User Research Product Management: A bright road in the middle of starry sky mountains

Why User Research Is Critical for Product Management

UX research is critical to the success of all product management teams, no matter the size of your portfolio. Product leader Pawana Burlakoti knows this better than most.

7 mins read

Head of Product at S&P Global Pawana Burlakoti has seen product management teams move so fast they forget the most important stakeholder: Their users. Without strategic user research, they miss the opportunity to launch a product that truly meets their customers’ needs.

“There was always a gap felt around the customer,” Pawana said. “At the end of the day, that’s who we’re building for.”

A product person’s biggest goal is to grow the product. They can’t do that without talking to their users.

Read on for Pawana’s advice on how UX research helps you make unbiased product decisions and always put your users first. (Or watch “The Value of Discovery: How product teams can champion UX research,” her recent discussion with Marvin.)

The Evolution of Product Management & UX Research

Product Managers (PMs) play a critical role in any workplace. 

“You’re driving the value of the product, so your skill sets are going to be different,” Pawana said. “You really become the voice for the customer. You’re expected to know about the market, the competition and where might we take our product next, rather than just build the thing that you’re talking about.”

PMs act as a liaison between the business, its customers and the technology (engineering) behind the product. Viewed early on as a generalist function, PMs used to dabble in design and research out of necessity. However, the addition of specialists expedited their decision-making. 

“UX became a very specialized function,” Pawana said.

UX teams design products focusing solely on the customer experience. Today, the majority of large tech companies have their own UX functions, navigating multiple products, user personas and unique value propositions. 

Over time, Pawana noticed that UX got entrenched in catering to certain personas and products, unable to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Research, a key element, was treated as an afterthought — a ‘nice to have’ or a case of ‘I’ll get to it when I have time’. 

“Sometimes what gets cut is the research. There is a cost we pay at the end when we don’t have the validation in the beginning and along the way,” warned Pawana. 

Enter the user researcher.

Product Managers and User Research: A match made in customer heaven

“The goal is to learn — and build confidence that we are doing the right thing,” Pawana said.

To instill confidence, product and research teams at S&P Global work hand-in-hand. Research is an extension of Pawana’s team — she leans on them to advise her on what methodology is required to answer pressing questions. 

A big advocate for conducting research before the build, Pawana has a dedicated and unattached researcher who uses quantitative and qualitative research to interrogate data before any decision is taken.

“There is no perfect decision. Establishing what is good enough to make a decision to continue or not continue is the beginning,” Pawana said. 

She establishes thresholds of acceptability with researchers before arriving at a decision, e.g., we need an 85% or higher positive indicator to proceed.

Two Types of User Research that Product Management Teams Need

1. Existing Enhancements – armed with knowledge of user personas, customer types or problem statements, this research aims to validate solutions or problem solve by testing hypotheses.

It involves distilling big ideas or hypotheses into a set of questions that can be measured, tested and shared. Questions that a researcher might ask include:

  • What do you want to understand? 
  • What’s the key risk you would like to validate? 
  • What type of customers will give you the answers you’re looking for?

2. Blue Sky – a completely new domain.

This user research is exploratory and doesn’t involve a hypothesis at the outset. Blue sky research is essential to understand the landscape and challenges, identify existing needs and build a solution around them. Researcher’s ask overarching questions to understand the concept, including:

  • What is the problem we want to solve?
  • How will we solve it?
  • What is the value of solving this problem?
  • How will we deliver this value to the users?

Product managers are often adept at conducting research, and many companies leverage their skills to do so. However, as you probably already know, a PM’s time is limited as they multitask and juggle the needs of various stakeholders. Conducting studies individually can be cumbersome and time consuming. 

Pawana’s stance is resolute — adding research capabilities unlocks the potential to test out numerous ideas at once. Various initiatives on the product roadmap (more on this below) with a clear research requirement highlights the need for a researcher.

“The value that a dedicated researcher brings is very different from the value that a PM brings to the table,” Pawana said.

User Research and the Language of Business

Industry leader Jared Erondu is adamant that designers and researchers must learn the language of business. 

Pawana echoes this sentiment because “the organization’s goal at the end of the day is to make sure they are profitable and making the best investment decisions.”

Businesses have finite resources and time. Leadership must ensure that the company invests in the right products, the right priorities and solve the right problems. Decision makers like Pawana must continually circle back to the question, “Does the ROI make sense for us?”

To explore ROI, she preaches the value of discovery.

What is the Role of Discovery in User Research?

Discovery research helps product teams assess the viability of ideas and validate product roadmap initiatives. A quick discovery provides justification whether to go through with an investment or not.

Product managers conduct the following tests to quickly evaluate a project’s ROI:

  • Value testing – does this provide value to end users?
  • Usability testing – is the solution usable and easy to navigate?
  • Feasibility testing – can we proceed, taking into account the technical, financial, economic, legal and environmental considerations?

These tests bring transparency to the process and help business leaders understand the underlying reasons behind an investment.

There are significant implications of not conducting research in a timely manner.

The time we spend not making a decision can be costly, which is why people oftentimes skip research. After all, “Time is money.”

Pawana cautions against skipping the critical discovery step because research can reveal new ideas, products and potential revenue streams.

A User Research Roadmap Refresher

How do businesses keep track of their various research efforts? They maintain and consult a user research roadmap, a collection of ideas or initiatives, each ranked by its importance and magnitude to the business.

“The research roadmap needs to reflect the priority of the product roadmap,” Pawana said. 

This synergy doesn’t mean that this document is exclusive to research and product teams. 

“The roadmap is open and dynamic — you can get ideas from anywhere as long as they have leg and definition,” said Pawana. Customer success reps, sales teams, CEOs — everyone with direct access to customers can contribute powerful ideas for research and discovery.

As a living document, both product and research roadmaps must be constantly updated as initiatives increase. They also act as a central knowledge base or research repository so stakeholders can leverage research that has already taken place. Living implies that initiatives aren’t set in stone — some will inevitably lead to a dead end. It’s important for researchers to get buy-in from leadership on this part of the process.

“Leadership understands that everything in the roadmap is not a commitment to deliver; it’s a commitment for us to go and do discovery,” Pawana said.

How to Communicate Better and Create a Research-centric Culture

“As humans, we feel like we can talk to other humans. So why is talking and asking questions so hard?” Pawana asked.

We feel her pain — talking to our peers can be overwhelming in a new environment, especially if we have different goals to achieve. Nevertheless, it’s essential in communicating the value of research across the organization.

Pawana recommended conducting a debrief after studies to share insights and highlight the value of user research. Other parties may see parallels between your findings and the projects they are currently working on. 

In Pawana’s experience, this encourages product managers and designers to seek out trained researchers to help expedite their efforts. As a cross-portfolio function, user research teams have the benefit of seeing commonality and patterns across projects and can point them in the right direction.

Walking down the same road together builds trust and partnership between UX research and product teams. Rather than taking all the burden on their often lone shoulders, researchers can train and coach peers. 

Establishing research best practices empowers others to come up with their own hypotheses and conduct their own studies. Training peers in the craft can also blossom into mentor-mentee relationships. Equipping people with necessary skills does not render researchers obsolete — quite the opposite; peers will now approach them as experts.

How Product Management Can Contribute to a Culture of User Research

Pawana believes that creating a culture of research is dependent on two factors — a company’s risk appetite and open-mindedness. 

An example of risk taking? Coming up with a big idea, trying to validate it and being willing to be proven wrong. 

“You don’t get shamed or penalized. It’s a culture of fail fast, fail early. Learn, move on and test something else,” Pawana said. 

What about approaching leadership or other decision makers with a contradictory viewpoint? This can be intimidating to many researchers, no matter where they’re at in their careers. 

Pawana’s quite clear on how to tackle it — let your amazing work do the talking:

  • Be open and transparent – talk about your methodology
  • Document your findings – provide all the color and data points needed
  • Become the voice of the result
  • Finally, let the business make a decision

“There has to be an appetite culturally to say no to some big voices. Anyone can be wrong as long as the data supports it. If you don’t have that culture, you (are) fighting a battle that is really difficult,” she added.

Final Advice for Product Management Teams: Invest in User Research

Pawana offered words of wisdom for product managers, product leaders and user researchers:

For product managers: If you can get help from someone who specializes in research, take the help! It will only help you grow the product.

For product leaders: There is a return on investment for bringing in a research discipline. The more you serve the customers, the more your product portfolio will grow.

For user researchers: Never stop advocating for yourself. Never stop sharing your insights. Everyone benefits from your (and your customers’) voice.

Photo by Ricardo Rocha on Unsplash

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