Tips for Establishing User Research in an Organization

Q. How was God able to create the world in seven days?
A. No legacy system.

Unlike “God” in this corny systems integrator joke, our realities constantly require us to deal with legacy; systems, processes, and attitudes. This article discusses some critical success factors for getting back credible, valuable research data. It also provides some ideas on project management and obtaining stakeholder buy in. Many of these tips come directly from real project experiences, so examples are provided where applicable.

Be Prepared for Setbacks

A good friend and mentor of mine once told me—after a particularly disappointing professional setback—that it’s quite possible to do everything the “right” way and for things to still not work out. What he was saying, in short, is that not everything is in our control. This understanding liberated me to start looking at all my efforts as a single attempt in an iterative process. As a result, when starting something new to me, I tend to try out a range of things to gauge a baseline for what works, what doesn’t, and what might have future potential. Anyone who has adopted this approach knows that as time passes, a degree of mastery is achieved and your failure percentage decreases. This doesn’t occur because you are better at “going by the book”. It happens because you get better at identifying and accounting for things outside your control.

That said, whether you are trying to introduce a UXD practice into your organization, or are just looking to implement some user research, the most realistic advice I can offer is the Japanese adage; “nanakorobi yaoki” orfall down seven, get up eight.”

Account for Organizational Constraints

You don’t need a cannon to shoot down a canary. Be realistic; consider the appropriateness of your research methods in context with organization’s stage and maturity. It will not matter how well-designed or “best practice” your research is if the results cannot be adequately utilized. Knowing where you are in the lifecycle of a company, product, and brand will help set expectations about results. In this way, a product’s user experience will always be a balance of the needs of the user with the capacity of an organization to meet those needs. If you are developing in a small startup with limited resources, your initial research plans may be highly tactical and validation focused. You’ll probably want to include plans that leverage family and friends for testing, and rely heavily on existing third party or purchased research. Alternately, a larger organization with a mature product will need to incorporate more strategic, primary research as well as have use for more sophisticated methods of presenting and communicating research to a wide range of stakeholders.

Foster a Participatory Culture

Want buy-in? Never “silo” your user research.

Sometimes, particularly in large corporations, there can be a tendency for the different departments to silo or isolate their knowledge. This can be for competitive “Fiefdom Syndrome”[1] reasons, or more often than not, simply a lack of process to effectively distribute information. However many the challenges, there are some very practical, self-serving reasons to actively communicate your UXD processes and research. First, because anyone in your organization who contributes to the software’s design is likely to have an impact on the user experience,  it’s your job to ensure that those people “see what you see” and are empowered to use the data you find. Second, UXD is an art, and like anything else with a degree of subjectivity you’ll need credibility and support if you want your insights and interpretations accepted. Lastly, UXD is complex process with many components; you will get more done faster if you encourage active company wide participation.

Tips on fostering participation:

  • Identify parts of your UX research that could be performed by other functional areas E.g. surveys done by Customer Care, usability guidelines for Quality Assurance, additional focus group questions for Marketing
  • Offer other areas substantive input into user testing, surveys, and other research. E.g. Add graphic design mockups into a wireframe testing cycle and test these with users separate from the wireframes
  • Discuss process integration ideas with the engineering, quality assurance, product, editorial, marketing and other functions. Make sure everyone understands what the touch-points are.
  • In addition to informing your own design efforts, present user research as a service to the broader organization; schedule time for readouts, publish your findings, and invite people to observe testing sessions.

Understand the Goals of your Research

Are you looking to explore user behaviors and investigate future-thinking concepts? Or, are you trying to limit exploration and validate a specific set of functionality? There is a time and place for both approaches, but before you set out on any research effort it is important that you determine the overarching goal of your research. There are some distinct differences in how you implement what I’ll call discovery research vs. validation research—each of which will produce different results.

  • Discovery Research, which can be compared to theoretical research, focuses on the exploration of ideas and investigating users’ preferences and reactions to various concepts. Discovery research is helpful for new products, innovations, and some troubleshooting efforts. This type of research can compliment market research, but unlike focus groups, UXD discovery research explores things such as unique interaction models, or user behaviors when interacting with functionality specific to search or social media.
  • Validation Research, which can be compared to empirical research, focuses more on gauging users’ acceptance of a product already developed, or of a high or low-fidelity prototype that is intended to be a design that will guide development. While a necessary aspect of the UXD process, validation research tends to be more task-based and less likely to call attention to certain false assumptions or superseding flaws in a systems design than discovery research might. An example of a false assumption that might not be revealed in validation research is the belief that an enhanced search tool is necessary. The tool itself may have tested very well, but the task-specific research method failed to reveal that the predominant user behavior is to access your site’s content through a Google search. Therefore, you might have been better off enhancing your SEO before investing in a more advanced search.

Crafting Your Research Strategy

Just as in any project effort, it is vital to first define and document your goals, objectives and approach. Not only does this process help you make key decisions about how you want to move forward, it will serve as your guidepost throughout your project, helping you communicate activities to others. After the research is conducted it provides credibility to your research by explaining your approach. A well -crafted research strategy provides an appropriate breadth and depth for a more complete understanding of what we observe. Consider small incremental research cycles using various tactics. An iterative, multi-faceted methodology allows for more cost efficient project life-cycles. It also mitigates risk since you only invest in what works.


Figure 2: an example of a “Discovery” research strategy developed for a media company. The strategic plan consisted of; audits, iterative prototypes, user testing & various events.

Consider a Research Calendar

 A research calendar can help you manage communication as well as adapt to internal and external changes. It can help track research progress over time, foster collaboration, reduce redundancy, and integrate both team and cross-departmental efforts. A good research calendar should be published, maintained, and utilized by multiple departments. It should include recurring intervals for items such as competitive reviews and audits, calibrated to the needs of your product. Your calendar doesn’t have to be fancy or complicated; you can use an existing intranet, a company-wide Outlook calendar or even a public event manager such as Google or Yahoo! calendar. Regardless of the tool, your research calendar can help prevent people from thinking about user research as a “one up” effort. User research should be considered a living, evolving, integral part of your development process—a maintained research calendar with a dedicated owner appropriately conveys this. If your company is small or you are just getting started with user research, consider collaborating with other departments to include focus groups, UAT events, and QA testing to the calendar as well. Not only will it foster better communication it may also result in the cross pollination of ideas.

Be Willing to Scrap Your “Best” Ideas.

It’s easy to become enamored with an idea or concept, something that interests us, or “feels” right—despite the fact that the research might be pointing in a different direction. Sometimes, this comes from a genuine intuitive belief in the idea, other times it’s simply the result of having invested so much time and/or money into a concept that you’re dealing with a type of loss aversion bias[2]. Even after years of doing this type of research, I have to admit this is still a tough one for me, requiring vigilance. I have seen colleagues, whom I otherwise hold in high regard, hold on to ideas regardless of how clear it is that it’s time to move on.  This tendency, to find what we want to find and to structure research to confirm our assumptions, is a always a possibility in user research. And while it can be
mitigated by process and methodology, it still takes a degree of discipline to step back and play devil’s advocate to your best, most fascinating ideas and look at them in the harsh light of the data being presented to you. Ask yourself: am I observing or advocating? Am I only looking at data that supports my assumptions, casting a blind eye to anything that contradicts? It can be a painful process, but if the idea can hold up to objective scrutiny, you might actually be on to something good.

Questions About This Topic?

I’m happy to answer more in-depth questions about this topic or provide further insight into how this approach might work for you in your company. Post a comment or email me at dorothy [at] danforthmedia [dot] com

Danforth-Media-Logo-SmallABOUT DANFORTH MEDIA
Danforth is a design strategy firm offering software product planning, user research, and user centered design (UCD). We provide credible insights and creative solutions that allow our clients to deliver successful, customer-focused products. Danforth specializes in leveraging user experience design (UXD), design strategy, and design research methodologies to optimize complex multi-platform products for the people who use them.

We transform research into smart, enjoyable, and enduring design.


[1] Herbold, Robert. The Fiefdom Syndrome: The Turf Battles That Undermine Careers and Companies – And How to Overcome Them. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Business, 2004.
[2] “Loss Aversion Bias is the human tendency to prefer avoiding losses above acquiring gains. Loss aversion was first convincingly demonstrated by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.” -