the right questions and conduct enough research to get clear answers.

Enter the research operations team. Researchers work closely with all departments, driving projects forward and educating their peers. Firms grapple with numerous questions and limited resources, so research responsibilities extend to design and product teams. Designers undertake their own research, mentored by senior researchers. 

Our co-founder and CEO Prayag Narula sat down with Hannah Hudson, Director of Design and Research at Twilio, to discuss how research and design teams can collaborate to create a customer-centric culture. Check out our key takeaways.

User research is a team sport

Company research goes beyond a research operations team. All stakeholders and departments must strive to understand their end users — creating a company culture of customer empathy and design thinking. This involves product, design and research teams working together to deeply understand and define a customer problem. Each brings their own expertise and unique skills to the table.

Product managers take a high-level view — framing market opportunities and define business objectives and requirements. Designers focus on the user’s experience with a holistic view of the customer journey. They create a customer mental model — what existing products do customers use? What are expectations for new products? These differing views help frame the context of the customer problem; research questions are collated and prioritized before the research team begins their work. Researchers help deliver insights and ensure that each team’s more pressing questions are answered. 

At Twilio, project management and design teams are heavily involved in research. Hannah often loops in product engineering or development teams into the research process when required. Engineers attend sessions and work closely with designers to tackle challenges.

The mentality is “The more, the merrier… as long as we don’t overwhelm the customer,” Hannah says.

Embed research into the design process

Is there a clear distinction between research and design teams responsibilities? 

In a nutshell, no. A culture of caring about research is instrumental in developing customer empathy, so everyone is involved at every stage. Hannah says, “No idea is a great one unless you can prove it solves a real customer problem or delivers real customer value.”

Customer obsession must be in the company’s DNA. At every stage, Twilio’s team circles back to the question, “What is the actual customer problem?”

As you design your product, it helps to ask these questions:

  • Who are you designing for?
  • What are their pain points?
  • How (and why) will our solution add value?
  • How will it make our users feel?

Using user research to unlock these answers requires collaboration among teams. They decide together what research needs to be conducted and what resources to allocate. 

A high-priority project with many customer unknowns is assigned to a senior researcher with expertise. Seasoned researchers employ a multi-method approach to see what they can learn from the data. Researchers also specialize and form a close strategic partnership with product, design and UX research teams, becoming more embedded. They are involved in planning and proactively seek opportunities to understand more about the customer’s problem. 

When tactical research is required (and stakeholders are confident in the design direction), designers drive their own research. Depending on their comfort and skill level, designers test more concepts to gain valuable feedback and insights. 

For Hannah, one key factor when hiring designers is that they can conduct research. Research is a critical part of the design process, and people hungry to learn these skills stand out. This separates strategically great designers from the pack.

Your researchers are your coaches

Research supports other departments, but it is not a service function. Researchers are equal team players, involved in the process as much as other stakeholders. Embedded researchers drive several projects but have limited bandwidth. With projects they cannot lead, they coach colleagues from other teams through the process, becoming dedicated coaches in their space. If a researcher is unavailable, the onus falls on the project management or design team to own the process.

Coaches strengthen research capabilities across the organization. They attend meetings to understand the model and collaborate with the designer to ensure they approach the problem correctly and set up their project for success. Coaches provide consistent mentorship and continuous feedback by spending one-on-one time with designers.

Companies must have infrastructure so non-research employees can understand and employ best research practices. Employees benefit from training sessions and crash courses, tackling topics such as design thinking and how to avoid biased questions. Company documentation including how-to guides, templates and videos are tailored to a more do-it-yourself (DIY), self-serve approach. Employees are empowered to try new techniques and learn skills on their own time. 

“I’m of the mindset that the more folks who speak research language and care about research, the better,” Hannah says.

Talk to Your Users — Together

In product development, research and design go hand-in-hand. However, research is a company-wide function involving other stakeholders. All stakeholders must maintain a customer obsession, continually asking themselves how they address the customer problem. Research is fundamental to design, and designers nowadays are expected to have or learn research skills to gain customer insights. Researchers act as coaches to the rest of the organization. They mentor designers and team members, making sure they employ correct research methodologies in their work. Fostering a company culture of research and customer obsession empowers employees to create better products and services.

Want to learn more about building a culture of research? Watch the full conversation with Hannah.

Photo by Karly Santiago on Unsplash

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